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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 12: THE ARMIES CONVERGE ON THE BLOODY ANGLE

Hancock obliterated the blunt end of the Confederate salient within minutes. "There was a little pattering of bullets, and I saw a few of our men on the ground," Barlow recounted. "One discharge of artillery, that I remember, and we were up on the works with our hands full of guns, prisoners, and colors." By most accounts, Confederate resistance was "very slight and ineffectual."


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THE BATTLE FOR THE BLOODY ANGLE: MAY 12
At 4:35 A.M., Hancock attacks the Muleshoe Salient, supported by Burnside, on his left, and by Warren, on his right. Hancock annihilates Johnson's division and seizes the salient, but his troops recoil in the face of Confederate counterattacks. Wright's Sixth Corps goes to Hancock's assistance at 6 A.M., but is unable to make any additional headway. A bloody standoff develops.

Jones's former brigade, now commanded by Colonel William Witcher, bore the brunt of the attack and was virtually destroyed. Federals lapped around the east edge of the salient and overran "Maryland" Steuart's brigade, capturing both Steuart and Johnson. Dick McClean of Company K, 116th Pennsylvania, took Johnson's sword and led the captured division commander to Hancock. Johnson and Hancock had been close friends before the war. "This is damned bad luck," Johnson exclaimed, "yet I would rather have had this good fortune fall to you than to any other man living." Steuart was not so generous. When Hancock offered his hand and inquired, "How are you, Steuart?" the Rebel general replied, "Under the circumstances, I decline to take your hand." Hancock snapped back, "And under any other circumstances I should not have offered it."


THE BLOODY ANGLE: A UNION PERSPECTIVE

By 6 A.M., May 12, the two armies had reached a stalemate. Hancock's Second Corps had broken the Confederate line but had not been able to push beyond the face of the Muleshoe salient. The Confederates, by like token, had stopped Hancock's progress but had been unable to expel him from the outer works. At 6 A.M., Grant ordered in the Sixth Corps to break the impasse. For the next twenty hours, the fighting would center around a small turn in the Confederate line thereafter known as the "Bloody Angle." G. Norton Galloway, a Union soldier serving in the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry regiment, described the fighting at the Angle in vivid detail.

"The rain was still falling in torrents and held the country about in obscurity. The command was soon given to my regiment, the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteers . . . to 'rise up,' whereupon with hurrahs we went forward, cheered on by Colonel Upton . . . . It was not long before we reached an angle of works constructed with great skill. Immediately in our front an abatis had been arranged consisting of limbs and branches interwoven into one another, forming footlocks of the most dangerous character. But there the works were, and over some of us went many never to return. At this moment Lee's strong line of battle . . . appeared through the rain, mist, and smoke. We received their bolts, losing nearly one hundred of our gallant 95th. Colonel Upton saw at once that this point must be held at all hazards; for if Lee should recover the angle, he would be enabled to sweep back our lines right and left, and the fruits of the morning's victory would be lost. The order was at once given us to lie down and commence firing; the left of our regiment rested against the works, while the right, slightly refused, rested upon an elevation in front. An now began a desperate and pertinacious struggle.

Upon reaching the breastwork, the Confederates for a few moments had the advantage of us, and made good use of their rifles. Our men went down by the score; all the artillery horses were down; the gallant Upton was the only mounted officer in sight. Hat in hand, he bravely cheered his men, and begged them to 'hold this point.' All of his staff had been either killed, wounded, or dismounted.

FOR SHEER SAVAGERY, THE FIGHTING AT THE BLOODY ANGLE WAS NEVER SURPASSED. GENERAL L. A. GRANT WROTE, "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 PLACE." (BL)

At this moment . . . a section of Battery C, 5th United States Artillery, under Lieutenant Richard Metcalf, was brought into action and increased the carnage by opening at short range with double charges of canister. This staggered the apparently exultant enemy. In the maze of the moment these guns were run up by hand close to the famous Angle, and fired again and again, and they were only abandoned when all the drivers and cannoneers had fallen. The battle was now at white heat . . . .

