tv The Civil War CSPAN November 24, 2016 6:16pm-6:58pm EST
facebook. and find our programs and schedule on our website, c-span.org/history. >> on the civil war, historian chris makowski discusses the battle of spotsylvania courthouse which pitted ulysses grant against robert e. lee's confederate army. he details the movements and military tactics employed by lee and grant and gives special attention to the union assaults at parts of the battlefield known as the mule shoe and bloody angle. after two weeks of fighting the armies disengaged without a clear victor. lee failed to stop grant's drive south toward richmond. this talk was part of a symposium hosted by the emerging civil war blog. >> i'm delighted to be able to share with you the story of spots sylvania.
if you've had the chance to walk around particularly out at the mule shoe, you know what a beautiful landscape it is, easily one of the best preserved civil war landscapes that we have available to us. it's pristine. there are a few monuments out there, but you're seeing what the soldiers saw in 1864 when they first arrived. the tree lines are pretty accurate. the fields are pretty accurate. then over course of two years like a swarm of locusts they transformed that landscape so dramatically that the traces of it are still there today. if you want to after our program this afternoon, i'll be happy to show you some of those traces here at stevenson ridge. but i hope over the course of my talk, i'll be able to help you understand some of those traces that still exist so the next time you go out there, you can see for yourself the story still written on had most beautiful of landscapes.
to understand how the armies got here, we pick up where chris left off where they're fighting in the wilderness for two days, and fight and stalemate for a third and ulysses s. grant changes the war. it is the turning point of the civil war. don't whatever those gettysburg folks tell you, don't pay attention to that stuff. nonsense. because up to this point, the armies clash, they withdraw. and then they spend a couple months catching their breath. reequipping, resupplying, reinforcing. grant realizes that if he does that, it gives the confederates the chance to do that too and he has opened this spring campaign
realizing that if through no other means than by attrition, he writes, he will wear the confederacy down. he decides to go left and south heading towards spotsylvania where he can get the inside road to richmond. he doesn't care about the village or the courthouse. it's those roads. he doesn't even care about richmond except he knows as he moves at richmond, lee has to come out and defend the confederate capital. that's where he's going to get lee out in the open into battle. to orient you, the wilderness is off in that direction off in the far corner. they're going to head down the brock road here to spots sylvania which is going to be in this area here. and as grant makes that decision to go left and south, his men realize there's no turning back. grant is holding true to his word. and they cheer wildly with the wilderness burning around them as the army withdraws down the brock road towards spots sylvania. lee realizes he's got to block grant. he sends his cavalry to delay the union advance. the union's going to send their
cavalry to try to flush him out and they fail. by the time grant gets to pods tavern, he finds his troopers spread out in the field sleeping. george gordon mead, commander of the army starts kicking butts, get up, clear that road. where is your commander in phil sheridan. nobody knows where phil sheridan is. when sheridan finally comes gallivanting into camp, he's irate because mead had the gall to order his own troopers around. imagine that and the two get into an explosive argument. two both of them have incredible volcanic tempers and mead's the one who dials in back, but it is an act of insubordination on sheridan's part. and so mead goes to grant and says can you believe this guy. here's what just happened. he had the gall to even say if you just give meet orders i'll go out and get jeb stewart by himself. grant instead of backing his army commander backs his pet phil sheridan and says well, sheridan generally knows what he's talking about. cut account orders and let him do it. oh, okay. so somewhat flabbergasted mead cuts the orders and lets sheridan ride off with 12,000 cavalry men leaving the army of
the potomac blind and deaf. and i want to call that will very important fact to your attention. because what unfolds over the next two and a half weeks thousands of union lives are lost because phil sheridan has left with the eyes and ears. he tends to get a free pass in history. oh, i killed jeb stewart, la de dah, but he also kills thousands of his own men by leaving the army blind and deaf. union is going to continue to advance down that road towards spotsylvania the cavalry is still block them. the you know cavalry ineffective at flushing them out so infantry is going to have to do the job. so the fifth corps is leading the march. their first division is trying
