What you may ask is “Reese’s Salient”, and what does it have to do with the “Muleshoe”? The short answer is that “Reese’s Salient” is the name that the late William (Bill) Matter and I gave to the section of the Confederate main line in the “Muleshoe” just to the left of the point where it bends to the right and runs down to the McCoull Branch. Why the name? Of course it was a salient, but mainly because this was the position held by the four rifled guns of the Jeff Davis Artillery, aka Reese’s Battery, of Maj. R. C. M. Page’s Battalion on the morning of May the 12th, 1864.
Reese’s battery, like the other batteries of Page’s battalion took up positions along the northern face of the “Mule Shoe” line during the late morning of May 10th. The original Confederate line had extended roughly straight north easterly along the ridge and down the slope toward the Ni River. However with the appearance of the Federal Ninth Corps to the east it was decided that the line should be refused in order to protect the flank. Thus orders were given to abandon the line from the crest down to the Ni. A new section of line was then laid out at roughly ninety degrees to the original and was constructed by the infantry as well as pioneers from Johnson’s Division. The point at which the original and new lines joined would become famous as the “East Angle”. Still later Johnson’s pioneers would build another stretch of line running at ninety degrees down the slope to the McCoul branch. While the infantry along with other artillerymen of Page’s Battalion labored to build the new line the men of the Jeff Davis Artillery constructed their own positions. They built positions for the guns along the two faces of a small salient just below the edge of the plateau atop of the hill above the McCoull Branch. Immediately to the left was the infantry brigade of Brig. Gen. George Steuart. To the right the newly created line turned sharply to the rear and ran down slope to the McCoul Branch. This line was unoccupied by any troops at this time. Because of the rolling nature of the terrain an approaching force could get relatively close to the line without exposing itself.
On the afternoon of the 10th the battalion’s guns were in these positions during the attacks against the line by both Mott and Upton. While not attacked directly, it is not certain whether they were engaged in the actions that afternoon. Col. Carter would complain that it was necessary for him to take guns out in front of the works at the “East Angle” in order to fire on Upton. However he did not specify which batteries were engaged. the East Angle to take Upton’s men in flank. We do know that while these guns were performing that task, Nelson’s three batteries to the left of the “East Angle” were withdrawn from the salient for their safety. With Upton’s withdrawal the guns of both Nelson’s and Page’s Battalions returned to their original positions and remained most of the day on the 11th.
Upton’s assault would have repercussions that would impact the course of the Spotsylvania battle long after his men returned to their start line. Col. Carter would vehemently complain about the shape of the line, specifically how he was unable to provide defensive artillery support. As a result additional batteries would be brought forward with the exclusive mission of enfilading the field over which Upton had charged.
Just before dark on the 11th Capt. Reese and the men of the Jeff Davis Artillery, following orders from Gen. A. L. Long, were withdrawn along with the rest of Page’s and Nelson’s battalions. While Nelson’s batteries continued on and went into camps behind the Courthouse, Page’s battalion went just across the Brock Road to the battalion’s camp on the Trigg farm. They were later joined by the horses and sick men from Cutshaw’s battalion, also withdrawn for rest. Unlike Page’s men, Cutshaw’s people knew that they would have to return to the salient and rejoin their batteries early the next morning.
Upon arrival at the camp, the four batteries of Page’s Battalion dispersed and tried to get as much rest and provisioning as possible. Horses were unharnessed, fed and watered while the men, after doing the necessary maintenance tasks also ate and tried to get as much rest as possible. Battery commanders were alerted that they could expect to move on short notice early the following morning.
According to Col. Thomas Carter, it was about twenty minutes to daylight, (1) when Lt. S. H. Pendleton, of General Long’s staff, awoke him with orders from Gen. Long to return Page’s battalion to the salient. Carter acknowledged receipt of the order with the note that “it was about twenty minutes to daylight, but the artillery would return as soon as possible”. Lt. Pendleton was directed to go and wake Maj. Richard C. M. Page and present him with the orders from Col. Carter to return with his battalion to the “Muleshoe” as soon as possible. From Maj. Page orders were sent directly to the battery commanders who soon had their men getting vehicles and animals ready and positioned to start the march.
