Sketch of Dole’s Salient position

A crude sketch of the Confederate positions at Dole’s Salient by a member of Co. I of the 5th Maine.

Note the regiment was the left most regiment in the first rank during Upton’s charge.  There are certainly minor discrepancies but certainly nothing too glaring. Obviously on the 10th they didn’t know about the “Bloody Angle” but good stuff nevertheless.

sketch of Dole's Salient fight.

sketch of Dole’s Salient fight.


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The March That Never Happened

“The chief cause of the capture of the division was the absence of the artillery from the line, the removal of which was ordered and carried out on the afternoon of May 11th.” (1)

View from the apex of the salient.

View from the apex of the salient.

Written years later this was Colonel Thomas H. Carter’s explanation for the disaster that befell Edward Johnson’s division within the Mule Shoe. He would continue “It was withdrawn the afternoon of May 11th by order of General Long, chief of artillery, second corps (Ewell’s), who was doubtless acting under orders, and who said the cavalry had reported the renewal of the flank movement toward Richmond by the enemy”.

So there we have it. Colonel Carter had been the second ranking officer in the corps artillery. As such he was assigned  direct command of the artillery along the Mule Shoe line. If anyone outside the uppermost level of the Corps would know the facts it would have been him.  He, like many Confederates writings on Spotsylvania in the period of from 1890 to 1910 agree on the cause for the disaster.

So was the Colonel, and the many others who shared his opinions about the withdrawal of the artillery that afternoon,  correct? After all General Robert E. Lee, only days after the event  called it “one of his blunders”. (2) Was the plan to actually to move or to prepare to move the army that night? And if was to move where to? To answer that question we don’t begin at nightfall on May 11th. Rather we begin at about 8:15 PM on May 10th.


Google Earth of the Mule Shoe

Google Earth of the Mule Shoe


Before we look at that however some boundaries need to be established. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that the armies would inevitably move from Spotsylvania Court House.  Despite Grant’s well-known comments about fighting it out “on this line if it takes all summer”, the armies would inevitably move on. It was merely a question of which side moved first, in what direction and when. Secondly, this post is limited to the Second Corps units in the Mule Shoe. Both Alexander, commanding the First Corps artillery, and Walker the Third, were given orders to prepare for a move. Of course all the corps commanders would have received similar orders. But again we are only concerned with the Second Corps, and so we take up the story.


When Federal Colonel Emory Upton’s troops fell back to their start line the night of the 10th the Confederates were happy to see them go. Despite their entrenchments, the Federals had quickly punched a hole several hundred yards wide in the defenses as well as almost reaching the McCoull House, Edward Johnsons headquarters. While the Confederates had moved quickly, General Lee himself ordering replacement gunners for a battery forward,  to seal the breach and drive the attackers out, they realized they had been lucky. Only the inability of the Federals to reinforce the success had prevented major damage.

From in front of the works up the slope to Dole's Salient.

From in front of the works up the slope to Dole’s Salient.

The weakness of the line had been apparent to Gen. Robert E. Lee almost as soon as it had been created. On May 9, he had said that it was a miserably weak line, and did not see how it could be held. Now only a day later his fears about the weakness of the position had been validated. Even so the ease with which his defenses had been ruptured had to be a surprise. It was apparent that corrective action needed to be taken immediately, before the Federals could resume the attack. As soon as the battle ended he sent orders to Gen. Ewell directing specific actions correct weaknesses and to prepare for a renewed attack. So concerned was Gen. Lee that he personally visited the area of Doles Salient early the next day. Perhaps this was another indication of his mistrust not only of the line that Ewell held, but Ewell himself.

Throughout the following day the Confederates worked to prevent a repetition of Upton’s success. Not just shoveling more dirt onto the earthworks, but more effectively coordinating the defenses. This process would continue throughout the day and well into the night. At the same time there was a vigorous discussion among the leaders, at all levels, as to whether to hold or abandon the salient.

Topo of Mule Shoe showing lines and McCoull Lane

Topo of Mule Shoe showing lines and McCoull Lane

The portion of the line where Rodes’ and Johnson’s division joined was obviously a weak point. Why? Because of the proximity of the enemy and the dead ground out in front. This had been recognized, the morning after the troops had first occupied the position. Another major weakness was the total absence of artillery coverage, from either flank, of the ground in front of the works from the apex of Dole’s salient to the West Angle about 400 yards northward. Because of this Gen. Rodes had a second line built about 100 yards behind the main line. This second line ran perpendicularly  from the main line near the right of Daniels Brigade. About one hundred yards back it turned sharply and ran across the field northward to approximately the extreme right of Doles Brigade. It appears that Johnson’s men had not taken similar precautions by extending the line behind the Stonewall Brigade. The line just ending midway across the field. During the afternoon of the 11th this was corrected, to some extent, by the Stonewall Brigade digging a line of rifle pits extending the line across the field and beyond the McCoull lane. Its ended approximately at the right flank of the Brigade. For some reason the line was not extended by either of the remaining brigades. Several theories exist as to why this was not done. One, and the most likely is that the right of Johnson’s line had not been attacked so it wasn’t considered necessary. . Another is that to do so while Carter’s guns were being withdrawn would have been difficult.  Regardless for what ever reason it was not done. However the fact that there was no return or  effort to tie the extended line into the main line along Johnson’s front seems to indicate that extending it was contemplated. (3)  Finally, there was no need for it. It would be unnecessary, a waste of effort, if the troops were leaving.

