Union Soldiers Recall the Fighting at the Mule Shoe Salient at Spotsylvania Courthouse
After the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5th to 7th, 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued his Overland Campaign by moving the Union Army southeast toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. There were a series of battles in the area of Spotsylvania Courthouse between May 8th and 21st, but the largest and bloodiest of these occurred on May 12th. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had entrenched and fortified his line, but there was a sector that extended northward out from the line.
This sector of the salient was vulnerable from three sides. Because of its roughly horse shoe shape, the line here was named the Mule Shoe Salient. The Federal command planned an attack on this position with Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps leading the way. Hancock’s men attacked at about 4:30 in the morning, and smashed through the Confederate line and into the Mule Shoe. Also joining in was the Union 9th Corps, who attacked on the left side of the Mule Shoe, and the 6th Corps, attacking later that morning on the right of the 2nd Corps.
Confederate reaction to this setback was swift, and a new defensive line was quickly established. For over 20 hours, hand to hand fighting continued back and forth in heavy rain, with men using bayonets and firing at each other at point blank range. This muddy, bloody part of the line became known as the Bloody Angle, and the horrors that occurred in the fighting here almost defy description. Fighting continued until the predawn hours of the 13th, when the Confederates withdrew to a new fortified line 500 yards to the south.
Here are some eyewitness accounts of the fighting from the Union side.
Passing over the ground inside the works the next day I was able to appreciate the full measure of its horrors. I shrink from the attempt to describe the scene. It was a ghastly and horrible example of the organized brutality that we call war. No language can adequately portray the sickening spectacle. Imagine, if you can, a line of intrenchment four hundred yards in length–a solid wall of timber and earth forming eight or ten pen like enclosures half filled with dead and dying men. They lay in piles sometimes five men deep. Often the dead were lying upon the mortally wounded who groaned in their death agony and begged for water and prayed for death. Bodies hung upon the works in every form of mangling. Blood and mangling were everywhere and the sickening stench of the battlefield was over it all.
J.W. Muffly, Regimental Adjutant, 148th Pennsylvania Infantry, 4th Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps.
In the early morning, just as our line reached the works, Captain Lincoln of the Sixty-fourth New York and another officer, whose face I did not see, sprang upon the works cheering their men on, when a shot struck the officer, whose face was turned from me, killing him instantly.
Jackson, a boy from my own company and regiment, not over seventeen years of age, mounting the works at the same time and seeing the shot fired, turned his gun (it being unloaded) bayonet down, and threw it spear fashion with “Take that you Rebel Son of a —-.” striking the man who had fired the shot just above the heart. The force with which he threw it drove the bayonet entirely through his chest, burying at least four inches of the muzzel of the gun in the breast of the Confederate, who uttered the most unearthly yell I ever heard from human lips as he fell over backward with the gun sticking in him.
About one o’clock it rained heavily and wounded men dragged themselves about drinking out of the pools and hollows. Those who were so disabled as to be helpless lay with open mouths to cool their parched tongues by catching the few drops as they fell, Back of the salient was a sink-hole; into this rain and blood collected until it was full of red water, and around this were a hundred wounded men drinking and groaning.
A schoolmate and intimate friend of Major Church, both belonging to the Twenty-sixth Michigan, fell on top of the works that morning. He was the only son of wealthy and indulgent parents…When volunteers were called for in the hour of the nation’s need, he was amoung the first to step forward and put his name down, saying he was going as a private and try to make a man of himself…We found the remains where they fell. There had been no time to remove them, and they had lain on top of the works during the entire engagement, and, had it not been for some of the comrades who had seen him fall and identified the place, we would never have recognized it as having been a soldier. There was no semblance of humanity about the mass that was lying before us. The only thing I could liken it to was a sponge, I presume five thousand bullets had passed through it…
Lieutenant John D. Black, 145th Pennsylvania Infantry, serving as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General Francis Barlow, commanding 1st Division, 2nd Corps.
