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
"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
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
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
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 explainedJohnston 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 itJohnston'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 shellonward towards the
already wavering enemyonward now after their bro ken
columnsonward 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 popularand appropriateappellation
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.
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
"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
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 brigadesthose of Brigadier Generals Abner Perrin and
Nathaniel H. Harrishurried 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
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
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
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.