This Day in Civil War History

1864 The fighting at Spotsylvania in Virginia reaches its peak at “The Bloody Angle.”

Interested more in the stories than the strategy, I looked up The Bloody Angle and found a plethora of primary sources at the National Park Service site.

However, since some of the quotes rely on understanding the battle terrain and the significance of the battle itself, I will include a brief description here, taken directly from the NPS site.

The Battle of Spotsylvania, fought May 8-21, 1864, included some of the most desperate hand-to-hand fighting of the Civil War.  On May 12th, Union and Confederate soldiers struggled over this ground for more than 20 hours, through pouring rain, producing unparalleled examples of both courage and carnage.

In 1864, this area appeared much the way it looks today: cleared fields and open farmland separated the opposing lines. Late on May 8th, Confederate Edward Johnson’s division, about 3.000 men, built this outer line of entrenchments. These low earthen mounds are all that remain of the original works. During the battle, however, these trenches stood shoulder high, were reinforced with logs, and had walls running straight back from the main line about every 20 feet.

“The ground was examined, and General Edward Johnson found we were on the brow of a ridge, which turned somewhat shortly to the right. The campfires in our front seemed to us to be considerably below the plane of our position…It was now quite late in the night, and General Johnson (different from the link above) deflected his line and followed the ridge, so far as it could be distinguished in darkness.”

— Lieutenant W.W. Old, Johnson’s aide

The following quotes made quite an impression on me not only because they tell the story of what happened, but because the imagery is so stark, it moves beyond mere journal or diary and into reality.

“Click, click sounded along our ranks as each man cocked his musket and every eye was strained to discover in the dim light of early dawn, the first appearance of the Yankee line as it emerged from the woods. Some moments passed before we could see a single Yankee, when suddenly the enemy poured out of the woods on our right; as far as the eye could see the enemy was seen, covering the whole field. . . . “

–Isaac Seymour, Confederate Staff Officer

and…

“The storm had burst upon us. 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. . . in the midst of foes, who were rushing around me, with confusion and a general melee in full blast.”

–Major Robert Hunter, Confederate Staff Officer

“I remember the thin picket line of the enemy, with their bewildered look. There was a little patter of bullets, and I saw a few of our men on the ground; one discharge of artillery. . . and we were up on the works with our hands full of guns, prisoners and colors.”

–General Francis Barlow, USA

I wondered about Barlow’s signature, whether he was referring to the USA as one country, or whether the USA stood for a Union military outfit. Readers, feel free to set me straight on this.

“They received a tremendous fire as they came up out of the ravine. . . No troops could stand such a fire and they were driven back, leaving the ground strewn with their dead and wounded. Troops cannot live over that slope.”

–Colonel J.B. Parsons, 10th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment

I also wondered at Parson’s use of the word “troops.”  In contemporary Army terms, a “troop” is a single soldier.  What did the word mean then, however?  Again, readers, your input is appreciated.

The quote that struck me the hardest came from the pen of Private G.N. Galloway, 95th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment:

“The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen. The mud was halfway to our knees. . . Our losses were frightful. What remained of many different regiments that had come up to our support had concentrated at this point, and had planted their tattered colors upon a slight rise of ground where they staid during the latter part of the day.”

Bloody Angle
15th New Jersey Monument at the Bloody Angle

Rest in peace, men, and understand you have preserved a unified country, no matter how much we still struggle to overcome our differences.

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