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Spotsylvania Courthouse

Bloody Spotsylvania

Cannons fire in a reenactment at Spotsylvania Courthouse Virginia 2014

Cannons fire in a reenactment at Spotsylvania Courthouse Virginia 2014

…“I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer..” – Spotsylvania dispatch from Ulysses S. Grant to Washington on May 11th 1864

Wild flowers bloom on Laurel Hill scene of the first shots of thew Battle of Spotsylvania

Wild flowers bloom on Laurel Hill scene of the first shots of the Battle of Spotsylvania -2014

After disengaging from the Confederates at the Wilderness Grant continued to push his battered but resilient army south. Twelve miles away near the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse the armies clash again setting the scene for on and off fighting from May 8th to 21st. that ultimately inflicted more casualties among the two sides than the Battle of the Wilderness.

“Although the Battle of Spotsylvania technically lasted nearly two weeks, it’s best remembered for the fighting that took place on May 12th at a salient in the Confederate line known as the Mule Shoe. A Union assault on the salient produced 24 hours of the most savage fighting conducted during the war, forever christening that point in the line as the Bloody Angle.” *

Lone Confederate gun looking across trenches and the Union approach to the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania 2014

A lone Confederate gun looks across trenches and the Union approach to the Bloody Angle on the Battlefield at Spotsylvania, Virginia 2014

“Studded with guns at critical points throughout its convex three-mile length, Lee’s Spotsylvania line was constructed, Meade’s chief of staff declared, in a manner unknown to European warfare, and, indeed, in a manner new to warfare in this country. Actually, it was not so much the novelty of the individual engineering techniques that made the log-and-dirt barrier so forbidding; it was the combination of them into a single construction of interlocking parts, the canny use of natural features of the terrain, and the speed at which the butternut veterans, familiar now with the fury of Grant’s assaults, had accomplished their intricate task.” **

View from the Harrison House into the Virginia wilderness at Spotsylvania 2014

View from the Harrison House into the Virginia wilderness at Spotsylvania 2014

The fighting began just a few miles from the Spotsylvania Courthouse crossing at a place called, Laurel Hill. This strategic high ground was quickly occupied by the newly arriving Confederates troops as the armies engaged and began to dig in around Spotsylvania. The hill today is covered in wild flowers and looks out over the meandering Brock Road, the same country road the Federal troops took to Spotsylvania and still the main thoroughfare through the Wilderness region today.

When you look out from the Spotsylvania Battlefield visitors shanty toward Laurel Hill your line of sight is broken by a granite monument to Union General John Sedgwick killed here by a snipers’ bullet on May 9th 1864. As the two armies hastily dug in General Sedgwick visiting the trenches was in the middle of admonishing one of his soldiers for ducking the sporadic incoming fire when he was struck down.

Confederates prepare for the Union assault at Spotsylvania 2014

Confederates prepare for the Union assault at Spotsylvania 2014

Three days later Grant launched an assault on the Confederate entrenchments at Spotsylvania that turned out to be the longest lasting, continuous battle in the entire Civil War.

Late day light illuminates a section of the Confederate trench at the Bloody Angle

Late day light illuminates a section of the Confederate trench at the Bloody Angle

At dawn on May 12th 1864, with rain pouring down and the battlefield shrouded in mist, the first of 20,000 Union troops left the protection of the tree line and charged toward the Confederate trenches at the Mule Shoe. This portion of the Confederate line was called the Mule Shoe because this point in the Confederate line bulged out from the miles-long continuous defensive trench system that was Lee’s battle line at Spotsylvania.

This bulge was correctly seen by Grant as a weak point as was quickly overrun by the attacking Federals on May 12th. This Union breakthrough threatened to cut the Confederates in-two forcing General Lee into directing near suicidal counterattacks to regain the ground. These counterattacks finally forced the Union troops out of the Mule Shoe but only to the other side of the breastworks. Here within just feet of each other the two armies struggled in hand to hand, close quarters combat for 22 more hours…

Morning fog shrouds the Bloody Angle on the Battlefield at Spotsylvania 2014

Morning fog shrouds the Bloody Angle on the Battlefield at Spotsylvania 2014

“Fighting thus at arm’s length, across the parapet, they were caught up in a waking nightmare…It soon became apparent to both sides that what they were involved in now was not only fiercer that what had gone before, today, but was in fact more horrendous that what had gone before, ever.” **

Overland215_4x5Cblog“Slaughter became an end in itself, unrelenting to issues or objectives, as if it had nothing whatever to do with the war. Troops were killed by thrusts and stabs through chinks in the log barricade, while others were harpooned by bayonetted rifles flung javelin-style across it.” **

“Veterans who had survived the worst of this war afforded, up to now, went through the motions of combat after the manner of blanked-faced automatons, as if what they were involved in had driven them beyond madness into imbecility… their vacant eyes unlighted by anger or even dulled by fear” **

Union reenactors assault Confederates fighting from their earthworks during a reenactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

Union reenactors assault Confederates fighting from their earthworks during a reenactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

When dawn arrives on May 13th. the exhausted Union troops begin to disengage only to find the Mule Shoe deserted of Confederates. General Lee in the night had pulled his men back to a new set of strongly constructed entrenchments a few hundred yards to the rear of the Mule Shoe salient. When it was light enough to see the battlefield presented one of the most harrowing sights in the entire Civil War.

