By 8:15 PM on the evening of May 10, 1864 the fighting in and around Doles Salient was to all intents and purposes over.Of course nervous men, still keyed up from the bitter fighting that had raged for the last several hours still occasionally fired at targets, real or imagined, which crossed their sights. But General Robert E. Lee felt secure enough in the outcome to send an order to his Second Corps commander Lt. General Richard S. Ewell, giving instructions measures to be carried out prior to a resumption of the fight. These measures he felt would lessen the chances of a federal breakthough similar to what had just occurred.
Of course the surviving men of the regiments that Emory Upton had led across the works along Doles Salient the whole affair was viewed differently. While the matter had been decided some time before, they viewed it as a lost opportunity. One that, in their minds at least, could have easily been victory not defeat. Why had the attack which had started out with so much promise, ended with them back at their starting point? Several hours before they had broken through the Confederate line and created a gap which at one time reached almost from the West McCoull Lane on one flank to the works thrown up by Gordon’s Division on the other. Despite determined Confederate counterattacks they had still clung tenaciously to a small breach in the line even as darkness began to fall.that . But despite requests still no reinforcements had come across the field to their aid. Nor were any more units going to be sent to join these regiments. So despite their having fought their Confederate assailants to a stalemate there was little hope of doing more than hanging on. Therefore Gen. Russell, the division commander responsible, had given orders for the survivors to retire to their own lines.
Despite its ending more or less right back where it started the attack has garnered fame far beyond the number of men who participated or the results achieved. Some historians have labeled it as a “classic infantry attack”. One that became somewhat of a blueprint for breaking fortified lines.That fame, largely misplaced in my opinion, is generally due to the planning and tactics used in the assault not the results.
But really was the attack the “classic infantry attack” that it has been credited as being? Or was that moniker merely used to describe the use of tactics which made the initial success possible but overlooked the totality of the effort. Yet in the overall did it amount to more than another example of men’s lives wasted with no hope of any real positive results? To answer that we need to ask not only what was the goal but what could it have been realistically expected to achieve. To understand that we need to go look at it in the context of the rest of the Federal actions on May 10, 1864.
As to what was it supposed to accomplish its difficult to say. None of the Federal sources really make it clear. They generally focus on the process whereby the point to strike was selected and then the tactics. My good friend and mentor, the late William (Bill) Matter suggested in his book “If it Takes All Summer” that the combined assaults by Upton and Mott was intended to force the Confederates to abandon the northern leg of the Mule Shoe Salient. And far be it to me to take issue with Bill’s ideas. Yet one has to question whether this, was in fact the goal.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was just another in a series of loosely coordinated attacks by the various Federal Corps across the entire front that afternoon. These attacks, which started on the right and spread to the left, were evidently intended to start at around 5 pm. Despite that fact there doesn’t appear to have been any serious attempt to coordinate the assaults. In fact when permission was given to Warren to launch his attack against Laurel Hill early any chance of cooperation was gone. However all of the various corps did make attacks at somewhere pretty close to the desired time. On the right, a brigade of Birney’s Second Corps division, attacking after the main assault had been repulsed, had actually briefly penetrated the Confederate lines only to be thrown back. It should be noted that his attack bore a lot of resemblance to Upton’s attack further to the left. And the results were roughly the same and for the same reason. In this case Ward’s Brigade had attacked in a column formation yet only the leading pair of regiments had broken into the Confederate works. The third regiment had halted and laid down out in front of the works, and the following units, exposed to the defenders fire retreated into the woods from which they had launched the attack. Elsewhere the best that could be said was that Burnside’s Ninth Corps and Mott’s small Second Corps division had moved their lines forward closer to the rebel line. In Motts case they had forced the rebel pickets out of the woods in their front and advanced to the vicinity Landrum House. However they could not hold on to the gains and had fallen back to a point in the northern point in the block of woods. They had succeeded in driving the rebel picket line back several hundred yards.This small success would pay big dividends on the 12th.
Perhaps a few words about the selection of the target for an attack by the Sixth Corps are appropriate. This as much as anything else led to the ease with which the Confederate line was broken. Throughout the morning, as was their custom, various Union officers were reconnoitering the areas in front of the Union lines looking for opportunities. One of these officers, Lt. Randall S. Mackenzie found what he considered to be a weak point in the Confederate line along the Sixth Corps front. In the early afternoon he reported his find to Gen. Russell, commanding the First Division of the Sixth Corps. Russell visited the site of MacKenzie’s interest and agree to pass the idea up the chain of command to his corps commander Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright. Wright approved the site of the attack and ultimately twelve regiments were detailed to make up the attack force. Col. Emory Upton, an ambitious officer who had done well in a similar attack at Rappahannock Station was given command of the assault force.
The area Mackenzie selected was in the area where the Confederate line, following the contours of a ridge created a small salient in the line. This salient would become known by the Georgia Brigade which held it, commanded by George Doles. The Confederate line having passed this southern most salient (Doles) crossed an open field before crossing the West McCoul Lane and climbing a slight knoll to another salient which would later become famous as the West Angle. The slope of the terrain discouraged the Confederates from covering the area with artillery. (3)They had however created some impressive rifle trenches with traverses along part of the line and obstacles in front. In addition a farm road crossed the works and ran along part of the front as its connected the various houses in the area. (4) In addition, although unknown to the federals, the junction of Rodes and Johnson’s divisions was out in the field near the center of the swale.
