The thermometer says it’s 36, but it’s lying. So say the snowfalkes, big and fluffy, falling in slow motion around me. It’s the third weekend in March, and I’m at the East Angle of the Mule Shoe Salient. “Spotsylvania” and “snowfall” don’t match up for me—and yet here it is.
I’ve been in North Carolina for most of the weekend, but as I trekked home, I decided on an impromptu stop here at Spotsy to recharge my batteries. Kris and I have just finished the manuscript for our upcoming Spotsy book, A Season of Slaughter, which is now with the proofreader for a week or two before it makes its way back to me for layout. I’ve spent so much time with Spotsy-on-the-page that I need to reground myself—literally—by walking the ground here on the battlefield.
I’m here, too, to pay my respects to those men of both sides whose stories I’ve been writing for the past month. In the end, it is always about those men—what they went through and what they sacrificed. As a steward of their stories, I approach that role with gravity.
This battlefield is full of other ghosts for me, too—not those of soldiers but of a more personal kind. I worried, as I drove to the battlefield, how those ghosts might manifest themselves today, but I find (to my relief) that I’m too cold to be haunted. Maybe I’m too befuddled by the snow, or too mesmerized by it. The snow looks like pure white ashfall drifting down on a burnt landscape. The Park Service apparently did a controlled burn out here not too long ago because the ground still bears the light signs of char. Everything else is November brown or barren yellow. What disaster produces such desolate colors and blanched ash?
The trenchlines, sometimes hard to see in the overgrown summer, run like dark scars along the eastern face of the mule shoe. Here, Federals pushed back after their initial breakthrough hunkered down on the far slope and dug trenches of their own. The parallel lines craze across the landscape in opposition to each other. While I’ll take a pleasant June evening out here over today’s lazy flurry, I have to admit that this is the best time of year to really see the works.
As inhospitable as today’s weather is, it’s nothing compared to the inhospitality of May 12, 1864. The rain hardly mattered compared to the hail of lead. “[W]ith every kind of shot and shell whistling over us, among us, in us and about us, it was as much as your life was worth to raise your head above the works,” one Confederate said.
“The bullets sang like swarming bees, and their sting was death,” said Union staff officer Robert Robertson, who offered some of the most vivid descriptions of the battle.
Fresh troops from the other corps were continually being pushed up to the salient, in vain endeavors to make a new assault on the enemy’s line within…. [T]he heaps of dead, the pools of blood, and the terrific volleys of musketry, were too much for man’s endurance.
“To advance was impossible, to retreat was death,” he wrote. “The ground drank its fill of blood.”
The modern battlefield’s bucolic atmosphere belies its blood-soaked past. As I walk around here today, dreary as it is, it’s still peaceful and pretty. As always, this place invites contemplation because of its solitude and quiet. It’s almost impossible to imagine the scene of horror this place once was.
The snow, I notice, has begun to stick. A soft white blanket is starting to materialize atop the grass. I think, for the first time, about snow on the roads. I have seven hours of driving still ahead of me, and darkness will come early because of the heavy cloudcover. And, just because the cold has kept away my ghosts, that doesn’t mean I should press my luck. I need to head out and hit the highway.
But I’ll be back, probably within the month. As the weather warms, the Bloody Angle makes the perfect place for walks at sunset. The ground here grounds me. The stories need remembered.