The Mule Shoe – May 12, 1864

SPECIAL EDITION: 150 YEARS AGO TODAY fighting raged at Spotsylvania from the first light of dawn until well after midnight. It was in my opinion the most brutal and ghastly day of the entire Civil War.

In the overnight hours Hancock massed the Second Corps by divisions three lines deep. Gibbon’s Second Division, which included the Fourteenth Connecticut in the Col. Carroll’s Third Brigade, formed the third line. Wright’s Sixth Corps was to support the advance. The assault stepped off in silence, in heavy fog and drizzle at about 5:00 a.m., its objective a salient in the Confederate line known as the Mule Shoe, because of its distinctive shape. The front line of the assaulting column closed on the salient in silence, until alert Confederate pickets rose the alarm.

Confederate artillery boomed and the battle was on. The men of the Second Corps rushed forward into a depression in the land where the shells of the enemy had little effect. Then they went up to the works and leaped over them without stopping. The surprised Confederates were quickly driven back, and more and more Union troops poured into the breech in the Confederate line. (Click here to view a Wikipedia map of the Mule Shoe assault.)

When the men of the Fourteenth vaulted into the works, they captured more prisoners than they had in their own ranks for the second time in their history, the first being at Gettysburg. Brig. Gen. George Steuart was among their prisoners. They also turned two of the Confederate guns around and, under the direction of Lt. Col. Moore, some of the men served a brief stint in the artillery.

The assault of the Second Corps drove the Confederates about half a mile back to a second line of works that Lee had had built for this eventuality. The assault ground to a halt and a determined counterattack reversed the tide. The men of the Fourteenth lifted the two captured artillery pieces over the works and sent them to the rear along with their many prisoners. Then they started to dig a trench along the outside of the Mule Shoe works, making the breastworks as formidable on the outside as they were on the inside.

Charge after charge by the Confederates drove the Federals back into the Mule Shoe. Much of the fighting was hand to hand. The bayonet was used freely and often. The fighting, much of it during heavy rain, was most severe at a slight angle in the west side of the salient that became known as the Bloody Angle. The firing was so intense here that a twenty-two inch diameter oak tree was cut down, mostly by Federal rifle fire. The stump of this tree resides in the Smithsonian.

The battle continued until the early hours of May 13th, with neither side able to gain the advantage. This single example recorded by Charles Page in his History of the Fourteenth Regiment, Conn. Vol. Inf. illustrates how desperate and personal the fighting was. “One Fourteenth man had thrust his bayonet through the breast of a Confederate, the Confederate also having thrust his bayonet through the neck of the Fourteenth man, the two men stood dead against the breastworks, the guns of each serving to brace them and hold them in this standing position.”

The fighting finally wound down after midnight. Lee started to withdraw his men from the Mule Shoe to a second line of breastworks his engineers had been working hard to build while the fight raged. Members of the Fourteenth Connecticut were among the first Federals to go inside the Mule Shoe works the next morning. Charles Page described what they saw.

“As soon as it was light on the morning of the 13th a picket line (of Carrol’s Brigade) was advanced to find the enemy and as the detail went out they passed over the breastworks and ditch. This ditch was literally filled with dead Confederates, many being killed in battle while others were crushed by comrades falling upon them. The heavy rain through the night had filled the ditch which mingled with the blood from the wounded men gave the appearance of the ditch being filled with blood. There was no enemy in sight and but little firing on the picket line, the troops remaining here most of the day without active work. There was slight engagement to the left. The regiment passed this point and lay down for the night on a side hill.”

FICTION CONNECTION: In my novel An Eye for Glory, Sgt. Michael Palmer is a member of the first detail to enter the works on the morning of the 13th. The grisly carnage all around crushes him.

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