Before the storm – The guns at the West Angle – Part Two

Carrington's legacy

Within a stones throw of the major tourist attraction at Spotsylvania most people probably never notice this spot. While the picture makes it look like a pile of leaves, this was one of Carrington’s positions on May 11-2. It also probably marked the limit of the Confederate counterattack on the 12th.

One of the most common misconceptions about the battle on May 12th is that all the Confederate artillery had been withdrawn from the “Mule Shoe”on Lee’s order during the afternoon of the 11th. In this, the second part of our article we illustrate that this was far from the case. And discuss whether this was the key factor in the debacle that took place on the morning of the 12th.

Surviving earthworks as of 2004 - courtesy David Lowe

Surviving earthworks as of 2004 – courtesy David Lowe – note that this for the battle at its completion. Also that the interior of the “Mule Shoe ” has not been mapped.

The ease with which the Federals under Emory Upton had broken the line on the evening of May 10th had alarmed the Confederates all the way up to Gen. Robert E. Lee. Hardly had the fighting ended for the evening when he was issuing instructions to Gen. Richard Ewell regarding precautions necessary to prevent a recurrence. While some of these were basics of warfare, others like adding a ditch in front of the line noted a change in the way the line was built. All day on the 11th the Confederates  continued their efforts to strengthen the section of the line where Upton had broken through.  Initially Pegram’s Brigade of Gordon’s Division held the section of line previously held by Dole’s Georgian’s. This change was very short-lived however. In fact some of Pegram’s men estimated they weren’t in the trenches more than a half an hour before they were replaced. The replacements were the men of Brig. Gen. Harry Haye’s Louisiana Brigade. (1) These men, known for their fighting qualities, were taken out of the trenches between the East and West Angles and sent to man what was at the time considered the most vulnerable section of Ewell’s line. In fact they were told by their officers that Gen. Ewell had ordered that his best brigade be sent to hold this dangerous position. Whether this was true or not, it was certainly a dangerous position. So close were the Federals that the color bearer of the 8th Louisiana was shot down while placing his flag on the works in the new position.  Not only did they shift the four Louisiana regiments from just left of the apex of the Mule Shoe , but in addition the 21st Virginia regiment of Jone’s Brigade was moved from near the East Angle to the far right of Stuart’s Brigade. (2) There they were to screen the gap between Steuart’s Brigade of Johnson’s Division and Lane’s Brigade of Wilcox’s Third Corps Division. Thus five of the sixteen regiments between the two angles had been  removed. Two other regiments of Jone’s Brigade as well as detachments from adjacent Brigades would be on picket duty out in front of the line. This meant of course that the remaining units of the division had to extend to cover the gaps. The cumulative effect was to lengthen the line held by Johnson’s division by several hundred yards, and thus reduce the density of muskets, particularly at and near the East Angle.

Artillery positions in the salient. Note the cluster of positions around the West McCoull lane.

Artillery positions in the salient. Note the cluster of positions around the West McCoull lane (Identifiable by the red line) Of the guns in the line only the guns of Reese’s Jeff Davis Artillery at the extreme right are positively identifiably.

In addition  Col. Thomas Carter, who had command of the artillery within the Mule Shoe, was vehemently complaining about the deficiencies in the line regarding employment of his batteries. He repeatedly pointed out how initially he had been unable to fire on Upton’s men. In fact the only way he had been able to do so was to move guns from Page’s battalion along the eastern face out in front of the Confederate lines near the East Angle. From there they could fire across the front of the Confederate line into Upton’s flank. However if there had been Federals out in front of the East Angle such a move would have been suicidal. Responding to his protests commanders finally found a way to provide artillery coverage as well.  The nature of the terrain played a major part in the effective use of artillery at Spotsylvania. The highest point along the entire Second Corps line was the apex of Dole’s Salient. To the left the line ran along  ground which was basically flat until it reached the Brock Road. To the right of the apex the ground sloped downward for several hundred yards before flattening out before reaching the West McCoull Lane, then beginning to rise as it approached the West Angle where it peaked. In addition, while relatively flat in front of the line, a short distance out into the field in front of Dole’s Salient, the ground had a definite drop and sloped steadily downward to a low point between the two opposing lines. Because of this slope, artillery employed along Dole’s Salient could only be emplaced to the left of the apex otherwise it  could not effectively cover the field in front of the line. The field of fire along Dole’s front, while open, was desperately short, and did not extend as far as the tree line across the field. Directly in front of the apex, to the right of Capt. Asher Garber’s guns, the range probably was not more than 200 yards. A gun could probably get off no more than one or two rounds before the attackers would be upon it. In addition the bend in the line meant that once the Federals reached a point midway of the field, they would be concealed from the guns by the Confederate works themselves. This was presumably why no guns had earlier been placed along the axis of Upton’s charge. The only effective tactic was to fire across, or enfilade, the field and this could be better done from along General Johnson’s line than Rode’s. Again this was because of the nature of the terrain. Along Rode’s line, the area from the apex of Dole’s Salient and to its left there was a minimal field of fire. Therefore Garber and several of Hardaway’s batteries which were posted there could provide support against any attack between the Brock Road and Dole’s Salient. They could also at least to some extent fire on the Federal’s on the Spangler Farm across the Brock Road, albeit at extreme range.

