The morning of May 12th, 1864 at Spotsylvania Court House had begun with such promise. An early dawn attack upon the Army of Northern Virginia works that composed what was dubbed the “Mule Shoe” looked to be succeeding. By the end of the day, it would bear another name that echoes through the horrors of military history to this day.
Union Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant had been pounding away at the Confederate position for days. With a firm grasp of the right strategy, he ordered the II Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock to form a massive punching force of four divisions to strike at the tip of the salient. At 4:35am, the troops in blue stormed across the dipping field to overwhelm Confederate General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division within the salient. For a good hour or so, the Federals had broken the line and were well on their way to completely sweeping through the works and destroying Robert Lee’s position. They only had to continue pushing their way west along the line to roll up Richard Anderson’s First Corps on Laurel Hill and do the same with Jubal Early’s Third Corps to the east. As for Richard Ewell’s Second Corps within the salient, the fighting was hellish. Unified volleys of musketry sputtered into savage hand-to-hand combat as Federals mounted the works and dove upon the Rebels.
The one flaw was the lack of cohesion and unity after the breakthrough. Commanders lost control of their units as it became an “every man for himself” affair. The opportunity for turning the tables was not lost on the Confederates. A massive charge from Brigadier General John B. Gordon’s division forced Francis Barlow and John Gibbon from the works, and North Carolinians under Brigadier General James Lane were given just the right leverage to push out IX Corps troops under Simon Griffin.
The Army of the Potomac would have to work double time to get their advantage back.
On the west side of the salient, Union Brigadier Generals David Birney and Gershom Mott still had Confederate Brigadier Generals James Walker’s Stonewall Brigade and William Monaghan pinned in a tight spot. With Colonels John Hoffman and Clement Evans gone to partake in Gordon’s charge, they needed more reinforcements from Junius Daniels’ North Carolinian supporting line of works. Cullen Battle’s Alabamians were thrown in, with Joseph Kershaw’s division stretching to compensate for the void they created further down Anderson’s sturdy line of works.
This addition to their forces helped to push the Yankees from the backup line, giving them some breathing room. Brigadier General Stephen Ramseur’s North Carolinians were also sent in and lined up west of the McCoull house. One of his men noted, “The enemy had captured the main line of rifle pits and about 200 yards in rear of them was a temporary line of works. Both lines were soon held by the enemy, and the space between the lines presented a living mass of Yankees, in full view of us, so we could readily see the work before us.” They charged under a galling Federal fire. Ramseur became wounded in the assault and Colonel Bryan Grimes replaced him in the command, leading a second charge to finally repulse them. Like Gordon, they made it all the way to the main line, pushing the Federals over the edge. They took shelter against the outer wall, but continued the fight, firing in the faces of their opponents, pulling hair, dragging down flags, etc.
More of Birney and Mott’s men remained to the right toward the apex of the salient with only traverses and a bit of high ground within the works to keep them from being totally beaten back. “Yankees held a position on our right, upon a hill, which enabled them to keep up an incessant enfilading fire upon us; two thirds of the men which we lost were done that way. Men were killed while squatting just as low and as close to the breastworks as it was possible for them to get.” From then, it became like a game of leapfrog as the fighting progressed from traverse to traverse, pushing back the invaders until they reached the farm road that led southward to the McCoull house. A Federal wrote, “Encouraged by their success so far and with traverses in their recaptured works behind which their sharpshooters could take deadly aim and be protected, our position was critical.”
