Fence Friday – Virginia Worm

Ever wondered about all the different types of fences you see when you visit Civil War battlefields? Maybe how they are made, their different purposes, and all of those other “nerdy” details that only the most hardcore battlefield devotees would be into. Well, in our first installment of Fence Friday, we’re going to tackle a prominent type of fence from the nineteenth century, the Virginia worm fence.

A section of Virginia worm fence on the Gettysburg battlefield near the point of woods and the Virginia Memorial. (Courtesy Dan Welch)

Virginia worm fence, also known as zigzag, snake, worm, or split rail fence, they were constructed utilizing split rails. The split rails most often averaged 10′ in length and were stacked. Where two the two ends of two stacks came together, cross rails were placed over the top. The cross rails average 6′ to 6′ 6″ in length. Some worm fences even included a fill in rail between the top rail and the main stack itself.

So what was the purpose of this type of fence? Flexibility and terrain were the purposes this type of fence was often chosen for use by property owners. First, the worm fence did not require vertical posts to be used, nor the necessity of posts holes to be dug and backfilled for those vertical posts. Second, the worm fence could be moved very easily, changing sizes of fields or grazing areas, property lines, changes in uses on the property, all while not necessitating new fence post holes to be dug and previous posts to remain and rot in previous positions.

Virginia worm fences were also incredibly useful where rocky soil or other types of subterranean strata made it nearly impossible to dig post holes for vertical fence posts. Additionally, the flexibility of this style of fence meant that property owners could use it where straight fence lines were all but out of the question.

A section of Virginia worm fence at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. (Courtesy Dan Welch)

15 Responses to Fence Friday – Virginia Worm

    1. Funny how we often think of them as static objects on the modern, preserved landscape. But, like the armies, they were sometimes on the move!

  1. Ever since I began to visit battlefields, I’ve raved to my husband that I want a “Virginia Worm Fence” for our yard. Just to have a little taste of history at home. Still trying to find a place to get the wood for that. Most lumber places around here don’t do the split rail styles.
    If anyone knows how the parks make these fences, let me know!

  2. I’m sure they were great and all for the intended purpose but I’ll say that weedeating along a split rail fence at a park today is such a drag–so much busted string.

  3. Interesting topic. Thanks for posting it. In parts of the Chesapeake region, livestock roamed freely for much of the 18th and early 19th century. Fencing was used to keep animals out of certain spaces rather than in. As I understand it, snake rail fences were good at defeating pig incursions. Not certain about the accuracy of that latter point, though.

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