While these preparations were being carried out, Col. Carter and Maj. Page conferred and determined the positions that the individual batteries were to assume as well as the order of march.. Capt. Willie Carter’s battery would lead by turn (2) and his two rifles and two light twelves would take the lead at occupy the apex salient itself – to be followed in order by Montgomery’s four light twelves, who was to take a position just to the left of Carter; Fry, two rifles under command of Lieutenant Deas, to take position about one hundred yards to the right of Carter, and Reese, four rifles, about fifty yards to the right of Fry.battery would bring up the rear of the column. His four rifles would take the position they had left the evening before in a salient to Fry’s right.
Anyone who has been on a night road march can imagine the fits and starts as the vehicles pulled out of their positions in the assembly area and assumed their place in the column. When formed the column would have been about a quarter of a mile long. The length of the march would be about a mile, along a farm trail, to call it a road would be a bit generous. Officers and Sergeants rode their horses, drivers only were allowed on the limbers and caissons, the gunners trotted alongside or behind the vehicles. The column, already about a quarter of a mile long, would have suffered the usual accordion effect of a road march. One can imagine the various portions alternately stopped and then almost a run as they made their way forward. For safety the horses would have for the most part either walked or at most trotted along the path.
The route taken was difficult in the semi darkness and ground fog. The column had to wend its way around small scattered pines that were growing up alongside and even in the road. One of the light twelves from Montgomery’s Morris artillery broke down shortly after the march began. This gun would shortly play a significant role in the events of later in the morning. Now however it was an impediment to the column so it was left behind and the column moved on. So now there were only thirteen guns returning to the Salient. The most difficult part of the march was crossing the marshy bottom below McCoull’s. There the steep slopes and multiple small streams made crossing extremely treacherous. Swollen by rain during the preceding day the difficulties were only compounded by each passage of heavily laden teams and vehicles. As a result the mire claimed the caisson from gun number two of the first section of Reese’s battery. It was remarkable that this was the only casualty of the crossing. And it was fortunate that it, being at the rear of the column didn’t delay the battalion unnecessarily. Finally clear of that ordeal the tired horses then had to drag the vehicles up the hill, with the men following as they climbed toward the main line at the top.
Upon reaching the top of the hill behind the main line the column turned sharply left to negotiate the space the between the line and the woods. As the rest of the battalion moved on Reese and his guns dropped away from the column and prepared to take up their assigned positions. Coming up behind their assigned positions, the drivers circled the vehicles as closely behind the line as possible, guns were unhitched from the limber and run by hand into the waiting pits. Ammunition chests were removed from the caissons, positioned and made ready, The horses and vehicles then pulled away down the hill to positions of relative safety.
The position they had taken up was in a small salient just to the left of the bend where the line ran down to the McCoull Branch. Positions for the four guns had been built along each of the two faces of the salient. Along the left or northern face of the salient were the two guns of the second section commanded by Corporals G. Y. Higgins and G. C. Jackson. The first section under Corporals F. M. Wooten and Joseph Blankenship were along the right leg, facing easterly, roughly toward the Federal Ninth Corps.
At the time the guns went into position there was no Confederate infantry to the right of the right hand section. (3) In fact the infantry line ended at the angle to the left of the small salient.There was no alarm and nothing going on for what seemed like fifteen minutes to one of the gunners. The infantrymen and their officers were relaxing in the trenches confident that they would be warned of any trouble by pickets to the front.
Soon enough a line of Federal infantry appeared in front of the northern face of the salient. To the waiting artillerymen it must have seemed as if they had risen from the ground. Actually the approach of these men, possibly from Carroll’s and Owen’s brigades of Barlow’s Division, having missed the apex of the salient and were passing down its eastern face, had been concealed until they had crested the lip of the plateau. When the trench line had been built it was badly placed, slightly below the crest on the rearward slope. (4) Whil e this did offer protection from incoming fire it reduced the defender’s field of fire. Despite the appearance of these Federals, General Steuart, concerned about his pickets who had not come in, wanted the battery to wait for them to come in. Captain Reese agreed and ordered his men not to fire. Despite these orders canister was frantically loaded and desperately fired into the approaching mass. Corporal Jackson recalled that he fired six rounds before being ordered by both General Steuart and Captain Reese to cease firing. He claimed that this stopped the Federals long enough for one of his men to run out and rob the Federal dead. General Edward Johnson agreed that the first assault was repulsed. Other gunners seem to disagree with this assessment. Regardless at this point the Federals were so close that the order was obviously in error. But now a mass of Federals appeared behind the infantry line, advancing from the area of the East Angle. The men of Steuart’s brigade, who had been holding their fire on orders from General Steuart, turned and fired into them from their traverses. While this slowed the Federals it did not prevent the capture of the ammo chests and caissons of the left section. Corporal Jackson fired one more round from which the recoil of the piece knocked General Steuart down. Before the gun could be reloaded the Federals were over the works the guns were captured and the men either captured or casualties. A. J. Blanks, who was acting as no. 1 at gun #4 used his sponge staff to knock one of the Federals off as they mounted the works. He was instantly shot to death.
