Bloody Angle & Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

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Battle of the Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania Court House
Battle of the Mule Shoe Salient and Bloody Angle History

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is a continuation of the Battle of the Wilderness. General Grant's decision to move forward to Spotsylvania changed the course of the war. For the first time in the Eastern Theatre, the Army of the Potomac went forward after a battle and maintained control of the initiative for the rest of the war. If viewed as one campaign, the Wilderness / Spotsylvania Campaign is the bloodiest in American history. The Battle of Spotsylvania, May 8-21, 1864, included some of the most desperate hand-to-hand fighting of the Civil War.

Bloody Angle: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
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Bloody Angle. National Park Service

Bloody Angle

The following describes the Bloody Angle: Along a 200 yard stretch of the Confederate line centered at what was called the West Angle of the Mule Shoe; soldiers struggled for 20 hours in the longest hand-to-hand fight of the war. Harris' Brigade of Mississippians and McGowan's Brigade of South Carolinians battled portions of the Union VI Corps. On May 12, Union and Confederate soldiers struggled over this ground for more than 20 hours, through pouring rain, producing unparalleled examples of both courage and carnage.

The Mule Shoe

Late on May 8, Confederate Edward Johnson's division, about 3.000 men, built an outer line of entrenchments.

"The ground was examined, and General Edward "Allegheny" Johnson found we were on the brow of a ridge, which turned somewhat shortly to the right. The campfires in our front seemed to us to be considerably below the plane of our position...It was now quite late in the night, and General Johnson deflected his line and followed the ridge, so far as it could be distinguished in darkness." Lieutenant W.W. Old, Johnson's aide

The "deflection" in the Southern line became known as the "Mule Shoe," or simply the "Salient." Confederate officers recognized the vulnerability of the position but, with the added support of over 20 artillery pieces, they felt the line could be held. On May 10, a preliminary Union assault, led by Colonel Emory Upton, met with limited success against the northwestern portion of the Salient. Upton's achievement prompted Union commander Ulysses S. Grant to organize a much larger attack. He massed a column of 20,000 troops; their objective: to carry the apex of the Salient.

Peering through the morning mist in the predawn darkness of May 12, the Confederates caught their first glimpse of the Union attack.

"Click, click sounded along our ranks as each man cocked his musket and every eye was strained to discover in the dim light of early dawn, the first appearance of the Yankee line as it emerged from the woods. Some moments passed before we could see a single Yankee, when suddenly the enemy poured out of the woods on our right; as far as the eye could see the enemy was seen, covering the whole field. . . ." Isaac Seymour, Confederate Staff Officer

With an hurrah, the blue masses swept forward, first striking at the "East Angle." They quickly captured General Johnson and over 2,500 of his men, thanks in part to the absence of Confederate artillery which had been ordered away the previous evening.

"The storm had burst upon us. I could see General Johnson with his cane striking at the enemy as they leaped over the works, and a sputtering fire swept up and down our line, many guns being damp, I found myself. . . in the midst of foes, who were rushing around me, with confusion and a general melee in full blast." Major Robert Hunter, Confederate Staff Officer

Fighting at the Mule Shoe
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Fighting at the Mule Shoe, Spotsylvania, Courthouse

(Right) Artist conception of the fight at Bloody Angle during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Second Corps Attacks

General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps attacked across the open ground.

"I remember the thin picket line of the enemy, with their bewildered look. There was a little patter of bullets, and I saw a few of our men on the ground; one discharge of artillery. . . and we were up on the works with our hands full of guns, prisoners and colors." General Francis Barlow, USA

Union Troops Form

The Northern columns formed along the tree line, and Union soldiers built trenches running parallel to the dirt road after the morning attack.

Although one of the largest frontal assaults of the war, the attack began inauspiciously because commanding officers were not certain how to reach the Confederate works. After much initial confusion, General Barlow, overcome by the "absurdity of the situation," exclaimed to his guide: "For Heaven's sake, at least face us in the right direction, so we shall not march away from the enemy and have to go around the world and come up in their rear!"

Battle of Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania Court House
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Battle of Bloody Angle, Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield Map. Courtesy Civil War Trust.

Frontal Assault

They received a tremendous fire as they came up out of the ravine. . . No troops could stand such a fire and they were driven back, leaving the ground strewn with their dead and wounded. Troops cannot live over that slope. Colonel J.B. Parsons, 10th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

Small Measures of Protection

During the savage fighting for the Bloody Angle, small ridges and swales provided some measure of protection from the steady storm of lead. Those who still survived now faced hours of harrowing combat at point blank range in a pouring rain.

