The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House 821 May 1864

Battle Spotsylvania Courthouse Map

2, 12 hay: Hancock's attack f 3- 18 May: Grant's attack. 11

4. The Mule Shoe Salient. jf

5. Doles" Salient, fi

7. Sedgwick killed. J/

2, 12 hay: Hancock's attack f 3- 18 May: Grant's attack. 11

4. The Mule Shoe Salient. jf

5. Doles" Salient, fi

7. Sedgwick killed. J/

to press southward again, keeping the pressure on Lee.

Early on 7 May, Grant issued orders to leave the Wilderness and head southeast toward Spotsylvania Court House, where the regional road net afforded a chance to slip between Lee and Richmond. When Grant turned south, despite having suffered as grievous losses as had prompted other commanders to return north, he put the war in Virginia onto a new track. Soldiers sensed the new resolve when they divined the direction of the move, and cheered boisterously. Tens of thousands of them would be shot in the next four weeks, but the army would continue to press steadily southward.

The march toward Spotsylvania Court House turned into a dramatic race fraught with mighty consequences. In a remarkable bout of prescience, Lee had ordered months before the improvement of a set of woods roads that paralleled the Brock Road, leading toward Spotsylvania. He selected General Richard H. Anderson, a phlegmatic officer, to replace temporarily the wounded Longstreet at the head of the First Corps. Anderson put his troops on the road to Spotsylvania, and found no good place to stop because of burning woods and narrow byways - so he kept marching all night long.

Federal progress on the far better Brock Road faltered in the face of scattered, but determined, resistance from Confederate cavalry. General Philip H. Sheridan, a Grant crony from the west, was new to command of the Federal cavalry, which should have shouldered the gray-clad skirmishers out of the way with ease. Sheridan was scheming this night, however, about getting out from under Meade's orders and instead reporting directly to his friend Grant. As a result, the Confederate resistance held on at one sketchy position after another all night.

Early on 8 May the race to Spotsylvania ended with Confederates controlling the key intersection on the Spindle Farm a matter of moments before Meade's advance arrived there. The consequence of Sheridan's indifference and Anderson's inability to stop

Battle The Bloody Angle
Confederates used felled trees covered with earth to fabricate an intricate set of field fortifications unlike anything that had been used earlier in the war. This view is in the vicinity of the nose of the Mule Shoe, near what became 'the Bloody Angle.' (Public domain)

was a very narrow margin of success for the Confederates. All day long, Federals trudged across an open field into Southern rifle fire, hoping to gain the intersection that they had lost in the race. They never succeeded, on 8 May or on several subsequent days. Thousands of them fell killed or wounded in the forlorn attempts.

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House churned across a broad stretch of country for two weeks, from the meeting engagement on 8 May until 21 May. Never before had field armies in Virginia remained in close contact for more than a few days. Now the war was changing, edging away from dash and maneuver toward mighty defensive works and, eventually, positional warfare resembling a siege.

Most of General Lee's defensive line at Spotsylvania took advantage of good ground along a ridge that covered four miles (6.4km) of farming country between the Po and Ni rivers. From the point at which the 8 May race ended, units of both sides spread in both directions, entrenching as they went.

Federal reinforcements pressed southwest toward the Po, hoping to get beyond Lee's flank; Confederates arrived to counter them. When both armies' flanks reached the Po, Federals began to push in the opposite direction, northeast from the Brock Road. Confederates countered that initiative too, but in the process created an unfortunate anomaly in their position.

General Edward 'Allegheny' Johnson (the nickname came from an early war victory at a place called Allegheny) led his Confederate division northeast from the Brock Road long after sundown. In the inky darkness, Johnson's staff and the van of the division emerged from thick woods into the edge of a clearing. They could see Federal campfires in the distance at what seemed to be a lower elevation, so they stopped and began to erect defensive works. By morning, the Confederate line they had fortified and extended stretched far north of the generally east-to-west axis of the troops nearer the Brock Road. This 'salient' swung up and back through a broad arc that prompted some of the farm lads who fought there to bestow upon it the name 'Mule Shoe.'

The Mule Shoe salient, about one mile (1.6km) deep north-to-south and half that wide, became the paramount military feature through most of the Battle of Spotsylvania. The location of the line did take advantage of high ground, and it did afford protection for Confederate supply routes farther south; but it proved to be fatally vulnerable in a tactical sense. Southern infantry erected a vast, complex array of defenses of dirt and felled trees to strengthen the salient. They also constructed traverses - interior defensive walls perpendicular to the main line - to protect against fire coming in from hostile country opposite their flanks. No fortifications, however, could extinguish the elemental defect of a salient: an enemy who broke through at any point across the entire arc immediately had at his mercy the rear of every defending unit.

