Acoustic Shadow In The Civil War

Civil War Mortar

Civil War Mortar

Acoustic Shadow (sometimes called Silent Battle) is a strange thing. It is a circumstance where sound is unheard close to the cause of the sound, but the same sound is heard a far distance away from its source.

With a unique combination of factors such as wind, weather, temperature, land topography, elevation, forest or other vegetation, battle sounds are not heard at a distance they normally would be heard clearly.

Acoustic Shadow Can Hurt Battle Communication

The distance the sound of battle is heard may be great, even hundreds of miles, yet nearby and sometimes only mere miles away the sounds are not heard. Battles where Acoustic Shadow occurred in the Civil War are Gettysburg, Seven Pines, Iuka, Fort Donelson, Five Forks, Perryville, and Chancellorsville.

The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg

Acoustic Shadow could have a profound effect on a battle. During the Civil War it was common for armies to be spread out over large distances and timely communication between the split parts of an army was crucial to battlefield success.

Army commanders must make decisions based on current knowledge of the situation before them. The sounds of a battle would be a form of communication, signaling to a Civil War commander and his staff where a battle is taking place, and what troops (including the enemy) may be involved.

If Acoustic Shadow hides battle action from being heard by a commander, then communication has been lost and dire consequences may follow as the commander does not respond as needed to the battlefield situation.

Acoustic Shadow During Civil War Battles

3 Inch Ordnance Rifle at Gettysburg

3 Inch Ordnance Rifle at Gettysburg

  • The Battle of Gettysburg – The battle sounds from Gettysburg could be heard over one hundred miles away in Pittsburgh, but were not heard only ten miles from the battlefield.
  • Battle of Gaines’s Mill – More than 91,000 men were engaged in battle at Gaines’s Mill, Virginia on June 27, 1862. Confederate commanders and troops were less than two miles from the battlefield and could plainly see the smoke and flashes from the guns and artillery, but not a sound could be heard of the battle for two hours. Strangely, the battle sounds from the Battle of Gaines’s Mill were easily heard in Staunton, Virginia over one hundred miles away.
  • Five Forks – Fives Forks was part of the Appomattox Campaign and fought from March 30 to April 1, 1865. Confederate Generals George Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were enjoying a shad bake with other generals north of Hatcher’s Run when the battle of Five Forks began a short distance away. Because of Acoustic Shadow, Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee were unaware a fight was under way. Pickett finally responded, but arrived late for the battle. Pickett and Fitzhugh Lee have been criticized by Civil War historians (please see Lee’s Lieutenants, III, 665-670) for not acting on “the dread immediacy of the crisis” (ibid., 665) at Five Forks.

William Faulkner’s Pickett’s Charge Quote

“For every Southern boy fourteen years old…”

Pickett's Charge

Pickett’s Charge

“It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago; or to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim.”

… William Faulkner
From his book: Intruder in the Dust, 1948.

Pickett’s Charge

Ken Burns – The Civil War