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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Spotsylvania, Bloody Angle, Mule Shoe Salient

I am not a scholar or expert on the Civil War. As I'm reading and learning, I'm posting. We visited the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania a couple of weeks ago so I wanted to learn about what happened there and I've had an education! Here is what I learned.

The Battle of Spotsylvania (aka the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House), fought May 8-21, 1864, included some of the most desperate hand-to-hand fighting of the Civil War. It was the second major battle in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign of the War of Northern Aggression.

U.S.A. General Ulysses S. Grant (He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant but entered West Point as Ulysses S. Grant with the "S" representing his mother's maiden name of "Simpson". He later said the "S" meant nothing although he was often nicknamed "Sam" by contemporaries.) In March 1864, Grant was summoned from the Western Theater, promoted to lieutenant general, and given command of all Union armies. He chose to make his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, although Maj. Gen. George G. Meade remained the actual commander of that army. He left Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in command of most of the western armies. Grant's campaign objective was not the Confederate capital of Richmond, but the destruction of Lee's army. Lincoln had long advocated this strategy for his generals, recognizing that the city would certainly fall after the loss of its principal defensive army. Grant ordered Meade, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Although he hoped for a quick, decisive battle, Grant was prepared to fight a war of attrition (a military strategy of in which a belligerent side attempts to win a war by wearing down its enemy to the point of collapse through continuous losses in personnel and materiel).

U.S.A. General George Gordon Meade

Following the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Grant's army disengaged from Confederate General Robert E. Lee's army and moved to the southeast. He attempted to lure Lee into battle under more favorable conditions.

C.S.A. General Robert Edward Lee

Elements of Lee's army beat the Union army to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House and began entrenching. Fighting occurred on and off from May 8 through May 21, 1864, as Grant tried various schemes to break the Confederate line. In the end, the battle was tactically inconclusive, but considering the the overwhelming numbers, Lee's men wrought a victory. With almost 32,000 casualties on both sides, it was the costliest battle of the campaign.

100,000 men....................................vs...............................................52,000 men
18,399 - (2,725 killed, 13,416 wounded, 2,258 captured/missing)....12,687 - (1,515 killed, 5,414 wounded, 5,758 captured/

On May 5, after Grant's army crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness of Spotsylvania, it was attacked by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Although Lee was outnumbered, his men fought fiercely and the dense foliage provided a terrain advantage. They fought valiantly for 2 days. Grant then ordered Meade to move around Lee's right flank and seize the important crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House to the southeast, hoping that by interposing his army between Lee and Richmond, he could lure the Confederates into another battle on a more favorable field. On the nights of May 7–8, over two routes, reaching Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles to the southeast, with at least one corps the morning of May 8. Lee was unsure of Grant's plans. His recon told him that the river crossing equipment had been removed from Germanna Ford, so he knew Grant would not be withdrawing as his predecessors had. The Union Army could either be heading east to Fredericksburg or moving south. In either event, the crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House would be important, so Lee ordered his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton, to begin constructing a road through the woods from the Confederate position at the Wilderness due south to the Catharpin Road. He also ordered Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, who had replaced Lt. Gen. James Longstreet in command of the First Corps following that officer's wounding on May 6, to move out along that road. Lee did not indicate any need for haste, but Anderson and his men desired to leave the stench of burning forest and dead bodies in the Wilderness, so they began marching about 10 p.m.

C.S.A. General Richard Heron Anderson

Spotsylvania Court House, 1864

Meade began by ordering Sheridan's Cavalry Corps to clear the Brock Road for the infantry, but the troopers soon bogged down. The brigade of Col. J. Irvin Gregg (David Gregg's division), was stopped at Corbin's Bridge on the Catharpin Road by cavalrymen under Wade Hampton and Rooney Lee. Gregg's men withdrew to a field west of Todd's Tavern, constructed rudimentary earthworks, and repulsed a series of Confederate attacks. Wesley Merritt's Union division encountered Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry behind barricades on the Brock Road about a mile south of Todd's Tavern.

C.S.A. General Fitzhugh "Fitz" Lee, nephew of C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee

Sharp fighting resulted in the late afternoon, and by nightfall, Sheridan decided against continuing in the dark and ordered his men to bivouac at Todd's Tavern. At dawn on May 8, Wesley Merritt's cavalrymen attacked Fitzhugh Lee's barricades on the Brock Road again, but were repulsed. Meade ordered Warren's V Corps to break through with infantry and the division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson led the way in overwhelming the cavalry obstacle. Fitzhugh Lee's horse artillery made a gallant stand around the Alsop farm and delayed the Union advance while the cavalrymen staked out a defensive line on a low ridge just south of the Spindle farm clearing, which they dubbed "Laurel Hill." Lee sent for help to Anderson's infantry, which by now had reached the Block House Bridge on the Po River and were eating breakfast. Anderson immediately dispatched two infantry brigades and an artillery battalion, which arrived at Laurel Hill just as Warren's men pulled up within 100 yards to the north. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps advanced about four miles to Todd's Tavern when, after midnight on May 8, Union commanders discovered that their cavalry had been unable to drive J. E. B. Stuart's men any farther, and had bivouacked for the night.

