As some 20,000 Union troops charged out of the fog and burst into the Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania Court House, Va. on May 12, 1864, Confederate resistance collapsed beneath the onslaught. Union soldiers swept up 3,000 prisoners, including the cane-wielding Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson and Brig. Gen. George Steuart, who led a mixed North Carolina-Virginia infantry brigade.
Pvt. John Haley of the 17th Maine Infantry credited the two generals’ capture to “two privates from our regiment”; the captors actually were Sgt. Samuel Haskell of Co. C and Poland and Pvt. John Totman of Co. A and Harpswell.
Federal regiments intermingled and the command structure fell apart as Union troops enthusiastically “drove the enemy back for a mile,” a New York Times special correspondent later reported. The distance was actually about a half mile; before Hancock’s divisions could reach the Mule Shoe’s southern entrance and split the Army of Northern Virginia, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gordon created a patchwork line that slowed the Union attack.
The battle’s outcome hung in the balance; “every Confederate realized the desperate situation and every Union soldier knew what was involved,” Haley realized. “For a time, every soldier was a fiend. The attack was fierce — the resistance fanatical. We captured one of their strong entrenchments, but it was done in a tempest of iron and lead, in a rain of fire.”
Gordon counterattacked at 5:30 a.m. His men gradually pushed the disorganized mass of Union soldiers north; 17th Maine survivors fell back and “sought shelter from the storm behind stumps and trees, anything that offered a suggestion of safety,” Haley said.
“The force of the [Union] blow was spent, so far as [Winfield Scott] Hancock’s [Second Corps] troops were concerned,” he noted. “If we held our own, we should do well, and we were soon tested in this regard, as Lee concentrated his forces with a view to hurling all he could spare against this spot to recapture it.”
At 6 a.m., the Union’s Sixth Corps attacked the Mule Shoe’s northwestern defenses. At an angle in the lines, savage Confederate resistance piled up Union troops outside the earthworks. Unable to enter the salient or withdraw from it while under the hail of enemy lead, the Sixth Corps men fought, bled, and died throughout the morning and afternoon.
Almost wiped out during Col. Emory Upton’s May 10 charge at Spotsylvania, the now company-sized 5th Maine Infantry and its brigade (led by the now-brevetted Brig. Gen. Upton) “went into action on the ‘double quick,’ under a galling and severe fire, and took up a position to the right of the” Bloody Angle, wrote Lt. George Bicknell , the regiment’s former adjutant. He based his detailed report on the testimony of surviving comrades.
There weren’t many. Nineteen bullets struck Capt. Frank Lemont of Co. K and Greene; his body, or what little was left of it, was recovered, at least. “Other officers and men fell here … while fighting bravely, and against all hope,” Bicknell wrote.
Also part of the Sixth Corps, the 6th Maine Infantry lost 16 men at the Mule Shoe. The regiment had also suffered terrible losses during Upton’s May 10 charge.
Elsewhere inside the Mule Shoe, Federal soldiers leaped into captured trenches and exchanged rifle fire at almost pointblank range with attacking Confederates. The New York Times reporter believed that “the whole army of Lee flung itself in five desperate efforts to recapture” the Mule Shoe.
Haley demurred. “Before 10 A.M. they (Confederates) made no less than eight charges to retake the salient, showing the tremendous importance of the place,” he noted. “The Rebels fought like devils, seeming to despise danger.”
The 17th Maine’s survivors and other Union troops still inside the salient “couldn’t advance, to retire was almost as difficult,” Haley said. Union regiments “became gloriously mixed, and it was impossible to find anything resembling organization,” so the Union soldiers assembled “a few here, a few there, fighting under anything or anybody, or nobody, or not at all.”
No intense Civil War combat lasted as long as did the hell that consumed the Mule Shoe on May 12-13, 1864. Haley described the battle as “the fiercest fight waged; the oldest soldier has never witnessed its like.
“Lee’s forces made charge after charge. Lines didn’t give way, they melted away,” he said. “The dead lay in heaps and others took protection behind them. Pandemonium swept right and left, and the earth was literally drenched in blood.