General Grant's strength in numbers and materiel gave him the luxury of dictating the action. For two weeks he intermittently

Leader The Battle Spotsylvania
General John Sedgwick, commander of the Federal VI Corps, declared 'they couldn't hit an elephant at that range' just moments before a sharpshooter's bullet killed him. (Public domain)

probed at Lee's line, occasionally bludgeoning it with a massive attack. On 9 May the Army of the Potomac lost the reliable veteran commander of its VI Corps, General John Sedgwick. The corps commander's troops had been building breastworks next to the Brock Road when long-range Confederate rifle fire, from about 650yds (600m) away, drove them from their jobs. Sedgwick sought to inspire them to do their duty by standing tall. 'They couldn't hit an elephant at that range,' he said. A dull whistle announced the passage of another well-aimed bullet which whistled past. The one after that hit Sedgwick beneath his left eye and killed him instantly. He was the highest-ranking Federal officer killed during the war.

Federals probed west of the Po, where Confederates blocked them successfully, but the heaviest fighting surged back and forth across the entrenched positions in the Mule Shoe salient. On 10 May, General Emory Upton, the bright young New Yorker in command of a Federal brigade, sold army headquarters on the notion of attacking a vulnerable segment of Lee's line. Upton led a dozen regiments to the edge of a wood that looked across 150yds (135m) of open field toward the northwest corner of the Mule Shoe. There a salient on the salient - a small bulge on the corner of the larger projection -offered an attractive target. The Federals waiting to attack dreaded the deadly fire they would face the moment they emerged from cover. 'I felt my gorge rise,' one of them wrote, 'and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot ... I fully realized the terrible peril I was to encounter. I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death. Pulling my cap down over my eyes, I stepped out.'

Upton's direct assault surprised the Confederates - Georgians under General George Doles. It burst over the works, captured several hundred Southerners, and seemed poised to rupture the whole Mule Shoe position; but Confederate reinforcements hurriedly sealed the shoulder of the breach, some of them led by Lee himself. Federal supports did not come forward with the same elan Upton and his men had shown. When the fighting waned at dark, the breakthrough had been repulsed.

General Grant apparently considered Upton's success as admonitory. In the Wilderness, all of Grant's efforts to maneuver against Lee had been less than successful, and he wound up with both of the Union flanks turned and shattered. Now Upton had gone straight ahead. Perhaps the solution was simply to overwhelm the outnumbered Confederates? On 12 May, Grant launched an immense assault intended to do just that. The immediate result was the heaviest day of fighting at Spotsylvania and one of the most intense hand-to-hand combats of the war. In the longer term, Grant's preliminary success on the 12th probably convinced him to adopt the notion of full-scale, head-on frontal assaults that led to vast and futile effusions of blood over the next few weeks.

Through the night of 11-12 May, Federal troops marshaled opposite the northeast face of the Mule Shoe. Relentless rain and a

Battle Spotsylvania

pitch-black night complicated their preparations (one general called the result an 'exquisitely ludicrous scene'), but by 4.30 am a force of about 25,000 men had consolidated into a dense mass, ready to attack. General Winfield Scott Hancock sent them forward in what would prove to be the most successful assault of its kind by Federals during the entire war in Virginia. Hancock's leadership and the men's bravery contributed to the attack's initial success, but it also benefited from two bits of happenstance: in a dreadful stroke of bad timing, the Confederate artillery had been withdrawn from the Mule Shoe to be ready in case Grant moved eastward; and the rain and humidity had rendered most of the Confederate infantry's weapons inoperative.

The noise of the gathering enemy had been audible all night to Confederates (McHenry Howard said it sounded 'like distant falling water or machinery'), and they had scrambled to get the artillery back in position. When the attackers approached,

Modern aerial view of Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, looking southeast from above the Federal lines toward the Bloody Angle. The Confederate position stood at the edge of the trees beyond the field. The modern road winds down the shoulders of the Mule Shoe salient they made an incomparable target for canister or other artillery rounds - rolling forward in a wide, deep formation, impossible to miss. Most of the Confederate guns scurrying back toward the nose of the Mule Shoe, however, arrived just in time to

Hancock Attack
For hours the combatants struggled at hand-to-hand range, separated only by fortifications made of earth and wood. (Public domain)

be captured without firing a round. When the Southern infantry leveled muskets and pulled triggers, the commander of the famous old 'Stonewall Brigade' expected the results he had seen many times before: volleys that knocked down the enemy in windrows and halted the assailants' momentum. But 'instead of the leaping line of fire and the sharp crack of the muskets,' General James A. Walker wrote in dismay, 'came the pop! pop! pop! of exploding caps as the hammer fell upon them. Their powder was damp!' The military rubric, 'Keep your powder dry,' belonged to earlier wars fought with flintlock muskets. This affair on 12 May 1864 was the only major instance in which damp powder affected tactical events during the Civil War.

