May 12, 1864
Battle of Spotsylvania
May 8-21, 1864
Day 5: At about 4:35 AM, Hancock’s troops, three divisions under Birney, Mott, and Gibbon, in that order, advance in a column of divisions over the open ground before the Mule Shoe. Barlow’s somewhat battered division advances also, on the left flank of the other column. Hancock’s column clambers over the earthworks and smashes into Jones’ brigade and nearly vaporizes it; they next hit Steuart’s brigade, decimating it and capturing Gen. Steuart himself.
|Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864|
The Federals then roll over the brigades of Monaghan and John Walker (the Stonewall Brigade), both of which are suddenly decimated: nearly every man either died where he stood or was captured. The Stonewall Brigade ceases to exist. Alleghany Johnson, the division commander, is also captured. Some of the Southern artillery has just been wheeled up when the Federal attack captures all 20 guns in the battalion. Blue-coated soldiers fill up the Mule Shoe, but the attacking regiments are somewhat disorganized, however. Hancock soon finds that he has 15,000 men crowded into the Mule Shoe, and no plan for how to exploit his break. The Federal impetus bogs down.
Soon, the Confederates gather their wits and begin to respond. Gen. Lee arrives, and finds that there is nothing between the Federal II Corps and the area behind his lines. Lee calls upon Gen. John B. Gordon to bring his division and move up to plug the gap. Gordon sends the brigade of Robert D. Johnston first, followed by Evans. Gen. Rodes sends a brigade to strike the west leg of the Mule Shoe, and Wright (VI Corps) sends in a division of Federals under Thomas Neill, who smash into the western face. In response, Gen. Mahone (C.S.) sends in two brigades to meet the VI Corps bluecoats. Wright then sends in David Russell’s division. Soon, here at the “Bloody Angle”, by 8:00 AM, rain begins falling in torrents again, and both armies find themselves on either side of the fortifications, a line of stacked logs, which is all that separates the combatants. The ground becomes slippery with rain and blood, and soldiers are stabbing their foes through the cracks between the logs, and they are passing loaded rifles up to the men at the wall, who fire without aiming over the tops. The struggle becomes a remorseless, bestial killing spree.
|The Bloody Angle|
Wounded men slip and fall, and are trampled by their own comrades into the mud, and after a while the men are treading on bodies rather than earth. South Carolina veteran Berry Benson writes his memories of this part of the fight: “Where the lines overlapped, the men said they and the enemy both fired without showing their heads above the work, which was certain death. Guns were loaded, held up to the breastwork, depressed, and the trigger pulled with the thumb. One man told me he several times took in his hand the barrel of a gun pointing down on him, held it up till it was fired and then let it go.”
Meanwhile, Confederate engineers quickly throw up a new line of fortifications across the base of the salient, which is completed by the early hours of May 13.
At the same time, Burnside sends in Gen. Potter’s division to put pressure on the east face of the Mule Shoe. Lee sends a patchwork of several brigades to stop Potter. On the right flank, Grant orders Warren to push forward once again, at the costly Laurel Hill area, and attack the Rebel line there. Warren does so, but is repulsed with heavy losses.
As night falls, Lee leaves the salient in the hands of the Federals. The rain continues to fall. The Yankees suffer 9,000 casualties on the day, and the Confederates lose 8,000, but 2,000 of those as prisoners.
---Maj. Gen. JEB Stuart dies today from his wounds. He is only 31 years old, and Lee’s most trusted commander of cavalry.
---George Michael Neese, of the Confederate artillery, writes in his journal his account of what he saw and heard in the day’s battle:
After we were firing about an hour a shell from the Yankee battery exploded right in front of my gun, and I saw a good-sized fragment that was whizzing fearfully and searching for something to kill. It came right at me as though I was its sure game, but I quickly jumped across the trail of my gun in order to clear the path for the little whirling death machine that was after me and was ready to call me its own dear Rebel. It passed me with a shrill snappish ping, and with a thud it ripped up the ground just in rear of where I had been standing; if I had not seen it coming and quickly jumped out of its path it would have struck me square in front just below the breast, which would have undoubtedly labeled me for transportation to the silent city. But a miss is as good as a mile, and when the fragment that was courting familiarity had passed over me I jumped back to my place at the gun, and the very next shell I fired struck and exploded a limber chest in the Yankee battery; immediately after I fired I saw a dense telltale column of smoke shoot up in the air from the enemy’s position, and then I knew that my shell had done some ugly work among the ammunition boxes of our brethren in blue.
We had no way of ascertaining the extent of damage that the explosion scattered around, but it must have been considerable, as it silenced the Yankee battery for the remainder of the evening; if they were satisfied to wind up our little act in the great tragedy by ringing down the curtain for a little explosion I am sure that I had enough, and was willing and glad to quit.
After the firing ceased we held our position until nearly dusk, and when we left the field the Yankee battery was still in the breastwork from which it fired at us this afternoon — until we planted a young volcano among their ammunition chests.
During the battle I saw a Yankee shell explode in front of one of our batteries. The butt end of the shell struck one of the drivers in the breast and went through him; when it struck him he jumped up about a foot from the saddle, then fell to the ground stretched out in full length, and never struggled.
The battle-field of Spottsylvania Court House is undulating and diversified by hills and hollows, woods and fields, brushwood and thicket. It rained nearly all day, and sometimes when the rain poured down the hardest and almost in torrents the musketry was heaviest. It looked as if Heaven were trying to wash up the blood as fast as the civilized barbarians were spilling it.
---Private Daniel Holt of Mississippi writes of his experience in the battles at the Bloody Angle, and of the inhumane horror of it:
We were in the V-shaped salient that had traverses thrown up to prevent an enfilading fire. The line was mended, and we [had to] keep it mended. Soon the Yanks made a determined charge with fixed bayonets, but the mud fought for us as the “stars were against Sisera, and for Israel.” The breastwork was in a bog, and to make a charge in such a place against a line of fierce men close up, who have no idea of giving way, was more than those gallant Yanks could do.
Many of them were shot dead and sank down on the breastworks without pulling their feet out of the mud. Many others plunged forward when they were shot and fell headlong into the trench among us. Between charges we cleared the trench of dead and wounded and loaded all the guns we could get hold of for the next charge. I was shooting seven guns myself. We stacked them up against the breastwork with the butts on the trench, and when the Yanks came, we picked them up one by one and fired and sent them down again. Many times we could not put the gun to our shoulder by reason of the closeness of the enemy, so we shot from the hip.
All the time a drizzling rain was falling. The blood shed by the dead and wounded in the trench mixed with the mud and water. It became more than shoe deep, and soon it was smeared all over our clothes. We could hardly tell one another apart.
---Gen. Butler begins to push his columns out of Bermuda Hundred again, turning north along the west bank of the James River, striking toward the Confederate fortifications at Drewry’s Bluff, the last defensive spot that can stop a Union Navy incursion up to Richmond.