The Sounds & The Fury

The Impact of Acoustics on Civil War Battles
Longwood Magazine


At the battle of Seven Pines near Richmond in 1862, the Confederate commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, delayed a crucial attack because acoustic anomalies prevented him from hearing the sounds of battle.

Those sounds were to be the signal for Johnston to send in General W.H.C. Whiting to join a three-pronged assault on the Union position. At his headquarters two miles from Seven Pines, Johnson never heard the sounds, even though several of his aides swore they could hear the battle, which also was heard clearly in Richmond some 10 miles away. Denied victory and forced to do reconnaissance in a position that should have been secured, Johnston - born in Farmville at the estate from which Longwood derives its name - was wounded later that day and, in a move that altered history, replaced by Robert E. Lee.

Similar quirks of sound also hastened the end of the War when three Confederate generals, attending a shadbake behind their lines at Five Forks, couldn't hear an attack less than two miles away. Their leaderless soldiers were routed, forcing Lee to evacuate Petersburg and begin his desperate flight westward that ended eight days later at Appomattox. In between Seven Pines and Five Forks, acoustics also influenced command decisions at the battles of Gettysburg, Chancellorsville, Perryville, Iuka, and Fort Donelson.

A Longwood physics professor, Dr. Chuck Ross, has investigated these "acoustic shadows" and - in numerous journal articles, presentations to professional organizations and Civil War roundtables, and interviews with newspapers, magazines and radio stations from across the country - has become a sought-after expert on the subject and garnered national and international publicity for the College.

"These two battles were like 'acoustic shadow' bookends in Lee's career - Seven Pines launched it and Five Forks essentially ended it - with two other major battles in the middle, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, also affected by acoustic shadows," Ross says.

Sound was important to Civil War commanders, he says, for two reasons. "They frequently send in reinforcements to where the sounds of battle were the 'hottest.' Also, when devising their battle plans, they often told subordinates to begin their assault when the sound of another engagement was heard."

Ironically, Ross's interest in Civil War acoustics began as a "side project" to his book Trial by Fire: Science, Technology and the Civil War, published in January by White Mane Publishing Company. "After I identified six or seven of these events, I tried to get to the bottom of it," he says. "I had to wade through a lot of research on weather and terrain. I'm not an acoustician, so I had a lot to learn." As a result of his well-publicized research, he has recently signed a contract, also with White Mane, for a second book, this one devoted to unusual acoustics in the Civil War. It is due to be released in January 2001.

Three factors make sound waves change directions, an effect called refraction, says Ross.

"One is temperature. Decreasing temperatures at higher altitude normally cause sound waves to bend upward. A temperature inversion, often associated with fog or widespread storms, is the unusual situation in which temperatures get warmer as you go higher. A temperature inversion can bend sound waves back toward the ground, causing a listener to hear the sound at an unusually long distance from the source. If the sound reflects off the ground, it can rise and get bent down again. If repeated, this effect can create a 'bull's-eye' pattern of rings of inaudibility far from the source.

"Another factor is called wind shear. Wind speed is greater at higher altitude, because there's less friction with the ground. The result of wind shear is that sounds headed into the wind refract or bend upward, and sounds headed downwind refract downward. Thus, sounds are always heard better at ground level when a listener is downwind from the source.

"The third factor is the absorption of sound waves by physical matter between the source of the sound and the listener. This was probably the most significant of the three factors at Seven Pines, where there was thick forest Johnston and the battle. It was also a problem at Five Forks, where a dense pine forest absorbed the sound of battle."

All three factors played a role at Seven Pines, also called Fair Oaks, fought May 31, 1862 around where Nine Mile Road meets U.S. 60 near Richmond International Airport. "Johnston suffered a triple whammy, with wind shear, temperature effects and absorption combining to place him in an acoustic shadow," says the physicist. "The weather the night before was intense. Many of the soldiers' diaries said it was the worst thunderstorm they'd ever seen, and Thaddeus Lowe (balloonist for the Union army) had trouble with observations the next day due to the wind. Some people on one side of Johnston's headquarters heard the attack, and some on the other side didn't. If it had happened as planned, Whiting's attack should have turned the tide of battle. The timing would have been good for the Confederates because the Union army was divided by the Chickahominy River. Johnston's delay allowed Union leaders to reinforce their troops on the south side of the river and the battle ended as a draw, when it should have been a Confederate victory."

In his official report Johnson wrote "Owing to some peculiar condition of the atmosphere, the sound of musketry did not reach us."

The Confederate defeat April 1, 1865, at Five Forks was critical because this intersection of five country roads between U.S. 460 and U.S. 1 protected the South Side Railroad, Lee's last supply line into Petersburg. Five Forks, 20 miles southwest of Petersburg in Dinwiddie County, marked the right flank, or end, of his paper-thin defenses around Petersburg, which had been under siege for nearly 10 months. "If a flank was captured," Ross says, "a Civil War-era army could be rolled up like a carpet." Lee had implored the commander there, General George Pickett, to hold Five Forks "at all hazards." Not expecting an imminent assault, Pickett, best known for his doomed attack at Gettysburg, and cavalry leader Fitzhugh Lee, Lee's nephew and a future Virginia governor, had gone to General Thomas Rosser's headquarters for the infamous fish fry. Lee never forgave Pickett for his momentary inattention.

"When the Federal assault came shortly afterward," according to Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles in the Time-Life Books series on the Civil War, "the sound of battle did not carry the mile and a half to the site of the shadbake - perhaps owing to some 'peculiar phenomenon of acoustic shadows,' as Confederate artillery commander E. Porter Alexander later suggested. Thus the Confederates in Pickett's line had to face the onslaught with no one in overall command."