C.S.A. General J.E.B. Stuart (James Ewell Brown Stuart)

If this was not bad enough from Meade's perspective, the cavalrymen had had no new orders for the day from their new commander, Philip H. Sheridan.

U.S.A. General Philip Henry Sheridan

A furious Meade, whose temper led some to compare him to "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle," ordered troopers back into their saddles to continue clearing the road in the predawn hours. When they faltered, he ordered his infantry forward, leading to a full-scale engagement. When Stuart's men discovered that they now confronted the Union infantry, it became clear that the entire Army of the Potomac was on the move and headed south. The Confederate cavalrymen encouraged Anderson's infantry to double-time to Spotsylvania. In the meantime, at about eight o'clock on the morning of May 8, they made a stand on the edge of the Spindle Field about a mile north of the courthouse, throwing down some fence rails to fight from behind. They held just long enough; as their lines began to buckle, the vanguard of Anderson's corps appeared on the field. The Union infantry advanced piecemeal across the Spindle Field, and Confederate cavalrymen shouted to their infantry comrades, "Run for our rail piles; the Federal infantry will reach them first, if you don't run." With moments to spare the Confederate riflemen repulsed the first attack. Other units arrived in time to extend the line and throw back subsequent attacks for the remainder of the day. At times Union attacks came very close to succeeding, but the Confederate line held. Meade, reminded of Sheridan's failure and once again furious, exploded at the famously short New Yorker.
U.S.A. General Sheridan on the left standing, with his generals including George Custer. This was taken 1/2/1865. It shows how short Sheridan was.

About as intemperate and feisty as Meade, Sheridan exploded right back at his commander. He wished to take the fight to the Confederate cavalry and wanted to be released from the usual duties of the cavalry—reconnaissance and screening the march of the infantry. Sheridan boasted that he "could whip" Stuart "if he (Meade) would only let me." Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who was intrigued. "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about," the general-in-chief observed. "Let him start right out and do it." The exchange left Meade feeling humiliated, and noticeably strained his relations with Grant. Meanwhile, Grant's decision to let Sheridan have his way and chase after Stuart ended up greatly harming the Army of the Potomac, which needed its cavalry to screen its movements and provide intelligence. Although Sheridan eventually whipped Stuart at Yellow Tavern, leaving Stuart mortally wounded, Grant was forced over the next several days to base his plans on imperfect information regarding Confederate positions and movements.

In the meantime, Confederate soldiers took up positions along hills and ridges with open fields to their front, constructing defensive earthworks into the night.

The next day, May 9, Confederate officers realized that they had formed a salient, or U-shaped bulge, in their line that was nicknamed the "Mule Shoe" by the men because of its shape. Vulnerable to attack from three sides, such a position required more men to defend than a straight line. At first, Lee wanted to abandon the salient, but other officers convinced him that it could be held if properly supported by artillery. Although the Confederates retained the Mule Shoe as the main line, Lee ordered construction of new line across the base of the salient.

In The Center of The Muleshoe stood the McCoull House. On May, 10-13, fighting surged around the building. It survived the battle but was destroyed by fire in 1921.

Numerous engagements were fought along the lines during the fourteen days the armies spent at Spotsylvania. One of the more consequential involved a young West Point–educated Union colonel named Emory Upton, who concluded that attacking well-constructed earth-and-log works required a new way of fighting.

U.S.A. Brevet Major General Emory Upton then U.S.A. Brigadier General Emory Upton

Rather than attack in long lines of infantry that halted in the open in order to exchange fire with a well-protected enemy behind earthworks, Upton argued for storming columns that never stopped to open fire, but advanced right up to the earthworks, engaging the enemy with the bayonet. He tested his new tactics as part of an all-out attack on the evening of May 10. They worked, but when supporting troops failed to arrive, Upton was forced to retreat. Grant was impressed, however, promoting Upton to brigadier general and deciding to duplicate the maneuver on a larger scale, with the support troops directly behind the assault column.

On the rainy night of May 11, Union troops went into position to attack the apex of the Mule Shoe. In addition to the shifting of troops, the Confederates observed Union wagons and ambulances going toward Fredericksburg. Lee concluded that the Union army was marching away from Spotsylvania and his impressive line of earthworks. He therefore determined to strike Grant's men when they were on the move. Because the rain could turn dirt roads into mud and slow his planned pursuit of the Union troops, Lee decided to move his artillery out of the salient before the storm turned any worse. After the cannons had been extracted, the Confederates concluded that the Union troops had not continued on to Fredericksburg after all, but had stopped opposite the apex of the Mule Shoe. The Confederate artillery started back to the front lines.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 12, 15,000 men of the Union Second Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock advanced Upton-style with bayonets fixed across a fog-shrouded field on Edward Landrum's farm, just as the Confederates were returning their cannons to their former positions. About twenty guns were captured—some without firing a shot. A few Confederate infantrymen tried to shoot, but damp powder from the mist prevented many guns from firing. In a short time, Hancock held a half mile of the Confederate trench line and took nearly 3,000 prisoners, including Generals Edward "Allegheny" Johnson (a Virginian) and George H. Steuart, along with the remnants of the famed Stonewall Brigade.