to lead the way. they're going to deploy in the line of battle. push forward in this direction to try to drives the confederate cavalry away. if you look at these roads of chairs if you ride that rode it's ridge after ridge, row of chair afro of chair. the could be ted rats ride from one to the next. they delay the advance again. the federals have to get back into the line of march, race up there at the double quick, redeploy try to push the cavalry away. they hop on their horses, go to the next row of chairs, line up, delay again. grant plans to be in spotsylvania by 8:00 a.m. but that defense is so effective it slows their advance. and so that gives lee the chance to cut his way out of the wilderness creating his own road through the burning woods, marched twice as far to get finally here where mr. davis is. and block the road. just as that final union push gets to this area. on the battlefield, it's known as spindle field or laurel hill. sarah spindle is sitting at the breakfast table with her family
when suddenly the armies appear on either side of their home. they flee to safety as the battle erupts around her. but the union infantry's they're getting pushback. the cavalry aren't just mounting up and riding away, they're getting pushback. that's because at infantry is filing in, jeb stewart has sent a message to have the first confederate corps double time onto the battlefield. he's at this spot saying run into position, boys. because if you don't, billy is. and literally confederates are rushing to this spot even as the federal 5th corps is deploying and coming up across that field. stewart puts those men in exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. because of this cat and mouse that's been going on. on brock road, the union advance is discombobulated. so there's a lot of confusion. there's not a lot of cohesion
and so this last push is not at division strength but at brigade strength because these guys have been getting into line, deploying, getting into line, they're exhausted, confused mixed up. and so the first line peter lyles brigade comes up on this side of the road. stewart is able to put just enough men at that spot to stop them. kershaw's brigade, boom. so the next advance comes up this side of the road. stewart's unable to put enough confederates right there boom, stops them. a third and then a fourth wave come across that field with confederates getting just into position just in time. fifth corps commander warren is a little upset by this. he knows his commanders eyes are on him. so he's got something to prove.
so he organizes again for a concerted effort with a whole division. pushes them up but again more confederates flooding onto the field in time to stop that advance. now he's really upset. so he's going to take his whole corps and try to do it, but not just that. he's going to get the sixth corps to help him out. half of the union army is coming on. but the confederates continue to rush onto the field extending their line anchoring down on the poe river and moving in this direction taking advantage of ridge lines to give them selves good topography if i, good fields of fire, good elevations. and as they do, the ridge line kind of curves up and around. and it forms a large bend. today we call them mule shoe because it's horseshoe shaped. unfortunately you guys are all in a nice convenient horseshoe and about to have a very bad day. i apologize in advance. okay? so confederate defense here holds.
and as more confederates into defense, the line forms. the 9th of may comes. and it's time for both armies to assess their situation. has created a roadblock down account brock road. the union army is bottlenecked. the second corps got stuck way up at todd's tavern and finally had to shift way over to the poe river. the 9th corps can't even get down here because of that bottleneck. they're going to swing over to the east and come down this direction. today modern courthouse road. and they're going to land right here at stevenson ridge, the 9th corps because they can't get to the battlefield over here. it's going to open a second front. as lee is looking at this, he's shifting his troops around and he realizes he's got this bulge. pretty inconvenient. it is inherently unstable. the reason is, let's pretend you guys for the moment are union soldiers and you're lined you on the outside and i'm in the
salient and how many of you can be firing at me? all of you. all five of you can be firing at how many of me can be firing at once? only one, right. so they have what's called converging fire. i what's called diverging fire. it gets weaker over a distance and fans out while theirs -- if somebody breaks through, they're in the rear of the whole position. so everybody's got to pull back. we're also subjected to crossfire. you might fire in this direction and miss me but you can hit my buddies over here. so that's why a salient is inherently unstable. if formed again because they're taking advantage of the ridge lines. this part of the line forms near dusk. they're not paying attention to exactly the overall view. there's a piece of high ground right here called the mccool farm confederates are worried if federal artillerists have that spot, they can bombard the confederates. maybe it's a good idea to protect that. as lee looks at this, he realizes this is probably bad news. he talks to his second in
command, richard ewell, and ewell says i can defend that salient if you give me enough artillery. so lee says okay. they're going to put 30 guns here in the tip of the salient. and lee is going to let the position stand. it's important because what's going to unfold turns richard ewell into a huge scapegoat but lee, the harry truman of the army of northern virginia, the buck stops here guy says yes, okay. grant looks at this and also understands how inherently vulnerable this position is. so he's going to look at ways to get at it. even as he's doing so, he's got a young up and coming officer named emeril upton. from batavia, new york.
