Professor Explores Geology's Role in Civil War Battles

Bob Whisonant

Bob Whisonant

War strategists have discussed at length how the Battle of Antietam played out, but Radford University Geology Professor Emeritus Bob Whisonant has a ground-up approach to analyzing this major battle of the American Civil War.

"What's so striking at Antietam is that two geologic units underlie that area," said Whisonant, who will delve further into the subject during a free public talk on military geology at 7 p.m. April 3 in Radford University's Hurlburt Student Center, as part of the Museum of the Earth Sciences' lecture series. "One unit is a very pure limestone that, as it erodes, it literally melts. Mostly what you get with that is a very even, level, open surface—there just aren't a lot of deep holes and high hills that give soldiers a place to hide."

On that humid September day in 1862, more than 23,000 were either killed, wounded or declared missing in the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Md., considered by historians to be the bloodiest day in U.S. history.

"This presentation looks at how distinctly different kinds of rocks and sedimentary deposits created very dissimilar landforms where Antietam and three other great battles of the American Civil War were fought," Whisonant said.

In a talk titled "Rocks, Terrain, and Great Battles of the Civil War," the professor will explore the battlefield terrain of major battles at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg as well as a number of other battle sites with similar geology and topography.

Through a previous study, Whisonant and former U.S. Army terrain specialist Judy Ehlen discovered that Civil War soldiers were indeed at greater risk at some locations because of the geological formations beneath the battlefields.

Whisonant, a Civil War enthusiast who is active in assisting the Radford community in commemorating the war’s sesquicentennial, noted that Gettysburg is a prime example of where the Union had the advantage of the high ground but also disadvantages of geology. Union soldiers were positioned on the hard rock that forms the high ground, which always favors the defending side, but the rock on the ridge top was so close to the surface that soldiers couldn't dig trenches.

"The Union soldiers were open targets for artillery assault by the Confederates," Whisonant said. "But the disadvantage didn't just go one way. The Confederate soldiers had to go up an open slope formed on more erodible rock with nothing to get behind when they finally had to attack."

For more information about the Museum of the Earth Sciences and its lecture series, contact Stephen Lenhart at (540) 831-5257 or

Mar 26, 2012
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761