Monday, May 11, 2015

Along the Line from Wing to Wing Continuously'

I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” 

On this date, May 11, in 1864, President Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton must have welcomed Lt. Gen. Grant’s words in his dispatch from Spotsylvania, Va., sixty miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The war had ground on for more than three years and would last another eleven months. Grant’s resolve was reassuring after years of often incompetent leadership by the Union command. The cost in lives at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the second major engagement in Grant’s Overland Campaign, defies understanding. Fighting dragged on from May 8 through May 21. Union forces suffered some 18,000 casualties; Confederate, 11,000. 

The progress toward ultimate victory was incremental at best. On May 12 alone, at a bend in the trench works known as Bloody Angle, Union forces suffered an estimated 9,000 casualties; Confederate, 8,000. Gen. Grant’s aide, Horace Porter (1837-1921), wrote of the Battle of Spotsylvania in Campaigning with Grant (1897): 

The appalling sight presented was harrowing in the extreme. Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the `angle,’ while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy's dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late. The place was well named the `Bloody Angle.’” 

For his part in the fighting on May 8 at Alsop’s Farm, George N. Galloway (1841-1904), a private in Company G of the 95th Pennsylvania Infantry, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. In 1883, Galloway wrote an article for The Century Magazine, later collected in the four-volume Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1894). Here is part of his account of the fighting at the Bloody Angle, from Galloway’s contribution, “Hand-to-Hand Fighting at Spotsylvania”: 

“In a few moments the two brass pieces of the 5th Artillery, cut and hacked by the bullets of both antagonists, lay unworked with their muzzles projecting over the enemy’s works, and their wheels half sunk in the mud. Between the lines and near at hand lay the horses of these guns, completely riddled. The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen. The mud was half-way to our knees, and by our constant movement the fallen were almost buried at our feet.” 

Has any war been so thoughtfully and thoroughly documented by its participants? That the Union army was commanded by one of the finest American writers, Ulysses S. Grant, seems miraculous. His description of the fighting on May 12 in Chapter LIII of his Personal Memoirs is terse and free of bravado, and he interrupts his tactical account to write: 

“During the day I was passing along the line from wing to wing continuously. About the centre stood a house which proved to be occupied by an old lady and her daughter. She showed such unmistakable signs of being strongly Union that I stopped. She said she had not seen a Union flag for so long a time that it did her heart good to look upon it again. She said her husband and son, being, Union men, had had to leave early in the war, and were now somewhere in the Union army, if alive. She was without food or nearly so, so I ordered rations issued to her, and promised to find out if I could where the husband and son were.”

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