Battles in the East

“More Than Human Flesh Could Stand” – May 11th – 12th, 1864, Spotsylvania

In the face of staggering losses and terribly mangled plans, Ulysses Grant was still optimistic on the morning of May 11th, 1864. Despite his best efforts to find that weakness in Robert Lee’s heavily fortified line along Laurel Hill and the – supposedly vulnerable – salient to the east, Grant was left with more casualties than answers. Without his cavalry, he didn’t know that he had been hammering at the wrong places all day. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had had a few days to continually build up and strengthen their earthworks to the point that they were nigh impregnable. However, Emory Upton’s fast-piercing strategy from the day before held some merit. The breach hadn’t lasted long without needed support, but 12 regiments seemed to be enough to break the line. Because of that, Grant was willing to find the right time and place to implement this strategy again. He wrote to Henry Halleck, “We have now ended the sixth day of very heavy fighting. The result to this time is much in our favor, but our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy.” He closed with words that would be immortalized in the Overland Campaign, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

How those words would ring true in the weeks and months to come.

In the meantime, orders were given to the troops of the V Corps under Gouverneur Warren and VI Corps now under Horatio Wright to dig rifle pits in front of the main line so as to keep marksmen at bay. Otherwise, the fighting had lulled some, but artillery and musket fire didn’t let up on either side as would have been ideal. This didn’t give much of a chance for the men to breathe, tend their wounded, and bury their dead. Heavy rains persisted in the afternoon and evening, making it nearly impossible to cook or build fires. “It was a rough place at best,” a Union soldier remembered. Another described the army as “cheerless and disconsolate.” Many simply “sank to sleep in the falling rain, wet to the skin with their soaked feet to the smouldering embers.”

Scouts were sent to do a more thorough sweep of the salient, mapping its contours to find it was rather wide at the tip. To Grant’s judgment, the place where Gershom Mott had attempted to charge on May 10th had been an adequate target, with the Brown House as an equally adequate launching point for the next assault. This time, it wouldn’t be just 12 regiments, but an entire corps. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to be exact. As before, he wanted no firing until they were well upon the Confederate works. Unlike before, support would be guaranteed. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps had given a rather lackluster performance at Spotsylvania thus far and when aides were sent to inspect his line, they quickly corrected it so making a charge upon the eastern slope of the salient could be executed at the same time as Hancock’s attempt.

The only difficulty was that Hancock’s corps were nowhere near Brown house. They were still situated on the right flank near the Po River with some of his divisions mixed in with Warren’s corps from the previous assaults. The divisions under Francis Barlow, John Gibbon, and David Birney would have to pull back to the north, behind the V and VI Corps, to march east and assemble on the left of Wright’s corps. But was it safe to leave the protection of their right flank in Warren’s hands? Hancock had contested with elements of Jubal Early’s Third Corps the day before with some disastrous outcomes. Brigadier General Nelson Miles went to inspect the flank himself and went unmolested by the thinned-out Confederate troops under William Mahone. Thus, the night-march was scheduled and Hancock’s corps would form up at the Brown House to attack at 4am. Part of Warren’s corps would stretch westward to fill the void in the line. George Gordon Meade was quote, “as cross as a bear” for Grant’s overreach in making these plans, even if he was the Lieutenant General.

Winfield Scott Hancock

On the Confederate side, they did what they had done during the previous days during these semi-peaceful lulls. They continued to strengthen their works, playing the defensive game that was necessary for the moment. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division occupied the salient with about 4,500 men and 30 guns. Though the salient was the weakest place on the battlefield due to its horseshoe shape, Lee was assured that with enough men and artillery, Richard Ewell and his Second Corps could hold it. By all accounts, they were sitting pretty around Spotsylvania and despite the sparsely-manned right flank in front of Burnside, it felt as if they could withstand just about anything. After the numerous failed assaults along Laurel Hill, their confidence must have been running high.

One nugget of doubt and misinterpretation would bring a world of hurt upon Lee’s army. With Burnside’s movements on his right and Hancock moving away from his left flank, it looked as if Grant might have been pulling out to head east to Fredericksburg. Never had Lee misread his opponent this way. While it wasn’t a definite just yet, Lee was taking no chances. He gave orders that the artillery should be moved out of the salient. His thought was if he could get the slowest-moving component of his army out of the way, the troops could move quicker and the whole could more easily intercept when the need came. He did leave one battalion under Armistead Long with Robert Rodes’ division on the west side of the salient, since that was where the Federals had attacked before. Johnson was shocked when he came upon his line that evening and found no guns. When told of the reason, he relented, but that didn’t keep the Confederates from feeling uneasy.

