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Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Southern Historical Society Papers

          It would be a sufficient reply to say that neither he nor anyone else ever saw, during the war, a good line of artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia, properly supported by infantry in breastworks, with open front, carried by direct front assault, and the production of a single instance during the war may be safely challenged.

It matters not as to the five or six lines of battle in column of attack. When the front lines go down those in rear are not so eager to come along, the moral effect being as to the physical, several (or more) to one.

          In further reply to General Hancock's surmise, it should be stated that notwithstanding his success at first, his attacking column never reached half way to the heels of the horse shoe salient.

          Some soldiers seem disposed to think artillery is "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

          True, it cannot take the place of infantry. Infantry is the bulwark of every army of every age. Men with muskets can scale heights, descend depths, pierce thickets, and, numbered by thousands, can go anywhere and fill the air with deadly missiles. Artillery is a dependent auxiliary, defenseless except under proper conditions, but massed in long line with open ground ahead is impregnable against front assault.

          Skeptics would be disabused had they seen McClellan's sixty guns at Malvern Hill's plateau, repulse time and again, the flower of our infantry--the finest, in my belief, the world has ever seen.

          I fully concur in the views you express in the editorial of the 7th of February, as to the superiority of the Southern soldier over the Northern. To an ordinary intelligence an enlistment of 700,000 men, all told, half fed, half clothed, practically unpaid and poorly furnished in all appointments of war, holding at bay for four years an enlistment of 2,700,000 men, with above conditions exactly reversed, ought to furnish mathematical demonstration of the superiority of the Southern soldier over the Northern. The philosophic reasons for this fact are not so easy to fathom.

          I have written the above to throw some additional light on a disaster which was not well understood in current accounts, and which was always a source of irritation to General Johnson.

          There was no sturdier, truer, braver division commander than General Edward Johnson, commonly known as "Old Alleghany.






Editor of The Times:

          As I served throughout the war in the brigade which held the "Bloody Angle" at Spotsylvania, and it has most unjustly been held responsible for the disaster there, I would like to add one statement to what has already been said, which I think has an important bearing on the result.

          I do not remember accurately the points of the compass, but will assume that the general direction of the main line of works was up to the salient from south to north. At the salient the line curved sharply to the right and rear, running, I think, almost east. Now the picket line did not conform to the direction of the main line. On the contrary, it continued its northerly course for more than a thousand yards beyond the angle and then turned to the right and rear. Drawing a line due west from the angle you would strike a skirmish line at about three hundred yards. A line drawn from the same point in a northwesterly direction would not reach the skirmish line under one thousand yards.

          The attack came from the west and northwest. It is necessary to bear all this in mind to understand what followed. The "Bloody Angle" was held by the Second Brigade, Colonel Witcher, of General Edward Johnson's division. The Forty-second Virginia Regiment, of this brigade, held the skirmish line during the day and night of the 11th of May. At daybreak on the morning of the 12th, the Forty-eighth regiment, to which I was attached, was taken out of the salient, marched to the front and deployed to relieve the Forty-second.

          It was just at this time, and whilst both regiments were extended in skirmish order, that the cheering of the charging columns of the enemy was heard, and although they were evidently close to us, none could be seen on account of a dense fog which enveloped everything. Nearly the whole of the two regiments were forced from their direct line of retreat and compelled to make a detour, or else stand the chance of running into the enemy, whose columns of attack to our left when first started were several hundred yards nearer the angle than we were. Many men kept an easterly course to avoid the fire from our own men, who, whilst they could see nothing, could hear the cheering, and were simply firing into the fog, and rejoined their commands later in the day. Many others, myself among the number, after making a detour, reached the lines where they were held by the Third brigade, General Steuart. Only a very small number re entered the angle, where all of us should have been. On crossing the works, I started up the line towards the salient, but before reaching it the enemy could be seen directly in front and about seventy yards off the line where they had halted, and one good volley would have sent the whole, helter-skelter to the rear. But it was not to be. And I can testify from personal observation as to the truth of General Walker's statement.