The attack by Union cavalry and infantry under General Philip Sheridan forced Lee to flee Petersburg the next night, and the following day Richmond fell. "Five Forks was referred to by one Confederate general as the 'Waterloo of the Confederacy,'" says Chris Calkins, a Longwood alumnus ('81) who is the historian at Petersburg National Battlefield, which includes Five Forks.

An authority on the last year of the War in Virginia, Calkins also has worked at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. His career began in the summer of 1971 when, as a bank employee in his native Detroit, he worked as a volunteer for a week at Appomattox, which he'd first visited in a tour of Civil War battlefields with two friends the previous summer. He was told he could work there for the rest of the summer, which he did after going home and telling his boss. After resuming his bank job that fall, the superintendent at Appomattox told Calkins about a permanent opening, which he began in January 1972. He has written several books, including Thirty six Hours Before Appomattox and From Petersburg to Appomattox, April 2-9, 1865; was a consultant for the Time-Life Books series; wrote and designed a 26-stop audio driving tour for the "Route of Lee's Retreat" in 1995. The Lee's Retreat driving tour attracted a spate of publicity that year, including a six-page article in Life magazine and a story in USA Today.

Calkins's wife, the former Sarah Brown, whom he met while working at Appomattox, attended Longwood for two years in the mid-1970s. She is a registered nurse who works at the Appomattox Dialysis Center in Petersburg. They recently moved into the Stewart-Hinton House, the oldest (1795) brick dwelling in Petersburg - every piece of furniture they own, excluding appliances, is pre-1865, and most pieces date from the 1820s to the 1860s. Calkins hopes to run a bed & breakfast after retiring.

The Petersburg home of Chris and Sarah Calkins will be featured this fall in the If Walls Could Talk program on the cable channel Home and Garden Television (HGTV). Their home is one of four houses in Virginia to be featured in a segment on artifacts found during the restoration of homes; buttons from both Union and Confederate uniforms have been found in the Calkins's "English basement." The show's producer and her camera person, from Colorado, spent several hours interviewing and filming Chris and his wife in late March.

Acoustic shadows, probably caused by hot weather, also played a role at Gettysburg. "On the second day, General Ewell was ordered by Lee to begin a 'demonstration' (a feigned assault) on Cemetery Hill, on one flank, when he heard the sounds of the artillery barrage of General Longstreet's attack on the Round Tops, on the other flank," Ross says. "He didn't hear it, and General Meade (Union commander) reinforced his southern flank at the Round Tops. People 10 miles away couldn't hear the battle at times, but it could be heard in Pittsburgh 150 miles away.

"Similarly, the battle of Gaines' Mill, near Richmond, couldn't be heard nearby in Hanover County, but people heard it in Staunton and at the Peaks of Otter, both 100 miles away. Cases of long-range audibility have been noted in many other instances throughout history. Queen Victoria's funeral in London in 1901 featured a huge artillery barrage that couldn't be heard over most of England, but it was heard clearly in Scotland. I've found instances of unusual audibility at long range as far back as the 1600s."

News media interest in Ross's research began after a presentation in October 1998 to a meeting in Norfolk of the Acoustical Society of America when a story by a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was distributed widely by United Press International. A similar story was featured in ScienceNOW, a daily, online version of Science magazine. Publicity "snowballed" after U.S.News & World Report devoted a full page to Ross's research in its Oct. 26, 1998 issue.

Article also have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Dallas Morning News, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and the journals Discover, Science News, and Applied Acoustics. He has been interviewed on Sounds Like Science, a nationwide program of National Public Radio, the statewide With Good Reason NPR program, and radio programs in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Gettysburg, Pa. He has given presentations to the American Physical Society and an audience of the Richmond Civil War Roundtable that included J.E.B. Stuart IV, the great-grandson of the legendary Confederate cavalry leader.

"People even brought me newspaper clippings from European newspapers and magazines, including Germany, Austria and Italy," Ross says. "A production company in England recently contacted me. They want me to help them write a proposal to produce a BBC documentary about Civil War acoustics."

In the midst of the media onslaught in the fall of 1998, he said with a laugh, "They say everyone has 15 minutes of fame; this must be mine. It's been exhausting. I'll be glad when it's over."

Why has this research sparked such interest? "It's sort of intrinsically interesting and news. It's a break from the highly technical talks; it involves a little simple physics, a little simple Civil War. I bring it into the classroom, and my students seem to like it. Physics and history can sometimes be sterile. This puts a human face on it, enlivens it. It's not so sophisticated that freshmen can't understand it."

His book, being sold by Barnes & Noble and other major book chains, is "scholarly, but written for the general reader," he says. "It's the kind of book I'd like to read. It deals with individual creativity in the Civil War - for example, the Petersburg mine, the dams on the Red River in Texas for U.S. Navy ships, and the Augusta Powder Works - and the intersection of emerging technologies with the Civil War, including submarines, hot-air balloons and the telegraph."

Ross's familiarity with unusual atmospheric acoustics led to his serving as a consultant last fall for the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI in connection with the unsolved homicide of a Los Angeles police officer. At the request of law enforcement officials, who had read about his research, he did an acoustical analysis of the 1987 murder and provided his results to them.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia and teaching at a private high school in Baltimore for four years, Ross, a Northern Virginia native, came in 1992 to Longwood, where he also directs the pre-engineering programs. His wife, Paige Guilliams Ross, is a Longwood alumna (B.S. '95, M.S. '98) who taught biology here and now teaches at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

"After the U.S.News & World Report story, I received e-mails not only from students I taught in Baltimore, but also from people all over the world, most of whom I'd never met," Ross says. "Most of the people were interested in my research - again, because it's something new - and wanted me to send them more information. It's been a great experience for me personally, and I think it has raised the College's visibility across the country and the world."

Kent Booty writes for the Alumni publication of Longwood University, Longwood Magazine.

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