Finding that we were not to be driven back, the Confederates began to use more discretion, exposing themselves but little, using the loop-holes in their works to fire through, and at time placing the muzzles of their rifles on the top logs, seizing the trigger and small of the stock, and elevating the breech with one hand sufficiently to reach us. During the day a section of Cowan's battery took position behind us, sending shell after shell close over our heads, to explode inside the Confederate works. In like manner Coehorn mortars eight hundred yards in our rear sent their shells with admirable precision gracefully curving over us. Sometimes the enemy's fire would slacken, and the moments would become so monotonous that something had to be done to stir them up. Then some resolute fellow would seize a fence-rail or piece of abatis, and, creeping close to the breastworks, thrust it over among the enemy, and then drop on the ground to avoid the volley that was sure to follow. A daring lieutenant in one of our left companies leaped upon the breastworks, took a rifle that was handed to him, and discharged it among the foe. In like manner he discharged another, and was in the act of firing a third shot when his cap flew tip in the air, and his body pitched headlong among the enemy.


"Springing upon the breastworks in a body, they stood for an instant panic-stricken at the terrible array before them; that momentary delay was the signal for their destruction."

On several occasions squads of dishearten Confederates raised pieces of shelter-tents above the works as a flag of truce; upon our slacking fire and calling to them to come in, they would immediately jump the breastworks and surrender. One party of twenty or thirty thus signified their willingness to submit; but owing to the fact that their comrades occasionally took advantage of the cessation to get a volley into us, it was some time before we concluded to give them a chance. With leveled pieces we called to them to come at it. Springing upon the breastworks in a body, they stood for an instant panic-stricken at the terrible array before them; that momentary delay was the signal for their destruction. While we, with our fingers pressing the trigger, shouted to them to jump, their troops massed in the rear, poured a volley into them, killing or wounding all but a few, who dropped with the rest and crawled in under our pieces, while we instantly began firing.

The battle, which during the morning raged with more or less violence on the right and left of this position, gradually slackened, and attention was concentrated upon the Angle. So continuous and heavy was our fire that the head logs of the breastworks were cut and torn until they resembled hickory brooms. Several large oak-trees, which grew just in the rear of the works, were completely gnawed off by our converging fire, and about 3 o'clock in the day fell among the enemy with a loud crash."

Birney's division advanced on Barlow's right and chewed into the portion of the salient manned by William Monaghan's Louisianians and Walker's Stonewall Brigade. Resistance was more determined, and a Northerner explained that there "ensued one of those hand-to-hand encounters with clubbed rifles, bayonets, swords, and pistols which defies description." Another Yankee called the opposition "fanatical." Rebels in the Stonewall Brigade found that their powder was too damp to fire but nonetheless fought "like demons." According to a witness, "the figures of the men seen dimly through the smoke and fog seemed almost gigantic, while the woods were lighted by the flashing of the guns and the sparkling of the musketry." Another retained a vivid image of "men in crowds with bleeding limbs, and pale, pain-stricken faces."

After gobbling up the Stonewall Brigade, Hancock's corps spread south along the salient's western leg. Daniel's North Carolinians and units from Evans's Georgia brigade braced for the onslaught.

THE SKETCH FROM FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED SHOWS GENERALS EDWARD JOHNSON AND GEORGE H. STEUART BEING GUARDED BY BLACK PRISONERS AND WAGON TRAINS IN MAY 1864. THEY WOULD NOT SEE THEIR FIRST SIGNIFICANT FIGHTING IN VIRGINIA UNTIL THE ARMY REACHED PETERSBURG.

Hancock had torn a gaping bole through the salient. Surprisingly, however, no one had planned the next step. As thousands upon thousands of blue-clad soldiers jammed through an opening no more than three-quarters of a mile wide, all semblance of organization evaporated. The Union Second Corps dissolved into a milling mob. "The enthusiasms of a broken line resulting from victory is only a little more efficient than the despondency of one broken by defeat," an observer remarked. "The officers commanding the divisions were capable men and knew what the situation demanded, but they were almost powerless."