          The fire of Steuart's men in line of battle did not have the force of a hotly-contested skirmish. The penetrating mist which had been falling all night had wet the powder in the tubes, and the guns could not be fired. A sergeant of my regiment, who was with me, directed my attention to the angle. About forty yards away the enemy could be seen pouring over the works, and the artillery galloping into the salient. I saw the single gun mentioned by Colonel Carter unlimbered and fired, and the battle lost, with many prisoners, for, although the battle raged around this angle all day and until 10 o'clock at night, we never drove them out, and they never gained an inch more.

          This grievous loss was the result of a combination of unfortunate circumstances which sometimes happen wherever war is waged. These were: First, the falling mist, which rendered so many muskets unserviceable. Second, all the space in the salient occupied by the artillery and all that occupied by the Forty-eighth regiment was vacant, with neither musket nor cannon in it to fire a shot, and the enemy simply walked over the works without hindrance. The Forty-eighth, it is true, was a small regiment, for on the 5th of May more than one-half the men present, with the colors, had fallen in the gloomy depths of the Wilderness. There were enough left, however, to have held the salient if they had been in it with dry powder.


Lieutenant Forty-eighth Virginia Regiment.




February 20, 1893.


Editor of The Times:

          I have been very much interested in two articles which have recently appeared in your paper over the signatures of General James A. Walker and Colonel Thomas H. Carter, relating to the battle of the 12th of May, at Spotsylvania Courthouse. I feel some hesitancy in coming before the public after such men as the two above-mentioned, but as I feel that it is a duty we owe to our cause and ourselves to throw all the light we can upon so important an event, I will hazard a statement as to what followed the capture of Johnson's line. Being simply an old soldier and entirely unknown to you and the public, I will take the liberty of referring you to General James A. Walker himself as to my reliability. I have not the slightest doubt that had Colonel Carter's guns been in position, a very different story would have been told. I have seen the Colonel's boys handle their guns more than once, and I know he is making no idle boast. What I shall say is in substance what I have written in a series of sketches under the title of" My Experience as a Sharpshooter, and Other War Sketches." I don't know of your rules, but I shall reserve the privilege of using this material in the way I have just mentioned.

          During the operations around Spotsylvania Courthouse, General John B. Gordon had command of Evans' Georgia brigade and Pegram's Virginia brigade. As a member of the Thirteenth Virginia Infantry, I was attached to Pegram's brigade. We were in reserve. To be in reserve at a time like that implied two things--confidence upon the part of our commander, and hard work upon the part of the men. In neither case was there disappointment.

          The evening of the 11th closed in dark and chilly. We were made more uncomfortable by the fact that orders came around for "no fires." So, roiling up in our oil cloths, we were soon dreaming, perhaps, that the "Cruel war was over." The gray dawn of the morning of the 12th found us standing at attention. Some time since I read an account of the battle of the 12th of May, written by a Northern officer. In this account he said that they were told that a blow would be struck which would end the war. Nothing was said by our officers, but there was a nameless something in the air which told each man that a crisis was at hand. Orders were given in low tones. The dim, shadowy outlines of the different commands as they took their positions under the sombre shades of the pines, gave a weird effect to the scene.

          Just as the day began to streak the East, we heard a rapid firing on our extreme left. In a short time a courier dashed up to General Gordon with an order. "Attention! Left face, forward! Double quick!" passed up our lines, and we were off on a run. Troops in reserve had to have what the horse jockeys call "good bottom." At that time we were in good order for a run. Not a fat man in our ranks. A quarter of a pound of meat and a pint of unsifted meal, with hard work, was our formula for reducing flesh. On this occasion, we demonstrated that the old saying, "a lean dog for a long chase," was a correct theory. How far we went, I am unable to say, but it was to General Lee's extreme left. Just as we arrived on a run, we saw our boys, Hood's Texas, I think, recapturing works which the enemy had gained temporary possession of. We had scarcely time to draw a long breath before another courier dashed up to General Gordon, when the command came quickly, "About face! forward! double quick!" Back over our tracks we sped, covering the whole distance at a run. The men needed no urging, for we all felt that there must be some urgent need. General Gordon, accompanied by a young man, who was detailed from my old company (A) at division headquarters as a courier, went ahead.

          This young man told me afterwards that when General Gordon reached General Lee he reined his horse back on his haunches, throwing his hand to his cap, he saluted General Lee, and said: "What do you want me to do, General?" General Gordon was then, he said, the most superb looking soldier he ever saw. During our absence, as we afterwards learned, the enemy had broken over our lines, capturing the greater part of General Edward Johnson's division. It was to retake and reestablish this line we had been sent for.

          When we, the reserve, I mean, arrived, General Lee was seated upon Traveler, engaged in conversation with General Gordon. Our brigade came up on a run and went through the manœuvre of "on the right by file into line," by which we changed front, facing towards Spotsylvania Courthouse. As the boys came up the General could read the same question in all their eyes which General Gordon had asked. The General was in great danger, for we were under a lively fire as we formed. I saw the dust fly from General Gordon's coat, just above his sword belt. Checking his horse, he threw his hand to his back. He seemed satisfied that it was only a little darning for Mrs. Gordon, who was always in reach, and spurred on down the line. I passed in a few feet of General Lee; he was perfectly calm. No one would ever have dreamed that General Grant held probably half a mile of his works. It was just then the circumstance occurred which has given rise to some controversy. I allude to General Lee's being turned back. What has caused some confusion has been the fact that almost the same identical thing happened twice during that campaign. In the first instance, General Lee wanted to lead the Texans, when they turned him back. On this occasion General Lee took his position on the right of our brigade, with the evident intention of leading it into action. General Gordon told the General he must go back and said: "These are Virginians, and they are going to do their duty," appealing to the men at the same time. All who heard him responded that he must go back, and they would do what he wanted done.

          It took less time to form that line than it has taken me to tell it.

          When rising in his stirrups, General Gordon gave the command, "Forward! Guide right!"

          Those two brigades had a herculean task ahead of them. Thirty thousand troops, flushed with victory, held formidable works. The brigades possibly at that time, for they had already lost heavily since the campaign opened, not more than ten thousand strong, were about to grapple with this force. To General Lee's practiced eye it must have seemed a forlorn hope. How they acquitted themselves the sequel will show.

Immediately in front of our brigade was a dense growth of old field pines. When the order came to move forward, our boys stepped briskly to the front in perfect order, and were soon lost to view in the pine thicket. It was not until we had emerged from the thicket, on the opposite side from us, that we saw the enemy. To make our position plainer, I will here state that we were moving in a somewhat oblique line to a line of works which were under construction, and extended from heel to heel of the horseshoe, which contained the works Johnson had lost; in other words it was a simple straightening of our line of battle, throwing off the horseshoe. As we emerged from the pines we came suddenly upon this inner line, and which was heavily manned by the enemy. I don't think I exaggerate when I say that the enemy poured a volley into our faces at not over twenty yards. It was then, and not till then, that the "rebel yell" rose wild and clear upon the morning air. It makes my blood jump quicker as I recall that scene. Never pausing a second, our boys mounted the works. In a moment the blue and the gray were mixed in a dense struggling mass. What must have been General Lee's feelings then, as he heard the crashing volley of the enemy, the wild cheer of his boys, and then comparative silence, for the boys were too busy to yell? Soon his practiced ear could detect a receding fire, as the enemy broke in confusion and were driven across the line of the horseshoe, towards Spotsylvania. Here they followed the line of Johnson's work towards the famous "Bloody Angle," our boys in hot pursuit.

          As we advanced up a long slope, the ground gradually rising towards the "bloody angle," we discovered a dense mass of the enemy formed behind a worm fence, which struck Johnson's works at right angles. Somebody got it into his head that they had surrendered, and officers dashed in amongst our men yelling, "Cease firing, they have surrendered." After some time the firing ceased, but our men continued to advance, every man with his gun cocked and ready to bring it to his shoulder. I was reminded of a big bird hunt. We were now, I think, in forty yards of the mass I speak of, when a shot came from their lines. As quick as thought our boys blazed away, and raising a yell dashed at them. In another moment the blue and the gray became a dense, surging mass. The fighting here was desperate. Pistols, guns, bayonets, swords, all came into play. A lieutenant of the Fifty-second Virginia was just to my right, almost touching me. I saw him put his hand upon a Yankee's shoulder, ordering him to surrender. The Yankee jerked away, and making a half turn, drove his bayonet through the lieutenant's body, killing him instantly. I had a loaded revolver in my hand, and I emptied it, in many instances close enough to burn their clothing. I recollect thinking during that fight of a remark Murat was credited with making, that he had been in a hundred battles and did not know whether he had ever killed a man. I saw then how that might easily happen. When so many bullets are flying it is impossible to say which did the work, and I am glad I did not know. The enemy broke again, retreating in the direction of the angle. We were now, I think, probably about 150 yards from it, when we became aware of a heavy fire from Johnson's old works, and discovered that they were heavily manned by the enemy. Turning from the pursuit of the mass in front of us we charged the works, which were now to our left, killing, wounding and capturing everything in them.

          At this juncture of affairs I am satisfied I was in less than fifty steps of the angle, and I am perfectly certain I could have gone to the angle without encountering an enemy. The officer commanding our brigade that day was, I think, Colonel Casey, of Bedford. Finding that our pursuit of the enemy had separated our brigade from the Georgians, he ordered us to close to the right. In doing so, we increased the distance between our left and the angle to probably a hundred, or possibly one hundred and fifty yards. Not long after this movement, about half an hour, I think, a large number of the enemy made their appearance to our left and rear. Running through the entire length of the horse shoe, from toe to heel, was a skirt of timber. Under cover of this the enemy had crossed over at the angle, and passed down the centre about one hundred yards, coming out so as to strike our left. As they made their appearance, a part of our left swung back from the works so as to front the advancing enemy. A small party of us, on the extreme left, thought they were a party cut off, and were coming in to surrender. We were so sure of it that we stood our ground until they came in ten steps of us. The foremost man was an Irishman. He had a cap in one hand and his musket in the other. When he reached the point I have just mentioned, he called out, "Surrinder!" We soon saw our mistake; one of our party quickly threw his gun to his shoulder, fired at the Irishman and missed him; the Irishman threw his gun up, but before he could fire, another one of our party fired, killing him. We were too close to run, and knew that our men would open, and we would be between two fires. So we dropped flat on the ground, the enemy passing by, and over us--just then our left opened on them, and they came back pell-mell, and as they passed us going back our party jumped up, and gave them a parting shot. It was a close call for us. Had our left given back, we would have gone on to reinforce Johnson's party. This party of the enemy retreated, and crossed the works at the angle. From that time out, during the entire day, neither side occupied the space between our left and the angle. About this time Colonel Casey directed me to go in search of General Gordon, or some officer on Lee's staff, and directed me to explain the situation, and ask for reinforcements to fill the vacant space on our left.

          I started along the line of works and went towards Spotsylvania Courthouse. As I approached the part of our line which was occupied by the Georgians, I noticed that they were all down behind the works, and as I advanced towards them they motioned to me to get down. I couldn't understand what they meant, until all at once I discovered a line of the enemy lying flat in a tall growth of broom-sedge, which covered an old field in front of the Georgians Balaam when he saw the angel standing in his way with the flaming sword was not more astonished than I was. The first thought which passed through my mind was why on earth couldn't I see those fellows? They were so close I could almost distinguish one face from another, and why they didn't shoot me is a mystery, unless they thought I wasn't worth the ammunition. Under the circumstances I was very willing to overlook the slight. It has been said that "Where ignorance is bliss, 'twere folly to be wise." This was an exception to that rule. Ignorance was undoubtedly bliss in this case, but it would have been very far from folly to have been wise. It took me very little while to disappear behind the works. I was now in a dilemma. I couldn't stay there, and after seeing what was out in the sedge I did not relish the idea of again taking the chances. After creeping along the works for some distance I found a place where the ground sloped back from them. Here, by lying flat and working along snake fashion I could keep out of sight until I reached the skirt of timber alluded to above, when I made good time. Soon after leaving the Georgians I heard cheering and heavy firing. I think the enemy tried to break over the Georgians, and were driven back. After accomplishing what I was sent for I returned to my position on the left of our brigade. During the entire day there was an incessant fire on us, both from infantry and artillery. With the exception of the ground just at the angle the enemy had been driven out of Johnson's entire line. The tree which General Walker alludes to was but a few steps from us.

          The fire from the Angle annoyed us all day. A party of us went to our commanding officers and volunteered to take it. Our plan was to crawl from one traverse to another (they being from fifteen to twenty steps apart all the way from our left to the angle) until we got up to the enemy. He declined, however, thinking it not worth the risk. I feel sure it could have been done.

          In giving my account of this day's work I have not mentioned anything except our own operations, the Georgians being out of sight, but that they did their share I have not the slightest doubt. For they could always be depended upon to do as much as any command in our service. Night closed one of the most disagreeable days I ever spent. As soon as it was dark we were taken from the horseshoe, and placed in the line I spoke of from heel to heel. The next day was quiet. Toward evening General Ewell came to us with a paper (from Washington)with a full account of the battle of the 12th. Although nearly a third of a century ago, the press was alive, and wielded such an influence in the great war that the question as to "which is the most powerful the pen or the sword?" is as far from settlement as ever. The general read us the Northern account, in which the army correspondent paid us, I think, a merited compliment when he said: "The fighting of the Rebels was simply splendid." "But, boys, you ought to hear what General Lee says about you," said the old general. Of course, we all besieged him to tell us, but he rode off laughing, and said: "It would make you too vain." He never told us, but we felt sure it was something good, and, if possible, we were more willing than ever to do just what Marse Robert wanted done.

          I have written more then I intended, but I suppose you know when an old soldier gets to fighting his battles over, he is hard to stop.

Yours, &c.,

Co. A. Thirteenth Virginia Infantry, C. S. A.




Editor of The Times:

          Will you allow another "Old Reb" space in your valuable paper to say a word or two about the" Bloody Angle," in addition to what has been said by General J. A. Walker and others?

          I claim the right to be heard on the grounds--first, that I belonged to the Second (Jones') brigade, General Edward Johnson's division, and was present for duty on the 12th of May, 1864; second, on the eve of the preceding day, the 11th of May, I was detailed by order of General Johnson, with a number of men (General Jones having been killed, as stated by General Walker, and Colonel Witcher with his, the Twenty-first regiment, being detached to take charge of some strategic point) to serve as "field officer of the day," on that part of our lines occupied by Jones's brigade, with orders to place a sentinel on the works every ten paces, and to tell the regimental commanders to allow their men "to sleep on their arms," the sentinels to give the alarm if the enemy advanced. One who has not been a soldier, with the responsibility of such a position, can scarcely appreciate its character. But with the true soldier it was the crushing weight of eleven great States, with their millions of women and children in their quiet homes, as well as the safety of an army that stood as a "wall of brass," in the defence of the God-given right of local self-government. Such was the sense of my responsibility on the night of the 11th of May, 1864. I dared not close my eyes to sleep, but, standing there upon the border of my country, amid the gloom of that dark, misty night, could hear the drums of possibly a hundred regiments thundering "Yankee Doodle," mingled with the notes of apparently more than double that number of trombones to drown the noise of the moving columns of the enemy concentrating in front of the "Bloody Angle."

          Third. I was within a few paces of General Johnson when we were captured; was with him during the entire time of our imprisonment; was exchanged at the same time, and returned with him to Richmond. I, therefore, had abundant opportunity to talk with General Johnson, which we did often, over the disaster of May 12th, and from General Johnson's lips, as well as from my own personal knowledge, I am prepared to confirm General Walker's opinion that neither General Johnson nor his men were surprised at the attack at the time it was made; but, on the contrary, I am quite sure, so far as Jones' brigade was concerned, all of us were expecting it.

I will state two facts, which I think will settle that point: While on duty as "officer of the day," as before stated, on the night of the 11th, the enemy became very active, and paraded all the bands and drum corps at their command, making the hills and dales resound with their music from 10 o'clock on the 11th till about 4 A. M. of the l2th, when all became quiet. At this time Captain W. H. Clary, then on General Johnson's staff, came to me with orders from General Johnson, directing me to see the regiment commanders and tell them to wake up their men and have them in the trenches, and to see that their guns were in good order.

          That order was promptly obeyed by Jones' brigade. I suppose that the same orders were given to the other brigades in the division. Of one thing I am sure, however, and that is, that not one of the enemy came over the lines held by the Second (Jones') brigade till after we had surrendered to overwhelming numbers, who had turned our left by crossing our works beyond the salient in question, which threw them immediately on our left and rear.

          The left of Jones' brigade rested immediately at the salient, with the entire brigade to the right of it. And just here I hope that General Walker will pardon me for saying that he made a slight mistake when he places the salient "not far from the right of Jones' brigade." Then again, General Walker says: "This statement as to the failure of the muskets of our men to fire is true, as to that portion of our line between the Stonewall brigade and the salient, which was, as far as my (his) vision extended; but I have been informed by officers of Jones' brigade that the right of that brigade had been more careful or more fortunate, and that their muskets were in good order, and that the enemy was repulsed in front of that portion of our line," &c.

          Now, I insist that Jones' entire brigade was beyond the salient from General Walker's standpoint, and hence beyond the range of his vision, according to his statement, and I will take the responsibility to say that what was true of the right of that brigade was true of the whole of that portion that was in the lines that morning--three regiments being absent, the Twenty-first, under Colonel Witcher, already alluded to, and the Forty-second and Forty-eighth, on picket, as I suppose, stated by Lieutenant Archer.

          Deploring, as I did, the absence of the artillery, I asked General Johnson why it was. This was his reply: "I knew that the artillery had been removed, and ascertaining that the enemy was very active in my front, I sent a messenger to General Ewell during the night, telling him of the removal of the artillery, but by whose orders I did not know, and requesting him to order it back, as the enemy was very active in front, and that we would be sure to have an attack early next morning." General Ewell sent the reply: "The artillery has been ordered back, and will be in position by 2 o'clock." Then he added: "If the artillery had been in position we would have destroyed that army." That did not indicate a surprise on Johnson's part, I am sure. I had supposed it possible, at least, that the Louisiana Brigade had been "caught napping" that morning, and did not know otherwise till I read General Walker's article, for the reason that the left flank of my own (Jones') Brigade was turned, and I was told by members of the Stonewall (Walker's) Brigade that the enemy turned their right. I am glad the General explains--" wet powder "--but what a pity! After surrendering we sat down in the trenches a few minutes, then the enemy began pouring over our works in heavy columns, and we were ordered to go to the rear.

          I hesitated to take such a leap into the dark blue mass of human beings then before me, a closed column of about four hundred yards front and half a mile deep, thick as men could walk, pressing forward with rapid strides to support those more advanced. Such was the sight that met my gaze when I mounted the works for my "on to Fort Delaware march." I could but exclaim, "Oh, for a few rounds from Colonel Nelson's Runs! What a target from the position they held on yesterday!"

          All Yankeedom concentrated with a big" on to Richmond move." Good heavens! where did they come from? Such were my thoughts as we pressed our way through their centre. We were marched back some two or more miles to Provost Marshal General Patrick's headquarters, and there I met with a young man, a lieutenant on General Patrick's staff, who, saluting me, said: "Well, General, we got a few of you this morning." I replied, "Yes; but, as the Yankee said when selling his razor strops, there are plenty more of the same sort left." He remarked again, rather boastingly, "We charged you with but 45,000 this morning."

          I suppose he alluded to the assaulting column, that had nearly passed over our works before I left, for I am quite sure there were at least 100,000 in the column through which I passed in crossing the plateau in front of Jones' and the Louisiana brigades, described by General Walker.


Major Forty-fourth Virginia Regiment,
Jones' Brigade, Johnson's Division.

Scottsville, Albemarle county, Va.


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