The evening before the battle, a Union officer walked among troops who would be assaulting Confederate positions in the morning and observed something he had not seen before. As he wrote after the war, “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.”
The behavior was unusual enough that he took a closer look and “found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on the backs of their coats so their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”
Their stoicism was validated in the morning when 40,000 men attacked along a front of some seven miles. They charged into a line of earthworks that had been constructed expertly by men who, when they’d fought on ground close by two years earlier, had disdained digging as unfit work for soldiers. Back then, they had disparaged their new commander, Robert E. Lee, who was an engineer and believed in field fortifications, as “the King of Spades.” But now they fiercely believed—both in him and in digging. They were badly outnumbered, but they were well entrenched, and their positions would bring heavy, overlapping fire on any assaulting force.
George McClellan, who had been the Union commander two years earlier in the Peninsula Campaign, would almost certainly not have attacked. But Ulysses S. Grant was now in command, and it was almost inevitable that he would. It was in his nature, and he had been pressing Lee and his army for a month. The two armies had fought a series of battles, and after each one, with the lines essentially unaltered, the Army of the Potomac would move, seeking an advantage in position that would threaten Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and force Lee into a battle in the open that, given his disadvantage in numbers, he could not win.
First, there had been the battle of the Wilderness, which might have been a Union defeat if Grant had chosen to react as his predecessors had—by pulling back on Washington to regroup and refit for another try. But despite his heavy losses, Grant chose to look for better ground and to keep fighting. Lee seemed to divine his intentions, and the two armies raced for the critical crossroads town of Spotsylvania. It was a near-run thing, but the Confederates got there in time to organize a defense.
They fortified a line that was anchored on the flanks by rivers and they dug in. But the line bulged, dangerously, in the direction of the enemy, creating a salient that troops called the Muleshoe. This was the focus of Union attacks that came so close, at one point, to succeeding that at a critical moment Lee himself rode into the action, urging the troops to fill the breach and hold the line.
“Lee to the rear,” the troops shouted. They promised their general that they would hold, and one of them took the reins of his horse and led him back out of immediate danger.
In the fighting that followed, the Confederates held, but barely. The battle came, eventually, to focus on one section of the Muleshoe, a salient within a salient that the soldiers called the Bloody Angle. The name had been used in other battles; none had better claim to the title.
The fighting here came down to men standing on the bodies of other men, using their rifles as clubs and their fists, even their teeth . . . anything that would do to kill their enemies before they went down themselves and added to the pile of the dead. The firing was so intense and heavy that it cut down an oak tree two feet in diameter.
The fight lasted more than 16 hours, and when it ended, and the Confederates had fallen back to shortened and more easily defended lines, one of Grant’s aides inspected the scene and later wrote:
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.”