While the Union reserve troops advanced right behind the attack column, it soon degenerated into a mob that did its best to proceed down the Confederate line and deal with the prisoners. Smaller-but-better-organized Confederate units launched counterattacks, stalling the Union advance. While Lee rallied his men, he also observed his senior corps commander, the profane, one-legged veteran Richard S. Ewell, failing miserably in his attempts to do the same.

C.S.A. General Richard Stoddart Ewell

"All [the men] that General Lee addressed at once halted and returned to the assistance of their comrades," observed a staff officer, but "All that General Ewell so angrily reproached continued their flight to the rear." 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." Lee reasoned that Ewell's lingering injuries were the cause of his problems and he relieved him from corps command, reassigning him to command the garrison of the Department of Richmond, which was by no means an insignificant assignment, given the extreme pressure Union forces were applying to the Confederate capital. In April 1865, as Ewell and his troops were retreating a great many fires in Richmond were started, although it is unclear by whose orders the fires were started. Ewell blamed the plundering mobs of civilians for burning a tobacco warehouse, which was a significant source of the fire, but Nelson Lankford, author of Richmond Burning, wrote that "Ewell convinced few people that the great fire had nothing to do with his men or their deliberate demolition of the warehouses and bridges through military orders passed down the chain of command." These fires created The Great Conflagration of Richmond, which left a third of the city destroyed, including all of the business district. Ewell and his troops were then surrounded and captured at Sayler's Creek. This was a few days before Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House. He was held as a prisoner of war at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor until July 1865. While imprisoned, Ewell organized a group of sixteen former generals also at Fort Warren, including Edward "Allegheny" Johnson and Joseph B. Kershaw, and sent a letter to Ulysses S. Grant about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, for which they said no Southern man could feel anything other than "unqualified abhorrence and indignation" and insisting that the crime should not be connected to the South.

Lee stayed dangerously close to the front lines until Georgian John B. Gordon and his men came up and convinced him to retire to the rear. (Similar to an incident at the Battle of the Wilderness, this is one of several "Lee to the rear" episodes recounted by veterans of the war.)

Realizing that he could not repulse the Union troops from the earthworks, Lee instead focused his efforts on completing the last line of earthworks at the base of the Mule Shoe and on retaking a hill where the earthworks made a slight bend. The latter place, where the fighting was horrific, became known, appropriately, as the Bloody Angle.

Stan's former SCV (Sons of Confederate Veterans) General Samuel McGowan Camp paid for this monument. Stan is now a member of a Spartanburg camp, but we were very proud to see this monument.

McGowan's Brigade consisted of the Orr’s Rifles, 1st, 12th, 13th, and 14th South Carolina. By May of 1864 they had become some of the premier shock troops of General Robert E. Lee’s army. At the Wilderness on May 6th as the Confederate lines collapsed along the Orange Plank Road, the Confederate chief had asked General Samuel McGowan “is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” McGowan replied that his men were not whipped and would fight again as well as ever. The 1,300 South Carolinians would have ample opportunity to renew their reputation in Lee’s eyes only six days later.

The morning of May 12, 1864 dawned rainy and foggy on the Spotsylvania battlefield. At the first hint of light, the Union II Corps burst out of the woods and broke open a huge gap in the Southern defenses at the tip of a bulge in the Southern lines known as the Mule Shoe. A counter attack soon restored Confederate control along the east face of the salient. North Carolinians and Alabamians soon recaptured part of the west side. At 8:00 a.m. a significant gap still existed in the Rebel defenses.

Robert E. Lee personally tried to lead forward Harris’ Mississippi Brigade until they convinced Lee to go to the rear. The Mississippians struggled forward to a point near the West Angle of the Mule Shoe. Still a significant sized gap in the Confederates existed to their right. The Confederate commander found one more unit to rush into the maelstrom at the West Angle.

As Samuel McGowan led his men forward he was shot down at the Confederate reserve line some 80 yards from their goal of reaching the main line. In the confusion and "fog of battle", the senior colonel, Joseph N. Brown of the 14th South Carolina, did not know that he commanded the brigade. Remarkably, the brigade surged ahead without a brigade leader. They had followed the path of least resistance in tracing the steps of Harris' men. Reaching the rear of the Mississippians', the South Carolinians came under a flank fire of the 26th Michigan who held the higher ground and were partially entrenched. Under a deadly fire, McGowan's men slowly moved to their right front eventually dislodging the Michigan boys and occupying the trenches.

Here the fight stabilized into a bloody slugfest. Wave after wave of Union attackers came out of the gully to within yards of the Southerners. The long range of Civil War weapons normally kept the antagonists well apart, but hand-to-hand combat occasionally occurred. Because of its extreme intensity, the soldiers could not keep it up for long. Twenty minutes was a long time for such close warfare. What is totally unique in the Civil War was that this fight which pitted about 2,500 Mississippians and South Carolinians against thousands of Federals lasted twenty hours!

