Tag Archives: John B. Gordon

Spotsylvania: Terrible Fighting at the Mule Shoe

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.

Map of action on May 12 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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.

Battle of Spotsylvania | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 475; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 168-70; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 456-57, 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 406; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 436-37; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7070-94; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99, 105, 124-25; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-500; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 729-31; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 575; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516-17, 551, 709

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The Battle of the Wilderness: Day Two

May 6, 1864 – Fighting raged a second day as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant learned that General Robert E. Lee would not be an easy foe to overcome.

The battle between Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (under Grant’s overall direction) and Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia had been terrible on the 5th. Since then, the battlefield had split into two sectors:

  • In the southern sector, Grant expected Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to attack and destroy Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s weakened Third Corps at dawn.
  • In the northern sector, VI and V corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Gouverneur Warren would attack Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, preventing Ewell from helping Hill.
  • In the center, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s reserve IX Corps would come up and attack Hill’s left flank and rear.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Lee expected Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to be up on Hill’s right at dawn, but the troops had gotten lost in the brush and would be delayed. Ewell renewed the battle at 4:45 a.m. by assaulting Sedgwick’s and Warren’s Federals as they were preparing to launch an attack of their own. After Ewell made no progress, the Federals counterattacked. The Confederates held their ground, but Ewell could spare no men for Hill on his right.

President Abraham Lincoln had been anxiously awaiting news from the battlefield all day on the 5th. He finally received a dispatch from Grant on the morning of the 6th, but it simply read, “Everything pushing along favorably.” Throughout the day, Grant sat and smoked his cigar as he whittled pieces of wood, awaiting reports from the field.

In the southern sector, Hancock launched his attack at 5 a.m., pushing Hill’s Confederates back toward Lee’s headquarters at the Widow Tapp farm. The Confederate guns at the farm continuously fired canister into the oncoming Federals to no avail. Hancock told a courier, “Tell General Meade we are driving them most beautifully!”

Grant had expected Burnside’s IX Corps to come up between Warren and Hancock by dawn. But Burnside was running late, which did not surprise Meade, who had previously served under him. Hancock continued pushing the Confederates back without waiting for Burnside’s troops. Hill’s line eventually broke as the Federals closed in on the Tapp house.

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Suddenly, Brigadier General John Gregg’s Texas brigade, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps, arrived on the scene around 6 a.m. Lee, who had been anxiously awaiting Longstreet’s arrival, asked them, “What brigade is this?” When told they were the Texas brigade, Lee said, “I am glad to see it. When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel–they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.”

Then, in a rare display of excitement, Lee raised his hat and urged them forward, shouting, “Texans always move them!” Lee began advancing with the troops, but when they saw this, they began hollering, “Go back, General Lee, go back!” They stopped Lee’s horse and refused to proceed until Lee went back to safety. Lee complied, and the Texans charged furiously into the stunned Federals.

Soon after, Longstreet arrived with the rest of his two divisions. They, along with Gregg’s men, replaced Hill’s Confederates and counterattacked. The fighting was vicious and confused in the tangled brush and vines of the Wilderness. Gregg lost 550 of his 800 Texans, but the momentum began shifting as the Confederates slowly pushed the Federals back.

Around 10 a.m., Longstreet learned from commanders familiar with the area that the bed of an unfinished railroad lay south of the Orange Plank Road, hidden by the brush. This was an excellent spot from which to assault Hancock’s left flank. Longstreet directed his aide, Lieutenant Colonel Moxley Sorrell, to lead four brigades in an attack that began at 11 a.m.

Maj Gen W.S. Hancock | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals wavered under this sudden assault, which Hancock later said rolled up his flank “like a wet blanket.” Longstreet renewed the main attack on Hancock’s front, adding to the pressure and pushing the Federals back to the Brock Road. Brigadier General James S. Wadsworth, commanding a Federal division, was mortally wounded.

Longstreet and his aides followed their advancing troops along the Orange Plank Road. To their right, Sorrell’s Confederates suddenly appeared and, mistaking them for Federals, fired on them. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins, commanding a brigade, was killed. Longstreet was severely wounded when a bullet passed through his throat and lodged in his right shoulder.

Coincidentally, Longstreet was just four miles from the spot where Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was mortally wounded by friendly fire almost exactly one year before. The surviving aides helped Longstreet from his horse, and his doctor pronounced the wounds “not necessarily mortal.” Longstreet would survive, but rumors of his death spread through the ranks and demoralized the troops. A lull fell over the battlefield.

Lee temporarily took over Longstreet’s corps and looked to renew the attack. Grant had ordered Hancock to counterattack at 6 p.m., but Lee hit Hancock’s line with an attack of his own at 4 p.m. Brush fires came up between the armies, forcing the Federals back to their breastworks along the Brock Road. The Confederates could not dislodge them, and the fight ended in stalemate.

In the center, Burnside finally arrived around 2 p.m. to fill the gap between Hancock and Warren. But instead of flanking Hill as planned, he now ran into the survivors of Hill’s corps who had shifted to the center to fight alongside Longstreet’s men. The Confederates held firm against Burnside’s assaults.

Confederate General John B. Gordon | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Back in the northern sector, Brigadier General John B. Gordon, commanding a brigade in Major General Jubal Early’s division, saw that Sedgwick’s right flank was vulnerable and urged Early, and then Ewell, to approve an attack. After several hours of vacillation, Gordon sought permission directly from Lee, who approved. Gordon’s men finally attacked at 6 p.m., overwhelming the Federals just as Gordon hoped.

The Confederates captured two Federal generals, 600 other prisoners, and nearly cut the Federal supply line. However, the advance was stopped by darkness. Gordon later asserted that had his plan been approved earlier, his men would have destroyed the Federal right. Instead, “the greatest opportunity ever presented to Lee’s army was permitted to pass.”

News of this unexpected flank attack caused panic at Federal headquarters. One brigadier told Grant, “I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.” Grant angrily replied:

“Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Elsewhere on the field, opposing cavalries skirmished lightly at Todd’s Tavern, as Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate horsemen met the Federals under their new commander, Major General Philip Sheridan, for the first time.

Fighting gradually ended all along the line as night fell. Troops began scrambling to rescue wounded comrades before they burned to death in the raging forest fires. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon that the Federal advance, “thanks to a merciful God, has been repulsed.”

The Federals knew they had gotten the worst of this battle. An army half their size had nearly routed both VI Corps on the right and II Corps on the left. In fact, the Federals had been more thoroughly defeated here than at Chancellorsville a year ago:

  • Joseph Hooker only had one flank turned last year, but this time Grant had both turned
  • Hooker had nearly surprised Lee last year, but this time Lee surprised Grant
  • Lee lost 13,000 men last year, but this time he lost just over half that amount

The Federals sustained 17,666 casualties (2,246 killed, 12,037 wounded, and 3,383 missing) while the Confederates lost about 7,500. These totals were more one-sided than any other battle except Fredericksburg. With Lee scoring such a decisive tactical victory, most Federal troops believed that Grant would do what his predecessors had done and retreat.

In Grant’s less than impressive debut in the Eastern Theater, he learned that unlike most of the western commanders he faced, Lee would take the fight to him. Grant retired to his headquarters that night and wept, but when he was done, he emerged with a new resolve. He told a Washington correspondent preparing to return to the capital, “If you see the president, tell him, from me, that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 457, 459; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 448, 453, 456-57; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 400-01; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10637; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 3929-39, 3968-87; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 429-30; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6880-92; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 73-81; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 268-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 493-95; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 724-27; Mullins, Michael A., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 825-27; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 175-76; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 288-90