Monday, May 12, 2014

Fierce Fighting at the Mule Shoe - 150 Years Ago Today

After the bout in the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia tangled again near Spotsylvania Courthouse. On chosen ground, the Confederates erected a significant system of earthworks, part of which included a jutting salient that was nicknamed the "Mule Shoe," as it resembled an iron hoof protector for that particular beast of burden.

Union attacks on the Mule Shoe on May 10 and 12 resulted in some of the most horrific combat of the Civil War. Not only was it particularly fierce; it was also in a steady downpour. On May 12 Union troops actually breeched the Mule Shoe. Among the Confederate units pouring into the position to counterattack was the South Carolina brigade of Samuel McGowan (pictured).

Lt. J. F. J. Caldwell of the 1st South Carolina wrote about what he experienced:
"About ten o'clock, our brigade was suddenly ordered out of the works, detached from the rest of the division, and marched back from the line, but bearing towards the left. The fields were soft and muddy, the rains quite heavy. Nevertheless, we hurried on, often at the double-quick. Before long, shells passed over our heads, and musketry became plainly audible in front. Our pace was increased to a run. Turning to the right, as we struck an interior line of works, we bore directly for the firing.

We were now along Ewell's line. The shell came thicker and nearer, frequently striking close at our feet, and throwing mud and water high into the air. The rain continued. As we panted up the way, Maj. Gen. Rodes, of Ewell's corps, walked up to the road-side, and asked what troops we were. 'McGowan's South Carolina brigade,' was the reply. 'There are no better soldiers in the world than these!' cried he to some officers about him. We hurried on, thinking more of him and more of ourselves than ever before.

Reaching the summit of an open hill, where stood a little old house and its surrounding naked orchard, we were fronted and ordered forward on the left of the road. The Twelfth regiment was on the right of our line, then the First, then the Thirteenth, the the Rifles, the the Fourteenth. Now we entered the battle. There were two lines of works before us; the first, or inner line, from a hundred and fifty to two hundred yards from us, the second, or outer line, perhaps a hundred yards beyond it, and parallel with it. There were troops in the outer line, bu the inner one only what appeared to be masses without organization. The enemy were firing in front of the extreme right of the brigade, and their balls came obliquely down our line; but we could not discover, on account of the woods about the point of firing, under what circumstances the battle was held. There was a good deal of doubt as to how far we should go, or in what direction. At first it was understood that we should throw ourselves into the woods, where the musketry was; but, somehow, this idea changed to the impression that we were to move straight forward - which would bring only about the extreme right regiment to the chief point of attack. The truth is, the road by which we had come was not at all straight, which mad the right of the line front much father north than the rest, and the fire was too hot for us to wait for us to wait of the long, loose column to close up, so as to make an entirely orderly advance. More than all this, there was a death-struggle ahead, which must be met instantly.

We advanced at the double-quick, cheering loudly, and entered the inner works. Whether by order or tacit understanding, we halted here, except the Twelfth regiment, which was the right of the brigade. That moved at once tot he outer line, and threw itself with it wonted impetuosity, into the heart of the battle. . . .

. . . About the time we reached the inner line, General McGowan was wounded by a Minie ball, in the right arm, and forced to quit the field. Colonel Brockman, senior colonel present, was also wounded, and Colonel J. N. Brown, of the Fourteenth regiment, assumed command, then or a little later. The four regiments - First, Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Rifles (the Twelfth had passed on to the outer line) - closed up and arranged their lines. Soon the order was given to advance to the outer line. We did so, with a cheer and at the double-quick, plunging through mud knee-deep, and getting in as best we could. Here, however, lay Harris' Mississippi brigade. We were ordered to close to the right. We moved by the flank up the works, under the fatally accurate fire of the enemy, and ranged ourselves along the intrenchment. The sight we encountered was not calculated to encourage us. The trenches, dug on the inner side, were almost filled with water. Dead men lay on the surface of the ground and in the pools of water. The wounded bled and groaned, stretched or huddled in ever attitude of pain. The water was crimsoned with blood. Abandoned knapsacks, guns and accouterments, with ammunition boxes, were scattered all around. In the rear, disabled caissons stood and limbers of guns. The rain poured heavily, and an incessant fired was kept upon us from front and flank. The enemy still held the works on the right of the angle, and fired across the traverses. Nor were these foes easily seen. They barely raised their heads above the logs, at the moment of firing. It was plainly a question of bravery and endurance now.

We entered upon the task with all our might. Some fired at the line lying in front, on the edge of the ridge before described; others kept down the enemy lodged in the traverses to the right. At one or two places, Confederates and Federals were only separated by the works, and the latter not a few times reached their guns over and fired right down upon the heads of the former."

A new line of entrenchments was formed across the base of the Mule Shoe, which thwarted Grant's gains of May 12, and made him consider another alternative than battering Lee's army. The Army of the Potomac had suffered over 18,000 casualties in the fighting at Spotsylvania. Those numbers combined with almost another 18,000 at the Wilderness was a terrible toll in just a few weeks time. But he would not retreat. More deadly fighting was just ahead.

1 comment:

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