Hand-To-Hand Fighting at Spotsylvania
G. Norton Galloway
GENERAL HANCOCK's surprise and capture of the larger portion of Edward Johnson's division and the capture of the salient "at Spotsylvania Court House on the 12th of May, 1864, accomplished with the Second Corps," have been regarded as one of the most brilliant feats of that brilliant soldier's career ; but without the substantial assistance of general Wright, grand old John Sedgwick's worthy successor, and the Sixth Corps, a defeat as bitter as his victory was sweet would have been recorded against the hero of that day.
The storm which had set in early in the afternoon of the 11th of May continued with great severity, and but little rest was obtained during the night. Soon after dark, however, a remarkable change in the weather took place, and it became ed in small groups about half-drowned fires, with their tents stretched about their shoulders, while some hastily pitched the canvas on the ground, and sought shelter beneath the rumpled and dripping folds. Others rolled themselves up, and lay close to the simmering logs, eager to catch a few moments' sleep ; many crouched about, without any shelter whatever, presenting a pitiable sight.
Throughout the day some skirmishing and sharpshooting had occurred, but this had been of a spasmodic character, and had elicited no concern.
About dusk the Sixth Corps moved to a position on the right and rear of the army. The stormy night was favorable to Hancock's movement, and about 10 o'clock he put his tr oops in motion, marching to a point on the left of the Sixth Corps' former position in the neighborhood of the Brown house, massing his troops in that vicinity.
General Grant's orders to Hancock were to assault at daylight on the 12th in cooperation with Burnside on his left, while Wright and Warren were held in readiness to assault on his right. The Confederate army was composed of three corps-Longstreet (now R. H. Anderson) on their left, Ewell in the center, and A. P. Hill (now under early) on the right. The point to be assaulted was a salient of field-works on the Confederate center, afterward called the "Bloody Angle." It was held by General Edward Johnson's division. Here the Confederate line broke off at an angle of ninety degrees, the right parallel, about the length of a small brigade, being occupied by General George H. Steuart's regiments. This point was a part or continuation of the line of works charged and carried by General Upton on May 10th, and was considered to be the key to Lee's position.
Just as the day was breaking, Barlow's and Birney's divisions of Hancock's corps pressed forward upon the unsuspecting foe, and leaping the breastworks after a hand-to-hand conflict with the bewildered enemy, in which guns were used as clubs, possessed themselves of the intrenchments. Over three thousand prisoners were taken, including General Johnson and General Steuart. Twenty Confederate cannon became the permanent trophies of the day, twelve of them belonging to Page and eight to Cutshaw.
Upon reaching the second line of Lee's works held by Wilcox's division, who by this time had become apprised of the disaster to their comrades, Hancock met with stern resistance, as Lee in the meantime had been hurrying troops to Ewell from Hill on the right and Anderson on the left, and these were sprung upon our victorious lines with such an impetus as to drive them hastily back toward the left of the salient.
As soon as the news of Hancock's good and ill success reached army headquarters, the Sixth Corps - Upton's brigade being in advance - was ordered to move with all possible haste to his support. At a brisk pace we crossed a line of intrenchments a short distance in our front, and, passing through a strip of timber, at once began to realize our nearness to the foe. It was now about 6 o'clock, and the enemy, reenforced, were making desperate efforts to regain what they had lost.
Our forces were hastily retiring at this point before the concentrated attack of the enemy, and these with our wounded lined the road. We pressed forward and soon cleared the woods and reached an insidious fen, covered with dense marsh grass, where we lay down for a few moments awaiting orders. I cannot imagine how any of us survived the sharp fire that swept over us at this point - a fire so keen that it split the blades of grass all about us, the minies moaning in a furious concert as they picked out victims by the score.
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, Captain Macfarlain commanding,-it being the advance of Upton's brigade,- to "rise up," whereupon with hurrahs we went forward, cheered on by Colonel Upton, who had led us safe through the Wilderness. 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, hastily selected for the work of retrieving ill fortune, 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 push 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. And now began a desperate and pertinacious struggle.
Under cover of the smoke-laden rain the enemy was pushing large bodies of troops forward, determined at all hazards to regain the lost ground. Could we hold on until the remainder of our brigade should come to our assistance? Regardless of the heavy volleys of the enemy that were thinning our ranks, we stuck to the position and returned the fire until the 5th Maine and the 121st New York of our brigade came to our support, while the 96th Pennsylvania went in on our right ; thus reenforced, we redoubled our exertions. The smoke, which was dense at first, was intensified by each discharge of artillery to such an extent that the accuracy of our aim became very uncertain, but nevertheless we kept up the fire in the supposed direction of the enemy. Meanwhile they were crawling forward under cover of the smoke, until, reaching a certain point, and raising their usual yell, they charged gallantly up to the very muzzles of our pieces and reoccupied the Angle.
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.
At this moment, and while the open ground in rear of the Confederate works was choked with troops, 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.
