The Bloody Angle
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
May 8 - 21, 1864
Spotsylvania County, Virginia
View from a Confederate trench near the apex of the Muleshoe Salient.
In the spring of 1864, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, led the Army of the Potomac on an offensive in eastern Virginia. The objective of the Overland Campaign was to maneuver the Federal army into sieges of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, along with heavily fortified Petersburg, 24 miles to the south. Over a period of eight weeks Union soldiers repeatedly engaged General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, fighting for the heart of the Confederacy.
Following the brutal, but inconclusive, Battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7th, Grant moved his troops southeast hoping to draw the Confederates into a fight on more favorable ground near Spotsylvania Court House. The bait worked, and by May 12th the Confederates had established a four-mile line of earthworks, including a huge half-mile bulge called the Muleshoe Salient, just northwest of town. Grant massed Maj. General Winfield Scott Hancock's 20,000-man Second Corps opposite the tip of the Muleshoe.
Lee was aware of Federal troop movements, and believing that Grant was preparing to withdraw, removed his artillery from the salient. In fact, Hancock's infantry was scheduled to attack at 4am. Darkness delayed the start of the offensive until 4:35, just as the rain stopped and was replaced by a thick fog. The Second Corps crashed through the Confederate works, nearly breaking the Southern army’s line within minutes. Without a clear plan of how to follow up, though, Lee had time to shift reinforcements into place just as Grant sent a second wave of troops at the
Confederates. The two sides settled into a violent stalemate.
Just west of the apex of the salient was a vulnerable bulge in the Confederate earthworks known, thereafter, as the 'Bloody Angle'. Here, the fight devolved into a point-blank slugfest of gunfire and hand-to-hand combat amidst a torrential downpour, lasting 22 hours and claiming nearly 17,000 men. The Confederates held their position, and a new line of defense was established 500 yards to the rear.
Exhausted, Grant's men retreated. They did not test the new line until May 18, when they were met by massed artillery fire and easily repulsed. Stymied but undaunted, Grant called off the attack and resumed his march southeast, towards Richmond.