Reflections at Spotsylvania

The first beautiful Sunday of Spring seems as good a time as any to resume the battlefield visiting and the study of Civil War tactis. It’s only been two weeks since my last visits to Monocacy and Antietam, both of which at the time were under a foot of snow, but the renewed vigor of the March sunshine and a rise in temperatures augured well for an expedition southwards.

I resolved to visit Spotsylvania, a battle fought in the Spring of 1864, on sudden impulse seeing how nice a day it was, though the seed had been planted the night before. I’ve been reading Paddy Griffith’s Battle Tactics of the Civil War and Earl J. Hess’ The Rifled Musket in Civil War Combat and have been fascinated by an episode of the battle in which a Union Brigade under the command of Col. Emory Upton breached an entrenched Confederate line by attacking in column; that is Upton’s men marched in a deeper formation than the long firing line usually associated with Civil War combat, and then used shock (a bayonet charge) to rapidly breach an exposed entrenchment and then spread out to create a gap in the Confederate trench line which could enfilade (shoot down the length of a firing line) the defenders on either side.

Upton's Attack

Upton’s Attack

The logic of this attack was much like a battering ram. An entrenched enemy was an enemy that could easily use firepower to decimate attacking forces without exposing itself to the same killing power. Instead of Upton’s Brigade spreading out and attacking on a wider front (dropping the ratio of shots fired and the force exerted via shock attack they could concentrate at any one point), the brigade instead punched with maximum force at one much narrower point in the line. By ordering his men to not fire until they were inside the enemy trench, Upton’s forces rapidly drove through the advanced, but dispersed, Confederate skirmishers and were able to overcome the Confederate position directly ahead by reducing the fire equation to only one to two volleys at the effective lethal range of less than 50 yards before they were inside the trenches in force.  As the mass of Union soldiers rushed the trench, they quickly overwhelmed the dispersed defenders behind the earthwork and then were able to drive and turn about on the Confederate lines to left and right. These Confederate lines being narrower and, tied to a trench line, reduced to firing straight ahead with an effective variation of only 45 degrees to left or right, this caused the Confederate line to buckle on itself to absorb the surge on the point of Upton’s attack, losing cohesion and collapsing after being enfiladed by the suddenly more numerous Union troops spreading out from the breach.

Upton’s attack was a stunning success, but it was ultimately a local one that remained unexploited. Union attacks elsewhere along the line (not as well organized) failed to break through and were badly coordinated, and Confederate reserves counterattacked and drove Upton’s men back out of the salient entrenchments they had captured.  Unsupported by fresh troops and exposed well ahead of the Union lines, Upton’s forces could not maneuver further into the Confederate rear without fear of being cut off in a stand up engagement in the familiar linear fashion. If other attacks had been coordinated to pin other Confederate forces, the Brigade might have  hit the entrenched rebels from behind and collapsed the entire Confederate position, which was semi-circular and was thus dubbed the “Mule Shoe Salient”. A breach in force allowed attackers to then fire into the back of men facing away from them, causing further destruction, and it meant the Mule Shoe was not an ideal position,  and it would be abandoned a few days later in order to form a nearly un-breachable entrenchment on better ground.

Still, Upton’s attack is usually hailed as a harbinger of modern infantry tactics, and had to be re-learned in the First World War, in which the entrenchments of the Civil War would be complimented and made explicitly necessary by rapid firing small arms, machine guns, and high-explosive artillery. Breaches would be made on smaller fronts by fast-moving squads of trained men armed with grenades and rapid firing weapons (the bayonet still in evidence) in order to disrupt the firepower of entrenched forces, allowing further exploitation by reserve forces who could mop up and consolidate local gains.

All that aside, it turned out that Spotsylvania is also beautiful and I increasingly spent more of my time enjoying the sunshine then mapping Upton’s attack. It is nestled near the small town (the objective Grant sought) of Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the park meanders through field breaks in a large forest known as the Wilderness, which was also the sight of the battle of Chancellorsville and the battle of the Wilderness (which immediately proceeded Spotsylvania) in May of 1863 and May of 1864 respectively. A verdant Spring has not yet come to that part of Virginia, but the woods and the tumbling hills and hollows surrounding the long depressions that mark the respective Union and Confederate trenchlines echoed with birdsong, and the warmth of the sun came through the forest thickets and illuminated the ground in long shafts of amber sunlight. After stopping to walk Upton’s attack (I took a driving tour through the battlefield park), I made my way to another, more famous part of the battlefield, a turn in the Confederate “Mule Shoe” known as the Bloody Angle.

Looking out from the Bloody Angle across the Union line of Attack

Looking out from the Bloody Angle across the Union line of Attack

The Angle was the site of one of the most hideous contests in human history, let alone the Civil War. Indeed, there was nothing “civil” about the fighting at the Angle. Grant had been so impressed with the success (temporary as it was) of Upton’s attack that he ordered similar battering ram attacks for two days later that were to commence before dawn, and the attack started before 5:00 Am. The exposed position of the Confederate mule shoe trench was quickly overrun by 15,000 men of Gen. WS Hancock’s Union Second Corps, capturing over 2,000 men in the process. The Confederate reserves rushed forward and launched multiple assaults to retake the position.