Across the earthworks on this 200 stretch of the line centered at the West Angle, soldiers shot, clubbed, stabbed and hacked at their foe through rain and mud. Not even lightning strikes and darkness put an end to the struggle. While the Yankees shuffled men back and forth between the ravine and the front line, the Mississippians and South Carolinians in the trenches had no relief, no support and a gap in the Confederate lines still existed to their right. Maybe most remarkably, the South Carolinians also lacked experienced commanders. The majority of the day was fought with a new commander of the brigade and of all five regiments that had gone into action at The Wilderness a week before. Junior officers stepped up to hold the men in place as they courageously fought on until receiving orders just before daylight to fall back to a new position.

The Bloody Angle fight, essentially a Confederate delaying action, had ended. McGowan’s Brigade had not only redeemed themselves in the eye of Robert E. Lee, they had saved Lee’s army. - Mac Wyckoff has been a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotyslvania National Military Park for thirteen years. He has written books on the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina of Kershaw’s Brigade as well as several essays on South Carolinains. In 1988 he started an annual state wide conference on South Carolina Civil War History.

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."

A ravine directly in front of the poorly laid-out Confederate line offered protection for thousands of Union soldiers, from Hancock's Second Corps and Horatio G. Wright's Sixth Corps, who repeatedly surged out of the swale to grapple with the Confederates. (The Sixth Corps's longtime commander, John Sedgwick, had been killed on May 9, making him the highest-ranking Union casualty of the war.) Union and Confederate forces battled from six o'clock on the morning of May 12 to three o'clock on the morning of May 13, much of it hand to hand.

The fighting at the Bloody Angle is regarded as being the most intense of the war. In places, the dead piled up in the Confederate trenches five deep. "No man thought at all," a Mississippian remembered. "That function seemed to be suspended." A Vermont general recalled that "many were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between the logs; men mounted the works, and with muskets rapidly handed them, kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their place and continue their deadly work." A confused and impromptu truce was called at one point after rumors led small pockets of Union and Confederate troops to believe that the other had surrendered. In a few cases, men were captured or even killed. One soldier described the incident as "very absurd blundering … a number on each side fancying that the men on the other side wished to surrender. [It was] a sort of parley in which almost everybody talked, and hardly anybody listened. Men are unlike women, who can talk and listen at the same time." As night fell, some Confederates were even injured when an oak tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down by musket fire.

Throughout the afternoon, Confederate engineers scrambled to create a new defensive line 500 yards further south at the base of the Mule Shoe, while fighting at the Bloody Angle continued day and night with neither side achieving an advantage. At 4 a.m. on May 13, the exhausted Confederate infantrymen were notified that the new line was ready and they withdrew from the original earthworks unit by unit. The combat they had endured for almost 24 hours was characterized by an intensity of firepower never previously seen in Civil War battles, as the entire landscape was flattened, all the foliage destroyed.

The oak tree cut down by musket fire.

The weather finally cleared on May 17. Grant made an assumption that led him to his next attack plan: since Lee had observed Grant's buildup along the Fredericksburg Road, it was likely that he had countered the Union moves by shifting his forces away from the former Mule Shoe positions. He ordered the II Corps and the VI Corps to attack there at sunrise, May 18. They retraced their steps to the vicinity of the Landrum house the night of May 17. Hancock's II Corps would make the primary assault with support from Wright on their right and Burnside on their left.[40] Unfortunately for the Union plan, the former Confederate works were still occupied by Ewell's Second Corps and they had used the intervening time to improve the earthworks and the obstacles laid out in front of them. And, unlike May 12, they were not caught by surprise, nor had they sent their artillery away. As Hancock's men advanced, they were caught up in abatis and subjected to artillery fire so devastating that infantry rifle fire was not necessary to repulse the attack. Wright and Burnside had no better luck

Grant reacted to this final repulse by deciding to abandon this general area as a battlefield. He ordered Hancock's II Corps to march to the railroad line between Fredericksburg and Richmond, and then turn south. With luck, Lee might take the bait and follow, seeking to overwhelm and destroy the isolated corps. In that case, Grant would chase Lee with his remaining corps and strike him before the Confederates could entrench again. Lee was engaged in his own planning, however. Before Hancock began to move, Lee ordered Ewell to conduct a reconnaissance in force to locate the northern flank of the Union army. Ewell took the majority of his Second Corps divisions under Rodes and Gordon up the Brock Road, and swung widely to the north and east to the Harris farm. There they encountered several units of Union heavy artillery soldiers who had recently been converted to infantry duty. Fighting commenced against these relatively green troops, who were soon reinforced by the 1st Maryland Regiment and then David Birney's infantry division. The fighting lasted until about 9 p.m. and Lee, concerned that Ewell was risking a general engagement while separated from the main army, recalled his men. A number of them lost their way in the dark and were captured. The Confederates had lost over 900 men on a pointless skirmish that could have been assigned to a small cavalry detachment.

Thanks to sources of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia of Virginia

Grant's aide Horace Porter viewed May 12's handiwork in dismay. "The appalling sight presented was harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the 'angle,'" he recounted, "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." He added that "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 their horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late. The place was well named the "Bloody Angle."

as one put it: "Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee."