pressure out of west point, hot shot guy and i got an idea. upton proposes an attack against a little bulge in the mule shoe. if this overall position is a big curve, about where you are, kim, you're kind of out even further. that's right. okay? so you're like a bulge on the bulge. so you're already vulnerable. you're only a couple hundred yards away from janet. it's the closest the lines are. upton want to run from where janet is and punch through you. good luck, all right? don't hit a lady. all right. what upton wants to do though is different. instead of a typical line of battle where you line up half of your guys he wants to line his men up in a fist. 12 regiments, 5,000 men and he's going to punch through and then open up a hole. upton's told you succeed, you will earn your brigadier star. if you don't, don't come back. stakes are not very high there, are they? okay.
upton launches this attack in the afternoon of may 10th. top get support, he's going to have warren's fifth corps over here launch an attack to hold these confederates in place and he's also going to have a division under mott come straight down and punch the tip of the mule shoe here. problem, upton's running late. so he doesn't launch at 5:00 like he's supposed to. but nobody tells poor ger sham mott. meanwhile warren just decides to jump off early. he thinks he's got an opportunity. he launched at 4:30. his attack spends itself. ger sham mott comes across, these wide open fields, confederates have nothing else
to shoot at, 30 cannon and prove with artillery at the tip of the salient they can defend it. mott is wiped off the field. upton finally launches at 6:00 with no support on either side. the amazing thing is that he runs across this field, punches through, splits open the confederate line, successful. nobody knows what to do next. it is such an innovative tactic. he's a victim of his own success. and there are no confederate union reinforcements to flood into this gap. so confederates come rushing to the front. richard ewell does a fantastic job patching the hole. upton is driven from the field. he will earn his star because grant recognizes the failure was not upton's fault but his own. and one of the things i admire most about grant is he a quick learner despite the stereotype of him he's always experimenting
and always trying and maneuvering. he looks at this attack and he says if upton can break through here with 5,000 men, what could i do with 20,000? and this time i've got another 20,000 reinforcements ready to take advantage of the break through. and so he's going to put into motion a plan where he's going to use that same idea to punch the confederate position right on the nose. and he's going to have the reinforcements ready in place. it's going to take him awhile to do this. he wants to use his second corps under winfield scott hancock to execute this attack. that's his hammer. hancock's men are way over here by the poe river. they've got to shift all the way up and over into position. it's going to take them hours. and as they begin their march in the afternoon of may 11th, it begins to rain. darkness falls. flooding the streams, turning the roads into muck. many soldiers describe this as
the worst march of their entire career in the army. nobody's telling them where they're going. in fact, there's one officer who says well someone at least point me in the right direction? so that way i don't have to go all the way around the world and approach the confederates from the rear. but finally they assembly at a place called the brown farm. i'll let your atlas of the civil war survey of the brown farm, there's the brown farm, ladies and gentlemen, about a mile away from the salient. thank you very much. that's really heavy. don't hold it up. it's a heavy hammer. i'll tell you. it's a heavy hammer. so as the army is shifting, robert e. lee is trying to read the tea leaves, intelligence that he's getting and he's getting reports of this movement and he's got reports of burnside having moved off into this direction and he starts thinking, in the wilderness, they fought for a couple days, they came to stalemate and grant moved left and south.
they've been here in spotsylvania for a couple days. they fought to a stalemate and now he's got reports of federals moving left and south. what do you think that puts in lee's mind? i'm being flanked again. grant's on the move. lee starts to mobilize portions of his army to hit the road and try to block grant again. and the first parts of his army that he's going to move is his artillery because that's the slowest moving part of his army. it's raining and turning roads to muck. so the first artillery pieces he's going to pull are these right here at the tip of the hull shed because they're the farthest away from the roads, only a few farm lanes that service this area. so he pulls these out to get a head start on grant. and he doesn't tell dick ewell. ewell finds out because one of his subordinates edward allegheny johnson in charge of this portion of the line comes home and says where is my artillery? ewell is like what do you mean. it's gone.