The see-saw attack was what historians of modern war would dub a battle of attrition, a human meat-grinder in which whole formations of men went forth and were swallowed up in fire. Charging and counter-charging over the Confederate entrenchments, men huddled in depressions in the ground and fired until their weapons fouled with residue, leading small attacks without the semblance of coordination beyond squad level. Men hid on either side of the angle, firing their muskets vertically down on the men crouching on the other side and hurling muskets with bayonets attached like spears, pinning men to the ground.  Cannons were brought forward in order to fire canister (loose musket balls, shell fragments, and assorted shards) into the Confederate defenders, who shot down the gunners who crewed them and all horses who came to retrieve the cannons. They lay abandoned throughout the fighting, surrounded by a pile of dead men and horses.

Attack on the Bloody Angle, May 12th 1864

Attack on the Bloody Angle, May 12th 1864

The fighting went on like that for 19 hours until the sun went down. At the end of the contest, the Union had failed to break to Confederate lines in the Mule Shoe, but the Confederates retreated to a hastily prepared secondary line. The profligacy of the struggle was brutal for both sides, but General Robert E Lee knew his smaller force could not afford another contest in the exposed Mule Shoe. The much improved new line would be tested, but would prove too strong for the Union forces. Grant moved off around the Confederate right, and this line of advance would take him to the gates of Richmond by June of 1864 and another siege which would finally pin and bleed Lee’s army into surrender.

I walked to the Angle and stared out across at the direction of the Union advance. The long valley and field in front of the Confederate lines is filled with heather, and in the light of the spring sun, was the dull yellowish color of set honey. Children laughed and ran, local people walked their dogs and chatted to each other, and the first flying insects I have seen this year buzzed up from the earth, a sure sign that the world is turning. It was the perfect scene of serenity, and I felt as I often do at battlefields when observing the disconnect between this perfect serenity and the knowledge of perfect slaughter committed over the same field. I was thinking of an old Shaker hymn that was rewritten as a tribute to the British soldiers in the trenches by singer/songwriter John Tams, a hymn called “Lay me Low”

Lay me low, lay me low, lay me low

Where no-one can see me

Where no-one can find me

Where no-one can hurt me

Confederates in their trenches, Union soldiers in the swells that now rang with the laughter of children, all these to me seemed united in some kind of innocent concord, an understandable desire not to be struck down by a whizzing shell fragment or leaden ball, and especially not to be pinned with a bayonet or clubbed by a heavy musket butt. These were nearly all Christian men who fought each other for 19 hours, and whose personal hell might only be the 25 or so feet in front of them distinguishable in the tunnel vision of combat through the smoke of thousands of muskets. Thousands of men each experiencing a little portion of a terrible slaughter that prefaced the infernos of a later age. So many balls flew around the heads of the men at the Angle that a large oak tree was cut down by rifle fire and saplings of ten feet were sheared down, along with the over 2,000 men who became casualties in an area roughly the size of a football field.

I had forgotten all about Upton, attacks in column, about all else. I was struck by the tranquility. The wounds of a war that ended 150 years ago this year haven’t totally healed, and I know too many today who would make this into a site of martyrdom to Lost Causes and What Ifs. Too many things left undone and too much said without comprehending how ugly this could be. I was almost angry that it was so beautiful. Why should the earth heal? Why and how could the sod forget what men had done to each other here? From Grant and Lee down to the privates who stabbed at each other with bayonets over this beautiful field, why could it not remain as a warning to us all of what people are capable of when anger and fear is harnessed to destruction?

I don’t tend to think of myself as a sentimentalist over the Civil  War, but nothing angers me more then people who are too quick to write off history as easy inevitabilities. People who would whitewash history to give easy answers to difficult questions, that things are begotten without struggle. For all those who chastise our supposed “something for nothing” culture, deeper still too much is taken for granted or factors often ignored because they are ugly. At the Angle, Christian men fought each other with desperate violence, and the fields were covered in mounds of dead. The average age of a Civil War soldier was 25, my age. 25 years of life, love, and conviction, good and bad, hurled into the maelstrom. There is nothing poetic about that kind of combat, save how it eclipses the mind.

Yet, it is beautiful on that ground today, and I couldn’t help thinking back on my own life. I had been to visit the Chancellorsville battlefield (a few miles to the north) almost exactly two years earlier, at the time struggling with numerous questions about what direction my personal and professional life would take. The fields were gray then, wet with rain and a damp wind which made it bitterly cold, even in the woods. I reflected that things had indeed been unclear then, such that the world itself seemed to reflect my malaise.

I was back, still questioning, and I remembered that there was a lot I didn’t know then, and a lot I had to learn to bring to where I am now. Even still, I have to remind myself I can only see my own 25 feet of confusion, but with the right discipline it is possible to break through. I couldn’t pull off such a magnificently planned maneuver in my personal life as Upton did on the battlefield; indeed as melodramatic the metaphor is, it was more like a messy and protracted battle of attrition like the Angle. At the end of it, I occupy a new position, but it is unclear where to go from here. I plan to move, as Grant did, to flank and search for new ground to do better then engage in old fights I cannot win.

At the same time, the world will keep turning, and the fields will green again and there is potential for good things to follow on where all was horror and bitterness.  It is important too to remember that there is the potential for healing, that violence can be answered by time and reflection.

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