Following in the Footsteps of the Assault on the Mule Shoe

BloodyAngleDawn-smDarkness sat still over Spotsylvania this morning when I first arrived, and the firmament twinkled with a thousand stars. It was much clearer today than it was 150 years ago as Federal soldiers marched into position for their attack on the Confederate salient. I was here to follow in their footsteps in real time.

Although light pollution is never a problem at Spotsy, headlights began to pierce the dark, as loud in their way as cannonfire. Headlights this early in the day are a rare thing at Spotsy because the park doesn’t usually open until sunrise. But the NPS’s real-time tours provide an exception for the sesquicentennial, and more than two-hundred people arrived to take advantage of the opportunity. Here’s a little of what they saw:

After a dark walk through the forest along Landrum Lane, the group came out to the open fields. From the lane—where Confederates pickets had been posted 150 years ago—the view toward the main Confederate line was far more clear today than it was for the Federal soldiers who eventually captured this position. May of 1864 had been hot and muggy, but rain on May 11 cooled things off considerably. Fog rose from the lowlands. Soldiers could see clearly for only forty yards or so; everything else looked spectral. They could make out the dark silhouette of the far treeline and that’s about it. Here was the view this morning:




Federals had been under orders to maintain silence, but when they captured the picket line along Landrum Lane—which had been fortified—they let out a loud “Huzzah” because they mistakenly believed they’d captured the main Confederate line. Instead, they gave away their element of surprise. After reforming, they resumed their advance, sweeping forward into the swale between the lane and the Mule Shoe (pictured below, from Landrum Lane). Their timing could not have been more advantageous. Confederates, hearing the huzzah, soon responded by opening fire—but they aimed at the ridge where the lane ran because that’s where all the noise had come from. By that point, however, Federals were down in the swale, protected by the landscape, so the Confederate fire went over their heads.



Federals swept up out of the swale and slammed into the Confederate works, hitting the salient squarely on the nose. This morning, as the crowd crossed the bridge into the interior of the Mule Shoe, the sun finally topped the treeline (below), but in 1864, the skies were slate gray. Rain had fallen all night, although it had thinned to a fine mist by the time of the attack. The sun would almost push through the gray veil—but not quite.



We followed the attack route of David Bell Birney’s men. On his left flank, Francis Barlow’s division pounded across the field in a fist-like column, striking the eastern face of the Mule Shoe at the same time Birney’s men hit. They had farther to go than Birney’s men because of the way Landrum Lane angles away from the salient and because of the way the salient curves away through the field, but their tighter formation allowed them to advance with more speed. I stood at the point of their breakthrough, and looked back across the ground they covered:


The assault opened a half-mile hole in the Confederate line and sparked what would be a 22-hour slugfest that one participant called “a Saturnalia of blood.”

Kris White’s ongoing series today will chronicle that battle and its unique horrors: the battle of the Bloody Angle.


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