“Stonewall Brigade” lines out in McCoul Field

Recently was back out at Spotsylvania with the camera. If you’re like me, fascinated by the earthworks, the Stonewall Brigades line across the McCoull field is quite interesting. Its quite accessible, right beside the park road between Doles Salient and the West Angle. But yet for most of the year its not really visible. Mainly because of the fact that its poorly drained, water stands there, and once things start to grow its quickly concealed by tall grasses


Looking from right to left along the line. Doles salient is at the crest just to the right of the point where the road starts to turn to the left. The roadbed for the park road was raised which gives the illusion that the works were on low ground ALSO NOTE if you look closely it looks like two parapets paralleling each other. The outer one is for the farm lane that ran just in front of the works.

The area shown in the picture above depicts the junction between Rodes right hand brigade, Doles and the left, Stonewall, Brigade of Johnson’s division. Such spots are generally viewed as weak points in a defense because of command and control problems as well as tendency to “let the other guys do it”. Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes or his engineers evidently felt that way about this point. Particularly so as disposition of the artillery did not cover this ground, at least until the 11th, they had to provide additional support. Just beyond the crest a reentrant line was built, this ran back about 80 yards in a slight curve to follow the crest.


A= where reentrant intersects the main line. B= where enentrant curves around the back of the pine grove to protect the flank. C= the farm road from the Harrison House toward Landrams which runs in front of the works. D=the Stonewall Brigade line.NOTE the lack of traverses here.  E = the second line, built later probably this portion on the 11th. F. West McCoull lane passing through the works intersects the Harrison House road .



where the reentrant line intersects with the current park road.


further into the woods the line curves back towards the rear. McCoull field and the second line visible through the trees. If you look VERY closely the Ramseur Brigade monument is visible through the trees.

When the units of Rodes division settled into position on the evening of the 8th they generally speaking followed a ridge which went northward perpendicular to the Brock road and in front of the Harrison House. This ridge came to an end in front of a large pine grove. This grove was dissected by a farm lane which ran out to a point in front of the grove of pines. There it forked. The left fork leading roughly westward toward the Shelton House, the right running northward until it to was joined by a lane leading from the McCoull House to the east. The combined lane then continued to run northward toward the Landran House.

After Rodes went into position the units of Johnson’s division marched northward to uncover themselves from Rodes line. The lead elements of this division found that after about 400 yards they climbed onto another low ridge which, despite some slight bends continually ran northward. They followed this ridge until the entire division was able to, by making a left face form a continual line. Of course minor adjustments had to be made but basically the line was formed.

Posted in 1864, American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Cutshaw's Battalion, Doles Salient, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Johnson's Division, May 12, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Upton's Charge, West Angle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It doesn’t always go right. Or “Oh, fudge!”

slightly different view of the same position.

at times on the 12th the trenches, like these for the Stonewall Brigade, would have been an uncomfortable place to fight.

Sometimes when we read about history it seems that everybody did the right thing, and at exactly the right time. And generally that it was a perfect plan, brilliantly executed by super humans. It was only the fact that somebody else came along and screwed it up beyond redemption.

However anyone who has been a part, whether major or minor, in a large organization probably suspects that that may not be entirely true. And if you have been in the military, one of Dylan’s “Universal Soldiers”, you flat know that it really didn’t happen that way.

So I wanted to give a quick hit of how things don’t always get done correctly. People make mistakes, or sometimes open their big mouth at the wrong time. All are from Spotsylvania, May 1864. Of course these generally aren’t included in the books. If you are

  • Not all the artillery action was on the Confederate Second Corps line.  Cabell’s battalion was engaged during the Federal assaults on the First Corps line near Laurel Hill on May 12th. There one of its smooth bore guns had a major problem. Somehow or another a round became stuck in the tube. Evidently the round was slightly oversize, and when rammed it lodged partway down the tube. Feverish attempts to seat the round only made matters worse. Then despite the best efforts of the gun crew the ball could not be dislodged. Obviously until it could be removed the gun was useless, only providing a target for its opponents.

