Volume XXVI Issue #1 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of The Bloody Angle,
or "Mule Shoe"

by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

Click Here to view a sample map from this article
Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

The East Angle of Robert E. Lee’s “Mule Shoe” position at Spotsylvania viewed from the Union artillery line along Landrum Lane.

The Battle of the
Bloody Angle, or “Mule Shoe”
Spotsylvania Court House, May 12, 1864

by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

They stood in the pre-dawn quiet, waiting, some 20,000 of them. “Surrounded by the silence of night, by darkness and by fog, they stood, listening to raindrops as they fell from leaf to leaf,” one of them remembered.1 The drizzle soaked their clothes, the mud sucked at their boots, the fog seeped into their bones. Yet some of the men of the Union II Corps still managed to doze on their feet, exhausted as they were from seven straight days of fighting and marching through the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. When the time came, when the word came down, they would rouse themselves, shake hands and bid each other good-bye, and advance south across the fields to attack the Confederate salient. In the meantime, some of them prayed. Some of them complained. Some of them fidgeted. Still, they all maintained their tight formation, and they waited.

Some eight days earlier, on May 4, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock and his II Corps had led the way for the eastern wing of the Union Army of the Potomac as it moved south across the Rapidan River from its winter encampments into the Wilderness of Spotsylvania and Orange counties, a 70-square mile stretch of tangled second-growth forest. The II Corps settled into camp that evening near the Chancellorsville intersection that had seen such heavy fighting just a year earlier. Scars of that battle abounded: a burned home, splintered trees, bleached skulls lying above the ground they had once fought so desperately to hold. Sadly, the evening around the Chancellorsville crossroads was a bleak omen of things to come.

Crossing several miles to the west was the second wing of the Union army, led by the V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren and followed by the VI Corps under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. The IX Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, was an independent command not part of the Army of the Potomac, and it brought up the rear. The plan called for the Union forces to move through the Wilderness quickly in order to reach country that was more open and would thus give the army more room for maneuver.

The Army of the Potomac was still under the direct command of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, but the army had a traveling companion that outranked the army commander: Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union armies. The two generals were still learning to work together, but Grant was content to see how Meade and his men performed. “My instructions for that army were all through him, and were all general in their nature, leaving all the details and the execution to him,” Grant said.2

That relationship began to change almost as soon as Gen. Robert E. Lee invited the Army of the Potomac to attack his Army of Northern Virginia on the afternoon of May 5. Lee chose to fight in the Wilderness because the terrain would help equalize the two-to-one odds against him: Union infantry would face difficulties deploying in the dense undergrowth and Union artillery and cavalry would be ineffective.

As the two-day battle wore on, Grant took a more active role in dictating events, and on May 7, he made a particularly surprising decision. Convinced that the armies were locked in stalemate, Grant chose to disengage, but rather than order a withdrawal as many previous Union commanders in the Eastern Theater had done following a battle, Grant ordered the army forward. The army maneuvered around Lee’s right flank and continued south toward Spotsylvania Court House (see Map, Pg. 9). “Whatever happens,” Grant told a newspaper correspondent, “there will be no turning back.”3

Spotsylvania Court House was a central Virginia hamlet located 15 miles southwest of Fredericksburg. Two major roads, the Brock Road and the Fredericksburg Road, intersected near the courthouse building, and the Brock Road itself meandered past the courthouse and Sanford’s Hotel on its way south toward the Confederate capital. Whoever controlled the two roads controlled the inside track to Richmond.

Lee countered Grant’s move toward Spotsylvania Court House by sliding southward on a parallel track. The two armies sparred as they moved, but aggressive action by the Confederate cavalry allowed Lee to get his army into position to intercept Grant’s advance. By the morning of May 8, Lee had a portion of his army across the Brock Road a few miles northwest of Spotsylvania Court House on a knoll called Laurel Hill. Fighting there and in the adjacent Spindle Field lasted throughout the morning. As more Union and Confederate units arrived on the field, the lines began to extend northeasterly for about a mile. Following the contour of the terrain, the Confederate line then curved back around to the south.*

This stretch of the Confederate line would become known as “The Mule Shoe”: a U-shaped salient that protruded from the rest of the Confederate line in the shape of a giant horse shoe or mule shoe. A salient posed special problems for its defenders because it made them susceptible to converging fire; their own diverging fire, meanwhile, fanned outward, muting its effectiveness against massed attackers. While a salient did provide interior lines for reinforcements, the curved shape made it difficult for any unit already on the line to support any other unit on the line. “It was so liable to be enfiladed by artillery and would be a dangerous trap to be caught in should the line be broken on the left or right,” one Confederate said.4 Another decried it as “a bad piece of engineering and certain to invite attack as soon as the enemy understood it.”5 It was, in short, “a wretchedly defective line.”6

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