Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Bloody Angle

For Memorial Day

For last year's post see The Death Of Captain Waskow

THC spent last weekend in Virginia, along with Larry and Bob and about forty other Civil War nuts, on a tour of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, two of the battles of the Overland Campaign of 1864.  Our guide was the knowledgeable, entertaining and acerbic Robert Krick, Chief Historian at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park for 31 years until his retirement in 2002. It was a beautiful Virginia weekend with sunny skies, a high temperature of 70 and very little humidity.  The battlefields, particularly Spotsylvania, looked bucolic.
Standing at the portion of the Confederate line attacked by Federal forces on May 10 and looking towards The Bloody Angle at the end of the road.  It didn't look this nice 150 years ago this month.  Below are two survivor accounts of the sacrifices made on that field.

The Battle of the Wilderness was two days (May 5-6).  Spotsylvania was two weeks (May 8-21), a length unheard of before then in the war.  Major fighting took place on May 8,10,12, 18 and 19 and on the other days there was constant skirmishing, shelling and sniper fire.  For instance, on May 9 Union Sixth Corps Commander John Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter firing from 600 yards away.  Sedgwick was the most senior Union officer killed during the war and the incident occurred as he was trying to reassure his men who were ducking a sniper by telling them "they couldn't hit an elephant at that distance".
Sedgwick was killed while standing in the spot where this picture was taken.  The shot likely came from a sniper in the clump of trees located in the far distance beyond the upper left side of the Stop sign.

The field fortifications built during the battle dwarfed those of previous battles and made the scene look like something from WWI, fifty years in the future.File:CSGräbenSpotsylvania.JPG
(Spotsylvania, The Bloody Angle)

Within the two week battle it was the events of May 12 that stood out in everyone's recollection both at the time and after the war. The center of the Confederate line at Spotsylvania was what became known as The Muleshoe, a protruding salient about a mile in depth and width, vulnerable to Federal attack on three sides

To take advantage of that vulnerability a large Federal force under the command of General Winfield Scott Hancock launched a surprise attack at dawn on May 12.  The Union troops stormed the Rebel positions by using an unusual tactic.  Instead of arraying themselves in line and firing volleys as they approached, the Union regiments aligned in deep columns and charged, not stopping to shoot.  The rapid pace of the Union attack led to initial success aided by Robert E Lee's decision to remove cannon from the salient the night before and the rainy weather which prevented many of the Confederate rifles from firing.

The Confederate line was shattered.  Quickly responding, the Rebels began to counterattack and regain some of the lost ground.  Lee needed his men to buy some time while he constructed a new defensive line at the base of the salient.  In one area a Mississippi and a South Caroline brigade fought their way back to the original breastworks.  For the next 20 hours they and the Union forces on the other side were locked together in the most sustained, bitter fighting of the war at what became known as The Bloody Angle.
(Looking at The Muleshoe, which is along the heavy treeline, from the Union position.  The Bloody Angle is at the far right.  We took a nice walk over to it but, then again, no one was shooting at us.)

It rained throughout the day and evening of May 12.  Trees shattered by artillery fire (though one 22-inch oak was cut down solely by musket fire a dramatic event at around midnight noted in most of the surviving accounts; its stump still on display at the Smithsonian) stood over a morass of mud which became deeper as the day wore on and to which was added, as one soldier noted, a mixture of "blood and brains".  On the Confederate side the breastworks were taller than a man.  Behind were traverses; trenches dug perpendicular to the breastwork, with three sides shored up by logs with the Rebel troops huddled inside, isolated from the traverses on either side of them described as like "being in a three sided log cabin without a roof".  This configuration led to each group of men in each traverse fighting their own battle for hours on end.

