For Lee, acoustics were sound of defeat
An authority on "acoustic shadows" discusses the impact of sound on the Civil War.

NEWPORT NEWS - It won't be music to the ears of traditionalists, but Civil War Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee might have owed some of his success — not to mention his demise — to acoustics.

At least, that's the argument of Chuck Ross, dean of Longwood University's College of Arts and Sciences. He gave the final lecture of the Jefferson Lab Spring Science Series in Newport News on Tuesday.

Ross has a bachelor of science degree in nuclear engineering, a master of science in engineering physics and a doctorate in materials science, all from the University of Virginia. He's an authority on how acoustic anomalies, called "acoustic shadows," influenced command decisions in the Civil War. He told students at Jefferson Lab how acoustics benefited the most famous Confederate general — but ultimately hastened his undoing.

He said atmospheric factors affected the Battle of Seven Pines fought in Henrico County on May 31 and June 1, 1862. During that battle, Confederates led by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston tried to overwhelm Union forces led by Maj. Gen. George McClellan south of the Chickahominy River.

McClellan split his army to be on both sides of the river, and Johnston planned a three-pronged attack. Once he heard the sound of battle, he was to send in huge reinforcements, Ross said.

But he never heard anything.

"Johnston actually wrote down, 'Due to some unusual atmosphere or acoustics I was not able to hear the sounds of the battle.'" Ross said. "A lot of people thought he was being wishy-washy and trying to use some kind of excuse ... because people didn't understand these things.

"Back then, Johnson knew it was something weird because at about 1 p.m. ... there was a raging battle. Johnston was about 3 or 4 miles away in complete silence. He couldn't hear anything."

Ross said it wasn't until about 4 p.m. that the Confederate general was told the battle was under way and advised to send reinforcements.

By the time the Southern reinforcements arrived, Union forces had built a makeshift bridge across the flood-swollen river and brought in their own reinforcements.

"This battle ended up as a draw," Ross said. "It should have been a massive Confederate victory, except for the fact that Johnson couldn't hear the sound to send the guys in."

The problem, Ross said, was that the area of the battle was a thick pine forest — and soft pine needles absorb sound.

There was also a wind factor. The night before the battle, there had been a big thunderstorm.

"The next day, as the storm cleared, the wind was still powerful," Ross said. That wind took away the sound of battle.

Several hours after the battle, Johnston visited the battlefield. It was "an area that, except for the acoustic shadow, would have been in complete Confederate control but now was a sort of no-man's land."

Johnston was shot during the visit and was out of action for a year.

"The person who replaced him was Robert E. Lee. So in a way, we can say Robert E. Lee's career as head of the Confederate army would have started because of an acoustic shadow — if you want to stretch it," Ross said.

He said Lee's career also ended because of an acoustic shadow.

The Battle of Five Forks on April 1, 1865, forced Lee to abandon his fortifications at nearby Petersburg. That precipitated his surrender at Appomattox Court House eight days later.

During Five Forks — known as the "Waterloo of the Confederacy" — Confederate Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett was 2 miles away from his troops with two other high-ranking officers at a shad bake, where locally caught fish were being cooked.

The heavily wooded nature of the battlefield muffled the sound of musket fire. Pickett wasn't able to get back to his troops in time, and the Confederate line was breached.

Ross said some of the generals later said they didn't hear a gun until Union forces came into the clearing where the shad bake was taking place.

"At that point, the Confederate forces had been completely overrun," Ross said.

He said that sound was an often-overlooked factor on the battlefield but that since the Civil War, the U.S. Army and Navy had sought to better understand acoustics.