Making Field Fortifications - A Fascine Battery.

Making Field Fortifications
A Fascine Battery.

By Stephen Gilbert, 3rd New York, Reg't

Making 18th-century earthenworks may seem like a tedious task, but by using the original materials and tools, the public and the living historian gain valuable insights into the life and times of common soldiers. Fortifications can also be utilized in the tactical demonstration during an event, making a defensive position seem worth fighting for. If properly constructed, they will withstand annual weather conditions, to be built upon again and reused in subsequent events.

two stick bundles
Fig. A; A pair of fascines from an 18th-century print on military architecture.

One of the easiest types of fortification to build is a fascine battery. For this purpose you will need at least thirty-six fascines, or bundles of brush bound tightly and set horizontally into a wall of earth. Each fascine measures about 20" in diameter and between 5 to 6 feet in length. You will also obviously need a site willing to let you dig -- it's even better if they will help you with moving earth beforehand!

In May 1996 members of the Third New York Regiment attempted to build a two-cannon fascine battery on a hillside overlooking a narrow bridge at University of Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, which we largely completed. Unfortunately, bad weather cancelled the event, thus preventing both a fortification building demonstration, and the finishing of the battery. Our two-gun battery wall measured 50 feet in length, and was 4 feet high (which was a bit low, as it turned out). It utilized a sloping back wall made up of 25 fascines (17 of which were singlehandedly made by the author, proof that it's not hard to do). The bottom of each gun embrasure was 30 inches from the ground, and the opening was 3 feet wide.

If you have a site where fascines would add to the "look" as well as improve the tactical demonstrations during the weekend, consider building a small fortification out of fascines.

Construction of Fascines

Making fascines is easy. This is best accomplished beforehand, with just enough brush on hand at the site to allow public demonstrations/re-enactor teaching exercises, as well as for having some repair materials handy. Hauling loose, bulky brush any distance is self-defeating; better to have it compacted and ready to place in the fortification. If volunteers could each make a fascine to bring to an event we could have a sufficiency -- perhaps even an excess -- of ready-made fortification materials. Experience taught that about 13 fascines will fit in the rear of a Dodge Caravan, minus rear seats, but even a single fascine strapped to the top of a vehicle with bungee cord is a big assist. According to Thomas Simes, a fascine (pronounced "fa-sheen") is: " [a] faggot about six feet long and eight inches diameter, or which is the same thing, about twenty-four inches in circumference; they have two bandages placed at the distance of about a foot from each end; sometimes they have three bandages." (fig. A)

Making fascines is by far easiest in the early spring, while the leaves are off, and spring trimming is in session, allowing others to do the initial tree felling and branch removal. Find a fresh brush pile; from experience, I can vow that old, dry trees are nothing but trouble. Good varieties of wood include young boxelder, willow shoots (ozier), Chinese elm, walnut and maple (though Sugar maple snaps easily). Thin, straight apple or fruit tree shoots make excellent small fascines for lining the embrasures. I avoid evergreen varieties, on the grounds that I don't know that they were used by 18th-century engineers and the wood may not store well.

Four stakesEach spring in my village, one of my neighbors inevitably fells a tree. I use only the branch ends (no conflict with firewood collectors), pulling them a few feet to my temporary work site, with a tree round or stump (if available) for a chopping block. For a fascine jig, simply stake out four posts (I use old broom handles) into a rectangle measuring about 24" x 36" (fig. B). The posts should project vertically three feet above the soil. Next, lay two lengths of your binding material flat on the ground just inside each pair of end posts. Evidence indicates that the braided inner bark from elms was used as light ropes by Native Americans and by the Continental Army. Ben Franklin States: "Willows are weak, but they bind the faggot", and lengths of thin grapevine also work well but these may be hard to come by. I use four lengths of old binder twine left over from straw or hay bales, tied together in pairs, but any type of light rope or other "bandages" can be used.

Stakes filled with sticksYou want straight branches or saplings roughly 6-7 feet in length and about an inch or less in diameter. Later you will trim them to a uniform length. Lay the brush on the ground, parallel between the posts of the jig, on top of the binder twine (fig. C).