The tables had turned for Hancock and he sent urgent word for Horatio Wright and his VI Corps to attack. Unaware that Ambrose Burnside with the IX Corps had charged and been countered, he also asked for the IX Corps to do their part. Burnside was pinned down by artillery to the east, but Grant did send word to Wright to lend a hand and for Gouverneur Warren on the far right flank to keep up a threatening appearance toward Anderson to keep them occupied so Lee wouldn’t think of pulling more men from his left to the salient. Wright sent Frank Wheaton and Oliver Edward’s brigade under Brigadier General Thomas Neill’s division to aid Hancock, since he was already situated near the Brown House (May 12th’s offensive launching point). Artillery at the Harrison House (just south of the McCoull House within the salient) had amassed together and bombarded the west angle, where Edwards and Wheaton were ordered to reinforce Birney and Mott. A New Yorker recalled a “piercing Southern squeal, instead of Northern shout, now rent the air, carrying joy to the wounded Confederate, but bringing bitter disappointment to the expiring Unionist who had hoped to die shouting victory on a field his valor had helped to win.” The fighting became so close that muskets could be knocked aside or wrenched from their enemy’s hands. A brigade under Lewis Grant moved to the east angle instead to help Barlow’s division, but were more of a hinderance in the mangled mess than helpful. A better place for him might have been to connect with Burnside, as both Hancock and Grant had requested.
Lee, too, was funneling more troops to the front around 7am. He sent William Wofford’s two Georgian brigades to assist Daniel and Battle, and called up Abner Perrin’s brigade of Alabamians to solidify their hold on the salient. The troops charged into the field around the McCoull House and fell in to the right of Ramseur’s men. Perrin was shot in the charge and organization quickly deteriorated. However, they still managed to overtake J. H. Hobart Ward’s Federals and managed to reduce the breach in the works. Brigadier General Nathaniel Harris’ Mississippi brigade from the west end of Lee’s line was ordered up and made up for a gap that developed between Perrin and Ramseur’s struggling line of gray. One of the Alabamians recalled, “If the bullets had been sweeping closer to the ground as thick as they were through the trees, I don’t see how many of us could have gotten through.”
Once more, Lee tried to lead the brigade, but was once more told to turn back. He replied to Harris’ demand “If you will promise me to drive those people from our works, I will go back.” At about 8am, Harris fought like mad and reached the gap, effectively filling it and merging with Perrin to work through the traverses to the high ground of the west angle. All the while, Neill’s men continued to pound into them, desperate to hold the last bit of the salient. A Mississippian under Harris remembered, “To this was added the repeated and determined charges made by the enemy in front. But for some traverses in the works the position would have been untenable.” Some traverses weren’t even high enough to cover a crouching soldier, let alone a charging mass of humanity. Men became riddled with bullets as they mounted the works and drove out the bluecoats. Another said, “The fighting was horrible. The breastworks were slippery with blood and rain, dead bodies lying underneath half trampled out of sight.”
As the 16th Mississippi planted their regimental flag upon the apex of the salient, one soldier said it well, “The powder smoke settled on us while the rain trickled down our faces from the rims of our caps like buttermilk on the inside of a tumbler. We could hardly tell one another apart. No Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical looking set of devils as we were. It was no imitation affair of red paint and burnt cork, but genuine human gore and gun powder smoke that came from guns belching death at close range.” The wounded and dead continued to pile up.
The Union forces sustained their fight from the opposite side of the earthworks, plastering themselves against the face of them so as to avoid the gun barrels that tried to angle from above. Swinging muskets and rail fences met anyone who tried to scale their way back inside. They called for reinforcements. Wright had already sent word to his former division of command – now under David Russell – to come to the Mule Shoe, but further orders were given for II Corps’ John Brooke to reenter the fight after reloading up ammunition. He joined Wheaton’s efforts on the Union right while Lewis Grant was pulled out of his inconvenient position on the left to move in that same direction.
Samuel McGowan’s South Carolinians were pulled from the Third Corps line to reinforce what Perrin, Ramseur, and Harris had accomplished. They moved up the McCoull farm road and effectively mixed with Harris. Commanders, McGowan included, were knocked out of commission and organization fell to pieces – which seemed to be the order of the day anyway. Despite this, the general idea persisted that they needed to continue to spread right and confront the obliquing fire from the Federals. One soldier from the 1st South Carolina said that “in stooping or squatting to load, the mud, blood, and brains mingled, would reach up to my waist, and my head and face were covered or spotted with the horrid paint.”
