Wandering amidst hell on earth after sunrise on Friday, May 13, 1864, Pvt. John Haley and other survivors of the 17th Maine Infantry Regiment gazed upon “more dead than we had ever seen,” he later told his journal.
Raised in summer 1862, the 17th Maine belonged that spring to the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, part of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps. The dapper Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock — his men noted how he always seemed to wear a clean, pressed white shirt — led the corps into The Wilderness on May 4. The 3rd Division was commanded by Maj. Gen. David Birney.
Comprising 10 regiments (including the 4th and 17th Maine infantries), the 2nd Brigade was hard on its commanders that May. Fighting in The Wilderness killed Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays on May 5; a wound would sideline his replacement, Col. John Crocker, at Spotsylvania on May 12.
He likely sheltered in a tent at the brigade’s camp after dark on Wednesday, May 11. Alternating between a drizzle and a steady rain, falling precipitation caused the soldiers “a most wretched day” that May 11, according to Haley, and “mud was the prevailing power.”
“When darkness set in, it was black,” he commented.
Through the day, generals Ulysses Simpson Grant and George Meade (he commanded the Army of the Potomac) and their staffs organized an all-out assault on a salient jutting from the Confederate defenses ringing Spotsylvania in central Virginia. Plans called for Hancock to move his corps during the night and strike the tip of the salient — called the “Mule Shoe” for its shape — at 4 a.m., Thursday.
Crocker received orders about 10 p.m., May 11 to march his 2nd Brigade to its jump-off point. His tired men “marched for several hours in what appeared to be a southerly direction” as “Hancock marched round to the point where Grant indicated we might make a breach in Lee’s lines, near Spotsylvania Court House,” Haley described the II Corps’ general movement.
The II Corps’ divisions kept moving through weather that suited the day’s impending bloodbath. “The wind sobbed drearily over the meadows and through the trees, rain fell steadily, and the night was so dark men had to almost feel their way,” Haley said.
Union troops moved into position during Thursday’s wee hours. The 17th Maine halted “in a low, foggy place” as “daylight began to dawn,” Haley noticed. The soaked-to-the-skin soldiers were “so chilly that our teeth chattered and our frames shook like leaves.”
As the murk slightly brightened, Haley looked around and saw that “the mists of morning were very heavy and settled over like a pall.”
Whispering their orders, officers deployed some 20,000 infantrymen “in line of battle” about 4 a.m., Haley said. Hancock formed his front line: commanded by Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow, the 1st Division formed on the left, and Birney’s 3rd Division formed on the right.
Behind these divisions was a second line comprising the 2nd Division led by Maj. Gen. John Gibbon and the luckless 4th Division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott.
Hancock intended to hurl his divisions like a sledgehammer against the northern tip of the Mule Shoe, burst inside, and sweep aside all opposition while en route to breaking the Confederate army apart. The attackers fixed bayonets and left their rifles uncapped; Hancock did not want his men to stop and fire while charging.
Senior Second Corps officers learned to their dismay that no one could accurately describe the terrain across which the Union divisions must advance. Nor could anyone accurately estimate how close or far away the Confederate earthworks stood.
In the wan light, “no foe was visible” as fog formed around the assembled Union soldiers, Haley noticed. However, “the cold, clammy truth dawned on us that we were not far away from the enemy and we would soon lessen the distance.”
Then a rooster crowed nearby, perhaps at the McCoull farm lying within the Confederate lines. The 17th Maine boys “stood in the drizzle,” said Haley, who realized that “there was something terribly weird in this massing of troops at this time of day, in the hooting of owls as the dark figures of the men moved through the pines, in the sobbing of the wind through the wet trees.”
Despite the relative silence in which the Union divisions assembled, Confederate pickets sensed the tension building in the forest north of the Mule Shoe. Union soldiers reached the tree line, from which the open terrain gradually descended southerly into a swale before rising to the Confederate defenses.
Orders rippled along Hancock’s front line, and “in a moment the whole force of men … sprang forward and a grand charge began,” Haley said. The Union infantrymen ran downhill while driving enemy pickets toward the Mule Shoe.
Fired up by the chase, the Union boys “gave them an ‘all wool’ yell and tore after them,” Haley said. He later admitted, “It is said that this yell awakens men two miles away.”
All along the Mule Shoe, Confederates leaped to their feet and rushed to the earthworks. Haley believed that “there are times when silence is better, and this was a case of the latter. We would have lessened our danger if we had abstained from yelling.”
The Union surprise was complete. “The storming column rushed over the enemy’s breastworks, which were exceedingly strong, with a ditch in front,” a New York Times “special correspondent” wrote on Friday, May 13.
“Though the enemy had received notice of our approach, and poured into our ranks volley after volley of musketry, case shot, and canister, our boys, undaunted, pushed forward, and clambering up the steep sides of the work, by the aid of their bayonets or whatever was available, planted the stars and stripes on the ramparts,” recalled Capt. Edwin Houghton, a 17th Maine officer acting as the 2nd Brigade’s inspector-general that day. He went in with the attack.
Birney’s division swept into the earthworks defended by the division commanded by Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson. Union attackers all but submerged a brigade led by Col. William Monaghan and advanced south parallel to the Mule Shoe’s western flank.
Now blending together as the Union command structure fell apart, Birney’s regiments plowed into the Stonewall Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. James Walker. This brigade had played hell with the 5th Maine Infantry and other Federal regiments during the May 10 surprise attack led by Emory Upton.
Now came the Virginians’ turn.
There “ensured one of those hand-to-hand encounters with clubbed rifles, bayonets, swords and pistols, which defies description,,” Lt. Col. Charles Weygant of the 124th New York Infantry later reported. “Officers of the opposing sides cut and slashed with their swords, and fired with their revolvers into the very faces of each other.”
“It was seemingly but a moment before the first line was in our possession … we had gained a foothold, and if not dislodged, we would soon be on Lee’s flank,” Haley said.
Next week: Spotsylvania Part VII: The dying groan beneath the dead
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org