“War is hell”, as William Tecumseh Sherman so poignantly put it. This battle series about the Battle of Spotsylvania illustrated that so well. Though there were worse battles before it (Antietam and Gettysburg), the fighting at the Bloody Angle left an undeniable impression on the survivors.
Studying history is not for the faint hearted. Especially military history. Reading the words of the soldiers and trying to stretch my own imagination to understand their experiences can become pretty heavy at times. But I remembered something that my husband told me regarding a homeowner he was working for. The man was a combat veteran and shared some of his stories from his tours. In the conversation, different coping mechanisms were discussed. How did they deal with the trauma of being shot at or seeing their buddies blown away? The homeowner made a statement that resonated with me. “Sometimes, you’ve gotta draw smiley faces on the body bags.” The idea is that you have to make humor or find humor in the darkness. Just think of the show “MASH”, set during the Korean War, and you’ll understand what I mean.
All of that said, I’ve tried to find the humor in war. Sometimes it happens by accident, sometimes it’s created by the soldiers themselves. But, it’s pretty much always there beneath the blood and gore and violence. You just have to dig for it. Here are some humorous instances that I found from reading about the battle at the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania.
1. Leading up to the battle, Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps had to march through the mud and the dark to reach their objective (Brown House) on the night of May 11th, 1864. Some soldier dubbed the night march as “Mud a la Virginia”. An officer described his experience, “My eyes would not close, do what I would to prevent it; and, in order to escape a fall from my horse, I would lean forward and wind my arms about his neck, but the poor brute’s head would invariably sink lower and lower, until I would find myself sliding head foremost toward the earth.” This paints a silly picture of a man trying to catch some rest.
Barlow, who could always be relied upon for a sarcastic quip or two, was frustrated by the lack of communication regarding the plan for the following day. He said, “As we staggered and stumbled along in the mud and the intense darkness, and I vainly sought for information, the absurdity of our position – that we were proceeding to attack the enemy when no one even knew his direction, and we could hardly keep on our own legs – appealed to me very strongly… It was an exquisitely ludicrous scene and I could hardly sit on my horse for laughter.” I think he was getting a little punch-happy due to exhaustion, but he wasn’t the only one. He finally approached staffer Charles Morgan and exclaimed, “For heaven’s sake, at least face us in the right direction so that we shall not march away from the enemy and have to go round the world and come up in their rear.”
2. They did, inevitably, face the enemy and on the morning of May 12th, the ball opened upon what was originally called the “Mule Shoe”. The fighting became so great and overwhelming that men were given to fighting hand-to-hand for their lives. One instance of this occurred between Sergeant William Westerhold of the 52nd New York and Herman Seay of the 23rd Virginia. Westerhold seized the Confederate flag and locked bayonets with Seay (also called Hickory-hat by his comrades). Their struggled devolved into trying to strike one another with their guns. “Damn your soul,” Seay yelled, “put down that gun and I’ll be damned if I can’t throw you down!” What Westerhold didn’t know was that Seay was a skilled fighter from Louisa County, Virginia. They threw down their guns and began to duke it out. Seay had his fingers in the Federal’s eyes until he admitted defeat. The match might have won in Seay’s favor, but the rest of his command were soon captured and ushered away at gunpoint.
3. Another capture took place on the east leg of the salient where Steuart’s troops didn’t get the memo that they would be attacked the next morning. Most of them were captured half-asleep. Colonel Beaver of the 148th Pennsylvania was approached by a captured Confederate. He said, “I would like to surrender to an officer of rank. I am General Steuart.” Thinking he had bagged a superstar, Beaver exclaimed, “What! Are you Jeb Stuart?” Probably a little disgruntled, Steuart replied, “No, I am George H. Steuart.” Beaver, likely crestfallen, said, “I will accept your surrender. Where is your sword, sir?” The General responded with, “Well, sir, you all waked us up so early this morning that I didn’t have time to get it on.” Nonetheless, Beaver passed Steuart on to be taken to Hancock.