Those troops within Hancock’s II Corps were uneasy too, as they received their orders to make a long 3-mile march through the dark and the mud with very little else to go on. Not even division commander Francis Barlow knew what was going on, but had to tell his subordinates to shut up (in so many words) when their grumbling and complaining became too much. At 9pm the soldiers of the II Corps, “Each one had only to rise from the earth, shake himself in vain to get rid of the chills that were ever coursing up and down the spine on nights like this, wring the water out of his shoes, lift the cold, heavy musket from the stack, and all was ready.” One officer remembered it, “a more dismal night march of two hours was never known.” They made their way following the soldiers in front of them, “not by sight or touch, but by hearing him growl and swear as he slipped, splashed, and tried to pull his ‘pontoons’ out of the mud.”

The column arrived between 12:30am and 2am and some gaps were filled in as Lieutenant Colonel Waldo Merriam of the 16th Massachusetts made a sketch of the salient for the high command staying at the Brown House. That didn’t keep Barlow from being inconsolable and bitter about the whole affair. He had seen what these charges could do to a division and he already lamented what would happen to his. “He acted as if indeed it was a forlorn hope he was to lead,” a staff officer recalled. He went to his men that night and told them to “make your peace with God and mount, gentlemen. I have a hot place picked out for some of you today.”

The formation would be a 2×2 with Birney and Barlow in front and Mott and Gibbon behind, respectively. There was a direct line from the Brown House to the Landrum property and then to McCoull’s, which was behind enemy lines. That would be their objective. Burnside was in place to link up with the right of Hancock’s corps and initiate his assault on the east side.

Richard Ewell

On the Confederate line, the men who had passed a restless night began to hear something coming. One staffer discerned a “subdued roar or noise, plainly audible in the still, heavy night air, like distant falling of water or machinery.” Immediately, word was sent through the chain of command to Johnson and he in turn reported to Ewell, “The enemy is moving and probably massing in our front and we expect to be attacked by daylight.” At first, Ewell disregarded the message, but then upon further insisting, he sent word to Lee. By 3:30am, the order to return the guns to the salient reached the batteries that had just parked near Spotsylvania Court House. “I indorsed on the order that is was then twenty minutes to daybreak, and the men all asleep,” said an officer in the battery, “but the artillery would be in place as soon as possible.”

That morning, a dense haze covered the ground between the earthworks and the tree line. At the Brown House some distance north, “Twenty thousand men were standing still in a compact formation, silently awaiting the word to advance. Surrounded by the silence of the night, by darkness and by fog, they stood, listening to the raindrops as they fell from leaf to leaf.” It was certainly suspenseful until the silent order was carried from officer to officer to move out around 4:35am (a thirty minute delay in the plan).

The II Corps moved south and flushed out skirmishers in their rifle pits on the edge of the field that descended into a shallow ravine beyond the Landrum home. A Confederate on the receiving end remembered, “The fog was so dense we could not see in any direction, but soon we could hear the commands of officers to the men, and the buzz and hum of moving troops.” A Union soldier said, “The red earth of a well defined line of works loomed up through the mists on the crest of another ridge, distant about two hundred yards with a shallow ravine between.”

According to an officer under Nelson Miles, “The arms had been carried at a ‘right shoulder shift.’ Now they [we]re brought to a ‘charge,’ and the charging column, with cheers which might almost wake the dead, and were omens of victory, [broke] into a double quick.” Birney and Mott’s divisions kept to their right and headed straight on toward the western angle of the salient, slamming into the brigades of Brigadier General James Walker and Colonel William Monaghan’s on the other side of the earthworks. Barlow, however, steered further left and came upon the east angle and assaulted upon Colonel William Witcher and Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigades.

“The storm had burst upon us,” recalled an aide under General Johnson. A Pennsylvanian remembered, “All line and formation was now lost and the great mass of men with a rich like a cyclone, sprang upon the entrenchments and swarmed over.”

