The Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House, May 12, 1864

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
On this day, May 12, 150 years ago one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War occurred. At 4:35 am this morning the II Corps of the Army of the Potomac under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock launched a major assault on the tip of the Confederate salient named the "Mule Shoe" for its U shape. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, commanding the IX Corps attacked the eastern side of the mule shoe. At 6:00 am the VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright attacked the western side. Later at 8:15 am the V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren attacked Laurel Hill.

Francis C. Barlow's Division on the eastern flank of the II Corps smashed through Maj. Gen. Allegheny Johnson's Division, capturing most of the Confederates including their division commander before they could put up a fight. David Birney's Division overran Col. William Monaghan's and James A. Walker's Brigades (the Stonewall Brigade) at the tip of the angle. Most of the Confederate's ammunition was wet from a rainstorm that morning and they couldn't fire their muskets.

Also in Grant's favor what that Lee, thinking Grant was preparing to withdraw the previous day, moved most of the artillery out of the Mule Shoe in order to move the artillery quickly to support an immediate attack on Grant. Allegheny Johnson later ordered the artillery back, suspecting a possible attack by the Federals. Though the order did not reach the artillery till the next day and they didn't make it to the front lines till the very last second at 3:30 am. Due to the mistake much of the artillery was captured when the II Corps overran the angle before they could even unlimber and fire.

[IMG]


After the II Corps began making headway, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon ordered a subsequent number of counter attacks into the angle, the first being Brig. Gen. Robert D. Johnston's Brigade of North Carolinians. They attacked the eastern side of the angle where Barlow's Division had broken through. Gordon continued to send individual brigades into the fight to retake the lost ground. In about 30 min of hard fighting the Confederates had pushed the Federal troops out and retaken the angle. Now it was a bitter, close quarters, often hand to hand fight that raged between the earthworks and entrenchments for the remainder of the day. The assault had turned into a stalemate. The fighting took place in the mud and rain, the Confederates standing behind the works and the Federals on the other side, firing directly into each other's faces at point blank range.

Among the Confederate regiments holding the Bloody Angle was the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of five regiments in Brigadier General Samuel McGowan's brigade. J. F. J. Caldwell, a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant in the regiment, has left us a detailed description of the Bloody Angle fighting from the Southern standpoint in his book, A History of a Brigade of South Carolinians.

"The 12th of May broke cool and cloudy. Soon after dawn a fine mist set in, which sometimes increased to a hard shower, but never entirely ceased, for twenty-four hours.

About ten o'clock, our brigade was suddenly ordered out of the works, detached from the rest of the division, and marched back from the line, but bearing towards the left. The fields were soft and muddy, the rains quite heavy. Nevertheless, we hurried on, often at the double quick. Before long, shells passed over our heads, and musketry became plainly audible in front. Our pace was increased to a run. Turning to the right, as we struck an interior line of works, we bore directly for the firing.

We were now along Ewell's line. The shell came thicker and nearer, frequently striking close at our feet, and throwing mud and water high into the air. The rain continued. As we panted up the way, Maj. Gen. Rodes, of Ewell's corps, walked up to the roadside, and asked what troops we were. 'McGowan's South Carolina brigade,' was the reply. 'There are no better soldiers in the world than these!' cried he to some officers about him. We hurried on, thinking more of him and more of ourselves than ever before.

. . . Soon the order was given to advance to the outer line. We did so, with a cheer and at the double quick, plunging through mud knee deep, and getting in as best we could. Here, however, lay Harris' Mississippi brigade. We were ordered to close to the right. We moved by the flank up the works, under the fatally accurate fire of the enemy, and ranged ourselves in the entrenchment. The sight we encountered was not calculated to encourage us. The trenches, dug on the inner side were almost filled with water. Dead men lay on the surface of the ground and in the pools of water. The wounded bled and groaned, stretched or huddled in every attitude of pain. The water was crimsoned with blood. Abandoned knapsacks, guns and accoutrements, with ammunition boxes, were scattered all around. In the rear, disabled caissons stood and limbers of guns. The rain poured heavily, and an incessant fire was kept upon tis from front and flank. The enemy still held the works on the right of the angle, and fired across the traverses. Nor were these foes easily seen. They barely raised their heads above the logs, at the moment of firing. It was plainly a question of bravery and endurance now.

We entered upon the task with all our might. Some fired at the line lying in front, on the edge of the ridge before described; others kept down the enemy lodged in the traverses on the right. At one or two places, Confederates and Federals were only separated by the works, and the latter not a few times reached their guns over and fired right down upon the heads of the former . . . .

