At the time when they should be eating supper on Tuesday, May 10, 1864, some 5,000 to 5,500 Union soldiers crouched in the piney woods opposite the Confederate-held Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania, Va. The nervous boys in blue belonged to 12 Sixth Corps regiments that Col. Emory Upton would momentarily lead in a charge to break the Confederate lines less than 300 yards away.
At 5:50 p.m. a Sixth Corps aide brought to Upton “the order to attack as soon as the column was formed,” Upton recalled. Starting at 6 p.m., Union artillery would shell the targeted Confederate defenses for 10 minutes. When the guns fell silent, Upton would attack; “all the officers were directed to repeat the command [‘]Forward[’] constantly from the commencement of the charge till the works were carried,” he noted.
“We were ordered … to charge at a right shoulder shift arms,” recalled Clinton Beckwith of the 121st New York. “No man was to stop and succor or assist a wounded comrade. We must go as far as possible, and when we broke their line, face to our right, advance and fire lengthwise of their line.”
Mounted on his horse, Upton “rode on our right,” Beckwith noticed. “He instructed us not to fire a shot, cheer or yell, until we struck the works.”
Federal cannons opened fire at 6 p.m. and hammered the Confederate lines. Then “the batteries stopped firing, and in a few minutes an officer rode along toward the right as fast as he could,” according to Beckwith. “A moment afterward word was passed along to get ready, then ‘Fall in,’ and then ‘Forward.’
“I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together … I looked about in the faces of the boys around me, and they told the tale of expected death,” he recalled.
“The lines rose and moved noiselessly to the edge of the woods,” Upton noted later. Despite his insistence that they charge quietly, “with a wild cheer and faces averted,” his brave men “rushed for the [enemy] works.”
Along the Confederate lines, the Georgians commanded by Gen. George P. Doles fired as “quick as lightning,” said Dr. George Stevens of the 77th New York Infantry Regiment, which was assigned to the Sixth Corps. “A sheet of flame burst from the rebel line … the leaden hail swept the ground over which the column was advancing,—while the canister of the artillery came crashing through our ranks at every step, and scores and hundreds of our brave fellows fell, literally covering the ground.”
The three lead regiments suffered terribly. The 5th Maine boys charged not only into Georgian resistance; stationed along the right (northern) flank of the Georgia brigade, the Virginians of the Stonewall Brigade swung their rifles to the left and loosened a scorching volley into the Maine ranks.
The Union boys moved fast; “through a terrible front and flank fire[,] the column advanced quickly[,] gaining the parapet,” Upton recalled those initial terrible minutes.
“But, nothing daunted, the brave fellows rushed upon the defenses, leaping over the ditch in front, and mounted the breast-works,” remembered Stevens. He did not mention the abatis through which the soldiers clambered before reaching the actual Confederate earthworks.
“The rebels made a determined resistance, and a hand to hand fight ensued, until, with their bayonets, our men had filled the rifle-pits with bleeding rebels,” Stevens later wrote.
At the parapet “occurred a deadly hand to hand conflict,” said eyewitness Upton. “The enemy[,] sitting in their pits with pieces upright loaded and with bayonets fixed ready to impale the first who should leap over[,] absolutely refused to yield the ground.
“The first of our men who tried to surmount the works fell pierced through the head with musket balls,” Upton recalled. “Others[,] seeing the fate of their comrades[,] held their pieces at arm’s length and fired downward[,] while others[,] poising their pieces[,] vertically hurled them down upon their enemies[,] pinning them to the ground.
“The struggle lasted but a few seconds” before Union “numbers prevailed, and like a resistless wave the column poured over the works” as the second and third lines rushed across the field, Upton recalled.
Hundreds of Georgians surrendered, and with Union troops nipping at their heels, other Confederates fled east to the second “line of works” that Upton had noticed earlier. Edwards and his 5th Maine boys dutifully shot it out with the Stonewall Brigade; some Maine soldiers likely helped shepherd Confederate prisoners toward Union lines.