The fighting devolved into a writhing, seething mass of humanity along the earthworks, each man fighting for his life. The weapon of death didn’t matter. Clubbed muskets, bayonets, hand-to-hand, guns fired at point-blank range. The soldiers became like “demons” and “savages” everywhere upon the line. The artillery that had been extricated from the salient arrived just in time to pour their deadly fire into the tide of blue, adding to the chaos. But not even the guns would be enough to save the Confederate position. They needed more men and fast as 20,000 Yankees began to plant themselves within the half-mile span of their salient.

The leftmost regiment of Steuart’s line were barely awake before the rush began and quickly became prisoners. Witcher’s men broke and fragments of them mingled into Steuart. A Confederate reported that the “rattle of musketry made such a din in that early morning as I have rarely heard.” Nelson Miles with Barlow’s division said, “You could hear the sputtering sound, like the fall of hail, as the thud of their bullets fell on the head and shoulders of the men of our ranks. As those in front fell, the ranks in rear stepped, or jumped, over their bodies, and with one bold determined rush, and a loyal shout that made the forest ring, the Union lines quickly tore away the strong chevaux-de-frise, and brushed aside the rebel bayonets that were bristling over their works.”

Birney went almost uncontested in front of the famed Stonewall Brigade, as wet powder foiled any attempt of unleashing lead into the charging Federals. His division – along with Mott’s – completely overran the Louisianians under Monaghan and the North Carolinians under Walker. As soon as Witcher’s line broke, the west angle became vulnerable to enfilading fire from Barlow. Louisianians fell back to Colonel Clement Evans and Colonel John Hoffman’s supporting line (established before the charge by General John B. Gordon’s quick thinking) and together with the Virginians, fired like mad to stall the Federal onslaught. One Louisiana soldier recalled, “I have as you know been in a good many hard fights but I never saw anything like the contest of the 12th.” They managed to repulse two pushes made by Birney’s men utilizing the traverses within their earthworks. These minor works formed at right-angles to the works were designed for this exact purpose to keep an enemy attacker from totally sweeping the line. However, the issue for non-firing rifles due to the wet powder made for a harder fight as Mott’s men began to wedge their way in behind Birney’s. Walker remarked that, “muzzle-loading musket with damp powder behind the ball is as useless to a soldier in an emergency like that as a walking cane.”

Ironically, General Johnson was seen upon the battlements, lashing at Yankees with his walking cane, just as Walker described. He was captured and sent to the rear, sharing the fate of thousands more who would fall into Federal hands. Those who were slated to be prisoners were sometimes shot in the confusion as lines tangled together.

After crushing through the Stonewall Brigade, Colonel John Crocker’s brigade began to move toward the site of Upton’s first breakthrough. After the attack on the 11th, Ewell had ordered more troops to that spot to reinforce it with a supporting line of works inhabited by Georgian regiments. Brigadier General Junius Daniel’s brigade of North Carolinians began to enfilade the Federals, along with artillery from the rear. Union division commander John Gibbon sent three brigades into the works. Two under Samuel Carroll and Joshua Owen were sent to back up Barlow, while the brigade under Alexander Webb split right to help Birney and Mott against the stubborn right flank. A member of the 45th North Carolina said that the Yankees “in unbroken lines reaching back as far as we could see came sweeping on in our front, but this combined fire of infantry and artillery was more than human flesh could stand and it was impossible for them to reach our lines.”

Ambrose Burnside

Surprisingly on Burnside’s side of the assault, he was making some headway. But not much. The going for Brigadier General Robert Potter’s division was slow and difficult, passing through swampy land and over hills to get to the far east leg of the salient. There, James Lane’s brigade of North Carolinians became vulnerable in the collapse of Steuart’s line on their left and overrun by Simon Griffin’s brigade of New Englanders. Their only saving grace lay in the bit of high ground where Lane could unleash an enfilading fire upon Griffin, stalling his advance into the interior of the salient to join Barlow. Lane himself described, “In the best of spirits the brigade welcomed the furious assault, which soon followed, with prolonged cheers and death dealing volleys – the unerring rifles of the 37th and part of the 7th thinning the ranks of the enemy in front, while the rest did good execution in rear.”