Faced with disaster, Lee's junior officers reacted with boldness and initiative. John Gordon was near a reserve line between the McCoull and Harrison homes when the Union juggernaut struck. Gordon immediately ordered Johnston's North Carolina brigade into the gap created by Steuart's collapse. Working blindly ahead—"the mist and fog were so heavy that it was impossible to see farther than a few rods," Gordon later explained—Johnston careered into the Federals. He fell wounded, but Gordon rallied the Carolinians into a thin line bridging Steuart's and Witcher's ruptured works. In the fog and confusion, Gordon's audacity paid off. At tremendous cost—'one of the bloodiest scenes in the war," a soldier called it—Johnston's troops stemmed the breakthrough.

Gordon meanwhile collected Colonel John S. Hoffman's brigade and a portion of Evans's. Lee watched as they fell into line. "Not a word did he say," a witness recounted, "but simply took off his hat, and as he sat on his charger I never saw a man look so noble, or a spectacle so impressive." Another reminisced: "The picture he made, as the grand old man sat there on his horse, with his noble head bare, and looked from right to left, as if to meet each eye that flashed along the line, can never be forgotten by a man that stood there." As had happened a few days earlier at Widow Tapp's field, Lee spurred his horse Traveller toward the Federals, but the men refused to charge unless he came back. "You must go to the rear," Gordon insisted, and soldiers took up the chant, "Lee to the rear, Lee to the rear." Satisfied that Gordon's men would do their utmost without him, Lee did as they asked.

IN THE CENTER OF THE MULESHOE STOOD THE MCCOULL HOUSE. ON MAY 10, AND AGAIN ON MAY 12 AND 18, FIGHTING SURGED AROUND THE BUILDING. IT SURVIVED THE BATTLE BUT WAS DESTROYED BY FIRE IN 1921. (LC)

Gordon advanced "double quick into the vortex of battle" and charged Hancock's masses—"packed thick as blackbirds in our trenches," a Rebel recounted. After half an hour of bruising combat, he had recovered most of the salient's eastern leg.

Major General Robert F. Rodes meanwhile stirred his men to gallant action along the salient's western leg. "Check the enemy's advance and drive them back!" he barked to Stephen Ramseur's crack North Carolina brigade. Ramseur formed his men under a leaden hail of shot and shell and ordered them into the breach. He looked, a soldier thought, "like an angel of war." A correspondent recorded that "so close was the fighting there, for a time, that the fire of friend and foe rose up rattling in one common roar." Taking tremendous casualties, Ramseur's brigade fought toward the Stonewall Brigade's former entrenchments. "Onward over all intervening obstacles," a survivor described their bloody progress. "Onward thro' hissing shot and screaming shell—onward towards the already wavering enemy—onward now after their bro ken columns—onward into the regained intrenchments." After securing a lodgment in the works, Ramseur began a grueling advance along the salient toward Gordon, one traverse at a time, in an effort to close the gap. His arm dangled at his side from a painful wound.

Grant's response was to send in more troops. Brigadier General Thomas H. Neill's Sixth Corps division headed for the angle where the blunt end of the salient turned south. Referred to in battle accounts as the west angle, it soon earned the popular—and appropriate—appellation of the "Bloody Angle."

FROM ITS POSITION NEAR THE LANDRUM HOUSE, HANCOCK'S ARTILLERY KEPT UP A STEADY FIRE ON THE CONFEDERATE LINE. "IT WAS AS MUCH AS YOUR LIFE WAS WORTH TO RAISE YOUR HEAD ABOVE THE WORKS." REMEMBERED ONE SOUTHERNER. (NPS)

TWENTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD STEPHEN D. RAMSEUR WAS INJURED WHILE LEADING A COUNTERATTACK AGAINST THE WEST FACE OF THE SALIENT. FIVE MONTHS LATER HE RECEIVED A MORTAL WOUND AT CEDAR CREEK. (BL)

First one of Neill's brigades under Colonel Oliver Edwards joined the fray. "It was a life or death contest," a combatant recounted as they packed tightly against the outer face of the west angle in support of Mott. Then two more brigades pitched in. "The spurts of dirt were as constant as the pattering drops of a summer shower," a soldier from Maine recalled, "while overhead the swish and hum of the passing bullets was like a swarm of bees." Then Colonel Lewis A. Grant's Vermonters arrived. "For God's sake, Hancock, do not send any more troops in here," a general reportedly beseeched as soldiers jammed the narrow battle front.