So the gun was withdrawn from the line and sent to the rear. But, rather than being taken to the 1st Corps trains, it was instead sent to the 2nd Corps Ordnance camp. (1) There Col. William Allan, chief of ordnance, took charge of the effort to remove the obstruction so that the gun could be returned to service. A sergeant and his men were instructed to bring the gun to a selected spot near a large tree. There they took apart all the bolts and clamps locking the tube to the carriage. Than a rope harness was prepared so that the tube could be hoisted from the carriage. Also it was adjusted so that when lifted, the tube would assume a muzzle down attitude. The free end of the rope was then tossed over a sturdy  limb, and the tube lifted from its  carriage. Once clear the carriage, horses, and all nonessential personnel were removed to a safe distance. Then, the tube being suspended a short distance in the air , it was dropped, muzzle first, onto the ground below. After a series of drops, the repetitive shock was sufficient to safely dislodge the ball. The tube was, then examined to make sure there would be no further problems. It was then remounted onto its carriage, and the gun         returned to service with its battery that same morning.

A similar event happened in the 2nd Company of the Richmond Howitzers in Hardaway’s Battalion. In this case however the cause was entirely different, as was the outcome.

  • On the morning of May 18th, Grant again launched an attack against the section Of the  Confederate line held by the Second Corps. This position, taken up after the Mule Shoe was evacuated early on the 13th, was along what we today call “the Final Line”. On the left it joined with the First Corps line near the Brock Road, and running along a low ridge behind the Harrison House, intersected  with the Third Corp line above Meadow Run on the right. Thinking that Lee had shifted a significant portion of his troops to match his shifting toward the east  Grant would test the strength of this line.

Two complete Federal Infantry Corps, a larger force than Hancock had broken Lee’s    line with on the 12th were designated to make the attack. Again under the                immediate command of Hancock they returned to the area on the evening of the        17th, staging in the area around the Landrum House. Evidence of the battle of only    a few days before was clearly visible.  Federal artillery, like on the 12th took up            positions in the immediate vicinity of the house. The next morning after a                      preliminary bombardment the   infantry of both corps went forward. They quickly     advanced across the vacant earthworks which had been so fiercely contested on the   12th. A scene where many of the dead were still unburied,  and advanced across the    McCoull and Harrison fields toward the waiting Confederate lines.

Unlike the previous assault this attempt would be met by a enemy who was, in             every way prepared to meet him. Although battered the Second corps had used all      the available time to reorganize its command structure, and, where possible, make    good the loses of equipment which had been suffered. In addition they had taken to    heart the lessons learned. The works they stood behind were arguably the strongest    field fortifications either side built during the war.

When the advancing federals reached the appropriate range, out near the McCoull      House, orders were called out, lanyards, already pulled tight, were jerked and projectiles from all twenty nine guns positioned along the Confederate line opened fire. Although the main Confederate infantry force did not become engaged they were supported, at least to some degree by long range rifle fire from the skirmishers. But so effective was the artillery alone that no Federal infantry breached the abatis anywhere along the line. Despite the fact that the repulse was complete and relatively easy as such things go it was not without its drama.


out in front of the west angle behind the Federal line. West McCoull Lane passed through the works near the fence and intersected the road which ran from the Harrison House.

A gunner in the Second Company of the Richmond Howitzers stood by his 3 inch rifled gun overlooking the swale in front of the hill on which the Harrison House stood. Since they were receiving no return fire he had time between rounds to watch the Federal columns as they advanced towards them.  One of the things he  recalled was that during the action :