The rain continued to fall, and clouds of smoke hung over the scene. Like leeches we stuck to the work, determined by our fire to keep the enemy from rising up. Captain John D. Fish, of Upton's staff, who had until this time performed valuable service in conveying ammunition to the gunners, fell, pierced by a bullet. This brave officer seemed to court death as he rode back and forth between the caissons and cannoneers with stands of canister under his "gum" coat. "Give it to them , boys! I'll bring you the canister," said he ; and as he turned to cheer the gunners, he fell from his horse, mortally wounded. In a few moments the two brass pieces of the 5th Artillery, cut and hacked by the bullets of both antagonists, lay unworked with their muzzles projecting over the enemy's works, and their wheels half sunk in the mud. Between the lines and near at hand lay the horses of these guns, completely riddled. The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen.
The mud was half-way to our knees, and by our constant movement the fallen were almost buried at our feet. We now backed off from the breastwork a few yards, abandoning for a while the two 12-pounders, but still keeping up a fusillade. We soon closed up our shattered ranks and the brigade settled down again to its task. Our fire was now directed at the top of the breastworks, and woe be to the head or hand that appeared above it. In the meantime the New Jersey brigade, Colonel W. H. Penrose, went into action on our right, and the Third Brigade, General Eustis's, was hard at work. The Vermont brigade, under Colonel Lewis A. Grant, which had been sent to Barlow's assistance, was now at the Angle, and General Wheaton's brigade was deep in the struggle. The Second and Third Divisions of the Sixth Corps were also ready to take part. It will thus be seen that we had no lack of men for the defense or capture of this position, whichever it may be termed.
The great difficulty was in the narrow limits of the Angle, around which we were fighting, which precluded the possibility of getting more than a limited number into action at once. At one time our ranks were crowded in some parts four deep by reenforcements. Major Henry P. Truefitt, commanding the 119th Pennsylvania, was killed, and Captain Charles P. Warner, who succeeded him, was shot dead. Later in the day Major William Ellis, of the 49th New York, who had excited our admiration, was shot through the arm and body with a ramrod during one of the several attempts to get the men to cross the works and drive off the enemy. Our losses were frightful. What remained of many different regiments that had come to our support had concentrated at this point and planted their tattered colors upon a slight rise of ground close to the Angle, where they staid during the latter part of the day.
To keep up the supply of ammunition pack mules were brought into use, each animal carrying three thousand rounds. The boxes were dropped close behind the troops engaged, where they were quickly opened by the officers or file-closers, who served the ammunition to the men. The writer fired four hundred rounds of ammunition, and many others as many or more. In this manner a continuous and rapid fire was maintained, to which for a while the enemy replied with vigor.
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 times 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 up in the air, and his body pitched headlong among the enemy.
On several occasions squads of disheartened 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 in.
Springing upon the breastworks in a body, they stood for an instant panic-stricken at the terrible array before them ; that momentary y 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.
Toward dusk preparations were made to relieve us. By this time we were nearly exhausted, and had fired three to four hundred rounds o man. Our lips were incrusted with powder from "biting cartridge." Our shoulders and hands were coated with mud that had adhered to the butts of our rifles.
The troops of the Second Corps, who were to relieve us, now moved up, took our position, :and opened fire as we fell back a short distance to rearrange our shattered ranks and get something to eat, which we were sadly in need of. When darkness came on we dropped from exhaustion.
About midnight, after twenty hours of constant fighting, Lee withdrew from the contest at this point, leaving the Angle in our possession. Thus closed the battle of the 12th of May. , On the 13th, early in the day, volunteers were called for to bury the dead. The writer volunteered to assist, and with the detail moved to the works near the Angle, in front of which we buried a number of bodies near where they fell. We were exposed to the fire of sharp shooters, and it was still raining. We cut the name, company, and regiment of each of the dead on the lids of ammunition-boxes which we picked up near by.
The inscriptions were but feebly executed, for they were done with a pocket-knife. This worked, we went close up where we had fought on Thursday and viewed the "Bloody Angle."
A momentary gleam of sunshine through the· gloom of the sky seemed to add a new horror to the scene. Hundreds of Confederates, dead or dying, lay piled over one another in those pits.
The fallen lay three or four feet deep in some places, and, with but few exceptions, they were shot in and about the head. Arms, accouterments, ammunition, cannon, shot and shell, and broken foliage were strewn about. With much labor a detail of Union soldiers buried the dead by simply turning the captured breastworks upon them.
Thus had these unfortunate victims unwittingly dug their own graves. The trenches were nearly full of muddy water. It was the most horrible sight I had ever witnessed.
The enemy's defenses at this point were elaborately constructed of heavy timber, banked with earth to the height of about four feet; above this: was placed what is known as a head log, raised just high enough to enable a musket to be inserted between it and the lower work. Pointed pine and pin-oak formed an abatis, in front of which was a deep ditch. Shelves ran along the inside ledges of these works (a series of square pits) and along their flank traverses which extended to the rear ; upon these shelves large quantities of "buck and ball" and "minie" cartridges were piled ready for use, and the guns of the dead and wounded were still pointing through the apertures, just as the men had fallen from them.
Source: "Battles and Leaders of the Civil War"
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