THE BLOODY ANGLE: A CONFEDERATE PERSPECTIVE

Among the Confederate regiments holding the Bloody Angle was the First South Carolina Volunteers, one of five regiments in Brigadier General Samuel McGowan's brigade. J. F. J. Caldwell, a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant in the regiment, has left us a detailed description of the Bloody Angle fighting from the Southern standpoint in his book, A History of a Brigade of South Carolinians.

"The 12th of May broke cool and cloudy. Soon after dawn a fine mist set in, which sometimes increased to a hard shower, but never entirely ceased, for twenty-four hours.

About ten o'clock, our brigade was suddenly ordered out of the works, detached from the rest of the division, and marched back from the line, but bearing towards the left. The fields were soft and muddy, the rains quite heavy. Nevertheless, we hurried on, often at the double quick. Before long, shells passed over our heads, and musketry became plainly audible in front. Our pace was increased to a run. Turning to the right, as we struck an interior line of works, we bore directly for the firing.


"The shell came thicker and nearer, frequently striking close at our feet, and throwing mud and water high into the air."

We were now along Ewell's line. The shell came thicker and nearer, frequently striking close at our feet, and throwing mud and water high into the air. The rain continued. As we panted up the way, Maj. Gen. Rodes, of Ewell's corps, walked up to the roadside, and asked what troops we were. 'McGowan's South Carolina brigade,' was the reply. 'There are no better soldiers in the world than these!' cried he to some officers about him. We hurried on, thinking more of him and more of ourselves than ever before.

. . . Soon the order was given to advance to the outer line. We did so, with a cheer and at the double quick, plunging through mud knee deep, and getting in as best we could. Here, however, lay Harris' Mississippi brigade. We were ordered to close to the right. We moved by the flank up the works, under the fatally accurate fire of the enemy, and ranged ourselves in the entrenchment. The sight we encountered was not calculated to encourage us. The trenches, dug on the inner side were almost filled with water. Dead men lay on the surface of the ground and in the pools of water. The wounded bled and groaned, stretched or huddled in every attitude of pain. The water was crimsoned with blood. Abandoned knapsacks, guns and accoutrements, with ammunition boxes, were scattered all around. In the rear, disabled caissons stood and limbers of guns. The rain poured heavily, and an incessant fire was kept upon tis from front and flank. The enemy still held the works on the right of the angle, and fired across the traverses. Nor were these foes easily seen. They barely raised their heads above the logs, at the moment of firing. It was plainly a question of bravery and endurance now.

We entered upon the task with all our might. Some fired at the line lying in front, on the edge of the ridge before described; others kept down the enemy lodged in the traverses on the right. At one or two places, Confederates and Federals were only separated by the works, and the latter not a few times reached their guns over and fired right down upon the heads of the former . . . .

THE BLOODY ANGLE AS IT APPEARS TODAY. (NPS)

The firing was astonishingly accurate all along the line. No man could raise his shoulders above the works without danger of immediate death. Some of the enemy lay against our works in front. I saw several of them jump over and surrender during relaxations of firing. An ensign of a Federal regiment came right up to us during the 'peace negotiations,' and demanded our surrender. Lieutenant Carlisle, of the Thirteenth regiment, replied that we would not surrender. Then the ensign insisted that, as he had come under a false impression he should be allowed to return to his command. Lieutenant Carlisle, pleased with his composure, consented. But, as he went back, a man, from another part of the line, shot him through the face, and he came and jumped over to us.