Dole’s Brigade, which had taken major casualties the previous evening, definitely needed replacing by fresh troops.First, Pegram’s Brigade of Gordon’s division moved in about dawn on the 11th and occupied their trenches. But they were quickly replaced (4) by the Louisiana Brigade of Brigadier General Harry Hays of Johnson’s division. (5) Hayes men, along with the survivors of Brig. Gen. Leroy Stafford,  had been occupying part of the line between the East and West Angles. That section of the line had been quiet, the only effort against it being Mott’s abortive attack the preceding afternoon. It is interesting that although  Hayes commanding the combined Louisiana brigades, only his own brigade was ordered to move. While the reason for separating the two brigades again is unknown, perhaps it was because Hayes  men were new to Johnson’s division. Regardless of the reason  the remaining Louisianans under Col. Zebulon York (6) were ordered to spread out and cover the interval between the Stonewall and Jones Brigade. (7)

Col. Carter spent much of his day vigorously complaining to Gen. Ewell about the weakness of the line. He also may have shared his views with Gen. Lee when the General made his early morning visit to Doles Salient..  Colonel Carter was particularly incensed by the fact that the shape of the line prevented mutually supporting fires by his guns. Because the slope between Doles Salient and the West Angle concealed the Federals, his guns  had initially been unable to take Upton’s men under fire. To do so he had been forced to move guns out to unprotected positions in front of the works. There, from positions nearly out in front of the West Angle, his men had been exposed with their backs to the enemy. (8) Fortunately the Federals had not been in position to make him pay for such a rash move. This fact, corresponded with Lee’s instructions to Ewell the previous evening indicating a flanking position should, if possible be found, highlighted the need for guns to be placed along the left of Johnson’s line.  (9)

Given Gen. Lee’s instructions and the obvious shortcomings that Col. Carter had highlighted the two remaining batteries of Cutshaw’s battalion were brought forward. Early in the afternoon General Long personally selected positions for the guns and supervised the placement of the batteries. Carrington’s battery had one section in the main line just to the left of  the West Angle, the other at ninety degrees to it along the McCoull Lane. Tanner’s battery (10) was still further to the left at the junction between Hays and the Stonewall Brigade. All of these guns were intended to enfilade the field up to “Doles Salient”.

Long’s choice of positions for those guns was not well thought of by those affected. Both Maj. Cutshaw and Brig. Gen. James Walker, of the Stonewall Brigade, strongly objected. They particularly wanted Tanner’s Battery of 3 inch rifles moved “further into the offset”. (11) Their objections were overruled, probably because it would reduce the ability to enfilade Doles Salient.The troops themselves did not like the position at all, seeing that it would be subject to a crossfire. Complaints to the battery officers were met with agreement as well as the usual response that orders must be obeyed. So work began on  emplacements for the guns and equipment as well as protection for the men. This work would continue as long as possible into the night. Horses, who by this time of the war were almost as valuable as men, were taken to positions of safety behind the second line. (12)

So throughout the day the Confederates had been working to prevent a repetition of Uptons success. At the same time there was a vigorous discussion among the leaders as to  whether to abandon the salient or continue to hold it.  Gen. Lee had again expressed how objectionable he found the line. However his opinion was not shared by the division commanders. Both Generals Rodes and Johnson  continued to insist that, with their breastworks made,  they could hold their positions. (13)

Throughout the day reports had been coming in from scouts and the cavalry that there was movement behind the Federal lines. Among other things infantry was seen moving toward Todd’s Tavern, while a body of wagons were moving in the general direction of Fredericksburg. As a result by early afternoon the suspicion that the Federals may be preparing to move began to gain credence. As a precaution Gen. Lee gave orders to Gen. William N. Pendelton, army chief of artillery, to prepare for a movement by the army. Pendelton then sent written orders to each of the corps artillery commanders. They were instructed  to have their batteries ready by nightfall to march with the infantry. (14)

Late in the afternoon there was another meeting of General Officers at the Harrison House. Although the reports of enemy movement conflicted they seemed to  generally indicate a move toward Fredericksburg.  As a result Gen. Lee began to feel  that a movement by the Federals was imminent. Accordingly Gen. Lee ordered Gen. Ewell to withdraw Johnson’s division and its supporting artillery from its position. Evidently Rodes’ division was not included in this order. Interestingly enough Gen. Johnson was not present at the time the decision was made, he was reconnoitering along his picket line. His absence would make itself felt latter. Gen. Ewell spoke up and suggested that the men would be more comfortable in the shelter of the trenches than if they were out in the open. Gen. Lee agreed and let the infantry stay in their positions. The supporting artillery however would be withdrawn as ordered and the horses allowed to graze. (15)

Gen. Long therefore ordered Col. Carter to withdraw the battalions of Nelson and Page. which occupied positions on both sides of the East Angle. These guns would go out by the farm lane which led across the run  below the McCoul House and back past the Harrison House. Near the Brock Road the routes of the two battalions would separate. Nelson would veer left and  continue on to  his camp behind the Courthouse, while Page would turn to the right and cross the Brock Road onto the Trigg Farm. Because of the difficulty of negotiating the stream it would be best to move the guns out before dark. (16)

As these units were beginning their withdrawal Gen. Johnson returned from his reconnaissance. Not yet knowing of the decision to withdraw the artillery he demanded to know why the guns were being withdrawn, leaving his men unsupported. (17) Col. Carter, perhaps not wanting to get into a confrontation with the General could only tell him that while he and his men would prefer to stay they had their orders, which were to withdraw.

At some point during the withdrawal of the guns, Col. Carter met Maj. Robert Hardaway, several of whose batteries were supporting Rodes division to Johnson’s left. The Colonel informed him that all the guns were being pulled out at dark. This was a surprise to Major Hardaway, but being an experienced commander, he passed this news not only down to his battery commanders but also to  Brig. Gen. Stephen Ramseur, the closest infantry brigade commander as well. (18)

spotsy google earth

For some reason  Maj. Hardaway had some doubts about Colonel Carter’s news. Perhaps it was simply that while the Colonel outranked him, he was not his immediate commander. Gen. Long, had since the death of J. Thompson Brown in the Wilderness, directly controlled Brown’s Division of artillery of which Hardaway was a part. (19) Since Gen. Long had not sent him  orders to move the Major went in search of the General. As it turned out he found both Generals Lee and Long at the Harrison House. When asked one of the Generals (20) responded that  Colonel Carter was mistaken. It was not intended that Hardaway’s guns should move from their positions until the infantry did.  His curiosity satisfied, Hardaway once again sent word to the various commanders, this time that they were not moving. Hardaway then proceeded on to his battalion’s camp behind the Courthouse.