"The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen. The mud was halfway to our knees. . . Our losses were frightful. What remained of many different regiments that had come up to our support had concentrated at this point, and had planted their tattered colors upon a slight rise of ground where they staid during the latter part of the day." - Private G.N. Galloway, 95th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment

"Nothing but the piled up logs of breastworks separated the combatants. Our men would reach over the logs and fire into the faces of the enemy, would stab over with their bayonets; many were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between logs; men mounted the works and with muskets rapidly handed them kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their places." - Colonel Lewis A. Grant, USA

"The mud was half boot top deep and filled with the dead of the battle, over whom we stumbled in the darkness. Upon reaching my position I ordered the regiment to open fire.

"We stood perhaps one hundred feet from the enemy's line, and so long as we maintained a continual fire they remained hidden in their entrenchments. But if an attempt to advance was made, an order would be given and they would all rise up together and fire a volley upon us. They had constructed their works by digging an entrenchment about four feet deep, in which at intervals there were traverses to protect the flanks. This had the effect of making a row of cellars without drainage, and in them was several inches of mud and water. To protect their heads, they had placed in front logs which were laid upon blocks, and it was intended to put their muskets through the chinks under the head logs, but in the darkness this became impracticable and the head log proved a serious obstruction to their firing. For eighteen hours without cessation our troops aimed their muskets at these head logs, some of which were destroyed, and the bullets passing beyond in this plane cut off the tree, the stump of which may now be seen in the Ordnance Museum of the War Department at Washington. This tree stood behind the enemy's works. This is the true explanation of that phenomenon…

"During the early hours of the night the rain poured down in torrents. Sometime in the night I suspected that the enemy were retreating, and I crawled up with one man and satisfied myself that they had gone. I then ceased firing and my exhausted men lay down as best they could, and some laid their heads upon the dead and fell asleep.

"In the morning the rebel works presented an awful spectacle. The cellars were crowded with dead and wounded, lying in some cases upon each other and in several inches of mud and water. I saw the body of a rebel soldier sitting in the corner of one of these cellars in a position of apparent ease, with the head entirely gone, and the flesh burned from the bones of the neck and shoulders. This was doubtless caused by the explosion of a shell from some small Cohorn mortars within our lines. The mortar shell is thrown high in the air, and comes down directly from above. On the morning of May 13th, the men were in a deplorable condition of exhaustion, and I marched the regiment away from the horrible scenes at the "Bloody Angle" and allowed the men to lie down and rest in the woods near at hand." Source: Dawes, Rufus R. "Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers," Chapter 12, page 268.

Around the Bloody Angle, the dead lay five deep, and bodies had to be moved from the trenches to make room for the living. The action around Spotsylvania shocked even the grizzled veterans of the two great armies. Said one officer, "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania."

"May God in his mercy never again permit us to behold such a field of carnage and death," one soldier wrote afterward.

G. Norton Galloway, a Union soldier serving in the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry regiment, described the fighting at the Angle in vivid detail.
"The rain was still falling in torrents and held the country about in obscurity. The command was soon given to my regiment, the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteers . . . to 'rise up,' whereupon with hurrahs we went forward, cheered on by Colonel Upton . . . . It was not long before we reached an angle of works constructed with great skill. Immediately in our front an abatis had been arranged consisting of limbs and branches interwoven into one another, forming footlocks of the most dangerous character. But there the works were, and over some of us went many never to return. At this moment Lee's strong line of battle . . . appeared through the rain, mist, and smoke. We received their bolts, losing nearly one hundred of our gallant 95th. Colonel Upton saw at once that this point must be held at all hazards; for if Lee should recover the angle, he would be enabled to sweep back our lines right and left, and the fruits of the morning's victory would be lost. The order was at once given us to lie down and commence firing; the left of our regiment rested against the works, while the right, slightly refused, rested upon an elevation in front. An now began a desperate and pertinacious struggle.

Upon reaching the breastwork, the Confederates for a few moments had the advantage of us, and made good use of their rifles. Our men went down by the score; all the artillery horses were down; the gallant Upton was the only mounted officer in sight. Hat in hand, he bravely cheered his men, and begged them to 'hold this point.' All of his staff had been either killed, wounded, or dismounted.

At this moment . . . a section of Battery C, 5th United States Artillery, under Lieutenant Richard Metcalf, was brought into action and increased the carnage by opening at short range with double charges of canister. This staggered the apparently exultant enemy. In the maze of the moment these guns were run up by hand close to the famous Angle, and fired again and again, and they were only abandoned when all the drivers and cannoneers had fallen. The battle was now at white heat . . . .

