Volume XXVII Issue #6 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of Spotsylvania C.H.

May 13-20, 1864

by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

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Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

The McCoull house was between the lines after Lee pulled his army out of the Mule Shoe and
established a new line to the south.

The Mule Shoe salient proved too tempting of a target for Grant to ignore. On the morning of May 12, he sent his entire II Corps against the apex of the Mule Shoe, with the VI Corps acting as support. While the II Corps managed to punch a massive hole in the Confederate line, no one had formulated a firm plan for exploiting the breakthrough. Lee ordered a series of bloody counterattacks, plugging much of the hole, trading lives for time as he quickly worked to create a fall-back position for his army. As engineers directed construction of the new line, Confederates back at the Mule Shoe slugged it out with Federals who were trying desperately to hold on to the toe-hold they still had in the Confederate line.

“The ground drank its fill of blood, and grew slippery to the foot,” wrote one Union soldier. “Fresh troops from the other corps were continually being pushed up to the salient, in vain endeavors to make a new assault on the enemy’s line within. But the heaps of dead, the pools of blood, and the terrific volleys of musketry, were too much for man’s endurance. To advance was impossible. . . .”

“All around that salient was a seething, bubbling, roaring hell of hate and murder,” said John Haley of the 17th Maine Infantry. “In that baleful glare men didn’t look like men. . . . Darkness alone brought an end to the carnage, and men who had scarce tasted food for twenty-four hours, or slept for twice that time, dropped to the ground.”

“I have heard that blood-drenched, bullet-swept angle, called ‘Hell’s Half-acre,’” said a Union soldier. In time, however, the area would gain an even more notorious nickname: The Bloody Angle.

“It has been nothing but one scene of horror and blood shed since we crossed the Rapidan,” wrote Ransom F. Sargent of the 11th New Hampshire. But on the morning of May 13, “an almost unbearable stillness prevailed,” said a North Carolinian. “The armies still confronted each other, but an unacknowledged truce prevailed.”

Just before dawn, Lee had withdrawn his men to a new position, some half-mile to the rear. Befuddled Federals, advancing for attack, found only the carnage and detritus of war. Where was Lee’s army? Was the battle over? What was the next step?

The area around the Mule Shoe represented war’s past and war’s future. The area must have resembled the battlefield of Pharsalus (48 BC) where Roman killed Roman in close-quarters fighting. The area also foreshadowed things to come: the trenchworks of the salient resembled those that would one day appear around the small town of Ypres, Belgium during the First World War.

Into the no-man’s land at Spotsylvania crept U.S. Sharpshooters accompanied by the men of Brig. Gen. Samuel S. Carroll’s brigade of the II Corps. Their task: locate the Confederates. They pushed beyond the battle-scarred trenches into the interior of the Mule Shoe, but advanced no farther than the reserve line of earthworks before stumbling across Confederate skirmishers. “In front the 2nd Sharp Shooters were briskly popping away at the rebel skirmish line, and the infantry were altering the rebel works into defenses for themselves,” wrote George A. Marden, quartermaster of the 1st U. S. Sharpshooters. “The ground was almost a sea of mud.”

In the exchange, Carroll took a bullet in the left arm. He had been injured once already, in the right arm during the fighting in the Wilderness, but after that wound he had still managed to stay in command. This time, his injury knocked him out of the fight. Command devolved to Col. Thomas A. Smyth.

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