While in the Salient Gen. Long had ordered Maj. Cutshaw to have his horses brought up to the guns from their positions behind the second line.  Doing so would prevent any delay or confusion when the infantry moved. The previous afternoon, only a couple of hundred yards to the right, the hasty withdrawal of Nelson’s battalion had greatly inconvenienced the infantry.  The troops to the right could barely get past in their attempt to move over and confront Upton. It was impressed on Cutshaw however that he was not to begin to move before the infantry of Johnson’s division did. Meanwhile the men of the newly arrived batteries of Carrington and Tanner continued to work on the emplacements for the guns.

Having had the horses brought forward Major Cutshaw went to Gen. Johnson in an effort to find out when the movement of the infantry could be expected.  General Johnson could not answer the question however. He told the Major that he was unsure as to what his orders would be.  Finding that there was no immediate need the Major then asked for permission to send his horses and sick men back to the battalion’s camp. After considering the request Johnson gave his permission for them to go. Certainly one of the things that the two men had to consider was that, until the horses were returned the guns would be immobile. Therefore there should have been an agreed time for the return of the horses to prevent any delay with moving the guns..

Each of the battery commanders of Cutshaw’s battalion were ordered to send the horses as well as sick men back to camp. There was some discussion in at least Carrington’s battery as to who would go back. It would normally be the Sergeant Major’s job to supervise the task. In this case Sergeant Hunter, who commanded one of the guns, was expected to receive his commission momentarily. Therefore he was tasked with taking the guns out while the Sergeant Major took over his gun. (21) This itself was an indication that no action was expected. Before he left for camp the Major was overheard, by Sergeant Major Davis telling Captain Carrington that he could expect orders in the early morning to move. (22) The route of march likely would be “out the road which ran thru the works” i. e. the McCoull Lane. Cutshaw then went on to the battalion camp on the Trigg Farm on the southern side of the Brock Road. Pages battalion also camped on this farm that night. It wasn’t long before the battalion executive officer, Major Stribling, joined him. He was able to report that when he left the front “all was well”.

When all the movements were finished the Salient once again grew quiet. Men put the last touches on the fortifications, ate, and generally settled in for another wet evening in the field. Commanders generally went to their headquarters to perform the administrative duties required before relaxing for the evening. And where did these men spend the evening?

General Lee returned to his headquarters camp. General Ewell is generally assumed to have spent the evening at or near the Harrison House. However, the topographer Maj. Jed Hotchkiss, whose wagons had been brought up to the intersection near the Frazier House during the day, gives a different version. He wrote in his diary that “the General” joined them for a period that evening. (23) Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson was at the McCoull House. He would stay either there or on the line the entire night. We do not know the exact whereabouts of Generals Robert Rodes and John Gordon but must assume they were with their commands.

The various artillery commanders were scattered about, at their respective headquarters that night. . General A. L. Long was at his camp, most likely on or near the grounds of the Harrison House. Colonel Thomas Carter was nearby but likely on the grounds of the Trigg Farm. (24)  All of the battalion commanders were at their respective camps that night. Majors Carter Braxton, Robert Hardaway and William Nelson were with their battalions behind the Courthouse. Majors Wilfred Cutshaw and R.C. M. Page were their respective camps on the Trigg Farm. No artillery commanders other than the individual battery commanders were at the front that evening. On Johnson’s line Capt. Carrington was the ranking officer of the two batteries near the West Angle.

So was the Second Corps going to move that night? If not that night when? And if they were going to move where were they going to move to?

In my opinion the evidence is pretty conclusive that the anticipation was that they would be moving in the near future. There is no doubt though that they weren’t going to move during the night of the 11th. As to where they were going to move that depended on the Federals. Although the consensus seemed to be toward the right, perhaps toward Fredericksburg.   So lets examine each of the  questions separately.

It’s very obvious, from the accounts of both Campbell Brown and Thomas Carter,  that Gen. Lee  wanted to evacuate at least that part of the salient held by Johnson’s division. While Gordon’s division had built a line in front of the Harrison House when they arrived it had proven unsatisfactory. Enfilading artillery fire had forced it to be evacuated almost immediately.  As a result work had been begun as early as the 9th on another line through the woods to the rear of the Harrison House. That line, which we call the “Final Line” today, would eliminate the salient altogether. When General Lee had floated that idea however he had met resistance from all the infantry commanders other than perhaps Gordon.  Certainly the two division commanders, Robert Rodes and Edward Johnson, despite Upton’s success, insisted that they could hold their existing lines. However while this debate went on, reports of Federal movement continued to come in. These reports seemed to indicate that Grant was making the preliminary moves necessary before moving his army away from Spotsylvania.  Therefore Gen. Lee, after consulting with his subordinates decided to abandon the salient. Doing so, which he had wanted to for several days, would position him to exercise one of several options. He could take up the new line under construction across the base of the salient. This line was shorter, more defensible while still allowing him to control the road network. In addition by moving Johnson back he would be much closer to either the Brock or Fredericksburg Roads, These would be the primary routes regardless of which way the army moved. So regardless of the direction of Grant’s movement he would be able to more quickly react. Therefore he ordered both the infantry as well as the artillery on Johnson’s divisional front to be withdrawn.  Regardless of the  reason  for evacuating the salient, the artillery, or at least the bulk of it, must move first. Otherwise it would hinder the movement of the infantry,or be vulnerable without infantry support.  Perhaps this is why he acquiesced to Ewell’s suggestion that the men would be more comfortable in the trenches. However as long as  the infantry stayed in position they needed artillery support. Since Rodes had been fighting for intermittently for three days his need for support was obvious. Johnson however had not been attacked at all. Therefore there he had no  real need for support. So the supporting guns could be withdrawn with little risk.  The artillery that remained on his line, actually supporting Rodes, would have easy access to the roads to either withdraw or advance.