The Federal tide swept over the strong works at the nose of the Mule Shoe and roared on southward for several hundred yards. Then the chaos and disorientation, often as incumbent upon military success as upon military failure, dissolved the momentum. Desperate Confederates, some led by General Lee in person (as on 6 May and 10 May), knit together new lines across the Mule Shoe and up its sides. By dint of intense, costly fighting they pushed Hancock's Federals back to the outer edge of the northern tip of the works. By then both sides had exhausted their initiative and the swirling fighting dissolved into a deadly, bloody, close encounter across the entrenchments. For 20 hours the contending forces occupied either side of a gentle bend in the works that stretched for about 160yds (145m), making it forever famous as 'the Bloody Angle' - a nom deguerre christened with the blood of hundreds of soldiers.

The Bloody Angle was made possible by the tall, thick earthworks, new to the war in this campaign. No one could have fought for more than a few minutes over the kind of primitive trenches in use only a few months before. The nose of the Mule Shoe featured embattlements made of tree trunks laid lengthwise, sometimes two parallel rows with dirt between. Dirt piled over the bulk of the fortification made it impenetrable by either bullets or shells. The ditch behind the works was deep enough to require a firing step for defenders to see to fire, through a space between the main wall and a head log perched above it.

About 2,000 men from South Carolina and Mississippi clung to the south face of the works. Far more Federals from the VI and II Corps threatened the Bloody Angle from the north, but numbers mattered little in that narrow front. Most Union troops went to ground behind the lip of a draw about 40yds (37m) north of the works; others lay directly behind the north edge of the contested line. Brave men of both sides leaped atop the works to fire a round then drop back, if they survived. Others threw bayoneted rifles across like harpoons. A steady rain added misery to terror. The trenches filled with water 'as bloody as if it flowed from an abattoir.'

A Confederate called the scene 'a perfect picture of gloom, destruction and death - a very Golgotha of horrors.' A Federal general who visited the scene described the results of a fire so intense and long-continued 'that the brush and logs were cut to pieces and whipped into basket-stuff... men's flesh was torn from the bones and the bones shattered.' Toward midnight of 12-13 May, an oak tree 22 inches (56cm) thick fell. It had been hit not by a cannonball, but by countless thousands of bullets, which gradually nibbled their way through its dense bole.

Just before dawn on 13 May, the Confederate survivors finally received orders to abandon the Bloody Angle and fall back to a new line drawn across the base of the Mule Shoe - where Lee's position probably should have been formed from the outset. A Northerner who visited the newly won position at the nose of the salient left a graphic description of the place's horrors: 'Horses and men chopped into hash by the bullets ... appearing ... like piles of jelly ... The logs in the breastworks were shattered into splinters ... We had not only shot down an army, but also a forest.' In the aftermath of 'this most desperate struggle of the war,' one Mississippian who survived admitted that the tension and dread of the ordeal had shattered their nervous systems. Once they reached safe ground, the weary veterans simply 'sat down on the wet ground and wept. Not silently, but vociferously and long.'

Through the period 13-17 May, the Federal army slipped steadily eastward, then southeastward, extending toward and around the Confederate right. This tactical measure foreshadowed Grant's strategic agenda for the next month, during which a crablike sliding movement to the southeast sought always to get closer to Richmond than Lee's army. Already he had unleashed Sheridan's cavalry to raid toward the Southern capital. The raiders did not get into Richmond, but they did kill the Confederacy's incomparable cavalry leader, General J. E. B. Stuart, in fighting around Yellow Tavern. Stuart had said 'I had rather die than be whipped.' Lee would miss his skill in screening and reconnaissance functions.

Although fighting flared all across the lines with regularity, the next major Federal attempt did not come until 18 May. On that morning, Grant launched another massive frontal assault against Lee's troops in their strongly entrenched new lines across the base of the Mule Shoe - a position that came to be called 'Lee's Last Line.' Upton's head-on attack on 10 May had worked; so had the Hancock onslaught on 12 May; perhaps what was needed was simply to bludgeon Lee. This time, though, Confederate cannon stood ready. Without needing much help from supporting infantry, they slaughtered Grant's attackers without the least difficulty or danger.

The Army of the Potomac recoiled after heavy losses, never having come close to their enemies. As General Meade wrote wearily to his wife the next day, after the thorough repulse 'even Grant thought it useless to [continue to] knock our heads against a brick wall.' Most Southern infantry hardly mentioned the event in their letters and diaries, the repulse having been so easy that it required 'but little participation of our infantry.' A Confederate artillery colonel wrote regretfully that the Yankee infantry 'wouldn't charge with any spirit.' In the words of a boy from Richmond, 'the Union troops broke and fled.'

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