The firing was astonishingly accurate all along the line. No man could raise his shoulders above the works without danger of immediate death. Some of the enemy lay against our works in front. I saw several of them jump over and surrender during relaxations of firing. An ensign of a Federal regiment came right up to us during the 'peace negotiations,' and demanded our surrender. Lieutenant Carlisle, of the Thirteenth regiment, replied that we would not surrender. Then the ensign insisted that, as he had come under a false impression he should be allowed to return to his command. Lieutenant Carlisle, pleased with his composure, consented. But, as he went back, a man, from another part of the line, shot him through the face, and he came and jumped over to us.

This was the place to test individual courage. Some ordinarily good soldiers did next to nothing, others excelled themselves. The question became, pretty plainly, whether one was willing to meet death, not merely to run the chances of it."


photo4-jpg.jpg


While the fight at the angle was raging, on Grant's right flank Warren's V Corps attacked Laurel Hill. After thirty minutes the attack petered out and Warren told Meade that he was not able to advance "at present." The irascible Meade ordered Warren to attack "at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary." Warren relayed the order to his division commanders: "Do it. Don't mind the consequences." The attack was yet another failure, adding to the high toll of casualties as the Union corps was held up by the fire of a single Confederate division. Not only was the V Corps unable to take its objective, it had also failed to draw Confederate troops from elsewhere in the line, as Grant had intended. Both Meade and Grant were upset with Warren's performance and Grant authorized Meade to relieve Warren, replacing him with Meade's chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys. Humphreys diplomatically coordinated the withdrawal of the V Corps units without relieving Warren, but Meade began to order Warren's subordinates to reinforce Wright, and no further attacks against Laurel Hill would be planned.

Ambrose Burnside was also part of the grand assault, advancing against the eastern leg of the Mule Shoe before dawn. The attack by his division under Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter against the sector just below Steuart's Brigade materially aided Hancock's breakthrough. The North Carolina brigade of Brig. Gen. James H. Lane fought back, reinforced by a Georgia brigade under Brig. Gen. Edward L. Thomas and the North Carolina brigade of Brig. Gen. Alfred M. Scales. The two sides became stalemated. At 2 p.m., Grant and Lee coincidentally ordered simultaneous attacks. Grant considered this sector to be lightly defended and hoped for a new breakthrough while Lee wanted to take out an artillery position that the IX Corps was using to harass his line. The advance by Union Brig. Gen. Orlando B. Wilcox's division against a minor salient in the line was stopped as Lane's brigade moved forward and hit them in the flank.

Confederate engineers created a new line of entrenchments about 500 yards behind the Mule Shoe. At 4:00 am the next morning the Confederates fell back to the new entrenchments, having fought throughout most of the day on May 12. The Federals suffered an estimated 9,000 casualties and Confederates about 8,000 with around 3,000 of which being captured. The carnage that remained after the battle that day is almost indescribable. Thousands of men lay dead, dying, or wounded in a space only around half a mile in width.

Grant's aide Horace Porter inspected the ground around the Mule Shoe the next day, telling of what he saw in Campaigning with Grant:

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. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late. The place was well named the "Bloody Angle."


http://www.civilwar.org/battlefields/spotsylvania-court-house.html
http://www.civilwarhome.com/spotsylvaniacourthouse.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Spotsylvania_Court_House
http://www.amazon.com/Battles-Spotsylvania-Court-Yellow-Tavern/dp/0807130672/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399927476&sr=8-1&keywords=spotsylvania court house
http://www.amazon.com/Spotsylvania-Campaign-Military-Campaigns-Civil/dp/080787132X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399927512&sr=8-1&keywords=spotsylvania campaign
http://www.amazon.com/Trench-Warfare-under-Grant-Fortifications/dp/0807831549/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1399927523&sr=8-1&keywords=trench warfare under lee and grant

[IMG]
 

Patrick H

Lt. Colonel
Joined
Mar 7, 2014
Seeing this artistic depictions (both the historic and the contemporary ones) is really sobering. I just can't imagine hand to hand, face to face combat on the sort of scale that happened in the Civil War. It's a wonder that anyone ever recovered from the psychological effects of that sort of thing. Maybe none ever fully recovered.
 

Jamieva

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 7, 2006
Location
Midlothian, VA
can someone who is much more well versed explain why Lee/Ewell drew up the line in that fashion such that Ewell's line juts out like that?
 

jay gale

First Sergeant
Joined
Feb 23, 2013
Location
kirkland, washington
reading about this in Joseph Wheelan's book Bloody Spring is really sobering too. He describes eyewitness accounts of how many of the soldiers who died on top of the parapets of the Mule Shoe were shot so many times during the 20 hour battle that they were reduced to a jellied mass, not even recognizable as human beings.