As to when the move was planned the evidence seems indisputable that they had no intention of moving that night. It seems most likely that they expected to move sometime the next morning. Certainly General Lee had instructed  General Long to draw out the artillery along the front of Johnson’s division. It is notable that the senior officers didn’t mention anything about the withdrawal route being difficult to negotiate. That is only mentioned by either junior officers or those who were not in the artillery. As we discussed in the previous post Gen. Long used the orders to withdraw all but those units which would march with the infantry, i.e. Cutshaw’s and Hardaway’s battalions. Yet the infantry were allowed to stay in the trenches on Ewell’s suggestion, certainly until morning.. Therefore the horses of Cutshaw were allowed to be returned to camp for grazing. The only reason a commander as experienced as General Johnson would have allowed this was if there was no need for them. Obviously these horses would have to be returned before Cutshaw’s guns could move. Presumably Cutshaw and General Johnson had made some agreement as to what time the horses needed to be back. If so it could not have been at earliest dawn. We know that  they were not back when Hancock’s attack was stopped below the re entrant line. Captain Garber had to, by Robert Rodes order, have his guns manually withdrawn and re oriented to fire on the advancing Federals. (25)  Also neither Hardaway nor Cutshaw saw fit to stay at the line that night. As a result neither one was there when the battle opened. Hardaway was wounded by shellfire on his way back. Cutshaw didn’t join Garber until  the struggle to hold the reentrant line. (26) Again the actions of the artillery show pretty conclusively that the move would not be made that night.

People have to make decisions based on the information they have. The decision often times is simply the lesser of two evils. And sometimes it involves taking a calculated risk. That is what happened I believe on May 11th around the Harrison House. Experienced leaders made a decision that didn’t turn out the way they thought it would. The result is history.

In closing I would like to ask …… Is the real issue here the leadership style of Robert E. Lee? The fact that he gave too much leeway to his subordinates? That he chose not to follow his instincts and order his subordinates to take the difficult course? That he should have overruled Ewell and his division commanders and abandoned the line? Perhaps history would have taken a different course if he had.

I welcome any comments or discussion that people may have.  Trying to interpret the intentions of people is difficult at best, and surely there is room for debate.


(1) SHSP Vol. 21, pages 239-242.  “Colonel Thomas H. Carter’s letter” both this comment and the one in the next paragraph were in this same article published in 1893.  In a letter to John W. Daniel in 1904, declining to write the history of the Virginia Artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia he merely attributes the loss of the salient to the absence of the artillery. This is a simplified version of what he wrote to his wife immediately after the event.

(2) Quoting from a private letter from Thomas Carter to his wife May 24, 1864.

(3) A Federal sketch map does show a second line behind Dole’s salient. However Lt. Doyle of the 33rd Virginia, Stonewall Brigade referred to a line of rifle pits being built on the 11th. A detailed examination of the ground shows what appears to be a unit boundary along the second line. There is a slight change of direction as well as a difference in the construction.

(4) some of the Virginians thought they were only in the line for about one half hour.

(5) Hays was wounded, whether by shellfire or a sniper’s bullet is not clear, and replaced by his senior  regimental commander Col.  William Monaghan of the 6th Louisiana. Accounts vary as to whether Hayes was wounded on the 9th or the 10th. There are conflicting accounts as to who was actually in command of the combined Louisiana brigades after Hayes was wounded.

(6) when Leroy Stafford was killed in the Wilderness the next in command was Col. Zebulon  York of the 14th Louisiana.  However, as part of the reorganization done so that John B. Gordon would be senior Brigadier, thus division commander in Jubal Early’s absence  both Louisiana Brigades were consolidated under Harry Hays and placed in Johnson’s Division.

(7) Moving Hays men only is an interesting decision. The number of his men alone, roughly 800, didn’t equal Doles losses much less his total strength prior to Upton’s attack. That would have required that both brigades of  Louisianians be moved. So if the Louisianians occupied Doles entire section of the line it was actually weaker, not stronger. Also was it only Stafford’s Brigade that spread out, or did Jone’s and the Stonewall also? Regardless this move lengthened and weakened Johnson’s line, both at the point that Hancock would strike the next day and where Upton had struck as well. Yet perhaps it was simply that Ewell did specifically order that Hayes brigade be given the job. BTW: Hayes was wounded and not on the field May 12. There are conflicting accounts of whether he was wounded on the 9th or the 10th.

(8) To take a position outside of the works with their backs to the enemy showed both ingenuity as well as desperation. Mott’s men were still in the woods beyond the Landrum House, while Burnside corps was astride the Fredericksburg road.

(9) Lee had sent instructions to Ewell at 8:15 pm pointedly giving him instructions as to measures he wanted taken due to Rodes being so quickly overwhelmed. Note also that the timing of the note indicates that it was only two hours after Upton had begun his attack.

(10) The battery was actually commanded by the senior Lieutenant, 1st Lieutenant Benjamin C. Maxwell. Capt. Tanner had been so severely wounded at Bristoe Station that he had been left behind  and captured by the Federals. Maxwell was an ancestor of this writer who had enlisted as a private, been elected sergeant and risen thru the ranks due to the misfortunes of others. At the time of Tanner’s wounding he had been the senior Lieutenant, thus assuming command.

(11) Major Cutshaw also wrote that Tanner’s battery was in a “slight offset” just to Rodes left in a “slight offset” He obviously meant to Rodes right rather than his left. His use of the word “offset” I take to mean salient or bend in the line. Thus a small bend just to Rodes right. As to the objections of Cutshaw and Walker it seems apparent that both men wanted the battery closer to the right of the Stonewall Brigade. Moving them more in that direction would come up again during the evening.

(12) “Second line” would most likely be what we today call “Gordon’s” line. Today the line behind the main line from the re-entrant to the right of the McCoul lane is referred to as the second line. However the participants themselves did not.

(13) Col. Thomas Carter letter to his wife May 15.  Another version of this story says that Gen. Ewell convinced Gen. Lee that the troops would be more sheltered from the rain in the positions in the salient.  I think that both are true simply referring to separate events. That seems apparent because of Carter’s inclusion of General Johnson, and Johnson’s not knowing the guns were to be withdrawn. However the question is where did Lee think they were going to go? Unless they were actually going to move to put them in the open until breastworks could be built would appear to be risky.

(14) Surely the infantry corps commanders were given similar orders by Lee himself. However none of them mention it in their later writing. Ewell did say that Gen. Lee had information that the Federals were preparing to move. Nor does Jed Hotchkiss who wrote in his diary that the enemy appeared to be moving to the left.