Add layers of brush, alternating the saplings butt to tip keeps the pile level as it builds higher between the posts. Try to bend any horizontal branches parallel with the main branch, and crush down the brush periodically with your feet (this is why you want freshly cut brush -- the dry stuff snaps and falls apart).

Tie the sticksWhen the trodden pile of brush in the jig is approximately 30 inches high, stamp it down one last time and bind it tightly by pulling the twine up and wrapping it repeatedly around the bundle (fig. D). This is where having a partner is handiest. While one worker is sitting on or straddling the bundle, the other keeps wrapping the twine around one end of the fascine while pulling tightly. Continue until the twine nearly runs out, square-knot the ends, stuff any excess twine under the binding, and repeat for the other end. My finished fascines all ended up between 18-24 inches in diameter.

Move the bound fascine to your trimming area, where the ends will be cut to an even length. I trimmed the ends down to a point where the brush seems equally thick all through the diameter of the fascine, which coincidentally was about six feet in length as mentioned by Simes.

Two alternate methods will finish off the fascine ends. Authentically, with a tree round or stump chopping block and a tomahawk or fascine knife, one simply chops off the excess. Alternately, 20th-century lopping shears allow tired arms a rest from chopping. The finished fascines should look m,ore or less like this (fig. E).

Tie the sticksSince armies stockpiled fascines and other building materials at secure locations for future use, I pile my finished fascines in a compact square, stacking them six across and alternating the direction of each layer. Be sure to alert the local garbage crews that you do not want the brush hauled away and burned!!! (I have had two close calls in as many years; in the first the local Volunteer Fire Department hauled and burned up half a dozen fascines, and the second, thanks to a chance remark, I luckily saved two dozen more from the same fate.)

It is vital that for each fascine produced, you also produce two stakes about 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter and measuring between 30 and 36 inches long. These will be used during the installation.

Installing Fascines

The UW-Parkside ground crews used a backhoe in 1996 to dig a deep trench and dumped the wet clay in a line on the uphill side. Adding fascines after the fact necessitated additional preparatory digging to place the bottom tier. The fascines were installed by following the natural "angle of repose" (a fancy term for the angle at which the particular sort of dirt on your site stops sliding downhill). Unfortunately, due to a misunderstanding, newcomers on the Parkside grounds staff bulldozed this battery into the still-flooded outer ditch only five months later. The upside of this circumstance is that we got to practice making new fascines!

Fascine wallUnfastened fascines will fall out of the fortification with time. We staked down our fascines by driving two 30" stakes directly through each fascine near the bindings. The first row is staked into the ground and as the earth wall/dirt pile grows, more stakes are driven through the fascines and into the dirt at an angle (figs. F & G). Ideally (and authentically) the workers would have had a line of fascines already staked down, thus forming the base of the bottom of the fascine wall. Then the soldiers (or your backhoe or bulldozer operator) piled the fresh dirt up against them (fig. H). A half-dozen workers with shovels, fascines, hammers and stakes then lay in a fresh tier of fascines with each higher push of excavated dirt. Note that the fascine wall is more-or-less vertical.

The embrasures should be laid so that the top of smaller fascines are no higher than 30" (the bottom of a three-pound cannon muzzle). The cut-out sides should also be lined with small fascines. For this we used the pear and apple prunings bundled into 36-39" long by 6" diameter fascines, likewise staked down.

RedoubtFive tiers of fascines ought to raise the battery wall to about the height of the armpits. If time permits, the top of the battery wall could be covered with small plain gunny sacks or feed bags filled with dirt (called sacks-a-terre or sand bags in the period). This will slow erosion as well as provide extra protection for the gun crew and defending force.

The flanks of the battery wall might be either left open, angled back to provide a bit of protection from enfilade fire, or protected with a trio of gabions topped with earth sacks. Since gabions are both attractive, authentic, and a whole lot more work to build, I will write another article about them soon, and they will be preconstructed and installed before next year's event.