- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

On Sept. 17, 1862, known as America’s single bloodiest day, more than 23,000 men fell during the Battle of Antietam. Less well known, perhaps, is the “Bloody Angle,” where on May 12, 1864, occurred the most intense, savage and prolonged hand-to-hand fighting of the Civil War.

The engagement took place during the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House in Northern Virginia. It was one bloody footprint on Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s journey south during the Overland Campaign to defeat and destroy Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The campaign began on May 4, 1864, when Grant crossed the Rappahannock River. He wanted to push the Army of the Potomac through the area known as the Wilderness before Lee could react. But the wily Lee was quickly apprised of the move and, despite his inferiority in troops and guns, struck in the heart of that mass of tangled and overgrown forest.

Two days of brutal but inconclusive fighting gained neither side an advantage. Rather than retreat, as other Union commanders undoubtedly would have done, Grant was determined to press forward. His immediate goal was the strategic crossroads of the small village of Spotsylvania Court House. If Union troops could get there ahead of Lee, they would be between the Confederates and Richmond, forcing Lee to attack. With his superiority in material, men and cannon, Grant was confident about his ability to destroy his foe.

In a desperate race against time and Grant, a portion of Lee’s troops arrived first, near the village, on the morning of May 7. The Rebels immediately entrenched behind earthen and log barricades in an arc of about six miles. A pronounced salient marked the northern apex of the line, forming a shape like a horseshoe, which came to be called the “Mule Shoe.”

Grant probed the lines but found no weak spot. Determined to break through, he approved a plan by Col. Emory Upton to attack a portion of the line with 12 infantry regiments in a densely packed mass.

On the evening of May 10, these 5,000 men, led by Upton personally, executed their assault. After initial success, the offensive failed for lack of support by other Northern units. Upton retreated with several hundred dead and wounded, but Grant was impressed enough with the results that he promoted Upton to brigadier general on the spot.

Moreover, Grant believed that an identical attack with an entire Union corps would achieve the critical breakthrough that would lead to the disintegration of the Army of Northern Virginia. He selected the II Corps of Winfield S. Hancock and the target date of May 12.

As daylight barely broke that morning, four divisions of the II Corps — 20,000 men — emerged from the woods and marched quickly and silently toward the Rebel breastworks. A rainstorm that had begun the previous afternoon helped obscure the sound of 40,000 feet and kept visibility extremely limited.

Rebel pickets stationed about 400 yards in front of the trenches were overwhelmed quickly without a shot fired, and the Union blue surged forward through rain and fog, an irresistible tidal wave about to crash on a shore of Confederate trenches.

When they reached the Rebel works, they completely surprised the men in gray and captured hundreds of yards of trenches and 3,500 men, almost the entire division of Confederate Gen. Edward Johnson.

Success came at a price, however. Even as they gained their objective, the Union mass began to lose cohesion and soon became disorganized. In effect, they got in each other’s way, and attempts by several officers to straighten out the mess failed.

Meanwhile, Confederate forces drawn from other parts of the field mounted a fierce counterattack led by Gen. John B. Gordon. They pushed the Federals back to the trenches but were unable to oust them completely from the works. Now began an epic struggle.

They were mere yards apart, separated by the lay of the ground and the contested earthworks. The fighting degenerated into something almost primeval. Bayonet-tipped rifles were used as spears to jab and stab at the almost-unseen foe; butt-stocks were clubs to beat an enemy to death; some Confederates possessed hatchets they used to cleave Union skulls. In some places, the dead were stacked five deep and used as protection against the storm of lead flying through the air.

A driving rainstorm did nothing to diminish the ferocity of the battle as country lads from Massachusetts, Maine and Pennsylvania tenaciously fought farm boys from Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina. Bullets flew so thickly that human bodies were reduced to quivering masses, many unrecognizable as human. An oak tree with a 22-inch diameter was cut down solely by rifle fire; today its stump is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, lead Minie balls still embedded in its fibers.

For almost 20 hours the savagery continued. Finally, Lee was able to construct a new line of entrenchments at the base of the salient and pulled his weary troops back to safety. The battle for the “Bloody Angle” was over.

During the next few days, Grant probed Lee’s new lines but could find no weaknesses, and he decided that further attacks against such works were useless. He pulled out on May 20 and continued his march south toward Richmond.

Total casualties for both sides were about 13,000, far less than at Antietam. The intensity, duration and closeness of the fighting at “Bloody Angle,” however, was a carnage unmatched during the Civil War.

Joseph E. Lowry lives in Arlington.

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