War in the East 186465

The Confederate attack on Washington, July I 1-12, 1864

The only Confederate assault on the Washington defenses occurred in the summer of 1864. Learning from spies that the capital was poorly defended due to Grant's insistence that troops be moved south to reinforce his army besieging Petersburg, Lee sent General Jubal A. Early to attack Washington from the north. During the morning of July 11, 1864, lookouts in the signal tower at Fort Reno spied clouds of dust in the distance, and then saw Confederate forces advancing towards the capital from the direction of Rockville, Maryland. Early's forces, consisting of the divisions of Rodes, Gordon, and Ramseur, reached the outskirts of Washington, DC near Silver Spring, and skirmishers advanced to "feel" the fortifications, which at the time were manned by only small garrisons in each fort, plus support troops consisting of the 2nd Regiment of District Volunteers, the 9th Regiment Veteran Reserve Corps, and several troops of cavalry and batteries of field artillery. During the night, veteran units from the Union Sixth Army Corps disembarked from troop transports and marched north through the streets of Washington to bolster the defenses. Joined by about 1,500 well-armed and equipped US Quartermaster Department employees, they took up position in the rifle pits. The Confederate skirmishers approached to within a distance of 150 yards until Federal fire drove them back. The Union forces in the forts and rifle pits spent the night lying on their arms.

The next day, Early was finally in position to make a strong demonstration, which was repulsed by the veteran Union troops. In the afternoon, Sixth Corps units sortied against the Confederate skirmishers, driving them back from their advanced positions in front of forts Stevens and DeRussy, at a loss of about 280 killed and wounded.

As President Lincoln watched the action from Fort Stevens, he came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters. Recognizing that the Union Capitol was defended by veteran troops, Early abandoned any thought of taking the city. Withdrawing during the night, he marched toward White's Ford on the Potomac, ending his invasion of Maryland. "We didn't take Washington," Early told his staff officers, "but we scared Abe Lincoln like Hell."

The Wilderness, 1864

Meanwhile, Grant began his campaign to capture Richmond, Virginia. From the Wilderness Campaign to the siege of Petersburg in 1864, the use of field fortifications grew more intense and sophisticated. The densely wooded countryside of northern Virginia contributed to this by making offensive maneuver and coordination very difficult. The importance that Grant gave to entrenching equipment in the Union supply trains illustrates his increased respect for hasty entrenchment. In preparation for the 1864 campaign, he ordered half the wagons carrying entrenching tools to be placed at the head of the supply column attached to the leading division of each army corps. Until Cold Harbor, engineer troops in the eastern theater of the war were generally responsible for laying out fortifications. Thereafter, non-specialist troops often chose where to dig in, and were more involved in the digging.

From the first clash of arms in the Wilderness on May 5, 1864, offensive entrenchments were used to launch frontal assaults from positions as close to the enemy as possible. They were also needed in order to hold captured ground. Indeed, the length of the Union line was entrenched before the Federal assault, while the Confederates hesitated to build trenches until they had engaged with the enemy.

General Winfield Scott Hancock entrenched his 2nd Army Corps behind a triple line of log and earth breastworks immediately upon taking up positions facing southwest below Wilderness Tavern. Commanding the Confederate 2nd Army Corps, General Richard S. Ewell ordered his men to throw up only slight earthworks during the first day of battle. During the night of May 5/6, Ewell had a strongly entrenched second line created about 300 yards behind his first position. The failure of General Ambrose R Hill to entrench his 3rd Army Corps almost led to a Confederate disaster during the Union assault on May 6. His routed troops were saved only by the belated arrival of Longstreet's 1st Corps just before dawn on the second day of battle. Both armies entrenched thoroughly during the remainder of the Wilderness battle. By 10 am on May 6, and after a series of Federal assaults and Confederate counter-attacks, stalemate set in on a temporarily stabilized front.