(15)  Campbell Brown Papers, Tennessee State Library

(16) Today you can see that on the south side of the current park road this stream, Meadow Run, becomes a swamp. On the other side of the road, back almost as far as the spring, it is a tranquil small stream. At some places, particularly near the west McCoull Lane, capable of being jumped by an average adult male. However below the house and to its right the banks are steep and unfriendly. As you near the marsh the banks flatten and it becomes easier to cross.That said the spring was capped years ago which may affect these observations. That said the pioneers could have easily built bridges across the stream at virtually any point. But since the accounts talk about the marshy bottom it would clearly seem to indicate a point near, but to the left of the current park road.

(17) Gen. Johnson would say later that during his reconnaissance he had seen no evidence of Federal activity in his front.

(18) Hardaway in his article published in a Richmond newspaper would say he notified Ramseur.  Ramseur was in command of the infantry brigade which Hardaway’s guns were in immediate support of.

(19During the winter Gen. Long had divided the artillery into two divisions. These were commanded by Colonels Brown and Carter. In the orders creating the divisions he had specified that in the event of something happening to one of them, the Corps artillery commander would take command of his division. To confuse matters even more however in some places Carter is referred to as commanding the artillery in the salient.

(20) Maj. Hardaway identified the Generals as Gen’ls L. and L.” This can only be Lee and Long. He says only that Gen’l L. clarified his orders. It really makes no difference which. As the two were together they essentially spoke with one voice.

(21)  Sergeant Major Wilbur Fiske Davis said that they were expecting battle shortly and that he asked for the change. More likely it was to give the young sergeant a task of larger responsibility with an easy assignment. In battle the Sergeant Major would be responsible for ammo supply, management of the horses, etc. Duties much more important to the functioning of the battery than commanding a single gun. It seems unlikely then that they were expecting anything important to happen during the night.

(22) This, if true means that both Johnson and Cutshaw were not anticipating a move that night.

(23) Fraziers is over a mile from the Harrison House. When the General arrived and departed is not mentioned in the Hotchkiss Diary. Diary of Maj. Jed Hotchkiss, page 203-204 His actual reference is to “the General”. This is the term he had earlier used for Jackson and seemed to transfer to Ewell after Jackson’s demise.  As confirmation he mentions every day for the next several days that “the General” stayed at the front.

(24) I must admit both of these are educated guesses. Both Cutshaw’s and Page’s camps were on the Trigg Farm. Since Colonel Carter physically met with Maj. Page before he led his battalion to the front the next morning. Also Carter had until recently commanded Pages battalion. Therefore it would be likely that he  camped with those units as well.

Carter just said he was “back with General Long” or otherwise “near General Long”. The Corps commander would have wanted his artillery commander nearby therefore the Harrison House grounds seems likely.

(25) It is interesting to note the difference in the way the division commanders acted toward the artillery. Johnson had given Maj. Cutshaw permission to withdraw the artillery. Yet during the night, when Capt. Carrington suggested moving either his own or Tanners battery to a more favorable position, Johnson said he would have the horses sent for. Rodes on the other hand ordered Garber, whose horses had not been returned, to move his guns to the rear by hand. Admittedly the battle was raging when Rodes gave his order.

(26) One of the unanswered questions is when did Cutshaw start his horses and drivers back to the front. We would expect that Carter would have informed Cutshaw when he had Pages men alerted. Gen. Long’s comment about Page’s return. That they left so swiftly that nobody noticed it. Who would have been there other than Cutshaw’s men? Cutshaw naturally went to Garber’s position. The whereabouts of the rest of his men is uncertain.






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Subject of the Next Post

In the next post tentatively titled “The March that Never Happened”, we will look at the prospects for the Second Corps moving away from Spotsylvania during the night of May 11/12/

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Withdrawing the Guns – Creatures of Habit?

Much has been made over the last one hundred and fifty years about the withdrawal of the artillery from the “Mule Shoe” on May 11, 1864. Or more accurately, the artillery which could have been at the point that Hancock’s Federal Corp struck the next morning. The generally accepted reason given is that Gen. Lee anticipated the Federals moving away from Spotsylvania Courthouse during the night. If they did so he  did not want the guns to hinder the movement of the infantry away from the lines around the Courthouse.  In fact the Federals did not move but instead attacked the apex of the “Mule Shoe”. It was this miscalculation which, according to most people, certainly most Confederates, led directly  to the initial disaster on May 12.

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

So lets take a look at that event and see if we can perhaps dig a little deeper as to why it may have happened.

First to be clear while guns were certainly withdrawn it is incorrect to say “the” guns were withdrawn from the “Mule Shoe”. On the afternoon of the 11th there were 46 Confederate cannon within the boundaries of the “Mule Shoe” Salient. (1) Of these guns only 26, from Nelson’s and Page’s battalions would be withdrawn later that afternoon. Therefore 20 cannon, from Cutshaw’s and Hardaway’s battalions, still remained in the Salient when Hancock struck the  next morning. While still a formidable force unfortunately for the Confederates none of them were able to take Hancock’s assault force under fire before they broke through the line. The repositioning of forces following Upton’s charge, combined with the preperations for a march away from Spotsylvania had seen to that.

The manner in which the  withdrawal of guns was executed however is quite interesting. The premise for this is generally given that  “those guns which were difficult to access” were to be withdrawn. An additional justification is that it was predicted to be “a dark rainy night”. Both reasons appear, at least on the surface to be quite reasonable. Yet Brig. Gen. Armistead Long, commander of the artillery of the Second Corp is singled out for criticism, albeit in a left-handed way, for withdrawing  guns prior to the order to march. Of course this is because of the disaster on the morning of the 12th. It is seldom mentioned that the sector the guns were withdrawn from had been relatively inactive. Nor is it mentioned that as a result of Upton’s charge the same sector had been devoid of guns at the same time the previous day. But the comparison is always made to Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander, Gen. Longs counterpart in the First Corps. Alexander, although making preparations to move choose not to withdraw any of his guns prior to the movement of the troops. Interestingly enough Col. Lindsey Walker of the Third Corps is not mentioned in the matter. Preliminary research indicates that he, like Alexander, chose not to withdraw guns from the line.

So why did Gen. Long chose to withdraw those particular guns? Was it simply that they were “difficult to access”?, or perhaps the luck of the draw? Before we address that question I must say that in succeeding posts we will look at the subject of a proposed march in much more detail.  However first to understand what happened we need to go back a few days to the Battle of the Wilderness.