” Any way in the height of the action while firing at the advancing Yankee Columns Mann put a percusheon [sic] shapnell [sic] (shrapnell [sic] is a shell loaded with powder & iron bullets the percusheon [sic] cap causing it to explode on impact with any hard object or upon a sudden stop. Mann on the hurry put the shell in with point in base out & shoved it so far in that he could not extract it saying out instant(ly) “My goodness or My I have put the shell in wrong end foremost.” Whereupon Pleasants the chief excitedly exclaimed “What in the h–L did you do that for” Bill Mann despite the Yankees were charging ran towards Pleasants saying “Dont you ask me what h–l or I’ll knock your head off” Pleasants was a large powerful man – Bill undersized & thin. I said “go on back Bill & lets knock the yankees heads off”. I threw the gun breech up muzzle down with the aid of Boster & with a jar dumped the shell out. The next shot was double cases of canister & later on we sent the same shell after them when they had regained the woods & were running to reach our old abandoned breast works.”

Posted in American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Carrington's Battery, Cutshaw's Battalion, Doles Salient, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Johnson's Division, Mule Shoe, Richmond Howitzers, Tanner's Battery, West Angle | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Addendum to the post “Some facts to ponder about the march back to the Salient”

A couple of weeks ago I posted a article recounting a dialogue between an artillery reenactor and myself. This article while was quite well received explained some of the nuances about the artillery arm in the middle of the 19th Century.

Well as luck would have it, while laid low with a severe case of bronchitis I found another bit of that dialogue which I failed to include.

As it deals at least in the abstract with what might have happened while Pages battalion was marching back to the salient  I would be remiss not to share it. Remember that one gun of Montgomery’s battery broke down on the way. This battery was second in line and would have held up those behind it.

Again remember this was during September of 2000. So that said, here we go:

“Could you send me maps of the area, together with a better description of the order of march and final placement of the guns. Also, exact number of guns. Let me look at it from a logistical standpoint. Were the guns placed in the works, or, were they placed behind to fire over the infantry?

It has been 14 years since I was at Spotsylvania, and I don’t recall the terrain. My recollection is that at the time the area was wooded, and trees had been felled to create breastworks. Are there any period photographs showing the terrain surrounding, and especially behind the trenches? Do you know whose gun and caisson impeded the progress, and the position that each held in the column? Do you know what was the disposition of the broken down gun?

Here are the scenarios for a disabled gun: (1) wheel failure, (2) broken axle, (3) broken lunette on gun, (4) broken pintle hook on limber

  • If a wheel broke, they could have replaced the wheel with the spare carried on the caisson with relative ease, although it would have taken a good five minutes
  • An axle failure would mean getting it off the road with a great deal of effort. Even though battery wagons carried spare axles, it would be between a 2-3 hour job.
  • Broken lunette, tie the gun to the limber with the prologue rope.
  • Broken pintle hook on the limber, replace the limber or hook gun to carriage hook of caisson and pull it to the line with a caisson. This would be a strain on the horses, and also impair mobility, as you would significantly decrease your ability to make turns in a twisty roadway. If there were a spare pintle hook in a battery wagon, it would take a good 15 minutes to replace it.

 Placement of guns in the salient. How tightly were they placed? From the point that the road met the lines, how far was the furthest gun position?

Do you know if the guns were using 4 or 6 horses? Regulations would have called for six, but shortages might have resulted in four. This would have made a pretty significant difference in the length of the column.

So there you have it. Neither the gun nor the caisson which broke down made it to the salient line that morning. The gun from Montgomery’s battery did play a significant part latter that day. 


Posted in American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Muleshoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Page's Battalion, Steuart's Brigade | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Could it have been the Confederates that built the Line to the Landram House and beyond?

When you look at a map of the trenches around the Mule Shoe one of the things that jumps out at you is the line of works which runs out to the Landram House and beyond. Since this line starts at a point only yards from the apex of the salient itself it is tempting to consider that it may be Confederate. But is it?

Below is a full screen snip of the area out beyond the Landram House. Notice the ravine, which is the dark line running diagonally from left to right at the top of the screen. Then also the line of works , clearly visible, which roughly parallel them on the right. The Landram House ruin is the prominent dot just above the Google symbol at the bottom of the screen. Its also apparent that the works near the house site have been eradicated.