and ewell has to go to lee and ask for his artillery twice before lee finally acquiesces and sends artillery back. by that point, things are so far away, the artillery is so far away, he says it will probably be morning before they get there. this has johnson nervous because he's heard sounds of movement out there and he's convinced it's not grant trying to outflank them but instead it's grant getting ready to attack. and he's a crusty old bugger. i don't know if you know much. old allegheny but he did some great work on the valley till he got wounded in the foot, the bottle of mcdowell in the spring of 1862, goes back to richmond to convalesce. despite being a crusty old bugger somehow earns a reputation for being a man about town with the ladies. i don't get it.
when he comes back, he's got a wooden walking stick because of the injury. his men call him old clubby because of that stick. he's pacing the lines with his club worried about these reports convinced something's coming. when he finally goes to bed that night, he goes to bed with his boots on and his cane next to his bed ready to jump up at a moment's notice. indeed, an attacking is coming. 208,000 federals under winfield scott hancock headed right to the atlas of the civil war at the brown farm. thank you very much. hancock's going to take upton's model and build on it. so the left part of hancock's attack under francis barlow is going to be that fist and in support david bernie is going to line up at a traditional line of battle sweeping forward in this
direction. time of the attacking is set for 4:00 in the morning. but this rain has conjured up fog from the bottom lands. it's been hot. hot summer in the wilderness so far. this rain has cooled it off. taken the edge off. and the fog has made the forests impenetrable. hancock can't see and he's not had time to reconnoiter the land in front of him. no one knows what they're heading into and they can't see it. they just know they're heading into trouble.
the men stand there, some of them so exhausted think sleep on their feet. others so pumped up with adrenaline or fear that they can't sleep at all. some write letters to their families at home on the backs of the man in front of them and tuck those letter away hoping they've got some form of identification on them should this go terribly awry. whether he 4:00 comes, hancock can't give the order for those men to advance. making them even more nervous. jacking them up even more. and finally, at 4:20, dawn is just breaking enough to turn that fog translucent. and hack cook's going to order his attack forward. so that he doesn't lose the element of surprise. those 20,000 men come forward sweeping through some bogs, through some forests toward the confederate position. those of you who have been out there, there's a farm lane that runs right about where you guys are and keeps heading out in that direction, runs away in a diagonal away from this position. confederates have some skirmishes out there as their advanced eyes and ears. it's a sunken farmland. they've got a good strong position out there. by the time the federals come sweeping out of the forest and up onto the farmland, they think they've captured the main confederate line and under orders to advance silently. when they grab the position, they're so excited they yell hazah and give away their
element of surprise. and that hazah echoes across the field and alerts the confederates in the trenches. about a third of them are actually in the lines. a third of them are back sleeping. and another third of them are huddled against their campfires trying to hunker down against account rain, the rifles stacked next to them cooking up breakfast. but the skirmishers come running over in the wake of that echo. there are yankees coming, and everyone floods into the trenches. there will be blood enough for supper one confederate said. by the end of the day, there was blood enough for all. the federals having given away their position have to reform and then they flood forward even
as the confederates launch their first volley. but they were aiming at that ridge line and the federals have swept down into a large we'll that cuts across that field. and so the confederate fire goes over their heads and they advance sweeping forward. barlow's men having farther to go come around like a big left hook, smashing through right between the two of you, peeling open a gap in the line. barlow's men begin to drive in this direction. in fact, they're so successful they get all the way down here to where james lane's men are. lane's men are good stalwart soldiers, hard fighters dependable. but they've been plagued by the shadow of having killed stonewall jackson accidentally a year earlier. they're already putting up a defense against a feeble assault by ambrose burnside. they're holding off burnside
like this and suddenly, where did you come from? and they're having to do a two-front defense but labor's men hold. bearny's men come up out of that swale and hit the tip and begin sweeping in this direction. their attack is so overwhelming they wipe confederate units right off the map. some of the most storied, hardest fighting veterans in the army. hayes louisiana tigers, gone. as they keep sweeping this way, the stonewall brigade, gone. james walker, stonewall jim to his men trying to rally the stonewall brigade is shot down. and his efforts to try to stem the tide. but nothing can stop the federals as they finally get down to about where upton had his break through two days earlier. there they're finally stopped by the men of junius daniels. daniels is shot through the bowels and will die. but his men will hold. but now robert e. lee has a hole in his line a half a mile wide. and these federals are filtering into the interior. with 20,000 more in the 6th
corps getting ready to flood into that gap. here's where lee rides to the battlefield with his army on the brink of annihilation and he has to figure out what to do. first man he looks to is richard ewell, his second in command. but ewell is going off like a teapot on the boil. just cussing, swearing, sputtering, yelling at his men, calling them cowards, slapping them with the broadside of his sword extolling them to get back into line and they continue to stream past him in panic and lee, the very calm picture of composure rides up and he says, general ewell, how do you propose to control your men if you cannot control yourself? and he gives ewell a time-out. instead, he's going to turn to one of yule's subordinates, john brown gordon, aggressive lawyer from georgia. gordon is ready to go.
