The Bloody Angle
On a cool morning in April of 2016, I visited a small prairie in the wilderness of Virginia. A wide-open field of grass sloped into a deep ravine. Blooming purple and white Dogwoods whispered in the breeze and showered the place with petals. Butterflies flitted everywhere – especially Tiger Swallowtails, their yellow and black wings a marked contrast with the fresh green grass.
Standing among such beauty, you’d never think so much blood got spilled here. The only sign of it are a few stone monuments with faded carving. Next to them, a sign reading “Bloody Angle” points to a ripple in the grass that barely qualifies as a shallow ditch. But one-hundred-fifty years ago, “Bloody Angle” wasn’t just a ripple in a peaceful meadow. It was the scene of one of the most horrific encounters of the American Civil War.
In May of 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant had just become commander of the Union Armies. “Unconditional Surrender” had stacked up many victories in the West, but things didn’t start off well along the Potomac. Now he faced the formidable Robert E. Lee, and his band of four-year Virginia veterans who didn’t back down from a fight. A bloodletting in the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5 and 6 had Grant’s troops on the run, but at least this time, they didn’t go backwards.
That in itself could have been chalked up as a victory. Because normally after taking a licking, Union generals went into long retreat to rebuild their ranks and prepare for the next campaign. But Grant was a fighter. Not wasting any time, he pushed the armies into a maneuver to outflank Lee. It would pit the two armies against each other just days after the fiercest fighting either side had seen.
Lee wasn’t so revered for nothing either. He guessed what Grant had up his blue sleeve, and by the time the Union Armies reached the small town of Spotsylvania Court House, they found an entire division of Confederates dug in and waiting for them. To break the line, Grant came up with a plan inspired by Union General Emory Upton of the 121st New York. He wanted to form an entire army corps into a huge block, and send it slamming like a sledgehammer into the tip of a bulging salient in the rebel line. If the salient could be taken, the Confederate army would be split in two.
Commanders in the field weren’t so optimistic. The rebels had deeply entrenched into the ground. Charging the heavily reinforced works could be detrimental, but Grant insisted. Just before dawn on May 12th, in a driving rainstorm, the Union Army Second Corps, under the charge of General Winfield S. Hancock and led onto the field by General Francis C. Barlow, marched across the deep, sloping ravine. Despite a shower of lead from the Confederates, Union troops collided with the rebels and like water breaching a dam, a stream of blue poured over the entrenchment and dove into the salient. The fighting turned hand-to-hand and savage. Bodies squeezed together in the tiny salient melted into mass chaos and confusion.
Union Private R. E. McBride writes – “All around that salient was a seething, bubbling, roaring hell of hate and murder. In that baleful glare men didn’t look like men….The dead lay in heaps and others took protection behind them…the earth was literally drenched in blood….” For an excruciating twenty-seven hours, in the drilling rain and lashing thunder, Union and Confederate troops fought at close quarters in the overcrowded entrenchment, with most of the killing done by bayonet. Bodies piled up fast. Blood accumulated in the trenches, and made the grass slick. There was so much gunfire that a large tree standing nearby got felled by nothing but bullets. H.K. Douglas of the Stonewall Brigade writes – “tons of lead in the shape of cannon balls and rifle balls were poured into and from that angle of death. Destruction with a tornado of fire and iron swept over the limited field…”
In the pre-dawn hours, Lee’s troops pulled back to reserve trenches in the rear, leaving the Union warriors staggering for breath. They also left some of the worst carnage that American battlefields would ever see. When the sun came up, it greeted survivors with the terrible sight. “…though I have seen horrid scenes since this war commenced,” wrote Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont, “I never saw anything half so bad as that… In some places the men were piled four or five deep, some of whom were still alive.” Brigadier General Grant (not to be confused with Ulysses) said of the carnage – “The sight was terrible and sickening, much worse than at Bloody Lane [Antietam]. There a great many dead were lying in the road… but they were not piled up several deep and their flesh was not so torn and mangled as at the Angle.”
The Bloody Angle accounted for almost 18,500 casualties on the Union side, and almost 12,700 on the Confederate. The Civil War would see a lot more bloodshed before it ended in 1865, but Spotsylvania stood out to soldiers who fought there. Historian Gordon C. Rhea captures the feeling in his book about the battle. “In later years, veterans festooned battlefields such as Sharpsburg and Gettysburg with monuments and memorials to their valor. Few had any desire to return to Spotsylvania County, much less to the place they called the Bloody Angle.”
Despite the dread of the Bloody Angle, the battlefield got preserved and folded into the National Military Park system. This protects the field from developers, but not from the force of time. A century and a half has almost wiped it from the pages of history. Yet, something lingers. There’s an energy about the place that’s eerie. I could feel it, and that’s when I noticed all those butterflies.
I always felt that butterflies were like guardian angels, or spirits of people who died in turmoil and returned to earth at peace. As I stood and watched them, I realized that by being in the same physical space, surrounded by those butterflies, only one barrier remained between me and those soldiers – time. People cannot transcend it yet, but what if energy can? What if my thoughts could be carried on the wings of those butterflies to a time in the distant past, and comfort those on the other end? I felt so helpless, and didn’t know what else to do standing in a spot where thousands of people were killed. So, I closed my eyes and gave it a try.
Can you hear me, soldiers? I know it’s awful on your end. You’re seeing things that no human eyes should have to witness. It breaks my heart to think of it, how scared you must be. But soldier, it’s not in vain. On my end, peace has made its way to the meadow. There’s just Dogwoods, green grass, and those butterflies. And I can promise that while time has erased the battlefield, I won’t let it erase your memory.
The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern – G. C. Rhea
Hard Marching Every Day – W. Fisk
In the Ranks from the Wilderness to Appomattox Court House – R. E. McBride
I Rode with Stonewall – H.K. Douglas
Casualty Reports from Wikipedia
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more on the Overland Campaign (and butterflies), please visit my photo gallery.