Just after 5am, word arrived to Grant from Hancock that “Our men have the works.” Birney and Mott’s men had cleared the western side of the salient and were pounding at the supporting lines with Webb’s brigade moving to advance on the McCoull house. Barlow and Gibbon had overrun the salient’s eastern side. And Burnside was well on his way to taking control of Early’s corps. If Warren could join the fight and successfully rout Anderson’s corps from Laurel Hill, Grant would have his victory at Spotsylvania Court House. Though generals had been captured and the plan to break the line had been successful, organization and uniformity was all lost within the hour. Soldiers became so occupied with capturing and funneling back prisoners or planting regimental flags that officers could scarcely form up their lines anymore. Just as Upton had experienced the day before, those commanders under Hancock lost control. One Federal said, “The officers commanding the divisions were capable men and knew what the situation demanded, but they were almost powerless.” This could only be an advantage to the Confederates. Still, they needed those reinforcements.

John B. Gordon

Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s thin line at the Harrison House to the south of McCoull’s had been established on May 11th to give support as needed to Johnson’s salient. Hoffman and three of Evans’ brigades had been sent left to populate the support lines behind Daniel, Walker, and Monaghan. When the fighting rose in their front with Barlow’s breach into the salient, both Gordon and his last brigade under Johnston went to assist. In the process, Johnston was shot in the head, but only disabled. Visibility was near non-existent between the mist and the smoke from the battle. Gordon, known for his brash and boldness, pulled back Johnston’s brigade slightly and then plunged ahead, counting on the element of shock-and-awe to repulse Barlow’s infiltration. The single line of Rebels ran screaming into Barlow and Gibbon’s forces and due to the lack of cohesion in the ranks, the Yankees gave way. Only a bit of Brown’s men on the extreme left managed to slip past to the reserve line near Harrison House.

Around 6am, Gordon rallied what was available of Hoffman and Evans’ men and formed along the works near Harrison House again to make another charge. Lee, knowing the danger ahead of him, came to stand in the junction where Hoffman and Evans line met. A soldier recounted after the war, “The picture he made, as the grand old man sat there on his horse, with his noble head bare, and looked from right to left, as if to meet each eye that flashed along the line, can never be forgotten by a man that stood there.” Like in the Wilderness, Lee’s leadership instincts kicked in at the worst time and stood as if he were ready to charge the line with his men. Gordon came up to dissuade him. “You must not expose yourself. Your life is too valuable to the army and to the Confederacy for you to risk it so wantonly. We are Georgians, we are Virginians, we need no such encouragement.” The Confederates cheered in agreement to Gordon’s words, but Lee needed more convincing. They chanted, “Lee, Lee, Lee to the rear. Lee to the rear.” Men took hold of Traveler’s bridle, steering him in that direction. Only then did he relent and give the lead to his subordinate.

One volley exploded from the Yankees and Gordon’s men were let loose in a “headlong resistless charge.” An officer recalled, “There was no shout, no rebel yell. But, as I looked down the line, I saw the stern faces and set teeth of men who have undertaken to do a desperate deed, and do not intend to fail.” And indeed, they did not fail. Gordon’s charge swept through and pushed back Barlow and Gibbons all the way to the original line of works. The momentum slackened, threatening the ground they had covered. But Ewell sent word by courier that, “if you will hold this line for fifteen minutes that he will have four brigades to help you.”

To the right, part of Evans’ 61st Georgia regiment connected with Lane’s defensive line and planted their flag, swinging muskets like clubs, but they were soon cut to pieces and streamed back, leaving Lane vulnerable again. Luckily, Barlow’s withdraw left Simon Griffin exposed in the same way. With Gordon in his front and Lane on his left, his line became enfiladed. The rest of Potter’s division became bogged down in the terrain and artillery fire, progressing at a snail’s pace. The brigade under Brigadier General Thomas Crittendon never arrived either. Confederates seized the opportunity and slipped out of their works below Lane to come around on Potter’s left. Like the problem that the Stonewall Brigade had, many of the Union guns wouldn’t fire due to wet powder. The two brigades under Alfred Scales and Edward Thomas who had been sent to the Po River to reinforce William Mahone were ordered back and bolstered Lane’s line. They helped to bridge the gap between Lane and Gordon on the left. With all of these factors, Griffin’s men were efficiently expelled from the eastern side of the salient. Griffin makes up an established position on the other side of the works with a short stretch of open ground between.

But the damage had been done. The Union was losing their foot in the salient and Grant was losing his grip on victory.

References

“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7 – 12, 1864” by Gordon Rhea

“A Season of Slaughter. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 8th – 21, 1864” by Chris Mackowski and Krisopher White

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