May 12, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered a massive Federal assault on a salient in the line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
A portion of the Confederate defenses in the northeastern sector protruded from the rest of the line and resembled a “mule shoe,” giving the salient its name. About 5,000 Federals from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (with Grant in overall command) tried taking this position on the 10th but failed. Grant therefore planned to attack with 15,000 men on the 12th.
Lee had pulled 22 guns out of the Mule Shoe because he thought Grant would fall back eastward. But when word spread that Grant would be attacking that point again, Lee hurriedly ordered the guns returned. As another fight seemed imminent, a Confederate chaplain recalled:
“Nothing was said by our officers, but there was a nameless something in the air which told each man that a crisis was at hand. Orders were given in low tones. The dim, shadowy outlines of the different commands as they took their positions under the sombre shades of the pines, gave a weird effect to the scene.”
The Confederate line consisted of Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps holding Laurel Hill on the left (west), Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps holding the Mule Shoe in the center, and Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps holding the eastern face of the Mule Shoe on a north-south line on the right. The line generally resembled an “L.”
In preparation for the attack, the bulk of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was shifted from the Federal right (west) to the center, facing the Mule Shoe. To Hancock’s right was Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps now held the right (west) flank. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the Federal left, on a north-south line facing west.
Grant ordered Hancock to attack at 4 a.m., but darkness and rain caused a 30-minute delay. When the Federals emerged from their defenses, they charged against the apex of the Mule Shoe salient and penetrated the Confederate line. At the salient’s eastern tip, Federals from Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s division overran Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigade and captured some 3,000 men, including both Steuart and his division commander, Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. The Federals also captured most of the famed Stonewall Division and split the Confederate army in two.
Burnside’s Federals attacked the eastern face of the salient, which aided Hancock’s efforts but resulted in no breakthroughs. Early’s Confederates held firm in this sector until around 2 p.m., when both Grant and Meade ordered Burnside to attack. The ensuing assault was repelled, and Burnside fell back when a Confederate brigade threatened his flank.
To the northwest, Hancock’s attack soon spread around the Mule Shoe’s apex and onto its western face. His Federals had broken through, but they had no plan for what to do next. Moreover, the troops had been massed in such a compact formation that the individual commands became disorganized.
Brigadier General John B. Gordon quickly directed Confederates to plug the gaps in the line and drive the Federals out. Lee arrived on the scene and prepared to advance with one of the Confederate units himself. Gordon insisted that Lee go back to safety, and the men shouted, “Lee to the rear!” Lee complied, and the Confederates soon reclaimed the eastern face of the Mule Shoe. Meanwhile, Major General Robert E. Rodes’s Confederate division worked to shore up the western face.
Around 6:30 a.m., Grant ordered Wright and Warren to attack. Wright’s Federals struck the Mule Shoe’s western face where it rounded to the apex. The heaviest fighting of the day occurred in this sector, which became known as the “Bloody Angle.” Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin, who commanded a brigade in Early’s corps, was killed after announcing, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.”
Warren’s Federals attacked Laurel Hill around 8:15 a.m. The men had failed to take the hill several times since the 8th, and few had any confidence that it could be taken today. Consequently, the attack was not in full force, and after 30 minutes, Warren informed Meade that he could not advance any further “at present.” Enraged, Meade ordered Warren to attack “at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary.”
Warren passed the order to his division commanders, adding, “Do it. Don’t mind the consequences.” The corps attacked but was repelled once again, this time by just one Confederate division under Major General Charles W. Field. Not only had Warren failed to break the line, but his attacks were so weak that Lee did not need to reinforce that part of his line.
Meanwhile, Confederates in the Mule Shoe kept up the hard fighting in the rain while their comrades hurried to build a new defensive line at the salient’s base. Some of the Confederate gunpowder was too wet to ignite, forcing them to use their bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. This marked some of the most terrible fighting of the war. A Federal officer recalled:
“It was chiefly a savage hand to hand fight across the breastworks. Rank after rank was riddled by shot and shell and bayonet-thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of mutilated corpses; then fresh troops rushed madly forward to replace the dead, and so the murderous work went on. Guns were run up close to the parapet, and double charges of canister played their part in the bloody work. The fence-rails and logs in the breastworks were shattered into splinters, and trees over a foot and a half in diameter were cut completely in two by the incessant musketry fire.”
A Federal from VI Corps wrote, “The flags of both armies waved at the same moment over the same breastworks, while beneath them Federal and Confederate endeavored to drive home the bayonet through the interstices of the logs.” A tree 22 inches in diameter was sawed in half by bullets. Everything in the path of the opposing armies was laid to waste, as (unlike most battles) both sides refused to yield.
According to a Federal officer, “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania, because I should be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed.” Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff recalled:
“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.”
Fighting continued through the night, as Robert Park of the 12th Alabama wrote:
“It was a night of unrest, of misery, of horror. The standing men would occasionally hear a comrade utter an exclamation as a stray bullet from the enemy pierced some part of his body and placed him hors du combat. And it was well that the men were kept standing, as I saw many of them walking by the right flank and then by the left flank, and in profound sleep, wholly unconscious of what they were doing.”
By 4 a.m. on the 13th, the new defenses were completed, and the Confederates in the Mule Shoe fell back to take positions behind them. This ended 24 hours of non-stop combat. A new era of warfare had begun, in which defenders entrenched themselves behind fieldworks and attackers charged in much more compact, powerful lines to create gaps in the enemy line. This type of fighting would not only dominate the rest of this campaign, but it would serve as the model for how future wars would be fought.
Since May 10, Grant had lost 10,920 killed, wounded, or missing. He wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the night of the 12th, “The enemy are obstinate and seem to have found the last ditch.” The next morning, the Federals advanced and found nothing but dead and wounded men in the Mule Shoe. Burial details were dispatched to inter the corpses.
At Federal headquarters, members of Grant’s staff blamed Meade for yesterday’s failure to break through the Confederate line, but Grant rejected calls to remove him as army commander. He wrote Meade, “I do not desire a battle brought on with the enemy in their position of yesterday, but want to press as close to them as possible to determine their position and strength. We must get by the right flank of the enemy for the next fight.”
The Federals began shifting their massive line, as the men of V and VI corps were to move from the right (west) and take new positions on the left (southeast). Grant would try turning Lee’s right flank once more.
On the Confederate side, Lee had lost about 6,000 men in three days, or a tenth of his army. He needed reinforcements, specifically Major General Robert F. Hoke’s troops defending Richmond. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “If Genl Hoke with fresh troops can be spared from Richmond it would be of great assistance. We are outnumbered and constant labor is impairing the efficiency of the men.”
Since combat operations began on May 5, Lee’s Confederates had consistently repelled the full force of the Army of the Potomac. However, this threatened to become a war of attrition, which the Confederates could not win.
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