Finding that we were not to be driven back, the Confederates began to use more discretion, exposing themselves but little, using the loop-holes in their works to fire through, and at time placing the muzzles of their rifles on the top logs, seizing the trigger and small of the stock, and elevating the breech with one hand sufficiently to reach us. During the day a section of Cowan's battery took position behind us, sending shell after shell close over our heads, to explode inside the Confederate works. In like manner Coehorn mortars eight hundred yards in our rear sent their shells with admirable precision gracefully curving over us. Sometimes the enemy's fire would slacken, and the moments would become so monotonous that something had to be done to stir them up. Then some resolute fellow would seize a fence-rail or piece of abatis, and, creeping close to the breastworks, thrust it over among the enemy, and then drop on the ground to avoid the volley that was sure to follow. A daring lieutenant in one of our left companies leaped upon the breastworks, took a rifle that was handed to him, and discharged it among the foe. In like manner he discharged another, and was in the act of firing a third shot when his cap flew tip in the air, and his body pitched headlong among the enemy. On several occasions squads of dishearten Confederates raised pieces of shelter-tents above the works as a flag of truce; upon our slacking fire and calling to them to come in, they would immediately jump the breastworks and surrender. One party of twenty or thirty thus signified their willingness to submit; but owing to the fact that their comrades occasionally took advantage of the cessation to get a volley into us, it was some time before we concluded to give them a chance. With leveled pieces we called to them to come at it. Springing upon the breastworks in a body, they stood for an instant panic-stricken at the terrible array before them; that momentary delay was the signal for their destruction. While we, with our fingers pressing the trigger, shouted to them to jump, their troops massed in the rear, poured a volley into them, killing or wounding all but a few, who dropped with the rest and crawled in under our pieces, while we instantly began firing.

The battle, which during the morning raged with more or less violence on the right and left of this position, gradually slackened, and attention was concentrated upon the Angle. So continuous and heavy was our fire that the head logs of the breastworks were cut and torn until they resembled hickory brooms. Several large oak-trees, which grew just in the rear of the works, were completely gnawed off by our converging fire, and about 3 o'clock in the day fell among the enemy with a loud crash."

A Northerner explained that there "ensued one of those hand-to-hand encounters with clubbed rifles, bayonets, swords, and pistols which defies description."

Another Yankee called the opposition "fanatical."

Rebels in the Stonewall Brigade found that their powder was too damp to fire but nonetheless fought "like demons."

According to a witness, "the figures of the men seen dimly through the smoke and fog seemed almost gigantic, while the woods were lighted by the flashing of the guns and the sparkling of the musketry."

Another retained a vivid image of "men in crowds with bleeding limbs, and pale, pain-stricken faces."

Lee watched as they fell into line. "Not a word did he say," a witness recounted, "but simply took off his hat, and as he sat on his charger I never saw a man look so noble, or a spectacle so impressive."

Another reminisced: "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."

"The spurts of dirt were as constant as the pattering drops of a summer shower," a soldier from Maine recalled, "while overhead the swish and hum of the passing bullets was like a swarm of bees."

"The fighting was horrible," a Mississippian recalled. "The breastworks were slippery with blood and rain, dead bodies lying underneath half trampled out of sight."

A soldier from the famed Iron Brigade wrote home that "Gettysburg is a skirmish compared to this fight."

A soldier from New York wrote his parents that "we have fought one of the greatest battles ever fought. Neither party has been yet badly beaten, though I think the Johnnies have had the worst of it." Curious to examine the battlefield, he wandered into the salient, now in Union hands. Bodies sprawled everywhere. "The rifle pits were literally chocked with them," he observed, "some of them still breathing." He tried to explain his emotions to his family. "My feelings while looking at the bodies of our dead enemies were not of joy alone," he wrote. "I thought of how many hopes were bound up in the lives of those men whose broken 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."

A Confederate informed his family that "you can hardly imagine how uncomfortable we are lying in the mud." He added that "for nearly two weeks our men have been in line of battle—exposed to all the inclemency of weather—first the insufferable heat and now the drenching rains—and yet they stand and fight." He closed with a heartfelt plea. "I am worn out and wearied in mind, with continued anxiety. Oh if it could all end, and this terrible turmoil cease!"

"The fallen lay three or four feet deep in some places, and, with but few exceptions, they were shot in and about the head. Arms, accouterments, ammunition, cannon, shot and shell, and broken foliage were strewn about. With much labor a detail of Union soldiers buried the dead by simply turning the captured breastworks upon them. Thus had these unfortunate victims unwittingly dug their own graves. The trenches were nearly full of muddy water. It was the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed."

In the battle of Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864, General Edward Johnson's division of seven thousand men were taken prisoners at the salient known as "Bloody Angle." Some of the wounded prisoners were placed in the same field hospitals as the Federals, and treated by the Union surgeons. They were left on the field as the army moved on, and a small Confederate cavalry force under Colonel Rosser rescued all who could be identified as Confederates, and took all of the hospital attendants not wearing a distinctive badge. The surgeons and other attendants were left unmolested. Owing to the hard fighting and frequent changes of position in this campaign, both medical supplies and medical officers were scarcer than had generally been the case; but owing to the help of the Sanitary Commission and other outside agencies, the prisoners fared better than they would have done inside their own lines, and had one good meal before their rescue.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Stan and I had the privilege of going to Gettysburg for the last day of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg during the War of Northern Aggression. I have documented the re-enactment of a cavalry battle and of Pickett's Charge in a separate post. But while we were up there we had always wanted to visit other Virginia Civil War battlefields. We did Gettysburg on Sunday. We had stayed in York, PA for that. We left York on Monday and went to Fredericksburg, VA to do that battlefield.