This was the place to test individual courage. Some ordinarily good soldiers did next to nothing, others excelled themselves. The question became, pretty plainly, whether one was willing to meet death, not merely to run the chances of it."

Meanwhile, more Confederates streamed into the salient, Two of Mahone's brigades—those of Brigadier Generals Abner Perrin and Nathaniel H. Harris—hurried back from the Po. One of Perrin's men described the scene as "appalling." He added: "The field was covered with fugitives, some of the artillery was rushing headlong to the rear, and it looked as if some dreadful catastrophe had happened or was about to happen to the army." Perrin's troops advanced through a deadly gauntlet of artillery and musketry—"a very river of death," an Alabamian called it. Perrin was killed, but his troops joined Ramseur's near the angle. Harris's Mississippians came closely on Perrin's heels. "Never did a brigade go into fiercer battle under greater trials," one of Lee's aides later commented. "Never did a brigade do its work more nobly."

By 8:00 A.M., Ramseur, Harris, and Perrin were battling to hold the western face of the west angle. Rain fell in torrents as Confederates fired from inside the works into Federals mere feet away. "The fighting was horrible," a Mississippian recalled. "The breastworks were slippery with blood and rain, dead bodies lying underneath half trampled out of sight."

But still Lee and Grant pumped troops into the Bloody Angle. Brigadier General Samuel McGowan and his South Carolinians dashed for the gap. A soldier recalled shells "bespattering us with dirt, crashing down the limbs about us, and the minnie balls [were] whistling around us at a tremendous rate." McGowan fell injured, as did his senior officer, and command devolved on Colonel Joseph N. Brown, who urged the men through mud knee-deep and reddened with gore. They mingled with Harris's Mississippians and began firing into Unionists on the other side of the entrenchments. "You can imagine our situation," a survivor wrote home. "It was almost certain death for a man to put his head above the works."

Around 9:30 A.M., Brigadier General David A. Russell's Sixth Corps division joined the melee. Upton's men attacked the angle, only to he forced back to a nearby depression. A section of Union artillery pushed almost point-blank against the works and began blasting away. Combatants lay plastered against opposite sides of the earthworks "like leaches." One of Upton's officers complained that "already there were heaps of our dead lying about and impeding our operations." Then Colonel Henry W. Brown's New Jersey Brigade charged just below the west angle. Rebel artillery had the Yankees squarely in range. "The next twenty minutes were horribly fatal," a survivor recounted. "The loss was very heavy," another wrote home. "The gallant 15th Regiment is no more a regiment and it brings tears to one's eyes as he looks upon the little band which now gathers around our colors."

VOWING TO EMERGE FROM THE BATTLE A LIVE MAJOR GENERAL OR A DEAD BRIGADIER, BRIGADIER GENERAL ABNER PERRIN LED HIS TROOPS INTO BATTLE AT THE SALIENT. AS HIS HORSE LEAPED OVER THE CAPTURED WORKS, A BULLET ENDED HIS LIFE. (LC)

FOR TWENTY HOURS, FIGHTING RAGED AT THE BLOODY ANGLE. A CONFEDERATE SOLDIER SUMMED UP THE SITUATION WHEN HE WROTE, "THE QUESTION BECAME, PRETTY PLAINLY WHETHER ONE WAS WILLING TO MEET DEATH, NOT MERELY TO RUN THE CHANCES OF IT." (BL)

By noon, fighting at the Bloody Angle had achieved a grisly equilibrium. Lee labored to prepare a new line a short way back, relying on his soldiers to defend the salient until the new position was ready. All day, dazed combatants fought grimly on. Men stood on their comrades' bodies and fired blindly into masses of enemy mere feet away. Corpses were stamped into mud and riddled with bullets until they were no longer recognizable. Frenzied soldiers jumped onto the works and fired until they were killed; others jammed rifles through nooks and crannies and shot blindly away. So relentless was the slaughter that men collapsed from exhaustion on top of corpses, only to jolt awake and start killing again. It seemed as though the two armies had embraced one another in a death grip and refused to let go until one of them was annihilated.

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