However, Mississippians and South Carolinians took dominion of the apex and continued to cram to the right. Finally, they pushed out the Excelsior Brigade, exposing Edwards’ left as they continued to unleash desperate volleys across the traverses. They needed help and it came in the form of Russell’s division from Wright’s VI Corps. Emory Upton sent his brigade under galling fire from the west angle to relieve Mott’s fagged out troops. The ravine that ran west to east in the field below the earthworks, as well as the depression that ran north to south dissecting that ravine, served as a massing point for any Federal unit making their way to the Mule Shoe – or as a rallying spot. This is where Upton first put his men, directly across from Harris’ Rebs in the works.
The commander who had led the massive punch to the salient on May 10th was frustrated by reluctance found in several units also hiding out in the hollow. He began to order Joseph Parson’s 10th Massachusetts regiment to move, but they wouldn’t budge, knowing what kind of hell awaited them. Finally, he ordered up his own regiments and began throwing them in piecemeal fashion toward the heavily fortified entrenchments. Edwards explained in his unpublished memoir that Upton “put his brigade in the breastworks which had been occupied by the 10th Massachusetts and Excelsior Brigade, but he quickly found the enfilading fire was so severe that he vacated the works, retiring to the bottom of the slope in his rear.”
Next, Brigadier General Henry Eustis was sent in and formed up his line at a 45-degree angle, his left flank anchored at the works and curling around Edward’s men on his left. Colonel Daniel Bidwell came in and merged with Upton, nudging up to Eustis’ left flank with Edwards packed in between them all. Still, the Confederates fought on. A Wisconsin soldier said the opposing lines “stood at distances varying from half a dozen rods to half a dozen feet, and shot and stabbed each other until the rebel breastworks were filled with dead in gray, and outside, on the glacis in front, the corpses in blue were piled on each other in heaps.”
Battery C of the 5th US Artillery rolled up into the ravine, crushing the wounded and dead bodies in its wake, to unleash a terrible storm of shot and shell into the salient. After a while, they crept within just feet of the works. “Solid shot went through their breastworks every time, scattering the rails and logs over the top of it, and giving the lines in the rear a taste of what was going on,” said a Federal who witnessed this horrendous barrage. Lieutenant Richard Metcalf lost all but two men in his battery and every horse, rendering the guns unmovable and unserviceable. When Mississippi troops made to charge the battery, the 5th Wisconsin came to support. After they ran out of ammo, the pieces were abandoned completely with the mud up to the wheel hubs. More batteries were sent into the ravine to continue the work.
On the other side, Confederate officers were dropping like flies. Privates fought on mere instinct, fighting for survival and “had not an officer with them nor did they seem to need them for all along the lines they had special orders to move rapidly to any point of greatest danger.” The Federals, likewise, “got gunpowder crazy, and standing up in the most exposed positions, would fire with deliberate aim.” When ammunition ran low on the Confederate side, a sort of supply line was created in a depression within the works, as men passed along cartridge cases to the front so their men could keep shooting. Prisoners making their way to the rear were often struck down in the continual fire of lead that came down just as thick and fast as the rainstorm that dumped over the entire battlefield.
At 10am, Colonel Henry Brown’s brigade made for the spot where Upton had punched through a few days prior. They formed in two lines and assaulted the works without firing until the last minute. The first line broke, but formed in fragments behind the second line. The works, however, were heavily occupied and the Federals received fire from their front and right flank. With all of this and the obstruction of the abatis, they couldn’t stay longer than 30 minutes.
Grant began to see that he was getting nowhere at the Mule Shoe. He needed to create a diversion so Lee would be tempted to take troops from the salient to address threats elsewhere – as he had done previously in the battle. He sent word to Warren to attack Anderson’s front upon Laurel Hill. Earlier in the day, Warren had ensured that the right flank of Grant’s army was secure, but was told to be ready to move in case they should be needed. They were also to keep up a threatening appearance to hold Anderson in his place so he wouldn’t go to Ewell’s assistance. At 8am, he was told to attack once, but Warren had finally learned his lesson against going up against such a well-fortified position (took him long enough). Regardless, he sent a force to probe Laurel Hill. The aide Washington Roebling said, “It was the fourth or fifth unsuccessful assault made by our men, and it is not a matter of surprise that they had lost all spirit for that kind of work.” Some units flat-out refused to move, while the rest were beaten back by Confederate artillery.
