Combat in the American Civil War was brutal. Arguably the most brutal fighting of the war took place outside of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia in May of 1864. Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia were trying to stop a combined Union effort to capture Richmond led by Ulysses S. Grant. The two armies had clashed days before a few miles away in what would become known as the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant, undeterred by heavy losses there, continued his campaign rather than retreating and regrouping. Lee knew that he had to block the road to Richmond, which was only a few miles east of Spotsylvania, and his men beat Grant to the strategic crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House and its oak forest by mere minutes.
The nearly two week long battle was a microcosm of what the future of warfare would look like. The Confederates fought behind elaborate field entrenchments. Sharpshooters took shots at anyone who dared to poke their head out from behind protection. Union frontal assaults were continuously repulsed against Lee’s entrenchments with horrific results. New tactics had to be developed on the fly.
One such idea was suggested by a young Union colonel named Emory Upton. He proposed making an attack with several lines rather than one long line and the troops would be ordered not to stop and fire but to continue moving forward. The idea was that they could cover the distance quicker and therefore take fewer casualties and thus have more power to breach the line. The following soldiers would move in and extend the breach making the defenders position untenable. To make an attempt he was allowed to select 12 veteran regiments totaling about 5,000 men for the assault.
The assault initially went well. At 6 PM on May 10 the troops advanced and broke through the part of the Confederate line known as the Mule Shoe Salient, a bend in the Confederate line that protruded out to follow the contours of the terrain, and pushed the Confederates back with heavy casualties. However Lee was quick to adjust and stubborn resistance on the flanks prevented the breach from being widened. Union reinforcements also failed to advance and Upton was forced to retreat.
Where other generals would have seen failure and stalemate Grant saw promise. He saw the potential of what Upton had planned and reasoned with more men and at a different hour an assault in the same manner could be successful. Grant began moving Winfield Hancock’s II Corps into position for such an assault. Lee, hearing that Union soldiers were on the move misinterpreted it and believed Grant was trying to get around his army to continue moving on Richmond. He ordered his artillery to move out so he could meet Grant’s next challenge. Lee could not have been more wrong.
On May 12 the attack took place against the Mule Shoe again. The morning drizzle and fog helped to hide to Union advance which began around 4:30 AM. The morning rain had ruined the defender’s gunpowder and the lack of artillery made them sitting ducks so the Union troops initially overran the Confederate position easily capturing a Confederate division and two generals in the process. Confederate reserves hastily formed a second line and the attacking units became intermixed forming nothing more than an armed mob. Fighting continued all day through a heavy rain and even into the night. Wounded and dead were covered in a quagmire of mud and some drowned as reinforcements poured in on both sides.
Fighting continued into the night and at 4:00 AM on May 13 the exhausted Confederates pulled back to a new line that their engineers had constructed during the night. While fighting would continue for a few more days it was apparent that Lee would have to pull back. The two weeks of fighting at Spotsylvania produced nearly 30,000 casualties making it the third bloodiest battle of the war. With field entrenchments becoming the norm a new way of assaulting them had been devised and Upton’s tactics would be emulated into the 20th century and would only be abandoned during World War I when the machine gun made them obsolete. Upton was also promoted to brigadier general for his efforts. Five generals were killed during the battle and forty-three Union soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions.
The fighting at what became known as the Bloody Angle was severe. It is estimated that at least 2,000 men were killed or wounded in the fighting and millions of rounds of ammunition were expended. Perhaps the most famous casualty was not a soldier but a tree. Standing at the angle was a 22 inch oak tree. After the battle the tree was no more than a stump. So many bullets had been fired that the tree had been cut down! The magnitude of this was not lost on the combatants. Following the battle soldiers and relic hunters took pieces of the oak tree and someone even dug up the stump. When Union veterans returned to the battlefield in the 1880s the soldiers who fought there remembered it and made inquiries about what happened to the remains of the oak. It was eventually located in the smokehouse of a local inn and the senior officer present confiscated it in the name of the Republic. A small marker was placed on the battlefield, today a part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. The oak stump became a part of the Smithsonian collection and is on display in the Museum of American History in Washington DC where it is a testament to the intensity of battle during the Civil War.