The Bloody Angle
It was a cool morning in April of 2016 when I visited a small prairie in the wilderness of Virginia. It was a wide-open field of grass leading down into a deep ravine. There were blooming purple and white Dogwoods that whispered in the breeze. There were also butterflies everywhere – Tiger Swallowtails, their yellow and black wings a marked contrast with the fresh green grass.
It’s hard to know that something of significance ever happened there. In fact, there’s just a few stone monuments with faded carving. Next to them, a sign that says “Bloody Angle” points to a ripple in the grass that couldn’t even qualify as a shallow ditch. But one-hundred-fifty years ago, “Bloody Angle” wasn’t just a ripple in a peaceful meadow. Instead, it was the scene of one of the most horrific encounters of the American Civil War.
It was 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 as well along the Potomac. Now he was up against 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, it wasn’t backwards.
That itself was a shift in the winds for Union soldiers. Normally after taking a licking, they 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 was up to, 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 were well entrenched. 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, headed by General Winfield S. Hancock, marched across that deep 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 was hand-to-hand and savage. The bodies squeezed together in the tiny salient melted into mass 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. A lot of the killing was done with the bayonet. Bodies piled up fast. Blood accumulated in the trenches, and made the grass extra slick. There was so much gunfire that a large tree standing nearby was 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, survivors were greeted 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 invoked by the name Bloody Angle, the battlefield was preserved as a part of the National Military Park system. It 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 at peace. As I stood there, I realized that being in the same physical space, surrounded by those butterflies, there was just one barrier 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.