The following is a chapter excerpt from Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White’s A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Click here to read part one.
As Hancock’s division commanders did what they could to prepare with what information they had, Grant turned his attention back to Lee. Worried that the Confederate commander might slip away or even launch an attack of his own, Grant decided to pin him in place with a “reconnaissance in force” by Burnside.
As Burnside began to shift his troops around, and Hancock began to shift his troops around, too, word made it back to Confederate headquarters that something was up. Trying to make sense of the reports, Lee concluded that Grant was preparing to withdraw toward Fredericksburg. After all, when the armies had reached stalemate in the Wilderness, Grant had slipped around the Confederate left and continued to move on Richmond. In Spotsylvania, the armies had once more reached stalemate, so might not Grant again be trying to slip around the army?
Lee not only wanted to counter the Federal movement but, if possible, strike it as it marched. He ordered units to the Court House crossroads where he could easily launch them against a vulnerable Federal column. Because the artillery pieces at the tip of the Mule Shoe would have the farthest to travel, and they would have to do so over poorly maintained farm paths, Lee ordered them to withdraw first. They began to pull out in the late afternoon. Of the 30 guns that had been along the line, only four remained.
No one had bothered to tell Dick Ewell about the withdrawal, though. When Ewell had argued in favor of the Mule Shoe, he predicated his entire decision on having artillery. Without it, he knew the salient would be nearly impossible to hold—and now he found himself without the very artillery he needed to defend the position.
Nor had anyone told Ewell’s division commander, Maj.Gen. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, whose men occupied the salient’s tip. Johnson only found out when one of his brigade commanders, Brig. Gen. George “Maryland” Steuart, sent him a panicked note. “The artillery along our front has been withdrawn,” Steuart wrote, “by whose orders I know not and I beg that it be sent back immediately.”
At age 48, Johnson was wily enough that Lee had considered him for promotion to corps command. It helped, too, that Johnson was a Virginia native—something Lee seemed to favor—although Johnson’s family had moved to Kentucky while he was young and during childhood he attended school in Ohio. Johnson earned appointment to West Point, and during his subsequent army career, he developed a mischievous friendship with Winfield Scott Hancock. The two teamed up to play pranks on many of their fellow officers, making a formidable duo when unleashing their shenanigans on unsuspecting prey.
Johnson served in the United States army until 1861 when, three days before the firing on Fort Sumter, he resigned his commission—which led to his arrest. Held in Federal custody for a time, he traveled to Richmond on his release and was given command of the 12th Georgia Infantry. He spent the rest of 1861 serving in the western reaches of the Shenandoah Valley and was promoted to brigadier general in December of that year. When he heard news of the promotion, he was atop Allegheny Mountain—thus the nickname “Old Allegheny.” Johnson later earned another nickname, “Old Clubby,” because of his penchant for carrying a large walking stick in battle and whacking his men atop the head or back when he caught them not doing their full duty.
When Johnson got word from Steuart about the missing artillery, he sent word to Ewell. Ewell then appealed to Lee, twice, before the army commander finally acquiesced. It would take hours for the guns to start their way back to the line, though.
Even without the artillery, the works represented impressive engineering. “Trees were felled and piled upon each other, and a ditch dug behind them with the earth out of it thrown against the logs,” said Brig. Gen. James Walker of the Stonewall Brigade, whose men were posted on the west side of the line midway between Doles’ Salient and the tip of the Mule Shoe. “The limbs and tops of the trees as cut off from the trunks were used to form abattis, by placing them in front of the breastworks with the sharpened points toward the enemy.”
Every 40 to 50 yards, soldiers built works perpendicular to the main line, an innovation known as a traverse. Traverses gave defenders something to pull back and duck behind in case of an enemy breakthrough, allowing the defender to seal the gap like watertight doors in a ship. Soldiers called them “hog pens.”
Finally, incomplete segments of a second line, intended as a reserve line, ran about 50 yards behind the main line. Intended as a fallback position, Confederates never quite got around to finishing it.
As day wore into evening into night, the men posted along the Confederate line could hear noises off in the distance woods. They feared the worst, but Lee remained convinced it was the sound of a Federal withdrawal. Allegheny Johnson prowled the length of his line, urging his soldiers “to be on the alert” and ordering “some brigades to be awake all night, and all to be up in the trenches an hour or so before daylight.” Crusty “Old Allegheny” expected the worst.