As awful as so many battles were in that war, this one just seems to set the bar for horror. Hell on earth to be sure.
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
can someone who is much more well versed explain why Lee/Ewell drew up the line in that fashion such that Ewell's line juts out like that?
Well the purpose of a salient is to face the enemy from all sides, usually constructed to defend against a force much greater than your own. Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's Division under Ewell constructed the "Mule Shoe" salient on May 8. Rather than the engineers, Cpt. William W. Old, Johnson's aide-de-camp, directed the construction at night. He fallowed a slight ridge in the ground, so possibly that also had a lot to do with the shape. Also the presence of Federal pickets at the Landrum House caused him to direct the lines southward on the eastern side. Many could tell the salient could not hold off a major attack at the tip from past experience attacking and defending such positions. Though Lee's chief engineer, Martin L. Smith, thought it could be held if packed with artillery, but of course much of the artillery was withdrawn on May 11 and didn't make it back until an hour before Hancock's attack commenced on May 12.
 

Carronade

Captain
Joined
Aug 4, 2011
Location
Pennsylvania
can someone who is much more well versed explain why Lee/Ewell drew up the line in that fashion such that Ewell's line juts out like that?
The line was not so much drawn up that way as it evolved in response to federal movements. The Confederates first dug in around Laurel Hill on the left, in the path of the federal advance from the Wilderness (incidentally they barely beat the Yanks to the position). As more Union troops arrived, the lines were extended to the right, eventually to the Mule Shoe. Then Burnside's IX Corps, operating separately from the Army of the Potomac, came down the Fredericksburg Road to the east, almost getting behind Lee's positions. Fortunately for the rebs, Burnside let his advance be stopped by inferior Confederate forces, and they were able to hastily entrench on what became the east side of the salient.

The Yankees may have missed an opportunity there, perhaps due to the defensive what-Lee-might-do-to-us mentality that Grant so deplored. They saw the danger to Burnside's corps, being separated from the rest of the army, rather than the chance to turn Lee's flank.
 

Pat Answer

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Oct 8, 2013
Location
“...somewhere between NY and PA”
Well the purpose of a salient is to face the enemy from all sides, usually constructed to defend against a force much greater than your own. Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's Division under Ewell constructed the "Mule Shoe" salient on May 8. Rather than the engineers, Cpt. William W. Old, Johnson's aide-de-camp, directed the construction at night. He fallowed a slight ridge in the ground, so possibly that also had a lot to do with the shape. Also the presence of Federal pickets at the Landrum House caused him to direct the lines southward on the eastern side. Many could tell the salient could not hold off a major attack at the tip from past experience attacking and defending such positions. Though Lee's chief engineer, Martin L. Smith, thought it could be held if packed with artillery, but of course much of the artillery was withdrawn on May 11 and didn't make it back until an hour before Hancock's attack commenced on May 12.
I also remember something about the lie of the land influencing the placement of the line. And that the absence of the artillery on the morning of May 12 was very important.

Thanks, Frederick14Va. Your post came in as I was typing.
 

Jamieva

Captain
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 7, 2006
Location
Midlothian, VA
Thanks everyone. I remembered the part about the artillery being removed which was key to the position and the Feds getting in there.
 

rpkennedy

Lt. Colonel
Member of the Year
Joined
May 18, 2011
Location
Carlisle, PA
I had a number of family members engaged at the Salient. Miraculously, only two were injured there.

Joseph Kennedy, 93rd New York (II Corps): mortally wounded
Moses Murphy, 106th New York (VI Corps): wounded