Near this tree were two field pieces, horses and men all dead. Across one of the guns hung the body of an artillerymen, gradually this body was so cut to pieces by the flying bullets that it slid from the gun apparently severed, the legs from the trunk…
…hand to hand conflicts raged back and forth over the breastworks in places where the lines came together. The men not only fired into each other’s faces, but fought with bayonets and clubbed muskets; in some cases dragging their antagonists over the works to be made prisoners if they escaped death by shot or bayonet thrust.
Colonel Edwin C. Mason, 7th Maine Infantry, 2nd Division, 6th Corps
The “Horse-shoe” was a boiling, bubbling and hissing caldron of death.
Lee’s army was hurled against us as we lay hugging the slope of the earth work, loading and firing at will, in five successive waves, in his effort to retake this, the key to his position; but our fire was too hot, and the waves of gray were successfully beaten back with terrible loss. Once a few hundred, with a stand of colors in their furious charge, reached the inside of the works. To advance was impossible, to retreat was death, for in the great struggle that raged there, there were few merely wounded…Clubbed muskets and bayonet thrusts were the mode of fighting for those who had used up their cartridges, and frenzy seemed to possess the yelling, demonic hordes on either side, as soft voiced tender hearted men in camp, sought like wild beasts, to destroy their fellow men.
Lieutenant Robert S. Robertson, aide-de-camp to Colonel Nelson Miles, commanding 1st Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps.
…someone raised the cry of “Forward!” and we pressed forward towards the second line of works…Very soon the enemy appeared and charged up to the works and then it was a hand to hand fight over the works, we being as determined to hold them as they were to retake them, so that the dead and dying were literally piled in heaps on both sides…
A very large book might be written about the many scenes that come under one’s observation at such a time, some of them so peculiar as to cause you to laugh. Among several such I may mention one, that of a man with his head shot off running for more than a rod. It occurred early in the day, when we had been driven back from the charge on the second line…we were ordered to evacuate all that part of the line down to the west salient…We started across on the jump, Corporal Russell of my company and myself running about a rod apart. Immediately in front of us as soldier, running like ourselves, was struck in the head by a shell or solid shot and his head cut clean off from his shoulders, but he continued to run for a rod or more before he fell.
Private Edwin C. Jackson, 125th New York Infantry, 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, 2nd Corps.
I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spottsylvania, because I should be loth to believe it myself, were the case reversed…Early next morning we went to visit the scene of the fighting. The breastworks were of heavy logs, and they had traverses, that is, other short breastworks perpendicular to them to protect from a flanking fire. The rebels were mostly between these traverses, and they lay two, three, and sometimes four tiers deep, the lowest tier nearly covered by blood and water. The wounded were often writhing under two or three of the dead…
Nor was the scene where lay the boys in blue less cruel. They were mostly in the open, many nothing but a lump of meat or clot of gore where countless bullets from both armies had torn them…
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Hyde, Provost Marshall General, 6th Corps.
The Bloody Angle by Edwin C. Jackson. In Civil War Sketches and Incidents: Papers Read by Companions of the Commandery of the State of Nebraska, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States Vol. 1
Following the Greek Cross or Memories of the Sixth Army Corps by Thomas W. Hyde
From the Wilderness to Spottsylvania by Robert S. Robertson. In Sketches of War History 1861-1865: Papers Read Before the Ohio Commandery of the Military Otrder of the Loyal Legion of the United States Vol 1
If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania by William D. Matter
Reminiscences of the Bloody Angle by John D. Black. In Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle: Papers Read before the Commandery of the State of Minnesota, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Fourth Series
The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Volunteers by J.W. Muffly
Through the Wilderness to Spottsylvania Courthouse by Edwin C. Mason. In Glimpses of the Nation’s Struggle: Papers read before the Commandery of the State of Minnesota, Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, Fourth Series.