“Our ranks were now fearfully thinned, yet the brave fellows passed on to the third line of defenses which was also captured,” Stevens recalled.
Union troops overran the Richmond Howitzers, captured three of the four cannons, and breached the inner Confederate defensive line. “The column of assault had accomplished its task,” Upton reported. “The enemy’s lines were completely broken[,] and an opening had been made for the division which was to have supported [the attack] on our left[,] but it did not arrive.”
Where was Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott of the Second Corps? If his division had attacked the northern part of the Mule Shoe on schedule, then the Confederates defending the salient elsewhere would be pinned down, attempting to repel his assault. But from the northeast, east, and south, Confederate troops soon counterattacked; “our front and both ranks were assailed,” Upton admitted.
So where were Mott’s men? They lay dead, wounded, or blown to pieces amidst the rolling terrain north of the Mule Shoe, that same terrain across which Mott had dutifully attacked at 5 p.m., the scheduled time for his attack. Confederate artillery wreaked havoc on the unsupported charge; Mott’s survivors went belly to earth amidst the carnage.
In his first major mistake since taking command of the Sixth Corps on May 9, Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright had delayed the joint Mule Shoe attacks until 6 p.m. He never confirmed that Gershom Mott received the order. Mott maintained later that he did not, his men charged to their obliteration, and Upton’s Charge went unsupported at 6:10 p.m.
Would the Sixth Corps’ veteran (and late) commander, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, have made sure that Mott knew about the hour’s delay? Did his death on May 9 lead to a disruption in the corps’ staff that had serious consequences for Upton’s men?
As for Upton, “the impulsion of the charge being lost[,] nothing remained but to hold the ground. I accordingly directed the officers to form their men outside the [enemy]works and open fire.”
Upton “rode back over the field to bring forward the Vermonters in the fourth line[,] but they had already mingled in the contest.” He found the 65th New York’s skirmishers “fighting stubbornly on the left” flank.
But “night had arrived,” and without reinforcements, “our position … was untenable,” Upton realized. He met Russell “at the edge of the wood” and received a verbal order to pull back. “I wrote the order” and gave it to a 121st New York Infantry captain, who worked his way amidst the Union troops and told their surviving officers to pull back.
“A brave little squad” drawn from the 5th Maine and 121st New York, “having heard no orders to retreat, stuck to their position amid a terrible and increasing fire of bullets,” later wrote the 5th Maine’s former adjutant, Charles Clark. “Hemmed in one three sides, the devoted band hurled defiance into the teeth of the enemy.”
Andrew Lyon of New Gloucester, the first lieutenant commanding Co. K, “volunteered the perilous task of going back to Colonel Upton for reinforcements,” Clark learned later. “The gallant Lyon started on his dangerous mission, but was never seen afterward.
“Our boys soon fell back from their position,” Clark noted.
Andrew Lyon vanished, but “every man who was reported ‘missing’ in the Fifth in this action, proved afterwards to have been either killed or wounded,” Clark stressed.
So ended Upton’s Charge, which resulted in 1,000 Union casualties and cost Robert E. Lee 950 Confederate prisoners and an indeterminate number of men killed or wounded. Edwards reported that the 5th Maine lost more than 100 enlisted men and 11 of 17 officers.
“Maj. George Fuller of the 6th [Maine] regiment, who is severely wounded in the right arm, informs me that he went into the battle on Tuesday last with 220 men and that but 80 remained standing at its close—149 were killed, wounded, and missing,” John Rice wrote from Washington, D.C. on Saturday, May 14.
The 49th Pennsylvania, which had fought alongside the 6th Maine amidst and around the Richmond Howitzers’ four guns, lost 246 men.
“Our officers and men accomplished all that could be expected of brave men,” Upton soon praised his heroes. “They went forward with perfect confidence[,] fought with unflinching courage[,] and retired only upon the receipt of a written order after having expended the ammunition of their dead and wounded comrades.”
Next week: Spotsylvania Part VI: A rooster’s crow unleashed the slaughter
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com.