May, 7, 1864. The day before the Second Corps marched from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse. By now both armies had decided that this battle was over. The Confederates were trying to anticipate Grant’s next move so that they could preempt it. As a result preparations were made to move the army.

While it is certainly true that the battle of the Wilderness was primarily an infantry fight it was not exclusively so. On the front of the Second Corps all five artillery battalions were ultimately involved. Casualties, while not heavy did include Col. J. Thompson Brown, who was killed by a Federal sharpshooter on the 6th. Col. Brown, along with Col. Thomas Carter had been given command of a division of the artillery, reporting directly to Gen. Long.

On the afternoon of the 7th, Gen. Long ordered the battalions of Cutshaw , Hardaway and Nelson to withdraw their battalions to the vicinity of Verdiersville. The last of these units would arrive and go into camp at around 2 am the morning of the 8th. From there these battalions would march at 1 P.M. that same day by a separate route from the infantry. Their route would take them by way of Antioch Church on Terry’s Creek, to the North Anna and finally they would camp on the Po River near Shady Grove the evening of the 8th. They would not arrive at Spotsylvania Courthouse until sometime on the 9th.

Meanwhile the remaining battalions of Carter Braxton and R.C.M. Page marched with the infantry on the more direct route toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. Note that only two battalions marched with the three divisions of infantry, not the customary one per division of infantry. These batteries arrived near the Courthouse along with the infantry late on the afternoon of the 8th.

Now lets move back forward to the afternoon of the 11th. The artillery of the Corps is distributed as follows. Braxton’s Battalion is in reserve near the Courthouse as are the heaviest guns in the Corps, the 20 lbers of the Rockbridge Artillery from Hardaways battalion. Smith’s battery from Hardaways Battalion is in camp refitting and recovering from the hammering it had taken on the 10th.  The Salem Artillery, also of Hardaway’s Battalion,  had yet to join the army, being delayed because of a lack of horses.

The remaining two batteries of Hardaway’s battalion, along with Garber’s battery of Cutshaw’s Battalion were in the line in front of the Harrison House. They were in direct support of Rodes Division. Cutshaw’s remaining two batteries along with the entirety of Nelson and Page’s Battalions were in support of Johnson’s Division in the toe of the “Mule Shoe”.

Gen. Long was evidently instructed to remove those guns difficult to access late in the afternoon of the 11th. (2) He then went to Col. Carter and instructed him to withdraw Nelson and Page’s battalions to their camps for grazing and water. (3) He also met with Maj. Wilfred Cutshaw and ordered him to have his horses brought up from behind the second line. (4) While preparations were to be made for a move he was not to move before the infantry did. (5) Similar instructions would later be given to Maj. Hardaway.

With the withdrawal of Col. Carter along with the battalions of Neslon and Page the infantry were, like in the Wilderness, left with two battalions to march with them. Neither of these battalions had accompanied them on the march to Spotsylvania. Which would fit the  standard procedure of rotating the order of march. Units were rotated if at all possible to share the hardship of bringing up the rear.

As darkness fell on May 11th the artillery dispositions of the Second Corps, as it anticipated moving away from Spotsylvania,  were thus roughly the same as they had been before leaving the Wilderness. Was this coincidence or by design? Of course we will never know because they did not march that day. When they did move later the battalion organization was totally different.  So again was Gen. Long a “creature of Habit?”

The next post tentatively titled “The March that Never Happened” will look at the prospects for the Second Corps moving away from Spotsylvania on the night of May 11/12.



(1) Hardaway had 8, Cutshaw 12, Nelson 12, Page 14.

(2) The term “evidently” is chosen deliberately as there is a great deal of confusion on this point. Whether it was in the form of an order or a suggestion is not clear. Plus as will be addressed in a later post it was not at all clear that the army would be moving that night, in fact probable it would not.

(3) Carter was in charge of the guns within the “Mule Shoe”. Perhaps this why he told Maj. Hardaway that his guns were to be withdrawn. Hardaway, evidently doubting those instructions, went to Gen. Long himself and found that Carter was wrong. He was, like Cutshaw, to only move when the infantry did.

(4) This would be what we today call Gordon’s Line, not the reserve line running about a hundred or so yards behind Rodes right and extended across the McCoull Lane on the 11th

(5) Gen. Long had personally supervised the placement of Carrington and Tanner’s batteries only a few hours earlier. In fact he had placed Tanner’s battery in a position he had chosen over the objections of Maj. Cutshaw and Gen. Walker commanding the Stonewall Brigade.

Posted in artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

“A Small Offset” (updated with results of field visit 3/15/14)

Sketch of area described in post

Sketch of area described in post. Area of interest is left of McCoull Lane

“Tanner’s battery was placed into the line being in a small offset”. The words of Wilfred Cutshaw who commanded the battalion. For more time than I am willing to admit I have tried to fit those words into what I see on the ground.

Finally the answer. In an article he wrote for a Richmond newspaper Maj. Robert Hardaway answered my question. When describing the action involving the recapture of Smith’s guns on the evening of May 10 he said “Our works about thirty yards to the right had a second line run back to the rear about eighty yards long, to protect the hollow through which the Yankees broke in. When our men from Ramseur’s brigade and left advanced down our works to the right they stopped at this offset…….”.

So there we have it. While Hardaway was describing the re-entrant line at Dole’s Salient, there must have been a somewhat similar line or projection on the other end of the second line.

Now to try and find it.

Field Visit 3/15/14

Yesterday I went out and looked for evidence of gun positions in the second or reserve line in the salient. Specifically in the second line to the left or south of Carrington’s positions at and around the West Angle. The results I’m afraid were inconclusive, although interesting.

To the left, or south, of the McCoull Lane there is a section of the  reserve trench that has possibilities. Along most of its length it appears to be a typical rifle trench, although not far from the McCoull Lane it has a pair of places wide enough to accommodate the trail of a cannon. Both of theses places have intrench traverses on their right hand side. In addition there is another section of the trench slightly further to the left where for about 20 yards where the rear is opened enough to allow guns to have been there. Unfortunately my pictures aren’t good enough to shown the detail.