like send me in coach, come on. so lee is going to personally lead gordon's men into the mule shoe to hook up with lane and drive up in this direction to plug the gap. except the men won't go. they start yelling general lee to the rear. lee to the rear. we will not go forward. unless general lee goes to the rear. in a very angry lee starts to the visibly get upset. that's when gordon steps up in full cheerleader mode and he's like general lee, these men are virginians and georgians they've never failed you and will not fail you now. will you men? no. the crowd goes wild. that's right. some poor corporal has to haul him to the rear while gordon pushes forward, connects and begins to plug the gap driving federals out of the mule shoe. federals simply hunker down, build works of their own and will spend may 12th trading
potshots back and forth with confederates on the east side of the line. things over here go a little differently. sweeping across this is field, we've got steven who get shot down leading his men. his second in command will have to finish that charge and connect and drives the federals out and push up the line. abner mariner's alabamians will get in next. he knows this is a suicide mission. he says i'm either coming back a live major general or a dead brigadier. he'll come back a dead brigadier. he's buried in the city cemetery in fredericksburg today. but his men connect. they drive the officers out and begin pushing forward. nathaniel harris's mississippians will come in and connect and drive them out.
sam magowan's south carolinians whose monument ironically resembles a coffin. plugs the gap and continues to drive up a small hill in this section of the line. even as 20,000 reinforcements under the 6th corps begin flooding forward. and they get down into that swale that i talked about and all the bullets flying through the air, they want to stay protected as long as they can so instead of coming straight across into the gap, they let that the swale funnel them right over to this spot even as sam mcgown's men are driving up toward it. so that particular angle in the line, a 13 degree bend becomes the center of the maelstrom as magowan's men have to fight their way, traverse by traverse up to that that spot as the 6th corps comes pouring into that same area. soldiers will later call that area hell's half acre. a golgotha,, a place you have skulls.
a saturnalia of blood. panoply of horror. today most of us remember it as the bloody angle. where men were not as men said one soldier but as demons. for 20 straight hours, they will fight hand to hand in the pouring rain in water in those trenches up to their knees shooting each other at point blank range, stabbing each other with their bayonets using their rifles as clubs, throwing them like spears, using sticks, rocks, fists, teeth, anything they can. a seething bubbling, roaring hell of hate and murder, one soldier says. 20 straight hours, and this fight's already been going on for two. 22 straight hours of the most intense, personal hatred you can imagine up close and ugly.
the earth works were slippery with rain and blood, one soldier said. men wounded getting trampled into the trenches. too injured to pull themselves out, bodies stacking up, three, four, five deep. men getting sucked into the mud and suffocating or drowning or being unable to do anything but suffer and be trampled. men jumping up onto the works firing a rifle and throwing it like a spear pinning the guys to the trees. someone will pass another load rifle to them and they'll do it again over and over till they're shot down. someone else jumps up and takes their place. and lee copies to feed men into this fight because he's trying to save the life of his army. he needs to buy time so he's going to trade lives for time. and he's going to seal off this
bulge. but in order to do it, he's going to keep sending men into the meat grinder. and finally, been 3:00 a.m., they get word that that line is finished. and the order is given for these men to retreat. in twos and threes they slip back into this final position. just before dawn, federals realize something's up, they make a final push over the works. capture the last couple hundred confederates and begin a caution advance into the interior of the mule shoe. those artillery pieces i talked about earlier, many of them had gotten back just in time to get captured. but the rest of them are in this line. and they open fire on that federal advance. discouraging any sort of pursuit and federals go back to the,
exterior of the mule shoe, hunker down just as dawn begins to lighten the drizzling sky. seeing what they find out there is unprecedented in their experience. one union soldier talks about being able to walk from hancock's headquarters to the angle without ever touching ground because of the carpet of blue bodies that is out there. some 9,000 in casualties. they don't even look like men anymore. one described them as looking like jellyfish. one likens them to a sponge.
