May 12, 1864 (Thursday)
Through the night there had been noises. General Allegheny Johnson took it as a sign and sent word to Richard Ewell that the Federals were massing for an early morning assault. “The position could not be held without the artillery,” he insisted. And though Ewell at first balked, before the dawn, before any attack could be launched, he fortified Johnson’s lines along the Mule Shoe with the needed guns.
All along the Rebel lines, the stirring grew. “Nothing was said by our officers,” wrote M.S. Stringfellow, a chaplain in the 13th Virginia, “but there was a nameless something in the air which told each man that a crisis was at hand. Orders were given in low tones. The dim, shadowy outlines of the different commands as they took their positions under the sombre shades of the pines, gave a weird effect to the scene.”
And just before dawn, they came. At first there was distant cheering, and the terrifying trample of feet, the clinking of accouterments; all imperceptible through the dark, but drawing closer with each passing moment.
“The fog was so dense we could not see in any direction,” recalled Johnson’s aide, Major Robert Hunter, “but soon we could hear the commands of officers to the men, and the buzz and hum of moving troops. The pickets had been driven in, with occasional shots here and there, and there was instant expectation of a coming assault. The first thing we saw was a mass of men — indistinctly visible through the fog — moving in front of our position.”
Not a musket was fired, and it was clear that the enemy had been sworn not to shoot until they were inside the Rebel works. They were closer, and dawn was near.
“I had started from the reserve of our regiment to the skirmish line with an order,” told John H. Worsham of the Stonewall Jackson’s old division, “when the stillness was broken by a cannon shot and the screaming of a shell! I put my hands instantly to my head to see if it was on my shoulders; the shell seemed to come so near me that it certainly took off my head! (Such feelings as this often come to a soldier!) Recovering from my dazed condition I proceeded. Before I reached our line I could hear the sound of the marching of 40,000 men, and soon a few shots from our skirmish line on the left put all on the watch. I saw the line approaching to my left, ran back to the colonel and reported to him; and he immediately called the regiment to attention. By this time the enemy had approached so near that the regiment could see them.”
“The storm had burst upon us,” continued Major Hunter. “I could see General Johnson with his cane striking at the enemy as they leaped over the works, and a sputtering fire swept up and down our line, many guns being damp. I found myself (as I had my sword out waiving to General George H. Stuart to crowd in toward the left) in the midst of foes, who were rushing around me, with confusion and a general melee in full blast. I also saw General Johnson with his cane striking in the crowd and warding bayonets.”
The Federal wave crashed upon the Rebels, immediately decimating the brigade of William Witcher. They ran or they died where they stood. Union troops followed, now catching the left flank and rear of George Steuart’s Brigade, who was soon a Yankee prisoner.
But it was not only a single Federal column. Two more divisions assailed the Mule Shoe to the left of what was once Johnson’s lines. Two brigades, including the heralded Stonewall Brigade, were captured or killed, nearly to a man. Those who survived had merely escaped.
Major Hunter made his own egress, fleeing for his life towards the rear. A few hundred yards back, he was stopped. “The first man I met facing toward our lines was General R. E. Lee,” wrote Hunter. “He was mounted on Traveller, and with his hat off was endeavoring to halt the retreating men. I saw in a moment that General Lee did not know the extent of the trouble in front, and hailed him with the exclamation: ‘General, the line is broken at the angle in General Johnson’s front.'”
Now realizing the seriousness, Lee and Hunter rode farther back to find reinforcements. These they found in the form of John Gordon’ Division, which was already forming to strike. Hunter was sent off to gather the remnants of Johnson’s troops, of which he could ultimately find only several hundred.
With two brigades, Gordon was poised to attack. As he had done in the Wilderness, Lee made some attempt to go forward with the ranks. Gordon and his men exhorted and clamored for Lee to go back. Of course, he acquiesced, and the two brigades strode toward the conflagration.
“We had one only a few steps into the pines when we were saluted by a heavy volley of musketry,” told George Peyton of the 13th Virginia. “We did not stop for this, but rushed forward driving a mob of Yankees in front of us. We did not know that the Yankees had broken our front line and had penetrated nearly a mile behind our front.”
M.S. Stringfellow, also of the 13th, continued: “As we emerged from the pines we came suddenly upon this inner line, which was heavily manned by the enemy. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that the enemy poured a volley into our faces at not over twenty yards. It was then, and not till then, that the ” rebel yell” rose wild and clear upon the morning air.”
The Federals were finally flushed from the eastern portions of the Mule Shoe, but now Grant was releasing more hell upon them. And two entire corps under Gouverneur K. Warren and Horatio Wright hurled their great masses toward the right of the corps, Winfield Scott Hancock’s, which was already at the works.
First came Wright’s, closest to Hancock’s, and they hit upon the Rebel lines at a point soon known at the “Bloody Angle.” But where Hancock had claimed such early victories, there were few left for Wright and his dying men. Lee’s Rebels had filled in gaps, thrown in reinforcements, and were even constructing new entrenchments. All through this, the fog had turned to rain, which was now falling in torrents. Grant fed the growing stalemate more of Wright’s Corps, as General George Meade ordered Warren to attack with his whole command. The fighting continued without let.
“Where the lines overlapped,” wrote South Carolinian Berry Benson, “the men said they and the enemy both fired without showing their heads above the work, which was certain death. Guns were loaded, held up to the breastwork, depressed, and the trigger pulled with the thumb. One man told me he several times took in his hand the barrel of a gun pointing down on him, held it up till it was fired and then let it go.”
Lee’s own counterattacks, too, had ceased to drive the enemy from their ground. By noon, Lee began to consider a withdrawal to entrenchments constructed in the rear of the Mule Shoe. This Bloody Angle, this Mule Shoe was indeed the weakness in Lee’s defenses. If it was eliminated, his lines would be without crook or salient. But this would take time, and now time meant more death and more dying.
Afternoon gave way to evening, and then dark, but not a cessation to the killing. “It was a night of unrest, of misery, of horror,” remembered Robert Park of the 12th Alabama. “The standing men would occasionally hear a comrade utter an exclamation as a stray bullet from the enemy pierced some part of his body and placed him hors du combat. And it was well that the men were kept standing, as I saw many of them walking by the right flank and then by the left flank, and in profound sleep, wholly unconscious of what they were doing.”
Around 2am, the new Rebel lines were complete and Lee masterfully withdrew, leaving Grant the Mule Shoe. Morning, it seemed, would bring no relief.1
- “Major Hunter’s Story” by Robert Hunter, appearing in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 33; “Rev. M.S. Stringfellow’s Account” by M.S. Stringfellow, appearing in Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. 21; One of Jackson’s Foot Cavalry by John H. Worsham; Stonewall Jackson’s Foot Cavalry by George Quintus Peyton; The Twelfth Alabama Infantry by Robert Park; The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House by Gordon C. Rhea. [↩]