No enemy had appeared in front of the guns on the other face of the salient. When those men realized that the Federals were behind them and within the works the gunners hurriedly reversed the guns and fired canister into the mass. Before the Federals were able to recover from this fire, Maj. Page, having realized that his other batteries were lost, rode up and ordered the two guns of the right hand section to be limbered up and drawn away to safety. Despite it proximity, the left hand section had been captured and he was unable to reach it or give orders to its survivors. Gun no. 1, under Corporal Blankenship was quickly limbered up and driven away to safety. It would continue the fight throughout the day from a new position. Corporal Wooten having fired his last round, went over the works to escape along with at least one other of his men. The limber driver of gun no. 2, a conscript who had joined the battery the previous fall, refused to bring the limber to the gun so that it could be removed. A few of the men, under a junior corporal, rather than abandon the gun, attempted to drag it to the limber. Reaching the supposed position of the limber they found that instead the drivers had attempted to escape with it. However instead of heading back down the hill toward the branch, they had attempted to go toward the interior of the salient,and been shot down by the Federals. They had been killed or wounded, and all the horses killed and the limber overturned. Thus the men had the gun, with no means to remove it, while the Federals had the ammunition. With no way to remove the gun and no ammunition some of these men made their escape. They were able to go over the works, and run down the hill toward the McCoull branch. Some of them would attach themselves to other units and continue the fight.
With the capture of Gun #2, the struggle for “Reese’s Salient” was over. When the Confederates counterattacked they would recapture it, only to abandon it along with the rest of the “Mule Shoe” in the early morning hours of the 13th. The guns themselves would play a part in one of the many controversies about the battle. The effort to recover them during the night would continue to be discussed for years by the participants.
In addition to its involvement in the action of the 12th, the remains of the fortifications along this section of the line are unique. Because of the fact that they were not altered greatly by the Federals after the 12th we can see relatively intact Confederate works. What really makes it so remarkable is this. We can confidently identify at least three of the gun positions occupied by Reese’s Battery and probably the fourth. AND, because of the detailed account left us by Joseph Purifoy, and his comrades of the Jeff Davis Artillery, we can say who commanded the gun at each of those positions! In my limited experience that is an extraordinary occurrence. Even though the tree line is not where it once was, a glance at the photographs will show how badly this section of the line was sited to oppose a direct assault.
If you get the chance to visit, this section of the line, which is greatly overshadowed by the East and West Angles it is well worth visiting. Easy to reach, there is a pull off for cars and a very short walk to the positions described. Today it is hard to visualize the events of that morning so long ago. In the grand scheme a small event, but one which had consequences. For who knows what the effect of delay caused by that brief opposition by some Alabama artillerymen had on Hancock’s assault that morning.
I invite your comments about this and other topics within the “Mule Shoe”.
(1) Col. Carter stated that he endorsed the order saying it was “then 20 minutes to daylight”. To the author this doesn’t seem practicable. We know that Hancock’s men started their attack at 4:35, although the time they stuck the works is uncertain. Pvt. Purifoy said they were awakened at 3:00 Am. Lt. Hawes of Fry’s battery said they got ready to go and had to await orders to move for an hour.While none of these is verifiable, the author tend to think Purifoy’s estimate of 3am to be awakened is fairly close.
(2) Col. Carter, in a private letter to his wife stated that “Willie’s battery led by turn”. Infantry units in the ANV commonly rotated their position on the march. This spread the discomfort of bringing up the rear as well as the benefit of being in the lead. Evidently the artillery did as well. This would partly explain the unfortunate order of march that morning.
(3) Two regiments of Lane’s North Carolina Brigade would cross the Branch and take up positions along this line that morning. As they made no mention of the passing of the guns, nor the artillery of them, we must assume that they crossed after the artillery.
(4) “History of the Jeff Davis Artillery” Joseph Purifoy: Original in State of Alabama Dept. of Archives and History, Montgomery Alabama.
(5) “The Captured Guns at Spotsylvania” Maj. R. C. M. Page: Southern Historical Society Papers Volume 7
Note: A special thanks to David Lowe of the National Park Service for his patience in putting up with my questions about the various works within the salient.