Sunday, June 19, 2016

'Horror of the melee': Stroll at Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe conjures epic scenes

(National Park Service map)

You likely have heard of the Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania Court House. But did you know that scene of vicious combat was just one part of the Mule Shoe Salient, a bulge in the Confederate fortifications at the Virginia battlefield?

A few members of my family recently took a brief driving tour of the May 1864 site and I spent a few minutes walking paths at the Bloody Angle. It was a pretty, late-spring day and I worked up a bit of a sweat.

Line of earthworks near route of Upton advance

We got a quick orientation at the exhibit shelter on the beginning of the driving tour. The next stop recalled the May 9 innovative charge of Col. Emory Upton’s Union troops, a day after a failed attempt to dislodge Confederates from Laurel Hill. Upton’s fast-moving column breached the Rebel line briefly, but Lee’s troops began digging in.

Soon, thousands of men faced off around the Mule Shoe, which provided a tempting target for Federal commanders.

The photo above shows the area where Lee mistakenly removed artillery pieces when he thought Grant’s Yankees were withdrawing. It was a big mistake. Winfield Hancock’s Federals burst through on May 12 and Confederate columns rushed to hold the salient.

According to the Civil War Trust: “After the initial breakthrough … Lee shifted reinforcements into the salient just as Grant hurled more troops at the Confederate works. Fighting devolved into a point-blank slugfest – amid a torrential downpour – which lasted for 22 hours.”

Monument to 126th Ohio Volunteer Infantry

The 24-hour stubborn Rebel defense of the Bloody Angle, a 200-yard western stretch of the salient, bought time for Lee's engineers to construct a new line of earthworks to the rear. The exhausted men left the salient to their new positions, leaving a scene of unparalleled carnage.

Grant left the field a few days when an effort to move on this new position was rebuffed by massed artillery, according to the trust’s summary.

Spotsylvania, which followed the Wilderness, was the third bloodiest battle of the war, with a staggering 30,000 casualties (18,000 Union). It lasted nearly two weeks (May 8-21) and saw vicious hand-to-hand combat at times.

Look closely and you can make out raised fortification

The National Park Service, which maintains the site, calls this part of the Overland Campaign inconclusive. Grant continued his efforts to flank Lee’s army.

South Carolina and New Jersey monuments
Confederate troops rushed toward background to reinforce

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