Note in trench traverse

Section of the second line Left of McCoull Lane, note in trench traverse

water standing in a low portion of the second line.

Another look at the second line. Standing water of course defines a low point in the trench.

Another section of the second line.

Another section of the second line.

One thing that makes this section of the line difficult to interpret is the runoff. Not only the natural runoff down the trench from the rise to the left, but also from two culverts put in by the CCC back in the thirties. Water from one of these as well as natural flow has cut through the reserve line on its way to a natural watercourse which flows toward the McCoull Spring.

There is another very interesting feature found along this section of the second line. There are four wide baulks found in the trench. Separated by about 15-20 yards they appear to be  wide enough to pass a vehicle across the trench.  Certainly men could have walked over. While it is entirely possible that they were done during postwar logging another explanation seems more likely. In addition similar baulks are not found right or north of the McCoull Lane.

When the second line was completed up to the McCoull Lane the troops in the main line were cut off from a direct route to the rear. Regardless they still  needed supplies of water, food, and ammunition to be brought up and wounded men evacuated. So how would it have been done? Once the line was completed to the McCoull Lane either they had to go around and cross the Lane or cross the works.  These wide baulks would conceivably enable men, animals, and vehicles to walk or roll over the line as easily as along the lane. Or if Cutshaw really meant “in a small offset” to mean between the lines, the guns could  have been brought into that area over these baulks. Admittedly this thought did not occur to me until I had left for the day. Would they have required a ramp on the front side? Or was the parapet low enough men and animals carrying a load could step up or down? Some thing for next trip.

Note wide balk to the left of the picture.

Note wide balk to the left of the picture.

There are several  features in that area which could be possibly been a location of ammo chests, or officers locations. Two medium-sized crescent-shaped positions exist, one of them shown below is near the field behind Dole’s line. However there are none of the large positions we find behind the West Angle.

Crescent shaped feature between the lines. Note how close to the field.

Crescent shaped feature between the lines. Note how close to the field.

It is surprising that the feature pictured above has survived at all. There is ample evidence of postwar work, either agricultural or logging , encroaching toward the lane almost to the wet area between the two lines. Any wartime features would have most likely been eradicated by such work.

Second Line: I walked the entire length of the second line yesterday looking for traces of artillery. With the exception of the features described above there is little to distinguish it. On the slight rise immediately to the left of the section discussed above there are some fairly typical in trench traverses. However nowhere near the wide baulks I have already described. There may be one of those still further to the left however.

Also it appears that perhaps that this line could have been built-in stages, or perhaps by different units. Beginning at its intersection with the re-entrant line (btw there is a shallow scrape that appears to be evidence that this reserve line actually began to the south of this intersection point by at least some 30 yards or so) the line curls around the back side of the small ridge. Along this section there are a series of 5 holes, each around three feet behind the rear wall of the ditch. Perhaps for officers, or ammunition is difficult to tell. However the spacing and closeness to the trench almost certainly means that they were built by the occupants of the line.These holes are reminiscent  however of what we see at Cold Harbor, although not as large or well defined.

Midway across the field the line makes an abrupt turn to run almost directly to the McCoull Lane. From that turning point the line runs almost straight northward finally crossing the McCoull lane. Nowhere along that entire stretch do we see  more of the pits or holes just a typical rifle trench. There are however several traverses along the relatively flat section behind the new pine woods. This would have been behind area where the right of Rodes and the left of the Stonewall Brigade connected.

Conclusion: Tanner’s battery was most likely in the main line just south of the McCoull Lane. Ammunition was staged between the two lines while the caissons were behind the second line in the direction of the McCoull spring. Although it must be said that there is no surviving construction behind the second line south of the McCoull Lane. But they definitely had a way to cross the works when they wished.

An interesting area to explore, one that has seen little research to date.

Posted in Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Cutshaw's Battalion, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Johnson's Division, Overland Campaign 1864, West Angle | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What did Thomas Carter and Maj. Page do and why? – The order of march (Revised)

One of the things that makes history so fascinating is trying to not only understand WHAT happened, but WHY it happened.  Sometimes its the little things that have major consequences. And because they seemed little things at the time we don’t know much about them.

The incident I am going to describe, should have been just a simple administrative decision. Yet, that simple process profoundly affected the lives of hundreds of men and certainly the results of a battle.  Of course it goes without saying that these decisions were made by men doing the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time.

When Lt. S. H. Pendelton (1) awoke Col. Thomas Carter in the early morning of May 12th, 1864 he was delivering orders from the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and endorsed by the Corps artillery commander Brig. Gen. Armistead Long. The order was for  Col. Carter to return the artillery to the salient where it could support Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division. Carter endorsed the note  saying that it was then twenty minutes to dawn but the guns would be returned as soon as possible. He then  sent Lt. Pendelton on to Maj. R. C. M. Page to relay the order to return the guns of his battalion to the Salient.

The receipt of this order triggered a burst of activity in the artillery camp on the Trigg Farm. From Page the order had to be passed down to each of the four batteries. Of course to carry out the order both the men and horses, had to be awakened. Then the horses harnessed, attached to guns and vehicles, and brought into line to assemble the march column. All of this in the middle of a dark rainy night with little lighting to ease the process.

While this was being done Col. Carter met with Maj. Page and they discussed the positions that the guns were to take up when they arrived back at the Salient. (2) Both Col. Carter and Maj. Page were familiar with the positions with the Confederate positions within the Mule Shoe. Col. Carter, commanded not only a division of the Second Corps artillery, but  had been placed in direct command of the artillery within the Mule Shoe itself by Gen. Long. Maj. Page’s battalion had occupied a position around the apex of the Mule Shoe for the last several days. His men were being sent back to positions in the line that they had left not twelve hours previously.

It is important to note that at this point there was no definite information beyond Gen. Johnson’s fear that the Federals were massing in his front for an attack. Therefore the  two commanders decided that the batteries would take up positions from roughly a hundred yards to the left of the apex to the salient where the line turned to run down to Meadow Run.  Therefore the batteries would go into position in the same formation they had held the previous day. From left to right the batteries would be in this order, Montgomery, Carter, Fry and Reese. (see attached sketch)  So far everything is apparently straightforward.