Another captured general had been spending his time upon the battlements, “contesting the ground single-handed with the multitudinous foe” with nothing but his walking cane. He was captured, same as Steuart, and brought to Hancock. They happened to be old friends and when Johnson met Hancock he cried, “This is damned bad luck, yet I would rather have had this good fortune to fall to you than to any other man living.” Hancock also knew Steuart from before the war and endeavored to extend the hand of benevolence to his captive. “How are you, Steuart?” he asked. The southerner who had no sword to forfeit, grumpily replied, “Under the circumstances, I decline to take your hand.” Hancock snapped back, “And under any other circumstances I should not have offered it.” (He’s gonna need ice for that burn)
4. Louisianians can always be relied on for a comical quip or two. During the night, when it became clear that the Yankees would charge on their position, Charles Hoffman’s brigade were ordered to support William Monaghan’s Louisianians toward the west angle of the salient. When a tired Virginian complained about being roused from his sleep and brought out into the rain, a Louisiana soldier told him, “We will have the Yankees over here directly to take breakfast with us.” Of course, it wouldn’t be such a civil engagement. Another reference to meals occurred when the Federals were storming into the works and through their trenches, “Look out, boys!” he shouted. “We will have blood for supper!”
5. When the reports came back to Grant’s headquarters that the Union troops were in the earthworks, cheers and elations abounded. Brigadier General John Rawlins exclaimed, “By God! They are done! Hancock will just drive them to hell!” Grant, however, remained stoic in the face of seemingly imminent victory. He sat on his campstool, blinking in the fire smoke. But when he was in mid-sentence, occasionally a big wind from the storm would flip up his coat straight into his face. It makes the god-like Grant seem a little more human to know that he has wardrobe malfunctions too, even during a battle.
6. On the Confederate side, generals weren’t staying so cool. Richard Ewell was especially “on it” during the fight. Ewell had asked to borrow a staff officer from John B. Gordon after one of his charges to repulse the Federals from the salient. The aide didn’t know about Ewell’s rapid-fire speech and had a tough time following. After Ewell had to repeat his orders several times, he threw up his hands and gave an exasperated “whoo-oo-oot!” This afforded everyone a great laugh at the aide’s expense. As a southerner who has heard this exact type of shout, I can guarantee you that it’s freakin’ hilarious to witness someone get their temper up like that.
7. Just prior to this incident, Gordon had a close call. While riding back from the first charge, with the intent to initiate another, a bullet pierced the back of his coat near his waist. An aide to Thomas Jones – who had a habit of hunching – saw his reaction and asked, “General, didn’t that ball hit you?” Gordon replied, “No. But suppose my back had been in a bow like yours? Don’t you see that the bullet would have gone straight through my spine? Sit up or you’ll be killed!”
8. So, I’ve mentioned this second charge a couple of times. Gordon took his division and managed to completely sweep the bluecoats from the salient, thanks to the mass of confusion on the part of Hancock’s men after they breached the works. “In a moment the blue and gray were mixed in a dense struggling mass.” Brigadier General Hoffman was seen bent low to the ground during the engagement. Colonel Gibson rode up and asked, “Are you hit?” Hoffman replied with a negative. He was looking for his glasses! Gibson assigned a soldier to help him search and carried on with the attack, probably shaking his head.
9. Lee, too, was shaking his head later in the fight. The situation on the east end of the salient might have been stabilized by Gordon’s charge, but the west angle was still a hotbed of combat. Stragglers continually broke to the rear and Ewell had enough. One witness called him a “tower of passion” and dished out “terrible volley of oaths” upon the fleeing Rebels. He shouted, “Yes, goddamn you, run. The Yankees will catch you. That’s right, go as fast as you can!” After a while, he resorted to beating the backs of the troops with his sword in an effort to get them to turn around and fight the enemy. Lee, on the other hand, was a pillar of calm. “All that General Lee addressed at once halted and returned to the assistance of their comrades,” said a Louisianian. “All that General Ewell so angrily approached continue their flight to the rear.”