When Virginia declared its secession from the Union in April 1861, Robert Edward Lee chose to follow his home state, despite his personal desire for the country to remain intact and despite the fact that President Abraham Lincoln had offered Lee command of a Union Army. During the Civil War, Lee originally served as a senior military adviser to President Jefferson Davis. He soon emerged as a shrewd tactician and battlefield commander, winning numerous battles against far superior Union armies. Robert E. Lee's evacuation of Maryland after the battle on Antietam Creek occurred on Sept. 19-20, 1862. Lee rested a few days on the Virginia side of the Potomac, and then marched leisurely up the Shenandoah Valley. When October had nearly passed by and Lee's army was thoroughly rested, reorganized, and communications with Richmond were re-established, he began to cross the river (Oct. 26) with 100,000 men. The Union army was led on the east side of the Blue Ridge, but failed to strike the retreating Confederates over the mountain in flank or to get ahead of them. Lee pushed Longstreet's troops over the Blue Ridge to Culpeper Courthouse, between the Union army and Richmond.

C.S.A. General Robert Edward Lee

U.S.A. General Ambrose E. Burnside

Before the fall of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln had twice offered Ambrose E. Burnside overall command of the Union's Army of the Potomac due to frustration with its present commander, George B. McClellan. Burnside turned it down both times insisting that McClellan was the man for the job. In September 1862, Burnside led the left wing of the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Antietam, during which his forces struggled to capture what became known as "Burnside's Bridge." But McClellan declined to press his advantage and pursue Lee's defeated Army of Northern Virginia after Antietam. Lincoln reached the limits of his patience so on November 7 he removed McClellan from command and appointed the reluctant Burnside to his post.

The Battle of Fredericksburg
The two armies at Fredericksburg represented the largest number of armed men that ever confronted each other for combat during the Civil War.

Union General Ambrose Everett Burnside, newly appointed commander of the Northern forces, planned to cross the Rappahannock River with an army of more than 120,000 troops and advance on the Southern capital at Richmond, VA. When Lee saw how slowly Burnside was moving, he directed all of his army toward Fredericksburg. By November 23, all of Longstreet's corps had arrived and Lee placed them on the ridge known as Marye's Heights (aka Willis Hill) to the west of town.

C.S.A. Lt. General James Longstreet

He placed Anderson's division on the far left.

C.S.A. General Joseph Reid Anderson

He placed McLaws's directly behind the town.

C.S.A. General Lafayette McLaws

He placed Pickett and Hood to the right.

C.S.A. General George Edward Pickett

C.S.A. General John Bell Hood

He sent for General Stonewall Jackson on November 26. Jackson, his Second Corps commander had anticipated the need and had begun forced-marching his troops from Winchester on November 22 covering as many as 20 miles a day. Jackson arrived at Lee's headquarters on November 29 and his divisions were deployed to prevent Burnside crossing downstream from Fredericksburg.

C.S.A. General Thomas Jonathon "Stonewall" Jackson

Lee had the time to move his army to block the crossings and build earthworks, extensive battlements.

The section of the Rappahannock near Falmouth was too deep to ford so Burnside relied on pontoon bridges. Burnside's plan was to cross the Rappahannock River and race to the Confederate capital of Richmond before Lee's army could stop him. This plan was somewhat thwarted because bureaucratic delays prevented Gen. A.E. Burnside from receiving the necessary pontoon bridges in time.

Pontoon bridges at Franklin's Crossing

Union soldiers waiting.

Sumner led the movement down the left bank of the Rappahannock. By the 20th a greater portion of Burnside's forces were opposite Fredericksburg, and their cannon commanded the town. Sumner demanded the surrender of the city (Nov. 21). It was refused. The bridges across the river were destroyed.

Photo of the Rappahanock River and Fredericksburg on the other side. Notice the railroad bridge has been destroyed.

A greater portion of the inhabitants now fled, and the town was occupied by Confederate troops. The army lay in a semicircle around Fredericksburg, each wing resting upon the Rappahannock, its right at Port Royal and its left 6 miles above the city. When the Union army was finally able to build its bridges and cross it was under fire. Urban combat resulted in the city on December 11–12, 1862.

Map showing the position of the pontoon bridges and the movement through the town.

General Robert E. Lee countered by taking a strong position on high ground behind Fredericksburg with a force of about 78,000-80,000. The "grand division" of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin was able to pierce the first defensive line of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson to the south, but was finally repulsed. Confederate sharpshooters assailed the Union engineers. The shots came from a brigade of Mississippians under William Barksdale. Burnside turned to his artillery chief, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, and ordered him to blast Fredericksburg into submission. The heavy ordnance of the Yankees on Stafford Heights opened upon the town, set the town on fire, and drove out many troops. The sharpshooters remained. Burnside now authorized volunteers to ferry themselves across the river in the clumsy pontoon boats. Men from Michigan, Massachusetts, and New York scrambled aboard the boats and navigated the hazardous 400 feet to the Confederates' side. Once on shore, the Federals charged Barksdale's marksmen who, despite orders to fall back, fiercely fiercely fought in a rare example of street fighting during the Civil War. After dusk the brave Mississippians finally withdrew to their main line and the bridge builders completed their work.