“Confederates sprang over the works and fought with the bayonet and clubbed musket till they were pinned to the earth,” according to Haley. “Federals hurled themselves over [the earthworks] and pushed the lines back a few rods, but were soon swallowed up by the rebound.”
The 17th Maine fought inside the Mule Shoe, likely near its apex. Just to the west, at the bend in the Confederate lines that will be forever known as the Bloody Angle, men on both sides “were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between the logs,” recalled Brig. Gen. Lewis Grant, who led the 2nd Brigade of the Sixth Corps’ 2nd Division. Comprised of five Vermont regiments, the outfit was also known as the Vermont Brigade.
“Men mounted the works, and with muskets rapidly handed them, kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their places and continue the deadly work,” Grant said.
The carnage was almost indescribable, but witnesses like Haley tried. “All around that salient was a seething, bubbling, roaring hell of hate and murder,” he said. “In that baleful glare men didn’t look like men. Some had lost or thrown away hats and coats. Some were gashed and cut, and looked like tigers hunted to cover.”
“So terrific was the death grapple … that at different times of the day the rebel colors were planted on one side of the works and ours on the other, the men fighting across the parapet,” the New York Times reporter wrote.
Throughout the murky daylight — fog and gun smoke and rain often obscured lateral visibility — and into Thursday’s appalling darkness, Confederates bought with their blood and lives the necessary time for comrades to construct a new defensive line across the Mule Shoe‘s base. Along the earthworks, and especially at the Bloody Angle, the dead, dying, and wounded piled atop each other on both sides of the defenses. Union soldiers would later find the casualties stacked several layers deep; hard pressed by the dead weight above them, the first soldiers to fall simply vanished into the mud.
The next day, many wounded survivors would be found because someone noticed a heap of dead men twitching, a grasping hand suddenly thrusting into the air, or a moan escaping from where slain soldiers lay.
The carnage was incredible, even by Civil War standards. The bullets and cannonballs fired point blank ripped and shredded men and horses and felled thick trees; a modern battlefield sign indicates where gunfire knocked down a 22-inch oak.
Both sides hustled ammunition to the fighters; some Union troops figured that they fired 300-400 bullets before the shooting eased around midnight. During the next few hours, Confederate survivors quietly retreated to their new defensive line, reached today by Anderson Drive at the Spotsylvania battlefield. The exhausted Confederates awaited new Federal attacks.
The ferocious battle at the Mule Shoe battle lasted 22-23 hours, “a most awful day” according to Haley. Not before or since has such intense combat lasted so long on North American soil.
According to Houghton, the 17th Maine lost “three enlisted men, killed … and forty enlisted men, wounded, and ten missing.’ Himself wounded, Houghton was the regiment’s only commissioned casualty during the long fight.
Dawn on Friday, May 13 revealed the frightful cost. Between the Mule Shoe and other fighting that had taken along the Spotsylvania lines during the last 24 hours, Grant had lost about 9,000 men, Lee about 8,000.
“The scene of the conflict, from which I have just come, presents a spectacle of horror that curdles the blood of the boldest,” the New York Times reporter wrote later that morning.
“The angle of the works at which Hancock entered, and for the possession of which the savage fight of the day was made, is a perfect Golgotha,” he wrote. “In this angle of death the dead and wounded rebels lie, this morning, literally in piles—men in the agonies of death groaning beneath the dead bodies of their comrades.
“On an area of a few acres in rear of their position lie not less than a thousand rebel corpses, many literally torn to shreds by hundreds of [Minie] balls, and several with bayonet thrusts through and through their bodies, pierced on the very margins of the parapet, which they were determined to retake or perish in the attempt,” the astounded reporter described the scene.
“The morning of the thirteenth, found us still in possession of the captured works,” according to Houghton. “The scene, in our front, was one of the most horrid and revolting that was ever our fortune to behold; the dead and wounded of both armies literally, covered the ground for miles.
“Words are inadequate to convey any idea of the horrid spectacle,” Houghton said. “Some of the parties were riddled with musket balls.”
“The one exclamation of every man who looks on the spectacle is, ‘God forbid that I should ever gaze upon such a sight again,’” the New York Times reporter cited a saying heard frequently among the Union survivors.
Brian Swartz can be reached at email@example.com.