The Spotsylvania battlefield is beautifully preserved, the peacefulness and serenity of the place belying the fact that in May 1864 it was the scene of what is often called the most horrific and brutal combat in American history.
Here are some stories of a few of the men who were there.
Despite the severe losses he had suffered in the Wilderness, General Grant decided not to retreat (as his predecessors had done), but rather to press on, relying his numerical superiority and what Abraham Lincoln called “the terrible arithmetic.” So he disengaged and began to march his army southeast, toward Spotsylvania Court House.
General Lee correctly guessed Grant’s plan, and raced to intercept him. But he had farther to travel, and on inferior roads, giving the Federals a decided advantage. To buy the time he needed, General Lee sent his cavalry to block the Spotsylvania Court House road.
The 5th Virginia Cavalry (commanded by General Tom Rosser) arrived first and drew up in a line of battle across the road, fighting desperately to hold back the Federal wave. Holding out for nearly a day, the regiment suffered badly and was in danger of being routed when Munford’s 2nd Virginia Cavalry arrived, charging the enemy and saving the day.
When the 5th was on the verge of collapse, Reuben Medina, a blacksmith who had been recruited from a Richmond machine shop, rallied some of the men, encouraging and inspiring them to hold on a little longer. Reuben had earned the respect of his comrades, who knew him to be a “brave man and a good scrapper.” In the fight he took a saber slash across the face that nearly severed his nose. But he and his colleagues held on.
The propitious arrival of Munford’s cavalry relieved Rosser’s embattled men, broke the Federal momentum, and gained the Confederate army more time as it hurried toward Spotsylvania. Among Munford’s troopers was Private Calhoun Clay. A son of Odin Clay of Campbell County, a long-serving Virginia legislator, Calhoun had enlisted along with his three brothers, Cyrus, Junius and DeWitt. The others would survive the war, but Calhoun was killed that day alongside the Spotsylvania Road.
With the benefit of the time the cavalry’s delaying action had bought them, the Confederate army began to arrive, immediately going to work building entrenchments and earthworks. Following the contours of the land, the line laid out by the engineers included a salient that came to known as “the Mule Shoe.”
The Federal commanders recognized the opportunity the salient presented them. Emory Upton, a brash young colonel from New York, devised a plan to break the Confederate line. He proposed to concentrate a large mass of men on a small area of the line, and to charge it without stopping to fire, counting on the sudden rush and numerical advantage to overwhelm the defenders. Conditions were nearly perfect for the assault and Upton’s predictions proved accurate. His men swarmed into the Confederate earthworks and threatened to break the entire line. Unfortunately for the Federals, the planned reinforcements and support never arrived, and Confederates hurried in from other parts of the line were able to drive Upton’s men away.
Private William Walker Ellington of the 45th North Carolina Infantry was among the men who were rushed in to meet Upton’s Charge. From Rockingham County, N.C., 18-year-old William had enlisted in Danville, Virginia just two months earlier. He was wounded in the battle and unable to return to duty until February 1865. Less than a month after his return he was captured at Hatcher’s Run and sent to Point Lookout prison.
William’s neighbor 19-year-old Lieut. Archer Watkins was acting commander of Company H of the 45th North Carolina that day. Like William, Lieut. Archer was also wounded (although whether on May 10 or May 12 is unclear). Archer recovered from his wound, returned to his company in September, survived the war, and went on to father at least 8 children.
Inspired by the success of Upton’s Charge, General Grant decided to repeat the tactic, but on a much larger scale. Two days later he would launch an entire Federal corps–20,000 men–at the tip of Mule Shoe salient.
The attack was launched at 4:30 a.m on May 12, in the foggy darkness and driving rain. The assault was predicated upon surprise, so the Federal troops advanced silently, under strict orders not to cheer or fire their weapons until they were inside the Confederate works.
Five hundred yards in advance of the Mule Shoe was a thin line of Confederate pickets and skirmishers, whose mission was to detect and delay any attack, and to alert the defenders in the main line. To prevent them from doing so, the Federal troops were instructed to rush the pickets, using only clubbed muskets and bayonets. In the pre-dawn rain, with near zero visibility, the skirmishers never saw them coming. A few made it back to the Confederate lines, but most were gobbled up and captured immediately.
At the center of the skirmish line was the 48th Virginia Infantry, composed of men from the mountains of western Virginia. Brothers John and James Henderson and their 19-year-old uncle Hiram Henderson, were serving in Company F and were among the men captured as the assault began. John and James were the illegitimate sons of Sarah Henderson, the daughter of a Scottish immigrant. Their uncle Hiram was also illegitimate, although under more curious circumstances. John was eventually exchanged, but James and Hiram spent the rest of the war in Elmira prison. James was known as “Greasy Jim,” which may help explain why he was never married.
Having bagged the Confederate pickets, the Federal wave surged toward the Mule Shoe as the defenders scrambled to meet them. The tip of the salient was the most vulnerable point in the Confederate line, so General Lee had packed it with artillery. Artillery massed at that point may well have broken the Federal assault that morning. But General Lee had made an uncharacteristic mistake the previous day. Believing that the Federals were withdrawing, he had ordered the artillery removed from the Mule Shoe. At the last minute frantic Confederate officers had been able to recall most of it, but the guns weren’t in position when the Federal troops swarmed into the works, and were almost all of them were captured before firing a shot.
Nor was the infantry able to stop the attack. When the men rose to deliver a volley into the attackers, they were dismayed to discover that the rain had dampened and ruined their ammunition. Instead of a devastating volley, they were answered with fizzles when they squeezed their triggers.
The famous Stonewall Brigade was annihilated. By the time the fighting ended, there were only about 200 men left, the rest having been killed, wounded or captured, and the brigade ceased to exist. John Hogston of Smyth County, a Private in the 4th Virginia Infantry, was one of the thousands of men captured in the Mule Shoe that day. Along with many of his Stonewall Brigade comrades, he would spend the rest of the war in Elmira Prison.
The 44th Virginia Infantry was positioned just to the right of the salient’s point, part of the brigade under the command of Col. William Witcher. Like the Stonewall Brigade, Witcher’s brigade was swept away in the assault. Sgt. William Guerrant was one of the many men taken prisoner. He had been wounded the year before in the assault on Culp’s Hill at Gettysburg, where John Guerrant, his only brother, had been killed. Like John Hogston and thousands of others, William was sent to Elmira prison. He died there, of chronic diarrhea.
The Federals poured into the Mule Shoe, collapsing the Confederate lines. The situation was desperate and the stakes were high. If the Confederate lines broke, the Federals would be able to roll up their flanks and destroy the army.
To stave off the impending disaster, General Lee pulled men out of other parts of the line, sending them into the Mule Shoe in a desperate effort to plug the hole. A brutal, all-day hand-to-hand melee followed.
To prevent the Confederates from pulling reinforcements out of other parts of their line, General Grant had ordered simultaneous attacks on the right and the left of the Mule Shoe, in order to pin down the Confederates there. The attack on the right by General Warren never happened. On the left Burnside did attack, but was readily repulsed. Edward Thomas’ brigade of Georgians was instrumental in turning back the Federal attack. Calhoun Clay’s cousin William Thaxton of the 14th Georgia Infantry was shot in the face and captured during the attack. The gunshot fractured his jaw and left his face paralyzed and disfigured for the rest of his long life.
In the end, the Confederate lines held. General Grant would continue to probe and attack for a couple of more days, before concluding that would not be able to punch his way through. Instead, he moved again to the southeast. And again, the Army of Northern Virginia moved to block him.