Below is another screen capture. This time of the area around the apex of the salient , and the line which runs out from it towards the Landram House. We can only assume that the entire length was one line, with the space between the two sections leveled post war by the inhabitants or locals. Which would be a good assumption as we know it was done in the vicinity of the Landram House immediately following the war. Regardless the line is facing toward the west, which is the way a Confederate line would likely have faced.

landram line 1

However there are several problems with it being considered a Confederate line.

Posted in 1864, American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Johnson's Division, May 12, McHenry Howard, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Steuart's Brigade | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning to look for Earthworks from the Air – with a little help from the RAF

Following up on the surprisingly positive reaction to my post “Some facts to ponder about the march back to the Salient” I thought I would follow up with a similar article about photographs.

Back in 2000 I made a connection with a gentleman who was a retired RAF photo interpreter. His last posting, a Tornado reconnaissance squadron had as part of there training done quite a bit of photography of the English countryside. (alas those pictures he shared with me have been misplaced – RE)We had several interesting exchanges about the art of finding historical objects using aerial photography as a starting point. Unfortunately some of this conversation, and all the photographs which he provided have been misplaced over the years. So all I have left is this last little bit. However there may be some interest. And if I do find the rest in my “giant stack of papers” I will edit is and include them.

Again it must be remembered that these conversations happened 17 years ago. The explosion of technology has rendered much of this obsolete. However the average person who is interested in history will probably look at many more “normal” photographs than those taken using the advanced technologies.  Perhaps the real value of Mr. Foleys comments is in the thought process.

“Dear David – thanks for yours.

I got to look at this after lunch today, when I came home from the gun club where I shoot on a  Sunday morning. This week it was my turn to run the pistol side. There were only 5 of us this week (its summer holiday period over here for schools – started just Friday) and I was relegated to shooting my Ruger Old Army, and looking after the others who were shooting single shot percussion target pistols, two for competition targets. There was some serious shooting going on. Anyway, lets take a look at your last note so I can clear up a few things for you.

  • IFRC (infa-red false colour) imagery can detect ground disturbance up to about 6 months to a year after the event, particularly if there was earth overlay involved. You get this effect because immediate sub-surface soil has different composition to that found deeper, even a couple of feet, which is why you can detect shallow graves and weapons hides so well (my thing in former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, I’m afraid) If you’ve ever dug a hole, you will notice that there always seems to be more to put back in than you dug out – this is due to the natural compression of the soil density, and is very difficult to simulate when you are back filling a hole you don’t want anyone to find afterwards, like a weapons hide or grave, for instance. After a longer period of time, such as the timescale you are looking at- 140-145 years, you have to rely on something else, and this is where the skill of the imagery analyst comes into play.
  • Ordinary black and white or, even better, colour imagery, such as that taken for aerial survey work at a scale of about 1/10000 or better still 1/5000, will show what is termed differential growth effect, particularly over wide swards such as the average battlefield. If WE can see neolithic buildings dating from 2500 b.c., I’m sure you would be able to see your trench lines. The clues are as follows:-
  • 1. Trenches and excavations show in grass or even in cereal crops as darker lines and outlines. This is because the ground water content of the soil is richer and more beneficial to the plant-life above it. So it grows higher, greener, denser and so on.
  • 2. Walls and stonework subsurface shows up as the opposite of the above noted phenomena. Because of the parching of the soil above the sub-surface stone,rock, embrasure or whatever, the growth will be more meagre and show up as light toned outlines.
  •  We are really lucky over here as we have millions of sites to look at – especially after a dry summer with a bit of ground parching. When I was operations officer of 2 Sqn (a Tornado recce sqn) we found over 2500 new sites of possible interest in England alone, including a hitherto undiscovered Roman town the same size as Viraconium in Shropshire, and less than 5 miles away from it!
  • I hope this gives you a bit of a better steer o your project, and yes, the excavation of WW2 aircraft crash sites occupies a lot of interest over here,indeed, over two years ago we found the final resting place of two B-17s that met in mid-air over a flat bit of Norfolk. Although the remains of the two crews had been buried in the US Air Force military cemetery at Madingley, near Cambridge, crash investigators were able, through close examination of the remains of the two aircraft that hadn’t been removed immediately after the crash, to re-enact the mid-air collisio by computer-generated imagery. If you forward me your address I would be more than happy to send you a copy of the documentary from our TV series Time-Team.