they have to pull bodies out of the ground. and the fighting isn't over at spotsylvania. it will go on we'll look at tha year. that's when grant realizes he can't get at lee at spotsylvania and will begin plans to pull away. lee will try one last stab at harris farm which is back past dwight, in that corner, federals will stop that. if we're talking about the toll of battle.
when richard ewell marches, he has 8,000 men. the year before, there were 28,000 men. where are those 20,000 men? after that, grant waits for any other confederate shenanigans. nothing comes. he begin to pull out and heads down the river. to pick up that story, come back next year and we'll tell you that one, too. the landscape they leave behind is devastated, but if you go out there today you'll hear the birds sing and the whir of insects and trees. if you're lucky you'll feel a breeze.
we ka you'll use one of those, can't we? >> yes. >> it's beautiful, pristine. [inaudible]. >> just as it was when they were fighting. i invite you to go out there and visit. stand there and feel the breeze. think about those men. the men who suffered and died and sacrificed there. they would be glad you have come there to remember them. thank you. [ applause ] >> any questions? one right over here. >> yes. i've heard tell of a napoleonic tactic that was popular, i
think, with the french revolution army. >> you should direct this question to chris because he's got the great expertise. >> how does upton and for that matter, barland assault norm nation compare to the traditional french assault columns? >> they're a little bit more compact than you would see. if i remember correctly, one of the readings that i look at -- you actually threw me under the bus, chris. >> i'll answer, too. >> was thing fact that up at the -- they likened it to waterl waterloo. what he was trying to do on the change of that was to try to punch his way through with that first line and the second and third lines with upton would be the fighting tactic. now whenever you go with the corps side's level, that goes to a whole new level.
feel free to talk about that. >> the technology is vastly different by the time these guys are nighting the war. this notion of a mass column is different. mask yourselves and give yourself strength. now they've learned that when you mass yourself like that you've made yourself a huge target for weaponry. that's a huge disadvantage. now instead of marching, it's a sprint. he tells his men not to even cap their rifles because he doesn't want them to stop and shoot on the way over. it's a sprint. get over here, start stabbing. then you can cap your rifles and start shooting. it has a lot to do with speed and technology as well. i threw chris under the bus because he spent a lot of time studying in a pole antic tactic. mike has a question over here. >> afternoon of may 12th, 1864,
in your opinion, if burnside doesn't stop to see what's going on on his left, does he have enough men to punch through the confederate line? >> that's a great question. and i call this spotsylvania's forgotten fronts, because burnside comes in and actually slides in here on the 9th and has the opportunity to burst all the way through and he doesn't. a lot of confederates talk about how if he acted aggressively, there's nothing that could have stopped him. that's the story of burnside over here on this flank for the first week. he is ineffectual because his tepid in his advances. so on the morning of the 12th, he launches that weak attack. they rig the staging area for that we'll look at a little bit of that later. then he refocuses and tries to attack keith sellyon and gets
caught up. it's a matter of not enough men, not enough attempt, not enough ambition, not enough aggression, not enough, not enough, not enough. whether he could have on the 12th specifically broken through? i don't know. lee is saying i'm going to launch my own attack to ease up the pressure over here. lee's got his eye over here it's not as if burnside would come in unexpectedly. does that answer your question? over here? >> one more. >> all right. what's emory upton's role after his initial attack after the first part of the battle? does he stay involved? does his unit continue to participate or are they pulled back? >> he does. after this break-through they're going to be part of that six quarter wave. they're going to shifted to several positions over here on the 12th. they're going to be pulled back
and back in the fight. he's going to go on to try to capture meyers hill. if you went outside you'd see a radio tower on the far side of the road. that's meyers hill. upton's men will successfully capture that after some back and forth. strategically doesn't break things open. upton will go on to a highly successful career in the united states army. he'll be an influential tactician. it will become the standard bible for the army but he has an unfortunate personal life. has problems with his wife as what we think is migraines sparked by a brain tumor. he'll eventually commit suicide at the presidio. a promising young man who goes on to an unfortunate deaths. so thank you ladies and gentlemen.