When discussing Upton’s charge It should be noted that was not intended that he attack attack alone. Several other units would be moving forward at the same time.The commander of the Second Corps division to the north, spanning the gap between the Sixth and Ninth Corps, Gershom Mott, received instructions at 2:00 PM saying that Capt. George H. Mendell of the Corps of Engineers would come over and explain his role in an attack. Not only the role but would assist Mott in selecting the actual point of attack. (1) Of course once that point was selected Mott would have to concentrate his men and make the preparations for an assault.
Further to the left Burnside’s Ninth Corps would press forward in front of the Courthouse and develop any opportunity they found. Burnside was not sure of Grant’s wishes and even questioned whether he should move one of his divisions across the Ni River to support Mott rather than commit his entire force to an assault on the Courthouse. Grant felt that Mott would be all right but left the decision to Burnside whether to support him or not. In any event the decision was left so late that nothing was done. Both Mott and Burnside would advance to the attack as scheduled but neither would accomplish much. Mott’s small division was quickly stopped by the rebel artillery and skirmishers before he even reached the Landrum House. Burnside despite committing his entire corps failed to press the assault home. So timid had his advance been that Confederates would later remember it as just some artillery firing.
So now all the intended attacks had been made and repulsed, but Upton had still not attacked. His attack was also scheduled for 5 PM, but sometime after 3:45 the decision had been made to postpone the assault until 6:00 that evening. Who made the decision is unclear, although a staff officer of Gen. Wright remembered delivering a note to that effect to Gen. Russell. If this order was intended for Wright’s entire Corps as well as Mott not everybody got the word. At least one artillery battery would open fire and Mott’s division would attack as scheduled at around 5 o’clock.. But Upton’s men would not move forward.
In my opinion this was an attack that should not have been launched. Certainly it should not have been launched at that time of day anyway. If you look at Upton’s instructions to his regimental commanders he obviously was not expecting his attack to be a decisive one. Rather it was clearly his intent to penetrate the rebel lines, create a lodgement or bridgehead, and expand it to right and left as much as possible. Since he would only have three regiments to push deeper into the salient he must have intended then hold on until other troops could arrive. These other forces, whoever they might be, would exploit his success. The hard part of his job would be to hold on against the inevitable Confederate counterattacks until these reinforcements could arrive.
Was there to have been an exploitation force? If so who was it to have been?There does not appear to have been anyone alerted to exploit a break though. Certainly no troops were massed to quickly take advantage of any success achieved. There is evidence that some few Sixth Corps regiments may have attacked along with Motts troops. Additionally, at least two regiments did apparently join Upton’s men. These units advanced, without orders it seems, at some undetermined point to join Upton’s men. Otherwise , other than some artillery support, Upton’s men were on their own. Remember there were only a couple of hours of daylight remaining when Upton’s men stepped off. Could this attack deliver a meaningful defeat to Lee’s army before darkness brought action to a close? Was possession of this ridge during the night possible? Could reinforcements have been brought up and the salient expanded during the night? Or would Upton be expected to hold on through the night so that reinforcements could come up at dawn? Unless Lee withdrew his men during the night Federal reinforcements could well be pummeled by Lee’s defenders before they could even reach Upton’s men. Regardless the men clinging to the lodgement would be in a precarious situation when the sun rose over the Mule Shoe on May 11.
In short would it have been better, given the negatives, to wait until morning to launch the assault? That way, if the attack were successful, there would be a opportunity to exploit any success that might be gained. At a minimum there would be time to organize a force to be ready to advance as support.
Maybe the truth is that once the plan had been approved nobody knew how to stop it. Maybe they didn’t expect it to succeed in the first place. Or, maybe Upton saw this as an opportunity to advance his own cause. Maybe nobody wanted to be the one to suggest not attacking.
Regardless in my opinion the real benefit to the Federal cause was not that it was a “classic infantry attack”. Rather it prompted the Confederates to take actions that alnost led them to ruin less than 48 hours later.
(1) So as of 2:00 only Upton’s point of attack had been selected. They had only selected Mott as support because he was to the left of Upton.What the criteria that Mendell would use to select Mott’s point of attack is not known.
(2) Whether this was because of the defenders fire or orders from the commander is not clear. Regardless the following units dd not reach the works.
(3) Artillery of the time wanted two things. A level platform due to the crude sighting devices of the day. And a direct view of the target. accurate indirect fire was beyond the limits of the technology of the time. The sloping nature of the confederate line ruled out the level platform. Thus the only Confederate artillery close by at the beginning of the action was Smith’s battery. They however would lose sight of Upton’s men when they got close to the works.
(4) The road from the Harrison House crossed the works, and just in front of the trenches split. One fork went roughly straight out from the works to the Shelton House. The other leg ran in front of Doles and the left of the Stonewall Brigade before meandering toward the Landrum house.