Return to the Mule Shoe Salient: The Battle of Spotsylvania (Part 3)

This entry is part 6 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

Return to the Mule

Shoe Salient: 

The Battle of


(Part 3) 

May 12, 1864

May 12 MapIn the latter stages of the Battle of Spotsylvania, the Federals were intent on capturing the Mule Shoe salient. They organized a new attack on the position on May 12th. Between midnight and 3:00 AM Winfield Scott Hancock’s three divisions reached their assembly areas in preparation for the new attack. They were met by Gershom Mott’s Division who had been in their positions since May 10th. Francis Barlow received a lay of the land from one of Mott’s staff members. He sketched a map on a wall of the headquarters. From these meager details Barlow planned his division’s disposition. Two divisions from the VI Corps were directed to support the attack. All told almost 19,000 Federal troops were poised to attack the Mule Shoe Salient.

By 3:30 AM the Confederate commanders in the Mule Shoe salient, realizing what was happening, ordered the artillery to be returned to their former positions.

At 4:35 AM Hancock gave the order to attack the Mule Shoe salient. As they moved forward, Confederates observed birds and small animals fleeing in front of them. The blue lines moved forward at the double-quick. Barlow’s men attacked the tip of the salient and poured over the breastworks. The Confederate artillery returned just in time to be captured. Barlow’s men obliterated the first Confederate unit that they met, moved to the left and hit the neighboring brigade in the flank and the rear. This brigade was also destroyed, its commander captured.

Birney’s and Mott’s Divisions attacked the western portion of the Mule Shoe salient at the same time as Barlow’s men crashed into the eastern side. Very quickly, two Southern brigades ceased to exist, killed or captured.

Barlow was concerned that the Federal troops should have begun consolidating their positions. Instead, they were disorganized, milling around. Before the officers could get proper control of their troops, Federal reinforcements made matters worse, pushing into the captured trenches.

Lee had been alerted to the situation by a staff officer who had fled to the rear. He began to plan a counterattack.

Meanwhile, an attack by one of Ambrose Burnside’s divisions at the eastern base of the salient was repulsed. A follow-up attack in support of Burnside’s original assault was also a failure. However, another one of Burnside’s divisions was able to hook up with Hancock’s force and create a continuous battle line around the salient.

Troops from Hancock’s Corps continued to pour into Barlow’s captured position creating confusion and disrupting his combat formations. He rode back to Hancock and shouted that no more troops should be sent into the Mule Shoe salient.

As John Gordon, now a division commander prepared his troops for a counterattack, Robert E. Lee rode up and placed himself at the front of theGeneral John Brown Gordon troops. Gordon and his troops exhorted him to move to the rear, which he did.

From Grant’s point of view all of the news from the front was good. He received reports of three captured Confederate generals, then 2,000 enemy troops were reported captured, General Edward Johnson was brought to his headquarters. In other times Johnson had been a friend of Grant and Meade. The three shook hands. With Johnson was one of his brigade commanders, General George Steuart. When Hancock who had been a West Point classmate of Steuart’s offered his hand, he curtly declined.

Gordon led his troops on a wild counterattack against the eastern side of the salient. His troops were able to succeed against the numerically superior but disorganized Federals. Barlow’s worst fears were coming to pass. Fortunately for the Federals, Gordon’s combat power was spent.

Part of the Federal’s problem can be attributed to the lack of a coordinating commander on the scene. The three Corps commanders were cooperating but were not acting with a single purpose.

Hancock’s forces were slowly losing their grip on Mule Shoe. A counterattack led by Stephen Ramseur recaptured a portion of the trench system. This attack came at great cost to the Confederates.  Hancock asked for more support on his right. Wright’s Corps was ordered to attack.

Another Confederate attack led by Brigadier General Abner Perrin swept forward only to be met by hails of fire. Perrin was hit seven times and killed. They were being fired upon from front, right flank and rear. With many of their officers killed or wounded, Perrin’s men retreated.

Yet another attack led by Nathaniel Harris with his Mississippi Brigade plunged into the fighting. He lost half of his regimental commanders and a third of his men but they had taken a section of trenches on Ramseur’s right.

By 9:00 AM Lee fed McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade into the battle. They moved forward and clawed out another section of trenches, leaving 200 yards of trenches in Federal hands.

Emory Upton entered the combat area and fought a savage close quarter battle. At one point Upton ordered two cannon to the edge of the Confederate trenches and had them fire grape and canister at point-blank range. By the time that they fired 14 rounds 22 0f the 24 men were shot down.

Finally, General Warren attacked after receiving a series of increasingly strident dispatches from General Meade. Grant told Meade to remove him if he didn’t attack. At about 10:30 Warren’s men began the attack on Laurel Hill. It failed and the Federals retreated.

Lee had ordered a new defensive line to be built after Upton’s attack. This line went straight across the bottom of the salient eliminating it and straightening his line. It was as yet incomplete but he ordered its immediate completion. Provost units spread out and rounded up stragglers and herded them to the task of completing the new fortification. There they joined pioneer units that were already hard at work. Meanwhile, the salient would have to be held.

At this point the tactical battle was over. Continued fighting served no purpose. Lee had sent as many men as he cared to into the breach. The Federals had been unable to break the Confederate lines. Holding the 200 yards or so of the salient gave them no further advantage. Yet, the two sides fought on for another 17 hours. In a war of bloody angles, the Mule Shoe at Spotsylvania became the bloodiest of them all. The slaughter continued with neither side gaining any advantage.

For the first times the Federals used coehorn mortars to arc shells into the Confederate trenches. These new weapons were used to deadly effect, sending a 17 pound shot on a high arc over the fortifications and into the enemy’s lines.

In the afternoon, Lee was informed that the “eyes and ears” of his army, J.E.B. Stuart had been mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. Lee was visibly shaken.

Continued in Part 4


Series Navigation<< The Battle of Spotsylvania (Part 2): The Mule Shoe SalientThe Battle of Spotsylvania (Part 4): The Final Maneuvers >>

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