The battle devolves into a hand-to-hand struggle for the Confederate earthworks in Spotsylvania

The battle devolves into a hand-to-hand struggle for the Confederate earthworks in Spotsylvania

A soldier wrote,“The appalling sight presented was harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the angle, while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment….the place was well named the Bloody Angle.” *

This portion of the National Park Service battlefield at Spotsylvania is an incredibly preserved Civil War battle landscape. One can easily take in the entire May 12th battle landscape, the two opposing armies battle lines, in one glance. The tree line where the attacking Union troops formed up in and emerged from is intact as well as the small valley they descended and climbed to reach the Confederate trenches at the Mule Shoe.

Union troops emerged from this fog shrouded tree  in what would later be know as Bloody Spotsylvania

Morning fog shrouds the tree line where on May 12th 1864 – 20,000 Union troops emerged to assault the Muleshoe Salient and the Bloody Angle in the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse

Today, walking from the Union tree line into the valley and up toward the Confederate trenches I immediately observe ravines and folds in the landscape that would have protected the Federal soldiers from Confederate fire during the assault. The distance from the tree line through the valley and up the slope is only a couple hundred yards. The battlefield comes alive walking the landscape today seeing the intimacy of the space. It’s not difficult to imagine the 20,000 determined soldiers emerging out of a shroud of mist on that morning in 1864.

On May 12th 1864 - 20,000 Union troops emerged from the tree line at left descended this depression and assaulted the Confederates dug-in along the Muleshoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania -2014

Union troops emerged from the trees at left and crossed this depression during their attack on the Muleshoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania

When you get to the top of the rise you arrive at the Bloody Angle. Still backed by a dense tree line the Confederate trenches here make a sharp bend and are plainly seen running in either direction as far as your vision can take you.

Although worn down by 150 years of weather the earthworks and their interlocking trenches are all jumbled together giving clear visual evidence of the desperate struggle, the falling back and retaking of these trench lines during the battle for the Bloody Angle on May 12th 1864.

Spotsylvania in this sense is a great battlefield to give you a picture of the size of Civil War armies. The interior park roads and trails basically fall along the lines of battle so you can drive or hike for miles along a trench line and begin to imagine how many men it would take to defend these earthworks.

Union troops surge forward in a reenactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse - 2014

Union troops surge forward in a reenactment of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse – 2014

A visit to the Harrison House ruins site of General Lee’s command position in the battle is revealing. Atop a small hill a small pile of stones are all that remain of the old farm-house that once stood there.

Ruins of the Harrison House at Spotsylvania 2014

Ruins of the Harrison House at Spotsylvania 2014

From the hilltop you can take in General Lee’s view of the battle on May 12th as he looked out from this vantage point a mile or so over a section of woodland toward the Mule Shoe salient. As the sun rises over this battlefield landscape the birds are chirping it’s quiet and the air is clear….but I can just imagine seeing smoke billing up from that near distant tree line.

“After their inability to break Lee’s line on May 12th., Grant continued to probe the Confederate line for weakness, attempting to gain a perceptible advantage. However, by 1864 Civil War soldiers had become adept at digging in and building the kind of trenches that would dominate the fighting of WWI, 50 years later.” *

Reenactors construct Civil War era earthworks in Mosley, Virginia 2014

Reenactors construct Civil War era earthworks during a reenactment in Mosley, Virginia 2014

It was becoming clear in 1864 that these protective earthworks are advantageous to the defender and extremely costly to attack so on May 21st. Grant orders the Union Army to disengage at Spotsylvania and again move south in an attempt to get the Army of Northern Virginia out in the open.

In about 15 days of fighting the two armies had suffered a combined 50,000 casualties… and the Overland Campaign was still only half-finished.

Grant’s strategic movement south and around the right flank of the Confederates was becoming a recurring refrain in the Overland Campaign. Anticipated by Lee, the warring armies would race toward the next river crossing on the road to Richmond – the North Anna River.

Sunrise at Spotsylvania National Military Park, Va -2014

Sunrise at Spotsylvania National Military Park, Va -2014

The Battle of the North Anna River

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Notes:

(*) The Overland Campaign – Charles River Editors

(**) The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3 – Shelby Foote

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