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.

Spotsylvania Bloody Angle 3Standing 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.

Spotsylvania Trenches 3

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.”

IMG_4407The 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.

IMG_4389

SOURCES

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.

21 Comments on “The Bloody Angle

  1. Once again your writing has moved me to the depths of my soul. I share your belief that butterflies are Nature,s guardian angels and spirit messengers. Bob and I just bought the uncut version of the miniseries The Blue and the Gray. Spotsylvania is mentioned in there. I could envision the battle and the horrific aftermath. I am not certain if people of today understand how bloody the Civil War really was for this country. Brother against brother, families torn apart. Your writing reminds us that we should never forget that part of our history. All the soldiers who fought and died for the cause, Union and Rebel, were soldiers who fought and died bravely for their families, their homeland. All were someone’s husband, son, brother. M, you have been given a wonderful gift. Thank you for sharing!

  2. One of those soldiers was one of my ancestors – Andrew Jackson Marsh. He had just turned 20 and was serving with the 15th SC Infantry, Co G. By the end of 1864 he was a prisoner at Point Lookout, MD. Excellent article. Enjoyed it very much.

    • Wow that’s incredible. Point Lookout, yikes. I know I have some family in both Union and Confederate armies, but I don’t know that many particulars. I’m trying to get in touch with my 2nd cousin who supposedly has a lot of that info, and I can’t wait. Thanks for stopping by, glad you enjoyed the article!

  3. Thank you for bringing history to life in your writing. I’ve been researching my family history for 10 years, found amazing things, and have recorded them in a recently published book. I am concerned with the recent attempts to deny and/or change history. We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it and not repeat it.

    • Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree about history, we have to know where we’ve been to know where we’re going!

      • I’d assumed it was the sharp turn further down that would expose you to crossfire, but of course it was the height.
        I read a time travel story that took place there some time back that piqued my interest. I’ll see if I can find it

      • I bet that was an interesting read! I’ve read a lot on the entire Overland Campaign but no time travel stories. Sometimes I’d like to try writing a time travel novel but don’t think I have the physics chops!

  4. In coming across your Blog, I am glad that I did. History that is around my area has always interested me. There is much of it. Most of it is from times gone by. The old Union Canal is just one of many. I always have enjoyed reading about the Civil War and what happened at places not too far from me. Gettysburg is about a 4 hr. drive away, as well a Antietam National Battlefield Park. I have been to both of them. When I go to places such as these, I also, stand there and try to visualize in my “minds eye” what it must have been like. Places such as the Peach Orchard, Bloody Angle, Pickets Charge, just to name a few. It is almost impossible to feel or know the terrible carnage that took place. Places that are now peaceful with really no sign of horrible fighting that once was there. I will return to these places again, very soon. There is much that I missed. Inverson Pit’s is another. I am following you and Thanks for your great site.

    • I’m so glad that you stopped by and that the blog means so much to you. Thats always flattering for us writers! I too have been to Gettysburg (you may find photos in my photo gallery) but not to antietam yet. It’s hard since I live so fsr away, but we did a big overland campaign tour in 2016 with Gettysburg as a bonus since it was just an hour up the road. I was so moved by it all. I would love to return someday. Thanks again for coming by!

      • You are most Welcome. I also liked your Web site. Is this something you pay for & where did you get it to set up?

      • Well I will have to ask my husband for the details since he so very kindly set it up for me and maintains its appearance, but I think it’s a customized version of wordpress that we paid for.

    • Thank you! I’m glad it moved you. I’m very passionate about preserving the memory of things like this. Glad to have you stop by!

  5. I was doing some extra searching on the battle after finishing this part in Stillness at Appomattox….and this was a nice find as you captured your experience so well to help us feel like we were there as well. I was at Bloody Lane and the Burnside Bridge at Antietam two years ago on a Friday night at dusk and (literally) no one else was there while walking them both at dusk. It is amazing how one can feel the emotions of those days when in the solitude. Have subscribed to the newsletter and hoping it is still in production. Take care!

    • Stillness at Appomattox is an excellent book, that whole Catton series is pretty great. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. I haven’t been to Antietam yet but I will get there someday! And I totally agree, there’s something you can feel in the air when walking around those old fields. While I’m on a bit of a writing break until July, this blog is still very active and I have lots of fun things planned. In the meantime, feel free to scroll through my footsteps blog, there are a couple more Civil War posts and many other things I hope you would enjoy.

  6. Pingback: Francis C. Barlow: From Private to General, and Beyond - M.B. HENRY

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