As for now regards.

That is a brief sample of the information regarding the study of aerial photographs I received in 2000. A shame that the rest of the correspondence hasn’t survived, but alas it hasn’t.

No matter, but since that time I have not looked at an aerial photo in quite the same way. There are so many things that they can tell us. Perhaps today in the age of LIDAR and drones we don’t think so, but we do so at the risk of overlooking important clues.


Posted in 1864, American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, May 12, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Upton's Charge | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Was this really a Federal Line? – REWRITTEN April 11 and April 21


Went out on Monday morning and shot a video of the inner of the two lines shown in the screen grab above. This line has been historically considered to be a line built by the Federals sometime during their occupation of the area after the initial charge of May 12. The belief being that it was built to span the gap between the portions of  the main Confederate line on each face of the salient which they held after the Confederate counterattacks had retaken the majority of the lost works. The Federals had turned, particularly on the East Face those works they held adding traverses which are still visible today. And the configuration of this line does appear to be well suited for the purpose of spanning the gap, running along the crest of the ridge  between the two opposing faces of the salient lines which the Federal troops occupied.


(A) is I believe the deflection point. (B) where the line was adjusted when Steuart’s brigade was swung back (C) the point where all the various lines intersect. (D) Where I believe Steuart refused his original line to cover his flank. (E) Point where the refused flank of Steuart’s original line ends. 

However I believe, much more so having shot the video, that it is more likely that the line was originally Confederate, built on the higher ground when the lead brigades of Johnson’s division  took position along the ridge on the evening of May 8th.  Capt. W.W. Old of Johnson’s staff described how they followed the ridge as they moved forward.

” When Rodes had gotten his men in line, and the head of our column had reached his right, upon which we were to form, it was nearly dark. Rodes right rested on the edge of the woods, and to extend his line, we had to go through the woods. We had no guides and no lights, and General Johnson, at the head of his division, in column of four, or double file, I think the latter, began to get his men in line, as best he could. I was riding by his side, and soon we entered the woods, with the division following, we came upon a thicket, mostly pine, so thick that the darkness was almost impenetrable.

I remember well that I kept my hands before my eyes, which were really of no use to me at that time, to protect them, and that more than once I was nearly dragged off my horse by the trees with which I came in contact. Our progress under such circumstances, was necessarily very slow. We knew nothing of the topography of the country, but soon we came to the end of the thicket through which we had been passing for formation, and saw camp fires before us, almost directly in the line of our march. what Federal campfires would have been visible?-ED

This was the first light which we had seen. The ground was examined and General Johnson found we were on the brow of a ridge, which turned somewhat shortly to the right. The camp fires in our front seemed to us to be considerably below the plane of our position, as they were in fact. It was now quite late in the night, and General Johnson deflected his line (A) and followed the ridge, so far as it could be determined in the darkness. Up to the point of deflection, there was room for walker’s Brigade, our left, the Louisiana brigade, and the greater part of Jones’ brigade, so that Steuart’s brigade which occupied our right, extended to the right of this turning point. If it had been extended in a straight line, Steuart’s right would have been very close to, and rather in front of the camp fires which we had seen.” Trees Whittled down at Horseshoe, Capt. W.W. Old SHSP Vol 33 page 20-21.


the point where Jones brigade line deflects from a straight line to follow the ridge. Currently a foot bridge spans the works there. The curvature of the ridge bends the line slightly to the left as it goes away from the camera. The lefthand parapet is for the adjusted line latter the following afternoon. (B)

“When daylight came General Johnson found his division was on the ridge, and except some slight changes in Steuart’s formation, it so remained,” Trees Whittled down at Horseshoe, Capt. W.W. Old SHSP Vol 33 page 21.[The changes in Steuart’s line were more than slight as his line was bent back at a right angle to the main line as was Jones’ right. This necessitated the rest of Jones’ brigade being moved forward off the ridge to reduce the amount of dead ground as well as taking in the high ground for the artillery to be posted there.]