On the other side of the breastworks was a short level area and then a slope leading down to a gully.  As long as the Federal troops stayed in the gully, Confederates could not shoot them unless they themselves stood on top of the breastworks.  Thousands of Union soldiers eventually huddled there.  But all through the day, the Union troops would regroup and launch another charge followed by a  Confederate counterattack and when that happened the fighting was at pointblank range.  The ferocity was such that the Bloody Angle is one of the few instances in the war where there are a large number of bayonet wounds documented.  As we walked those green fields it was hard to imagine the courage and fortitude it took those brave Union soldiers to venture charge after charge, for hour on end, against those fortifications.

Here are the recollections of two soldiers, one Union and one Confederate both of whom saw much combat during the war and for each The Bloody Angle stood out in uniquely in its horror.

From Hard Marching Every Day by Private Wilbur Fisk, 2nd Vermont Regiment

But the most singular and obstinate fighting that I have seen during the war, or ever heard or dreamed of in my life, was the fight of last Thursday [May 12] . . . The rebels were on one side of the breastwork, and we on the other.  We could touch their guns with ours.  They would load, jump up and fire into us, and we did the same to them . . . Some of our boys would jump clear up on to the breastwork and fire, then down, reload and fire again, until they were themselves picked off. . . . I visited the place the next morning and though I have seen horrid scenes since this war commenced, I never saw anything half so bad as that.  Our men lay piled one top of another, nearly all shot through the head.  There were many among them that I knew well . . . On the rebel side it was worse than on ours.  In some places the men were piled four or five deep, some of whom were still alive . . . I have sometimes hoped, that if I must die while I am a soldier, I should prefer to die on the battle-field, but after looking at such a scene, one cannot help turning away and saying, Any death but that.
The Overland Campaign post tells of the toll taken on the Union army during these weeks.  In a letter of January 1, 1865, Fisk looks back on 1864 and reports that the start of the campaign on May 4, 1864 his brigade had 3,899 men fit for duty and had suffered 3,086 casualties over the next eight months.

As awful an ordeal for the Union soldiers, at least many who survived were rotated away from the Angle during the hours of fighting.  For the Southerners it was worse.  Those who were there at the beginning, stayed until the end; there was no relief.

From A Mississippi Rebel in the Army of Northern Virginia by Private David Holt, 16th Mississippi Regiment

Soon the Yanks made a determined charge with fixed bayonets . . . 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 . . . 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 the wounded in the trench mixed with the mud and the water.  It became more than shoe deep, and soon it was smeared all over our clothes.  The powder smoke settled on us, while the rain trickled down on our faces from the rims of our caps like buttermilk on the inside of a tumbler.  We could hardly tell one another apart.  No Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical looking set of devils as we were.

After describing an incident when a Union officer came forward during a lull in the fighting to request they surrender and was shot down by another Rebel and how his Orderly Sergeant died next to him after being hit in the head by a bullet ricocheting off a tree, Holt talks of how men broke under the unending stress writing of an episode when a man in his company broke down and tried to surrender to the Yankees before being shot down by a comrade who was afraid that once one man surrendered others would follow:

I will not mention the name of that man who raised the white flag.  He was a good soldier, but allowed himself to be overcome by the horror and terror of the situation.  Nor will I mention the name of the comrade who shot him.  He was his friend.

Sometime that night, around 3-4am, the brigade finally withdrew from its position leaving Holt, who had fallen asleep, behind, assuming he was dead.  Awakening a few minutes later, Holt took a last look around him:

I don't expect to go to Hell, but if I do, I am sure that Hell can't beat that terrible scene.

Moving "double quick" he caught up with his unit:
We halted in a pasture and broke ranks.  Then came the reaction.  All moved by the same impulse, we sat down on the wet ground and wept.  Not silently, but vociferously and long.  Officers and men together . . . We washed our hands and faces in pools of rain-water.  We were covered with bloody mud from head to foot.  Soon we got rations of corndodger and fried bacon, but not a man could eat. 
After the war, David Holt was ordained as an Episcopal priest and archdeacon.  Wilbur Fisk became a Congregational minister. 


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