The following is a guest blog post by Jeffry D. Wert, author of The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers’ Struggle for Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, on sale Tuesday, July 12th wherever books and ebooks are sold.
It was a cold February afternoon five years ago when I stood inside the Mule Shoe on the battlefield of Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia. Man, nature, and time had removed evidence of the fearful struggle that had occurred here on May 12-13, 1864. A shallow trench, running east to west, now marks the Mule Shoe’s northern end or apex, where log and dirt breastworks once protected its Confederate defenders. I was alone on the winter day, except for the silence that comes often to hallowed ground.
While researching the book, I returned time and again to the battlefield. I walked the ground following the Union attack path and visited the sites of the long gone McCoull, Harrison, and Landrum houses. Each time while I stood in the Mule Shoe salient, I was reminded of Union general Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s description of Civil War battlefields. “In great deeds, something abides,” Chamberlain wrote. “On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass, bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.”
On “this deathless field,” in Chamberlain’s words, a great deed had transpired on May 12-13, 1864, a savage, relentless, blood-soaked fight between fellow Americans separated at times only by the length of a rifle barrel for more than twenty hours. To be sure, a century and a half later, the dead lie elsewhere, not far, the landscape is not quite the same, the breastworks no longer stand, and the Mule Shoe’s inner defenses or traverses have disappeared without a trace. A handful of markers and monuments memorializes the great deed and, as Chamberlain believed, something abides, “the shadow of a mighty presence.”
The struggle had begun at 4:35 A.M. on May 12, when 20,000 officers and men—Americans from eleven northern states—of the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac advanced toward the Confederate defenses northwest of Spotsylvania Court House. A veteran of the 20th Massachusetts remembered that as the troops waited, “although nothing had been communicated to the troops as to what was expected of them, the feeling ran through the ranks that they were near to momentous happenings.” On they came through a heavy fog and rain toward a fury beyond their experience as soldiers.
The blue-coated attackers overran the Confederate defenses, routed an enemy infantry division, and threatened the destruction of their old nemesis, the Army of Northern Virginia. A series of counterattacks by Confederate brigades, however, blunted the Yankees’ penetration into the salient, forging a tactical stalemate. The combat descended into “the death-grapple of the war,” according to a Union infantryman. For the next twenty-two hours or so, the opponents killed and maimed each other in a struggle unlike any before or after during the four-year conflict.
When it ended in the early hours of May 13, upwards of 55,000 fellow Americans had been drawn into the seemingly unending, merciless combat. Total casualties amounted to 17,500 killed, wounded, and captured or missing. On no other day between July 3, 1863, at Gettysburg, and war’s end on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox, would so many fall on a single day. “Combine the horrors of many battle-fields,” attested a Union chaplain, “bring them into a single day and night of twenty-four hours, and the one of May 12th includes them all.” Such was this “vision-place of souls” on a spring day 158 years ago.
Jeffry D. Wert is author of many previous books, including most recently Civil War Barons: The Tycoons, Entrepreneurs, Inventors, and Visionaries Who Forged Victory and Shaped a Nation.