R
 

Delhi Rangers

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 1, 2011
Location
Alabama
Well the purpose of a salient is to face the enemy from all sides, usually constructed to defend against a force much greater than your own. Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's Division under Ewell constructed the "Mule Shoe" salient on May 8. Rather than the engineers, Cpt. William W. Old, Johnson's aide-de-camp, directed the construction at night. He fallowed a slight ridge in the ground, so possibly that also had a lot to do with the shape. Also the presence of Federal pickets at the Landrum House caused him to direct the lines southward on the eastern side. Many could tell the salient could not hold off a major attack at the tip from past experience attacking and defending such positions. Though Lee's chief engineer, Martin L. Smith, thought it could be held if packed with artillery, but of course much of the artillery was withdrawn on May 11 and didn't make it back until an hour before Hancock's attack commenced on May 12.
If I am correct Baldy Ewell argued for the Mule Shoe Line. Many of the Confederates knew the line was a mistake. Porter Alexander said " By all the rules of military science we must pronounce these lines a great mistake although they were consented to, if they were not adopted by General Lee's chief engineer". Lee's engineers had approved it to encompass high ground for strong artillery positions. The trade off were the angles of the salient. Confederate fire there would be lessened. Thirty guns were placed originally there to cover the adjacent field. The reason that the cannons were pulled out Lee had reports of Union troop movements and he wanted to attack them at a crossroad and he needed the cannons. Maryland Steuart realized it and sent a panicked message to Old Clubby Johnson. Johnson reported to Ewell that Grant was preparing to attack and that the salient could not be defended without artillery. Ewell reported that Lee had ordered the artillery out because Lee had positive information that Grant was moving to the right. Ewell appealed to Lee twice to have them returned. Lee finally agreed but by the time they got back it was too little too late for them to have a great effect. Hancocks attack was devastating and if it hadn't been for John B. Gordon the ANV could have been cut in half. Lee didn't really realize the seriousness of the situation until much of the damage had been done. Another Lee to the Rear!! moment occurred here.
 

Delhi Rangers

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 1, 2011
Location
Alabama
Lee felt compelled to lead the defense of the "Mule Shoe" on May 12 personally because of Ewell's indecision and inaction. At one point Ewell began hysterically berating some of his fleeing soldiers and beating them over the back with his sword. Lee reined in his enraged lieutenant, saying sharply, "General Ewell, you must restrain yourself; 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." Ewell's behavior on this occasion undoubtedly was the source of a statement made by Lee to his secretary, William Allan, after the war that on May 12 he "found Ewell perfectly prostrated by the misfortune of the morning, and too much overwhelmed to be efficient." IMO this was the beginning of the end in Lee's confidence in Ewell. As we all know he was finally reassigned to the defenses of Richmond.
 

Miles Krisman

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 15, 2012
If I am correct Baldy Ewell argued for the Mule Shoe Line. Many of the Confederates knew the line was a mistake. Porter Alexander said " By all the rules of military science we must pronounce these lines a great mistake although they were consented to, if they were not adopted by General Lee's chief engineer". Lee's engineers had approved it to encompass high ground for strong artillery positions. The trade off were the angles of the salient. Confederate fire there would be lessened. Thirty guns were placed originally there to cover the adjacent field. The reason that the cannons were pulled out Lee had reports of Union troop movements and he wanted to attack them at a crossroad and he needed the cannons. Maryland Steuart realized it and sent a panicked message to Old Clubby Johnson. Johnson reported to Ewell that Grant was preparing to attack and that the salient could not be defended without artillery. Ewell reported that Lee had ordered the artillery out because Lee had positive information that Grant was moving to the right. Ewell appealed to Lee twice to have them returned. Lee finally agreed but by the time they got back it was too little too late for them to have a great effect. Hancocks attack was devastating and if it hadn't been for John B. Gordon the ANV could have been cut in half. Lee didn't really realize the seriousness of the situation until much of the damage had been done. Another Lee to the Rear!! moment occurred here.
Gordon's Division secured the East Angle, but General Robert Rodes directed the re-establishment of the line on the West Angle, which included the Bloody Angle. His Division with support from the Brigades of Harris and McGowan carried the fight there.
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
If I am correct Baldy Ewell argued for the Mule Shoe Line. Many of the Confederates knew the line was a mistake. Porter Alexander said " By all the rules of military science we must pronounce these lines a great mistake although they were consented to, if they were not adopted by General Lee's chief engineer". Lee's engineers had approved it to encompass high ground for strong artillery positions. The trade off were the angles of the salient. Confederate fire there would be lessened. Thirty guns were placed originally there to cover the adjacent field. The reason that the cannons were pulled out Lee had reports of Union troop movements and he wanted to attack them at a crossroad and he needed the cannons. Maryland Steuart realized it and sent a panicked message to Old Clubby Johnson. Johnson reported to Ewell that Grant was preparing to attack and that the salient could not be defended without artillery. Ewell reported that Lee had ordered the artillery out because Lee had positive information that Grant was moving to the right. Ewell appealed to Lee twice to have them returned. Lee finally agreed but by the time they got back it was too little too late for them to have a great effect. Hancocks attack was devastating and if it hadn't been for John B. Gordon the ANV could have been cut in half. Lee didn't really realize the seriousness of the situation until much of the damage had been done. Another Lee to the Rear!! moment occurred here.
According to Trench Warfare under Lee & Grant by Earl Hess, there were mixed feeling about the salient. Ironically, Brig. Gen. James A. Walker of the Stonewall Brigade had described the salient as "one of the very best lines of temporary field works I ever saw." Thomas H. Carter, an artillery officer, called the work a "an unfortunate and wretchedly defective line." Carter believed that it was kept only because of the work that was put into creating it.