Proposed positin Pages batteries.

Proposed positions of Page’s batteries morning of May 12, 1864 AM.

But it is in the execution of the order that we can begin to ask ourselves “why did they do that”? In describing the march one of the participants described the route to be traveled once the column reached the part of the  route that  ran behind the Confederate works. In his words it was  “the narrow space between the works and the trees”. And of course this would have been further complicated by tree stumps, tents, ammo boxes, etc. In short all of the things that litter a battlefield. So we know that there wasn’t a great deal of room for the vehicles and teams to maneuver. Therefore we would expect Montgomery’s battery, which being supposed to go to the left of the apex, had the furthest distance to travel to lead the way. Then Carter, Fry and finally Reese would bring up the rear of the column.

Actual order of march Page's Battalion

Actual order of march Page’s Battalion

However Montgomery’s battery did not lead the column as we would suppose. Instead, according to Thomas Carter himself “my brother Willie’s battery leading by turn”.  So Carter’s battery was in the lead, Montgomery’s battery followed in the second position. Because there was not enough room to pass Carter’s vehicles,  (3) Montgomery’s men would have to wait in column while Carter put his guns in the works. As it turned out only two of Carter’s guns were able to get  into position, the remaining two, as well as Montgomery’s entire  battery were caught in column and overrun while waiting for the route to be cleared.

We do know that there was at least a brief amount of time after its arrival before the Federals overwhelmed the defenders. Maj. Page pointed out to Capt. Carter the position he was to take. He then moved back down the column and  showed the Lieutenants of Fry’s battery as well as Capt. Reese of the Jeff Davis artillery the positions they were to take. He left Reese’s battery and was returning to the apex when he was almost killed or captured by the Federals that had broken thru.

But again the position assigned to the one section of Fry’s battery on the field that morning was not what we would have expected. Certainly the position pointed out by Maj. Page, was not the position they had occupied the day before. Rather as Lt. Hawes stated later they (the two 3 inch rifles)were ” put in position in the “open” before reaching the works made for our guns the day before”. (4) They were placed in a position to fire over the works in front rather than from the prepared gun pits.

Were these changes made by Page, or Carter? Why, given the supposed urgency of the need to return to the Salient was the order of march what it  was?  Was the habit of rotating the units in a march column so ingrained that they didn’t think about it? (5) Why did they chose a different position for Fry’s guns then the one they had prepared the day before? If they had no definite knowledge of a Federal attack, why did they decide to change positions? We will probably never know the answer unless some document comes to light shedding more light on it. And did it make any difference in the result? We will never know, however Lieutenant S. H. Hawes who commanded one of Fry’s guns had this to say “I believe we could have driven them back had we been in position of day before, provided Jones’ Brigade had protected our flank.” (6) We do know that three of the four batteries fired on the Federals that morning. Only Montgomeries  battery evidently did not.

But it is interesting to wonder what drove the decisions those men made that dark rainy morning in Spotsylvania County back in 1864.

(1) Its not clear whether Lt. Pendelton was attached to Gen. Ewell’s staff, or that of Gen. Long. Accounts state it either way, as Pendelton evidently had been involved in some controversy at his previous command.

(2) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. How long did the two men have to make their decisions? While we don’t really know, Lt. Hawes said “we lay waiting for marching orders for about one hour” In the dark with the excitement and activity that figure seems open to question.

(3) Horse drawn artillery is difficult to put into earthworks. First the vehicle has to come up parallel to the works and make a turn to get perpendicular to the works. Then, because of the difficulty in having multiple horses back up, the gun is unhooked from the limber and run by hand into the position. The ammo chest is typically removed from the limber and placed on the ground. Then the limber is driven away. Time consuming business.

(4) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. In his letter Hawes described the position before they left it on the 11th. Saying that Carters battery had been to their left, and that earthworks with traverses for the infantry had been thrown up.

(5) It was standard procedure in the Army of Northern Virginia to rotate the units that led a march. For example the unit that was at the rear of a column today, would be in the lead tomorrow.

(6) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw, Oct. 7, 1905. In this letter the former Lt. who had commanded one of the two 3 inch rifles of Fry’s battery that morning, gives an account of the events of the morning. From the time orders were given to have the horses hitched up until he was captured at his gun.

Posted in Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Page's Battalion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Can we identify the location of this unit?

Perhaps its just me, but one of the things I enjoy the most is trying to nail down the location of a unit at any particular time. Of course we generally only have the testimony of a few people to go on. But some times its pretty easy.

I was rereading the manuscript for “Contributions to a history of the Richmond Howitzers”, in particular the chapter “A Diary of the War”.  In it the author was describing the events of May 12 at Spotsylvania and he left some pretty good clues as to where they occurred. So perhaps we can decipher the location.

After being mauled during Upton’s charge on the 10th the battery was withdrawn to refit. Because of the losses, both of men and horses, they were only able to field two detachments.  These would man the two-three inch rifles. Lieutenant Henry Carter was in command, Corporal Flournoy commanded the 1st detachment, and Sergeant White the 2nd.

Early on the morning of the 12th the battery was ordered forward from the camps and halting in a wood near the lines, reported to Captain Graham of the Rockbridge Artillery. This battery you may remember was not in the salient but back in front of the Courthouse. There they could take advantage of the longer range of their rifles.

While awaiting further orders a passing Major of artillery took it upon himself to order that the guns be left where they were and only the cannoneers go forward. By doing so they would be available to man the guns captured by the Federals that morning when they were recaptured. Captain Graham giving his approval the men from the gun crews went forward.

The position they arrived at being exposed to the fire sweeping across the Salient the men had to seek shelter. And it is in describing that shelter that we have our clues.

- some men took shelter behind log houses

- others took shelter in trenches nearly filled with water.

- Sergeant White took shelter behind a little house not much larger than a chicken coop. However it had a chimney “tall enough for a shot tower”

- they were behind the position they had held on the 10th.

So where were they? Certainly near but not at the Harrison House. Amongst its outbuildings? Or were there other buildings?

- They could see the artillery massed near them at the Harrison House and watch thirty horses shot down by Federal minie balls.

Posted in Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Richmond Howitzers | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment