…“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
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.” *
“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.” **
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.
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.
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…
“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.” **
“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” **
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.” *
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.
(*) The Overland Campaign – Charles River Editors
(**) The Civil War: A Narrative Vol. 3 – Shelby Foote