Finally the commander addressed his subordinate. “How can you expect to control these men when you have lost control of yourself? If you cannot repress your excitement, you had better retire.”
10. Another Confederate’s temper flared, but he was already in the hands of the Yankees. As before, General Johnson received shows of respect from his captors. Grant and Meade both shook his hand, since all three were veterans of the previous Mexican War. He was even offered a cigar and seat by the headquarters fire. Covered in mud, clothes torn, and rather disheveled, he maintained his dignity well.
Steuart, on the other hand, was still moody over being captured. Union aide Lyman thought him, a “little creature… who insulted everybody who came near him, and was rewarded by being sent on foot to Fredericksburg, where there was plenty of mud and one stream up to his waist.” One general got a cigar and the other got a kick in the pants (so to speak).
11. While plenty of commanders and privates alike were captured on both sides, many were not. In the case of aide John D Black under Barlow. He was sent to Hancock’s headquarters at the Brown House to request reinforcements so he could hold his position at the angle. Barlow was specifically concerned about Burnside not pulling his weight. Hancock gave the message to Black that reinforcements would come as soon as he could receive them from the VI Corps under Horatio Wright. Black brought the message back to Barlow, but that wasn’t what Barlow needed to know. So, Black was told to go to Burnside himself to “establish connections with the left of our command, with his skirmish line, if he could not with his line of battle.” He told Black that he would likely be captured, and “If you are remember it is by my order.”
This was not encouraging. A tentmate aware of the situation told him, “That order will be cold comfort for you in Old Libby.” He referred to Libby Prison in Richmond. Black set out on a harrowing ride to Burnside, then to Potter’s division to give the orders to connect with Barlow. Traveling along the skirmish line, he ran into North Carolinians under Lane. With “Old Libby” fresh on the mind, he sped away as fast as his horse could carry him. The horse was shot down in a volley. Black “struck the ground running and am positive a shell from a thirty-two pounder would not have dented my coat tails for the next two hundred yards.”
In a funny turn of events later in the battle, Lewis Grant was sent to help Barlow, just as he had requested from Hancock. However, Lewis’ men crowded in on Barlow’s troops that were trying to reform, complicating his situation at that point in the fight. Barlow himself road to Hancock and cried, “For God’s sake, do not send any more troops here!”
12. On the Confederate left, reinforcements were arriving at the perfect time. Perrin’s Alabamians were being taken from Richard Anderson’s First Corps along Laurel Hill to lend a hand at the west angle. They arrived to the Harrison House after a four-mile march. Lee, Ewell, Robert Rodes, and Gordon were all in counsel when Perrin rode up. He told his troops to lie down and recover until he could get further instructions from his superiors. A soldier remembered, “Things looked desperate and there was a considerable show of excitement. Gordon was talking rapidly and literally foaming at the mouth.”
Ewell, who could always be counted on for a stern word or two, came upon the men lying down and shouted, “Oh, for God’s sake boys, don’t lie down. It don’t look well for a soldier to lie down in the presence of the enemy.” An Alabamian countered with, “We were ordered to lie down, General.” Ewell, probably a little chagrined at his own error, replied, “Oh well, if you were to lie down, lie down. That’s all right.” But the soldier said, “No, General, I don’t want to do anything that looks badly in a soldier.” He remained standing, but Ewell wouldn’t let him alone and continually told him, “That’s all right. Lie down, lie down, if that was the order.” The back-and-forth between the commander and private had to be amusing to any onlooker.