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

Civil War defenses near Bloody Angle
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Confederate entrenchments near the Bloody Angle with abatis. LOC.

Battle of the Salient Mule Shoe and Angle
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Battle of the Salient at Spotsylvania Court House, VA

(Left) The salient at Spotsylvania, May 10-12, 1864. Map indicates the positions of the Corps of Longstreet, Ewell and Hill, and the charge of Barlow's Division on May 12. LOC. (Right) Civil War era photo of Confederate trenches fortified with abatis near "The Angle" at Spotsylvania Court House. LOC.

The Bloody Angle

Throughout the afternoon and well into the night, Yankee and Rebel fought each other with relentless determination. Nearby, a 22-inch oak, was shattered by the incessant musket and artillery fire.
 
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. General Lewis Addison Grant, USA

The outnumbered Confederates eventually fell back to a new line, and the battle of May 12 ended, but the fight for the Bloody Angle stood out in sharp contrast from other battles. Its terrible slaughter seemed to signal a shift in each side's perception of this great American Civil War. Never again would Lee have the strength to lead his men north; now, he fought to survive. Grant, too, left with a clearer, albeit brutal, image of the future. No matter what the cost, he would fight Lee's army until he destroyed it.

(Sources and related reading below.)

Recommended Reading: Bloody Angle: Hancock's Assault On The Mule Shoe Salient, May 12, 1864 (Battleground America Guides). Description: On the morning of May 12, 1864, the site of the daring Union assault on the center of the Confederate line became the scene of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat of the Civil War, and thereafter was known as the "Bloody Angle." Da Capo's new "Battleground America" series offers a unique approach to the battles and battlefields of America. Each book in the series highlights a small American battlefield-sometimes a small portion of a much larger battlefield-and tells the story of the brave soldiers who fought there.

Using soldiers' memoirs, letters and diaries, as well as contemporary illustrations, the human ordeal of battle comes to life on the page. All of the units, important individuals, and actions of each engagement on the battlefield are described in a clear and concise narrative. Detailed maps complement the text and illustrate small unit action at each stage of the battle. Then-and-now photographs tie the dramatic events of the past to the modern battlefield site and highlight the importance of terrain in battle. The present-day historical site of the battle is described in detail with suggestions for touring. About the Author: John Cannan has established a reputation among civil War writers in remarkably short time. His distinctions include three books selected by the Military Book Club. He is the author of The Atlanta Campaign, The Wilderness Campaign, and The Spotsylvania Campaign. He is an historic preservation attorney living in Baltimore.

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Advance to:
 

Recommended Reading: The Spotsylvania Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War) (Hardcover). Description: The Spotsylvania Campaign marked a crucial period in the confrontation between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in Virginia. Waged over a two-week period in mid-May 1864, it included some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War and left indelible marks on all involved. Approaching topics related to Spotsylvania from a variety of perspectives, the contributors to this volume explore questions regarding high command, tactics and strategy, the impact of fighting on officers and soldiers in both armies, and the ways in which some participants chose to remember and interpret the campaign. They offer insight into the decisions and behavior of Lee and of Federal army leaders, the fullest descriptions to date of the horrific fighting at the "Bloody Angle" on May 12, and a revealing look at how Grant used his memoirs to offset Lost Cause interpretations of his actions at Spotsylvania and elsewhere in the Overland Campaign.

Meet the Contributors:
—William A. Blair, Grant's Second Civil War: The Battle for Historical Memory
—Peter S. Carmichael, We Respect a Good Soldier, No Matter What Flag He Fought Under: The 15th New Jersey Remembers Spotsylvania
—Gary W. Gallagher, I Have to Make the Best of What I Have: Robert E. Lee at Spotsylvania
—Robert E. L. Krick, Stuart's Last Ride: A Confederate View of Sheridan's Raid
—Robert K. Krick, An Insurmountable Barrier between the Army and Ruin: The Confederate Experience at Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle
—William D. Matter, The Federal High Command at Spotsylvania
—Carol Reardon, A Hard Road to Travel: The Impact of Continuous Operations on the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1864
—Gordon C. Rhea, The Testing of a Corp Commander: Gouverneur Kemble Warren at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania
 

Recommended Reading: The Spotsylvania Campaign: May 7-21, 1864 (Great Campaigns). Description: A very detailed examination of the Spotsylvania Campaign. A dramatic study of the campaign and the clash of the titans - Robert E. Lee against Ulysses S. Grant – and it is a book that you will refuse to put down. Continued below.

 

Recommended Reading: The Battles For Spotsylvania Court House And The Road To Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. Description: The second volume in Gordon C. Rhea's peerless five-book series on the Civil War's 1864 Overland Campaign abounds with Rhea's signature detail, innovative analysis, and riveting prose. Here Rhea examines the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864, when Grant left the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee's line by frontal assault reached a chilling climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle. Drawing exhaustively upon previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional wisdom about this violent clash of titans to construct the ultimate account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania. Continued below…

About the Author: Gordon C. Rhea is also the author of The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864; To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, winner of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award; Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26–June 3, 1864, winner of the Austin Civil War Round Table’s Laney Prize, and Carrying the Flag: The Story of Private Charles Whilden, the Confederacy’s Most Unlikely Hero. He lives in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, with his wife and two sons.

 

Recommended Reading: Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: In the study of field fortifications in the Civil War that began with Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War, Hess turns to the 1864 Overland campaign to cover battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. Drawing on meticulous research in primary sources and careful examination of trench remnants at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred, Hess describes Union and Confederate earthworks and how Grant and Lee used them in this new era of field entrenchments.

Recommended Reading: To the North Anna River: Grant And Lee, May 13-25, 1864 (Jules and Frances Landry Award Series). Description: With To the North Anna River, the third book in his outstanding five-book series, Gordon C. Rhea continues his spectacular narrative of the initial campaign between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864. May 13 through 25, a phase oddly ignored by historians, was critical in the clash between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia. During those thirteen days—an interlude bracketed by horrific battles that riveted the public’s attention—a game of guile and endurance between Grant and Lee escalated to a suspenseful draw on Virginia’s North Anna River. Continued below... 

From the bloodstained fields of the Mule Shoe to the North Anna River, with Meadow Bridge, Myers Hill, Harris Farm, Jericho Mills, Ox Ford, and Doswell Farm in between, grueling night marches, desperate attacks, and thundering cavalry charges became the norm for both Grant’s and Lee’s men. But the real story of May 13–25 lay in the two generals’ efforts to outfox each other, and Rhea charts their every step and misstep. Realizing that his bludgeoning tactics at the Bloody Angle were ineffective, Grant resorted to a fast-paced assault on Lee’s vulnerable points. Lee, outnumbered two to one, abandoned the offensive and concentrated on anticipating Grant’s maneuvers and shifting quickly enough to repel them. It was an amazingly equal match of wits that produced a gripping, high-stakes bout of warfare—a test, ultimately, of improvisation for Lee and of perseverance for Grant.

 

Recommended Reading: If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania (Hardcover). Description: The termination of the war and the fate of the Union hung in the balance in May of 1864 as Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac clashed in the Virginia countryside—first in the battle of the Wilderness, where the Federal army sustained greater losses than at Chancellorsville, and then further south in the vicinity of Spotsylvania Courthouse, where Grant sought to cut Lee's troops off from the Confederate capital of Richmond. This is the first book-length examination of the pivotal Spotsylvania campaign of 7-21 May.

Drawing on extensive research in manuscript collections across the country and an exhaustive reading of the available literature, William Matter sets the strategic stage for the campaign before turning to a detailed description of tactical movements. He offers abundant fresh material on race from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the role of Federal and Confederate cavalry, Emory Upton's brilliantly conceived Union assault on 10 May, and the bitter clash on 19 May at the Harris farm. Throughout the book, Matter assesses each side's successes, failures, and lost opportunities and sketches portraits of the principal commanders. The centerpiece of the narrative is a meticulous and dramatic treatment of the horrific encounter in the salient that formed the Confederate center on 12 May. There the campaign reached its crisis, as soldiers waged perhaps the longest and most desperate fight of the entire war for possession of the Bloody Angle—a fight so savage that trees were literally shot to pieces by musket fire. Matter's sure command of a mass of often-conflicting testimony enables him to present by far the clearest account to date of this immensely complex phase of the battle. Rigorously researched, effectively presented, and well supported by maps, this book is a model tactical study that accords long overdue attention to the Spotsylvania campaign. It will quickly take its place in the front rank of military studies of the Civil War.

 

Sources: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park; Carruth, Gorton. "The Encyclopedia of American Facts and Dates". 10th Ed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers 1997; Map courtesy Civil War Trust; Library of Congress; National Archives.

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