In the last year of of the US Civil war, US Grant had taken command of the Army and had began his efforts to maneuver R.E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into a position to be destroyed or taken. After the efforts of the Wilderness, Grant learned why “Old Mars Lee ” was so feared and respected by the men of the Army of the Potomac.
The series of attacks and counter attacks and marched and counter marches had brought both Armies to Spotsylvania. As usual Lee had anticipated what Grant had in mind and had his men there to throw up earth works just in time. The union army assaulted the CSA works numerous time to be repulsed. A Junior Officer came up with a tactic designed to breach the Rebel line earlier in the battle and after showing promise it was decided to try again on a large scale.
After a rainy night delayed the attack, the Northern men assaulted In a sector of the rebel lines known as the “The Mule Shoe”.,one of the most horrific 24 hours of the war took place. In the 200 yard long area that saw some of the heaviest and gruesome fighting , it became known as “The Bloody Angle”
The intense action took place at a section of a rebel salient known as the angle where the fighting reached an unprecedented level or savageness. As the Union attacked and gained the muddy works the close fighting became hand to hand. The ground , already wet with the rain and now blood, churned under the feet of the soldiers of each side as they locked into combat. The Lee re-enforced as Grant sent more until a staggering amount of men crowded a small area fighting to break the line and to hold the line.
“Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee.”
The fighting in the bloody angle was non stop for near 24 hours before the CSA engineers built up works 500 meter to the rear and the units withdrew unit by unit. The Unions troops completely exhausted and no doubt mentally shattered even if only temporary, withdrew from the taken by now useless works.
For those 24 hours in the angle, the veterans of the war had not seen anything like it. Men fought hand to hand and fired at each other muzzle to muzzle. Balls flew through the air like a swarm o bees. The wounded fell and as they tried to regain their feet became trampled down and into the mud by the men still fighting. sometimes 3 and four men deep. Accounts of survivors tell of men brought up to a blood rage and fighting beyond exhaustion. Some killing beyond their own physical limits but pushing on anyway. Blood lust seem to over take many of the men as they attempted to kill and maim with by any means. All the while the fight taking place in mud. filth blood, body parts and internal organs spilled on the ground while the wounded and dead piled up.
This went on for 24 hours before the battle ended. Those in it or saw it never forget it.
Horace Porter, a member of Grant’s “military family”wrote of it later.
“The appalling sight presented was harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the “angle,” 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. 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 the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late. The place was well named the “Bloody Angle.”
One story that always turns up of accounts of the fight is of the unbelievable amount of firepower used during the fight. Tells of all the trees standing cut down by musket balls. Then those felled trees further getting shot up until nothing was left of them bigger than a match book. One tree that was noticed by all during the fight was a large oak hit by so many minnie balls, that nothing of it remained but a 22 inch stump. The stump was saved after the battle by a local and found its way later into the Smithsonian. That stump pictured above. The remains of a large strong oak reduced to a stump attest to the wall of lead those men fought in. You could say there was more lead in the air than oxygen and I doubt vets of the fight would think it a joke.
Photo above is from Smithsonian. Obviously I have let out much of the details just to take a look at the stump and some of the horrible hand to hand slaughter that produced it, The battle was part of a much larger story of the campaign and is as compelling as all of the Civil War and the men who fought it. I recommend further reading for a full appreciation of the fight because this post barely starts to scratch the surface.
The Civil War A Narrative , Foote
Clouds of Glory, Korda
Campaigning with Grant, Porter