As for the other "Lee to the rear" incidents, one took place when Nathaniel H. Harris' Mississippi Brigade was sent into the angle and if I remember right the other took place among John Pegram's Brigade. I posted a few first hand accounts of the Lee to the rear incidents in another thread a while ago and if I manage to find them later I'll post them here.
 

unionblue

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Member of the Year
Joined
Feb 20, 2005
Location
Ocala, FL (as of December, 2015).
To All,

Excellent OP and article and great follow-up posts by all that made this thread such a great read.

Thanks to all who contributed and to AUG351 who started it all with such a great first post.

Sincerely,
Unionblue
 

Delhi Rangers

First Sergeant
Joined
Nov 1, 2011
Location
Alabama
Gordon's Division secured the East Angle, but General Robert Rodes directed the re-establishment of the line on the West Angle, which included the Bloody Angle. His Division with support from the Brigades of Harris and McGowan carried the fight there.
You are correct sir. Rodes, Gordon and Ramseur were very effective in the re-establishment of the line on the 12th.
 

AUG

Major
Retired Moderator
Joined
Nov 20, 2012
Location
Texas
Here is that first hand account of one of two "Lee to the rear" incidents that took place at Spotsylvania that day. From Time Life Voices of the Civil War The Wilderness:

Private William W. Smith
49th Virginia Infantry, Hoffman's Brigade

With the Yankee troops continuing to pour into the captured salient, Gordon gathered two brigades commanded by Colonels Clement A. Evans and John S. Hoffman-some 3,500 men-and rushed them towards the eastern flank of the mule shoe. when these reinforcements swung into line of battle and prepared to attack, General Lee rode forward to lead them-as he had the Texans a week earlier at the Wilderness. The 18-year-old smith witnessed the dramatic scene.

It was an hour of destiny. The thin line stood confronting the massing enemy in our trenches only some two thousand yards away; obscured they were, it is true, by the underbrush and in some cases by the contour of the land, but ready to push forward to capture of the parked reserve artillery ammunition just behind us. General Lee's headquarters were but a shirt distance away. . . . A moment later I noticed a quiet officer ride in front of our line. He was a large man on an iron gray horse, and had come up without retinue, even, I think, without a single staff officer or orderly. It was when he turned face towards us and with a silent gesture of extended arm pointed towards the enemy we recognized our idolized Lee. Already the bullets were zipping past, aimed chiefly at the struggling remnant of Johnson's division, that had been overwhelmed in the trenches. What of one should kill Lee? "Get in front of him, keep the bullets off," was the instinctive feeling of each man.

Just then from the right General J. B. Gordon came dashing down the line. At the fight of Lee he reined up his handsome bay so sharply as to throw him on his haunches. It was a picture never to be forgotten. "General Lee, this is no place for you. Go back, General; we will drive them back. These men are Virginians and they never failed me; they will not fail me; will you boys?" Then rose the oft-quoted shout: "General Lee to the rear! Lee to the rear!" " Go back, General, we can't charge until you go back." "We will drive them back, General." Some one got hold of his bridle and back through the line of the 49th Regiment Lee was led. The whole scene was not fifty paces from where I stood. . . .

"Forward!" cried Gordon, and the line stepped off with the steady tread of a dress-parade. There was no shout, no rebel yell, but, as I looked down the line, I saw their stem faces and set teeth of men who have undertaken to do a desperate deed, and do not intend to fail.

With the freedom of the volunteers, I said to those next to me: "Pass it down the line, boys; General Lee is looking at us." "Aye, and depending upon us, too," and the silent line moved on with long, swift strides. In a few moments we marched down into the bottom, then rising, parted the undergrowth, and were upon them, packed thick as blackbirds in our trenches. A fearful volley wrought havoc and started those returning, became alarmed. without pausing to reload, we rushed upon them, so quickly, indeed, that we did not give them time to run. Many surrendered upon demand; some gave us the bayonet. With these we had short, stern argument, using chiefly our clubbed guns. My gun being to short for such use and quite handy to load, I gave my stubborn opponent, who refused to surrender, the leaded contents at short range, and passed on after finding that he was beyond the need of assistance from me. As we rushed on, hundreds threw up their hands and said: "I surrender," but we could not afford to send men back from the charging line with prisoners, and would say: "Throw down your guns and go to the rear." Many did so; many obliqued to the left and finally escaped and joined their comrades, but we passed on, driving the ruck before us.
 
Top