13. Another instance of a counter-order involved some difficulty with the Union artillery. Ignorant of the situation around the roiling salient, an order was given to Captain Lewis S. Wisner of the 124th New York to reduce the height of the head log on breastworks near the salient by eighteen inches so the artillery could fire better into the salient. He directed soldiers to simply lift the beam that capped the top of the works. However, the log was wired in place. Wisner shouted, “I’ll do it myself!” The man picked up an axe, ran to the works, chopped it down, and then ran back. His clothes were riddled with bullet holes, but he was unhurt. The commander of the battery, however, ordered that the log be put back because its absence made the gunners vulnerable. Wisner proceeds to make another trip to the works, hauls the log back on, and runs back. Again, unhurt. “You have accomplished the most heroic act I ever witnessed,” an officer remarked to Wisner as he shook his hand. I can imagine Wisner grumbling under his breath on both occasions.
14. One more ballsy move was executed by a German soldier with the 15th New Jersey after his regiment had withdrawn from the salient. Brown’s brigade of New Jersey men had managed a small breakthrough on the works that only lasted half an hour. But during the withdraw, the German turned back and sprinted for the works. The Confederates on the other side thought the lone Yank was deserting and cheered for him. But, he was actually going for the nearest rebel flag. He grabbed it and dashed back to join his regiment. He sustained a hole in his hat and three through his shirt, but like Wisner, was unhurt. “I had a conversation with the soldier a few minutes after his arrival and he was fittingly looked upon at the time as the hero of the regiment.” Picture the look on the Rebs’ faces when the German made off with their flag practically uncontested!
15. While these men weren’t dodging bullets, on the other side of the salient, plenty were. During Lane and Weisiger’s flanking attack upon Willcox’s division, Lieutenant Colonel Everard W. Field of the 12th Virginia continually berated his soldiers telling them to stop dodging the “severe shelling” that came from the 19th New York Battery. Ironically, a shell came screaming toward Field. He ducked and the round shot buried itself in the ground near to him. His troops shouted, “Stop that dodging!” as a way to get back at their commander. Honestly, I would have been yelling the same.
16. Far away from horrendous fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, on his deathbed, the proud and gallant J.E.B. Stuart was on the verge of death. He knew it was the end, come 7:30pm. But even with a hole in his gut, the eccentric and charismatic cavalry commander had enough strength to crack jokes. He gave out his last messages to loved ones and who would inherit his prized possessions. He directed his staff officers to take his horses. He turned to a heavyset aide and said, “You had better take the larger horse. He will carry you better.”
17. When the battle was over and done, when the wounded were being tended to and the dead were prepared for burial, Union soldiers climbed into the salient they had fought over for 20 hours. Lee had withdrawn his line back to a new set of works that closed off the salient and fighting would continue through May 13th. But the horror of war and death were displayed in grotesque ways to the soldiers in blue.
Staffers Rawlins and Dana from Grant’s group visited the salient. The rain from the day before had made the terrain muddy. The sun had dried the mud the next day and the trenches were like a “great pool of mud, its surface as smooth as that of a pond.” Then, out of nowhere, like a scene from a modern horror movie, a mud-smeared leg emerged from the pristine surface. “It was so unexpected, so horrible, that for a moment we were stunned.” They tugged on the leg and found it was still attached to a Rebel. And he was still alive! Miraculously, he was carried to a hospital and survived. If the events of the previous day and the gore they witnessed from inside the salient weren’t enough to leave them shaken, this incident would have done the job. (While this one isn’t entirely humorous, the scene of them tugging on the leg and finding it attached to a living man is funny to me.)
My intention in sharing these stories is not to be indelicate or inconsiderate of the terrors that accompany hardcore battle. I’m fully aware that men dying is NOT a good thing. Nor is being shot at. Death and war are not meant to be funny. All I’m trying to get across is that sometimes, we have to look for the humor in events to stay sane. If we focus on the negative, on the dark and twisted, for too long, there would be psychological consequences on our part. Searching for the funny, for the uplifting, for the silver lining, reminds us that life is not all doom and gloom, and that history has its bad and its good. You just have to look for it.
“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7 – 12, 1864” by Gordon Rhea