December 12 dawned cold and foggy. Burnside began pouring reinforcements into the city but made no effort to organize an attack. Instead, the Northerners squandered the day looting and vandalizing homes and shops.

On the morning of the 13th the Yankees made a simultaneous assault all along the line. The Confederates had 300 cannons posted on the heights. On December 13, 1862 a dense fog blanketed the ground and made it impossible for the armies to see each other. General A.E. Burnside made a two-pronged attack on the right and left flanks of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

Some maps

Burnside’s plan at Fredericksburg was to use Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin’s Left Grand Division of nearly 60,000 men to crush Lee’s southern flank on Prospect Hill while the rest of his army held Longstreet and the Confederate First Corps in position at Marye’s Heights. The Union army’s main assault against Stonewall Jackson produced some success at first, but lack of reinforcements and Stonewall Jackson’s powerful counterattack stymied the effort. Both sides suffered heavy losses.

Years of wagon traffic had worn down the surface of the roadway lending it a sunken appearance. Stone retaining walls paralleling the shoulders transformed this peaceful stretch of country highway into a ready-made trench.

Innis House on the Sunken Road with the Stephens House on beyond.

Stephens House on the Sunken Road.

Meade's men, Pennsylvanians all, moved out in the misty half-light about 8:30 a.m. and headed straight for Stonewall Jackson's line, not quite one mile distant. Artillery fire exploded to the left and rear of Meade's lines. Major John Pelham had valiantly moved two small guns into position along the Richmond Stage Road perpendicular to Meade's axis of march. The 24 year-old Alabamian ignored orders from Major General J.E.B. Stuart to disengage and continued to disrupt the Federal formations for almost an hour.

Major John Pelham, an artillery officer who served with the Confederate cavalry under C.S.A. General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart. (At Kelly's Ford on March 17, 1863, Pelham participated in a cavalry charge, his artillery not being engaged. Standing up in his stirrups, he urged his men to "Press forward, press forward to glory and victory!" Not long afterward, he was struck in the head by a fragment of an exploding Federal artillery shell. He was carried six miles from the battlefield to Culpeper Courthouse, and died the following morning without having regained consciousness.)

C.S.A. General James Ewell Brown "Jeb" Stuart

General Lee, watching the action from Prospect Hill, remarked, "it is glorious to see such courage in one so young." When Pelham exhausted his ammunition and retired, Meade resumed his approach, Jackson patiently allowed the Federals to close to within 500 yards of the wooded elevation where a 14-gun battalion lay hidden in the trees. As the Pennsylvanians drew near to the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad north of Hamilton's Crossing, "Stonewall" unleashed his masked artillery. Confederate shells ripped gaping holes in Meade's ranks and the beleaguered Unionists sought protection behind wrinkles of ground in the open fields.

Wave after wave of Federal soldiers marched forth to take the heights, but each was met with devastating rifle and artillery fire from the nearly impregnable Confederate positions. Confederate artillerist Edward Porter Alexander’s earlier claim that “a chicken could not live on that field” proved to be entirely prophetic this bloody day. That night soldiers from both sides were forced to listen to the painful cries of the wounded for hours, with neither side daring to venture out for fear of being shot by the enemy. During the next day the battlefield lay covered with the dead and dying Union soldiers. The wounded cried for help. Finally, Sgt. Richard Rowland Kirkland of C.S.A. 2nd South Carolina Volunteers, Co. G took pity on them and took his canteen to them. At first the Yanks fired on him but when they realized he was trying to bring comfort, they cheered him on. He was called the Angel of Marye's Heights. He was from Flat Rock, Kershaw County, South Carolina. (Kirkland went on to fight in both the Battle of Chancellorsville and the Battle of Gettysburg where, after further distinguishing himself for courage and ability, he was promoted to lieutenant. On September 20, 1863, he and two other men took command of a charge near "Snodgrass Hill" during the Battle of Chickamauga. Realizing they had advanced too far forward of their own unit, they attempted to return and Kirkland was shot. His last words were, "I'm done for... save yourselves and please tell my pa I died right.")

C.S.A. Sgt Richard Rowland Kirkland

The Army of the Potomac had suffered nearly 13,300 casualties, nearly two-thirds of them in front of Mayre’s Heights. By comparison, Lee’s army had suffered some 4,500 losses. It was a great Confederate victory! Robert E. Lee, watching the great Confederate victory unfolding from his hilltop command post exclaimed, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” Roughly six weeks after the Battle of Fredericksburg, President Lincoln removed Burnside from command of the Army of the Potomac.

A photograph of the town of Fredericksburg after the battle.

Burial of Union soldiers after the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Here are the photos we took of the battlefield.

One of the cannons on Marye's Heights

Stephens and Innis Houses in Fredericksburg, VA

The Brompton House on top of Marye's Heights. It was badly damaged during the battle.

Confederate Cemetery in Fredericksburg, VA

See my posts on Cemetery Art.

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