Fence Friday – Post and Rail

Well, I suppose I’ll get off the fence about when to finish writing this post (seriously I’m running low of fence jokes and might have to picket for more!). So far I’ve examined Virginia worm fences and stone and rider fences. You can check out both previous posts by clicking the links. Both of those types of fences provided great positions for units fighting on the defensive, and presented immense tactical challenges for military formations on the attack. Perhaps one of the most iconic types of fences found in the agricultural and often open grounds Civil War armies operated in, and in which they fought, were post and rail. Keep reading below to discover all those “nerdy” details that only the most hardcore battlefield devotees would want to know about post and rail fences.

A modern image of post and rail fence lining the Emmitsburg Road on the Gettysburg battlefield. (Courtesy Eva & Than Bauder)

Giving battlefield programs and tours on the Gettysburg battlefield about Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863 always brings post and rail fences into the narrative. Lining the Emmitsburg Road on both it’s western and eastern side, these stout fences proved to be an impediment to the Confederate attack and its speed in getting from Seminary to Cemetery Ridge in a timely manner. Getting from their jumping off point to the defenders main line as quickly as possible not only limited their time in the open between the opposing lines, but also lessened the potential for significant casualties before reaching their main objective. To have two-rank deep regimental battle lines have to scale two fences under both rifle and artillery fire was no easy feat, and many Confederate attackers either fell along the road and fences itself, or from the overwhelming fire and the scenes taking place around them they refused to leave the false sense of safety the vertical and horizontal rails provided. And yet, despite the importance of the post and rail fence to the story of Pickett’s Charge few visitors today, or even historians, can fluently discuss the origins of this type of fence and its purposes once in the ground.

Post and rail fences came to the colonies in the 17th century, an idea of form and function from Europe. Their earliest appearances were in colonial Virginia, and, nearly two centuries later, dotted many of the landscapes in which the Civil War raged. One of the reasons that this style of fence prevailed for so long was due to its versatility in use and the relatively easy, although labor intensive, process of construction. This was particularly so with properties that contained significant wood lots in which to draw materials readily for initial construction and future maintenance. In the Tidewater region of Virginia, for example, stone was scarce while wood was the most common and abundant construction material.

Titled “Killed at the Battle of Antietam” the image depicts the severe fighting along the post and rail fence ensconcing the Hagerstown Pike on September 17, 1862.

So what purpose and roles did this type of fence serve on a landscape? Post and rail fences were incredibly versatile and could be used for numerous purposes. One of their primary uses was to act as enclosures to pieces of property, orchards, meadows, and even pastures. Another of their uses was to not only mark divisions within individual fields, but also to serve as boundary markers between differently-owned but adjacent or adjoining properties. Their use as enclosures and boundary markers also extended to public properties of the period including churches, schools, and lining roads and turnpikes. Used as boundary markers also made this type of fence a “go to” for homesteaders. Colonial gardeners even used them to prevent larger animals from getting into their gardens while still allowing maximum sunlight to get to the plants each day. And although slightly more labor intensive than Virginia worm in its portability, because this style of fence did not require hardware for its assembly or support structure it could be disassembled and moved to be rebuilt elsewhere.

With respect to the materials being used, types of wood used to construct post and rail fences varied. This was largely due to what was readily available on the property owner’s lots. In some cases hard woods such as oak, locust, or cedar were used for the upright, vertical posts. Horizontal rails could be made from oak and poplar, to even pine. The split rails used horizontally averaged 11′ in length, and when inserted into the vertical posts, their overall height from bottom rail to top rail averaged 5′. The vertical posts themselves ranged between 6′ to 6′ 6″.

We got an unusual one for the next installment in this series thanks to our very own Chris Mackowski. I had never heard of it, and when he told me about it, it was far more interesting than watching whitewash dry on a historic recreation of a picket fence. Join me next time as we explore the Virginia ditch fence.

About Daniel Welch

Dan Welch is currently a primary and secondary educator with a public school district in northeast Ohio. Previously, he was the Education Programs Coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation, the non-profit partner of Gettysburg National Military Park. Dan continues to serve as a seasonal Park Ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park. He has received his BA in Instrumental Music Education from Youngstown State University and a MA in Military History with a Civil War Era concentration at American Military University. Dan has also studied under the tutelage of Dr. Allen C. Guelzo as part of the Gettysburg Semester at Gettysburg College. He has been a contributing member at Emerging Civil War for over six years and is the co-author of The Last Road North: A Guide to the Gettysburg Campaign, 1863. He resides with his wife, Sarah, and three Labrador retrievers in Boardman, Ohio.
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8 Responses to Fence Friday – Post and Rail

  1. Charlie Downs says:

    The American Chestnut was also commonly used for rails since it was common, easy to split, and quite resistant to rot. Unfortunately the Chinese chestnut blight wiped out the American Chestnut in the early 1900’s but efforts are being made to bring back this stately tree using genetics.
    A nice overview of fences and their impacts on battles Dan. Let’s not forget how armies decimated these fences during and after battles. Steve Cowie’s new book “When Hell Came to Sharpsburg” does an excellent job in documenting the cost to local farmers after Antietam.

  2. Chris Mackowski says:

    I have enjoyed these posts tremendously, even with (because of?) the fence humor.

  3. Shipdriver says:

    “Let me ride through the wide open country that I love; don’t fence me in!
    I can’t look at rails, and I can’t stand fences; don’t fence me in!”

  4. grandadpookers says:

    Thoroughly enjoyable series. When I was very young, my uncle paid me to collect rocks from a field he planned to plow. The stones and rocks were assembled into boundary fences. Difficult labor, I learned to appreciate the efforts of the early settlers and farmers.

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