Warren called off the balance of the attack and Union commander George Gordon Meade became pissed. The “Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle” was feeling the pressure from Grant to produce some progress in the battle. The V Corps commander said, “My left cannot advance without a most destructive enfilade fire until the Sixth Corps has cleared its front. My right is close up to the enemy’s works, and ordered to assault.” He ends, resolved that the position was be wholly indefensible if he tried it. Meade became more insistent upon the attack. Chief of Staff Andrew Humphreys, a friend to Warren and concerned for his position, encouraged him to obey the orders, even if it was foolhardy. Warren caved and wrote to his division commanders, “General Meade repeats in most peremptory manner the orders to attack at once with your whole force.”
They did it, but it didn’t end well (no surprise). Brigadier Generals Charles Griffin and Samuel Crawford’s men were beaten back, leaving Lysander Cutler in the middle completely unsupported. The division lost significantly in the charge. The only major casualty within Brigadier General Charles Field’s division on the Confederate side was Major Campbell of the 47th Alabama who was shot in the head.
Grant was done and told Humphreys to relieve Warren of his command. Likewise, the corps would be broken up and sent where it could be of some use. Cutler was sent to Wright’s VI Corps and Griffin to Hancock’s II Corps. Crawford was left to draw itself thin and protect the right flank against Anderson’s First Corps. Grant’s assessment of Warren’s performance was, “He is an officer for whom I had conceived a very high regard. His quickness of perception, personal gallantry, and soldierly bearing please me, and a few days ago I should have been inclined to place him in command of the Army of the Potomac in case Meade had been killed. But I began to feel, after his want of vigor in assaulting on the eighth, that he was not as efficient as I had believed, and his delay in attacking and the feeble character of his assaults today confirm me in my apprehension.” Meade, likewise, wrote to an aide, “On the morning of May 12 when Hancock was so severely pressed, under the instructions of the Lieutenant General commanding, I sent a clear and positive order to General Warren directing him to attack immediately… Such is my opinion of General Warren’s judgement that in nine cases out of ten, I would have yielded my judgement – possibly in this case where the attack was intended as much for a threat and to occupy the enemy, as for other objects – [or] I might still have reiterated my order, for these are occasions where doubtful attacks are renders of the highest importance for their bearing and influence at other points.”
Warren was out of the game until further notice and his divided divisions shuttled to the ravine in front of the salient.
Meanwhile, Lee was forming a new plan. He knew that the salient couldn’t hold indefinitely. It would be a numbers game after a while, and with the casualties mounting, he needed a fallback point. He instructed all available units to begin construction on a line of works that would stretch across the opening of the salient to the south. The left would link with Anderson’s line at Laurel Hill while the right connected with Early’s corps below the east leg of the salient. Below this ridgeline were several yards of open ground, an ideal killing field for the Federals to charge across. All he needed was time to make this new line of defenses strong enough until he felt comfortable ordering Ewell’s corps from the salient.
The carnage continued throughout the noontime hours. A Union soldier in James Rickett’s division (just arrived around 11am) said, “Having no protection but a few small pines six or eight inches in diameter, the men lay down. They loaded lying; then rising to their knees, took deliberate aim at the heads of the rebels above the parapet and fired.” Regimental historians would record it in terms like “hideous deviltry of warfare.” Corpses were pitched from the ditches and trenches, conjuring sights “from which the hardest heart recoiled.” A New Jersey soldier said, “at every assault and every repulse new bodies fell on the heaps of the slain, and over the filled ditches the living fought on the corpses of the fallen. The wounded were covered by the killed, and expired under piles of their comrades’ bodies.” An aide said the day became one of “bloodshed surpassing all former experiences, a desperation in the struggle never before witnessed, of mad rushes, and of sudden repulses, of guns raised in the air with the butts up and fired over log walls, of our flags in shreds.” Colonel Grant with the Vermont Brigade said, “Our men would reach over the logs and fire in the faces of the enemy, would stab over with their bayonets. Men were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between the logs. Men mounted the works with muskets rapidly handed them, kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their places and continue the deadly work.”
Still more veterans struggled to put it into words. “Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee.” “Of all the battles I took part in, Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania exceeded all the rest in stubbornness, ferocity, and in carnage.” A veteran described his comrades with “their faces so begrimed with powder as to be almost unrecognizable; some standing ankle deep in red mud, firing, while the edge of the ditch was lined with others sitting and loading as fast as possible and munching hard breads, the crumbs of which were scattered around their smutty mouths and besprinkled their beards.” Another said the battle as “it was so bloody, and had such an aspect of savagery about it, that it is well to leave the details to be filled in by the imagination of those who wish for the completed picture.”
The day, most unfortunately, wasn’t over. At 2pm, Grant was looking to the east leg of the salient as another option of redirecting Lee’s focus. Ironically, Lee was doing the same. While Grant was writing his orders to get Burnside to move against Early’s corps, the Confederate general was making his own plans to send men around Burnside’s left to flank him – much like Longstreet had done in the Wilderness against Hancock’s corps.
The commander of the IX Corps had received directives like this all day, but this one concluded with, “See that your orders are executed”, prompted him to lash out at Comstock who had been the middle-man between Grant and Burnside. The whiskered general accused Comstock of bad-mouthing about him to Grant. The staffer denied, of course, but only reported on Burnside’s actual activities. Honestly, his lethargy and lackadaisical attitude was enough to paint Burnside in a bad light, so he dug that grave for himself in a way. His divisions under Robert Potter and Thomas Crittendon were pinned down by Early’s artillery, but Brigadier General Orlando Willcox was available to take reasonable action against what was called “Heth’s Salient”.
The line running from north to south along the Confederate line went as follows: Alfred Scales, Edward Thomas, Joseph Davis (north leg of the salient), Robert Mays’ Virginians, James Lane (south leg of salient), and William Kirkland, which extended to the Fredericksburg Road. In this underbelly of Heth’s Salient, Lane’s Carolinians were exhausted from the fighting earlier that morning and now fell under Union artillery fire from the 19th New York Battery from what became called Bald Hill. However, it was Lane that Lee chose for this flanking action. Lane, along with Colonel David Weisiger, would leave their works and charge out to the north into Colonel John Hartranft’s brigade that supported the artillery unit. After a quick recon, it was affirmed that that side of the line lay unsupported and Lane’s way was clear.
The Federal charge and the Confederate flanking maneuver happened almost simultaneously. Weisiger fell a little behind Lane’s men and issues of friendly fire may have occurred, but that didn’t keep them from completely rolling up Willcox’s line. They claimed the battery and pushed through Hartranft’s brigade to slam into Colonel Benjamin Christ’s brigade, maintaining their momentum while Early’s artillery continued to pound away from the salient. Crittendon, upon Willcox’s right, made to join, but were also repulsed by the artillery. The Federals were pushed back and the attack failed before it could really get going. A Confederate said of Willcox’s column that they were effectively routed “with a slaughter so sickening that the heart heaves at the details.”
However, the momentum couldn’t last and Lane recorded that they retreated “in some confusions, as the lines had been broken in capturing prisoners, and the woods through which they withdrew rendered it almost impossible to preserve anything like a line of battle.” The attack on both sides was called off after half an hour of “devastatingly brutal” fighting. Lee thought about attacking up the Fredericksburg Road, but a quick probe proved it was unadvisable, as there were a few of Burnside’s brigades lined parallel to the road further up, ready to stop any Confederate from passing.
At 3pm outside the salient, Grant had his mind set to another massive charge, one that would utilize the newly arrived divisions from the V Corps and employ Burnside’s IX Corps. Wright, however, decided to use Cutler’s division to bolster his troops, rather than keep them fresh for an assault. He assured that once Griffin arrived, he would pull Cutler back and get the show going. Cutler soon became pinned down in the hellish combat with the rest and more or less fired at the earthworks to keep the Rebs from firing in return, aiming for that life-saving head-log. In a dirty move, false white flags were sometimes waved from the other side of the earthworks, luring the Federals into thinking a surrender was eminent, only to receive a face-full of lead in return.
At 5pm, Griffin arrived and the attack that Grant was looking for would be expected. Wright scrambled for excuses not to make the assault, saying that the two divisions that he had been given would not be enough to make a big difference in the outcome of the assault. He sent word at 5:10, saying that he was concerned about “disaster which would possibly follow a failure; also the want of a sufficient available and suitable force to insure a reasonable prospect of success.”
By 6pm, all guise of preparation for assault were out the window. Grant sent word for Burnside’s men to rest as much as possible and strengthen their line for any attack that may come in consequence. The II and VI Corps were ordered to do the same and return Warren his two divisions. Wright protested and Humphreys shot off a reprimand that “They were sent to you not to relieve your troops nor to hold your line, but to form a column of attack, which has been abandoned.”
At about sundown, Lee began to slacken off his firing as the fall-back line was still in the works. Two brigades from Anderson’s corps were sent up to the McCoull and Harrison house as reserves, while Upton and Bidwell were ordered back to the rear. Edwards was to stretch himself thin and make up for their withdraw, and did so under protest. Russell sent the 10th New Jersey from his division to give Edwards some help. Elements of all three corps remained in rifle pits in front of the earthworks around the salient.
Fighting continued through the night as the rain fell in the dark that was only broken by “flashing of the guns to light up the horrid scene.” The Federals kept up their fire so the Rebs wouldn’t be tempted to poke their heads up from the works or fire in return. On the other side, “numbers of the troops sank, overpowered, into the muddy trenches and slept soundly.” One soldier reflected, “I don’t expect to go to hell, but if I do, I am sure that Hell can’t beat that terrible scene.”
But for those who were relieved of their position, their hell was nearly over. “We were all covered with mud and powder and smoke and grime,” one soldier of the 121st New York said. “We presented a very tough appearance, but being very near exhaustion it was possible for us to huddle about the smokey line fire with our rubber blankets over us and get some sleep, even though bullets and shells flew in close proximity to us, at frequent intervals during the night.”
Lee’s fall-back line was complete by 3am. The order was passed along to the exhausted Confederates to leave the salient. “The night was dark, but we finally groped our way by pairs or threes until we came to the [new] line,” said an Alabamian. After twenty hours of fighting, the Mule Shoe – Bloody Angle – was finally abandoned. A Mississippi man looked upon his comrades and wrote in his diary, “With blackened faces and crisped hand, from laying in the water so long; our clothing stained with red mud and blood, we marched out of this place where more than one-third of our men lay dead to sleep forever. We stopped in a grove of trees where General Harris told us to build fires and dry our clothes. Our men stood around in groups, inquiring of each other about our missing comrades – some men in tears at the loss of a brother or near relative.”
By the end of the twenty hours of hardcore, nonstop fighting, the casualty numbers were configured.
Union losses approximated 9,000 killed, wounded, or missing.
Confederates suffered only a little less with 8,000 killed, wounded, or missing (with 3,000 captured included in that figure)
When morning came on May 13th, the Federals found the Rebels gone from their entrenchments. Before them lay a scene of unimaginable carnage. Charles Brewster of the 10th Massachusetts thought it “bad enough on our side of the breast work but on theirs it was awful.” Bodies were piled several deep around the works and in the ditches, gunners propped against the caissons where they were shot, horses lay dead with equally dead riders still mounted in the saddles. Corpses were so riddled with bullets that they were unrecognizable as human. Many were “nothing but a lump of meat or clot of gore where countless bullets from both armies had torn them”. One soldier wrote home, “I thought how many hopes were bound up in the lives of those men whose broken bloody bodies were lying helpless on that muddy field. I had no enmity towards those men, not even any for their living companions who from the woods beyond were even then occasionally sending a whistling bullet after us. They are brave and believe in the cause they fight for.” The corpses were buried where they lay in mass, communal graves.
Grant’s aid, Horace Porter, summed up the scene, “Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the ‘angle’. 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 twitch of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases came too late. The place was well named the ‘Bloody Angle.’”
And still, the fighting wasn’t over.
“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