This video of this line was shot on the fly, and is unscripted, which is painfully obvious.

Before we can accept the fact that this the what Old was talking about when he said Johnson deflected his line there are a couple of questions that need to be answered. First and foremost perhaps is the lack of traverses on the Confederate side, particularly on the southern end. Virtually everywhere else along Johnson’s line we see traverses behind the Confederate works.  The brigades along the west face were targeted by the artillery of Wright’s corp almost from the time the Federal guns took up position along the high ground overlooking their lines. However the traverses on their face of the salient were built in anticipation not only of artillery but another breaking of the line like Upton had done.  The men of Steuart’s brigade along the east face were so troubled by the overshots from the Federal artillery on their left that they added walls to the rear  spanning the traverses they had built. The effect was that they  created little forts side by side along their line. Yet there are virtually no traverses along this line, why?  There do seem to be several along the center and northern section, but certainly nothing like what we see elsewhere. Was it was simply a matter of the Federal artillery not being a threat to anyone occupying these works? Probably not. The line was built when the troops moved into position the night of the 8th. Then the following morning, before the line was adjusted, the Federal artillery in Wright’s corps had not become a nuisance or a danger. The Confederates solved the problem when they moved the line forward. They were then at a point where they, being below the crest were out of the line of fire.  Anything clearing the crest behind them probably sailed harmlessly out into the field.


Looking southwest along the line, notice the remains of the park road bed on the left, the pedestrian footbridge visible in the background. a possible gun position just on the near side of the trees. The fact that we are on the ridge apparent by the slope to the right.

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The Second Line of Confederate Works near the McCoull Lane – washing away

In March of 2014 I was exploring the area adjacent to the West McCoull Lane looking for the elusive traces of the location of Tanners Battery May 11-2, 1864. This battery had been very near Carrington’s battery that day. In fact had been the last of Cutshaw’s batteries to be put into position.


The area of the main line and second line adjacent to the West McCoull Lane. Tanner’s battery should have been in this area.

Despite feeling that I knew where they should be I wasn’t comfortable with what I had found previously. While there are several small positions on the Confederate left of the West McCoull Lane nothing that looks like a lunette. So once more I went out looking in this wooded area. But what I found was not Tanner’s position but perhaps something more important. I got a look at what is happening to the remains of the second line. This line, which was finally dug on this sector on the afternoon of May 11th, ran behind the Stonewall Brigades line. On the left it connects with the line which Rodes people had dug earlier. This culminates in the reentrant line which terminates at the main line to the right of the 3rd Howitzers position.


the second line trench below the culvert. You can clearly see the water coming in from the uphill and the damage already done to the works here. Also notice what appears to be a balk between the two pools of water.


A excellent view of the second line ditch and parapet as it runs in almost a straight line behind the Stonewall Brigades line. Some of Gordon’s men would have come int these trenches in the early morning of May 12. Fortunately they would be withdrawn before being overwhelmed.


almost directly below the culvert you can see where water has broken through the parapet. But you can also see that the trench  is different depths. Dug that way or has the tree naturally collected debris as it runs “downstream”?

When the current road was built through the park it passed close behind the Confederate main line which ran from where the West McCoull Lane toward Doles Salient.  In doing so they had built the road bed up which prevented the water from running out of these works. So a culvert was run under the road to alleviate the problem. Unfortunately it runs down through some small positions, foxholes and the like, before washing up against the parapet of the second line. There it has cut through in several places, and those places will over time expand.

Posted in 1864, American Civil War, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Carrington's Battery, Doles Salient, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, May 12, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Tanner's Battery, West Angle | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment