Lee had maneuvered his men into a defensible area at Spotsylvania a dozen miles away from Grant’s Army. The confederates quickly constructed an elaborate network of trenches, breastworks, artillery emplacements, traverses and abatis to slow down attackers. Trained as an engineer at West Point, Lee had among his many military talents, a skill for picking defensive positions an how to set them up. By this late point in the war the Army Of Northern Virginia were experts at getting these works done with alacrity. This time it was the strongest works Grant had encountered thus far.
Grant had two options, attempt to flank Mars Lee or ram throught he earthworks. He tried both ways and failed. even though , Grant felt the area the men called “The Mule Shoe” could be breached with a large enough force and splitting a weak point forcing Lee’s army in two.
“A brigade today and We’ll try a corps tomorrow!” Grant confidently said..
A cold rain had fallen before dawn. With light, Grant hurled 20,000 men across a mile wide no man’s land at the defenders. Blue coats shoulder to shoulder as the crossed and managed to breach into the trenches. The rebels displaced back to secondary positions as the Union men occupied the forward works just abandoned. Further down the line another possible crisis was blooming. The fighting there turned vicious. It would devolve into some of the most violent and cruel fighting ever to occur on US soil.
Along a a few hundred yards of muddy trenches the men fought hand to hand. Skulls were crushed with muskets used as clubs, men bayoneted between breastwork logs, arms legs and faces cut to pieces. The wounded fell and body after body fell atop them, burying them alive under the dead as they sank into the mud. The fighting raged on with no one pausing to care for the wounded unable to get away. Blue and Gray fired muzzle to muzzle into each other’s faces. When out of ammo or weapons, they would strike at each other with anything that came ot hand. Some work up into such a frenzy , they hurled their muskets with fixed bayonets like spears and reached back for another weapon loaded and ready to fire again until struck down.
Usually hand to hand combat broke down quickly with one side giving ground. Not this time. This time both lines held as soldiers stood their ground. Worked up to a point not seen yet in the war with men seaming to care about nothing else but killing the other side. The result was ghastly.” Union flags intermingled with Confederate flags, Northern limbs with Southern limbs. Blood ran as thick and furious as the rain, turning the muddy trench floors red. And on this muck, the dead and wounded were crushed by the next wave of men fighting men, surging forward, jabbing this way and that. The bullets sprayed with such ferocity that an oak tree was cut to pieces”
This was as “atavistic battle” that continued for a full 18 hours. It became known as ” the bloody angle”.
Back at the Mule shoe, Grant’s men had broken the line. Splitting the southern Army in two. This was now a crisis of major proportions. Lee, personally started to lead his reserve divisions into a counter attack. The soldiers let out a tremendous shout ” General Lee to the rear!” General Gordon, a brigadier from Georgia called out asking the men if they would fail Lee. ” no, no no” they yelled back. “We’ll not fail him.”
Only when the troops pressed around him and took hold of his horse were they able to get Lee to the rear. His blood was up. Galvanized by Lee’s presence the men rolled forward and by dark the position was out of danger and Grant had been repulsed.
By morning an “eerie pall hung over the field”. Around bloody angle, 11,000 men lay dead and dying. But still they came on at each other. The Armies fought for several more days at Spotsylvania and each time Lee countered Grant’s moves. After six days, Grant had gained no ground, he had only added 3,000 more Union casualties. For Grant the numbers were numbing. He had attempted to lure Lee out into the open where Union numbers and guns would cripple him. Since the start of Grant’s campaign against the Army Of Norther Virginia, Lee had countered Grant’s every move. In the North a gloom settled over the Union people. Grant was denounced as a butcher as morale nosedived.
Still Grant was not to be denied. ” I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”.
AS summer approached, Grant’s words seemed prophetic. The two armies were locked into a sprint toward as junction named Cold Harbor.
As usual Lee arrived first and knew what was coming. The men prepared for the attack they knew was coming. There had been no rest from the fighting, marching, digging and planning and both sides were exhausted. “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind and body”.
Grant remained confident. “Lee’s army is really whipped!” he wrote back to DC.. Our men feel they have gained the morale over the enemy and attack with confidence.” Wasting no time, Grant ordered an attack. The assault was to begin at dawn.
Grant’s troops did not share Grant’s opinion on their invincibility. Grant had misjudged the severity of the thrashing Lee had dished out on them over the last several weeks. The Army of the Potomac hd see Mars Lee in action before and knew exactly what he was capable of. Many prepared for the next day by pinning cloth with their names onto their coats so their family would know for sure what became of them. The veterans of Chancellorsville, The Seven Days and the recent hellish nightmare of The Wilderness knew what was in store even if Grant didn’t.
The bugle sounded the attack at 430Am. 60,000 Union infantry rose up in the dim light and started the attack. It didn’t get far.
The command “fire “was given. ” It was like the ground itself began to seethe” Along the seven mile front, row after row of blue came forward. The rebels gave a greeting to them with coordinated firepower. The federals kept their forward advance. The volume of the fire seemed unprecedented, combining the “fury of The Wilderness musketry with the thunder of the Ghettysburg artillery duel superadded”.
For Grant, it was an unmitigated bloodbath. A pure slaughter. Federals fell like dominoes. The Union Army lost 7,000 men in the first 8 minutes. The horror of the amount of dead compounded by the speed. Across roughly 5 acres the dead lay in neat military formations spread along the Southern front line. Dying in formations so quickly that the men didn’t even have time t panic and break ranks.
By evening the fury died down and the field over taken by silence. Grant privately admitted defeat. When he began to talk about another assault even his own officers would hear one of it. ” I will not take my regiment in another such charge” one officer responded, “even if Jesus Christ should order it!”
The battle of Cold Harbor became a test of wills between Grant and Lee. For three days the two armies glared hatefully at each other. “A stone’s throw away” neither commander willing to admit defeat by asking for a truce to collect the wounded or bury the dead. As the sun beat down, the men were forced to make masks to cover the nose as the dead swelled and burst open in the heat. An unbearable stench lingered over the battlefield.
It had been 30 days since Grant fired his first shots at Lee at the start of The Wilderness. He had lost 50,000 men. The Army had only lost 100,000 in all the previous years of the war. Grant would go on to say out of all the attacks made, he regretted Cold Harbor the most.
On the second night of the Wilderness, Grant was losing patience with his men warning him about just what the Old Grey Fox was capable of. They knew too well from their experiences fighting the Army Of Northern Virginia. Grant bellowed out, “Oh I am heartily tired of hearing what Lee’s going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a a double somersault and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Try to think what we are going to ourselves, instead of what Lee’s going to do.”
Now it was Grant who had learned. As General George Meade, observed: ” I think Grant has had his eyes opened.”