Spotsylvania, 1864

Despite heavy losses at the Wilderness, Grant continued to press the Confederates toward Richmond. On May 7, the Army of the Potomac began moving southeast in the direction of Spotsylvania Court House. After further heavy fighting on May 8, both armies spent that night, and the next day, digging in once more. On the Union lines, Hancock led the way by again throwing up three successive entrenched lines. Meanwhile, the ill-fated General John Sedgwick, commanding the 5th Army Corps, ordered working parties from each brigade to fortify his position.

Anticipating that Grant intended to fight it out on the Richmond line, the Confederates were equally as busy. Taking into account his limited human and material resources, plus the absence of a viable offensive opportunity, Lee decided to adopt a defensive posture, and ordered General Richard H. Anderson, commanding the wounded Longstreet's 1st Corps, to develop fortifications on the left of the Confederate line, while Ewell followed suit in the centre. Expecting its arrival on the right of the line on May 9, Lee personally laid out a strong defensive line for A. P. Hill's 3rd Army Corps. Following these developments, the prospect of a drawn-out war of entrenched stalemate seemed increasingly more likely.

Lee's army rapidly occupied a semicircular line about three miles in length along a ridge resting between the Po and the Nye rivers. Weaknesses included a salient near the centre about half a mile wide and a mile deep. Furthermore, if the Federals captured the high ground on the line, their guns could command the remaining Confederate positions. General Henry Upton, who commanded the second brigade of the Union 1st Division, 6th Army Corps, reported that the Confederate entrenchments at Spotsylvania were of "a formidable character with abatis in front and surmounted by heavy logs, underneath which were loopholes for musketry. In the re-entrant to the right of the house was a battery with traverses between the guns. There were also traverses at intervals along the entire work. About 100 yards to the rear was another line of works, partly completed and occupied by a second line of battle." Lee also wished to have constructed a line of retrenchment across the angle at the base of the salient, but this appears not to have been commenced when the Union attack began, but quickly petered out.

Bloody Angle, 1864

The next two days were relatively quiet, with intermittent sharpshooting preventing all but the foolhardy exposing any part of their anatomy from behind the entrenchments. This lull in proceedings ended abruptly on May 12, when one of the most gruesome trench battles of the Civil War occurred in what became known as the "Bloody Angle." Initially, a rain-soaked Federal assault on the salient at about 6 am involving Hancock's Corps went well. An intelligence error had led Lee to believe that Grant was retreating and consequently the 22 cannon in that section of the Confederate line had been withdrawn. General Edward Johnson, commanding the 2nd Division of Ewell's Corps, ordered them back again but they were still being returned when the attack occurred, and nearly all were captured without firing a shot. Three generals and a full division of men were also taken in the initial rush. However, a Confederate counter-attack by the Georgia brigade of General John B. Gordon slammed into the packed mass of men with devastating effect and drove the Federals back, but not away from the salient. The Federal infantry halted on the outer side of the Confederate works and threw a murderous fire into Gordon's men, who were now stranded, it being difficult to withdraw safely to the gorge to consolidate at a second line. Meanwhile, prevented by Federal entrenchments from launching a flanking attack, Lee ordered the Georgians in the salient to maintain their position at the parapet, and for about 24 hours the opposing forces fired at nearly point-blank range through every loophole and opening in the Confederate breastworks. At one point Federal troops managed to enfilade the Confederates, but traverses enabled the defenders to hold their positions. Federal artillery and mortars also took their toll, while trees with 22-inch-diameter trunks were felled by the intensity of the musket fire.

The heavily outnumbered Confederates managed to hold on, at a total cost to both sides of about 12,820 killed, wounded, or captured. By midnight, the line at the gorge was completed. Consequently, Lee ordered a gradual withdrawal, and just before dawn, the last of the defenders slipped through the new line, bringing to a close one of the toughest trench warfare encounters of the conflict.

A drawing by W.T.Trego entitled "Struggling for the works at the 'Bloody Angle'" depicts the vicious fighting that took place in the trenches near Spotsylvania Court House,Virginia, on May 12, 1864. (Battles & Leaders)

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