During the afternoon the remaining two batteries from Cutshaw’s battalion which had not previously been committed were moved into position near the West Angle. First the Charlottesville Artillery, under Captain James McDowell Carrington was put into and near the main line, while later the Henrico Artillery, also known as Tanner’s battery, under the command of 1st Lieutenant Benjamin C. Maxwell, were  placed behind and to the left of them.  Both batteries were specifically placed to be able to cover the sloping field up to the front of Dole’s Salient. No thought at all was given to these guns being able in any way to fire toward the right. All four of Tanner’s 3-inch rifles and two of Carrington’s Napoleon’s were emplaced in lunettes sited so that they could only fire on Dole’s old position. The remaining two Napoleon’s of Carrington’s battery were in the main line where they would fire through embrasures, the muzzles just clearing the works. Once the teams had drug the caissons and guns to a point near the assigned positions the horses were sent to the rear for safety as quickly as possible. The men of the gun crews manhandled the guns to the final locations and  began to dig positions for the guns and ammunition chests.

Well preserved position within the West Angle area

This well preserved position is one that is typical of what remains after all these years. Fortunately this shot doesn’t look like a pile of leaves. To the far right of the West Angle positions.

The area along and behind the main line at the West Angle and adjoining the West McCoull Lane was covered with an open wood of  oak trees. While these had been thinned out considerably in order to provide the basis for the breastworks, they still provided some cover for the guns. At the same time the resulting debris and stumps made manhandling the guns, particularly for any distance, frustrating and  difficult at best.

These arrangements were not met with universal approval however. In the case of Tanner’s battery, both Brig. Gen. James Walker, commanding the Stonewall Brigade, and the batteries battalion commander, Maj. Wilfred Cutshaw vigorously objected to its position. They wanted the four 3 inch rifles of this veteran battery to be placed “further into the offset”. (3) Despite their efforts the orders stood. The men themselves, most of whom were veterans, were extremely unhappy about the positions. They felt that they were unnecessarily exposed to a crossfire from the Federal guns around the salient. Despite the grumbling of them as well as the battery officers they proceeded to fortify the position as well as they could.

Looking toward the main line from one of Tanner's lunettes.

One of Tanner’s positions. Look closely and you can see the second line in between the lunette and the horizon. Notice the two new signboards at the horizon

Just before nightfall the situation along Johnson’s line changed. Lee had received reports throughout the afternoon which seemed to indicate that the Federals could be moving towards Fredericksburg. This combined with his unhappiness with the “Mule Shoe” line led to a vigorous debate as to the proper course of action. Because of the weather and the uncertainty of the situation the infantry was allowed to remain in their relatively sheltered positions. (4) Brig. Gen. A. L. Long was ordered to prepare the artillery to be ready to move if necessary. This followed orders given to Gen. Pendleton earlier to have the artillery of the army prepared to move. In anticipation of having to move quickly the supporting artillery battalions of Nelson and Page were withdrawn from their positions straddling the apex of the salient and sent to the rear. This withdrawal would serve several purposes. First it would allow both men and animals to be rested, fed  and minor repairs to equipment to be made. Secondly it removed a source of congestion in case a withdrawal from the salient had to be made. (5) During the counterattacks against Upton the infantry had difficulty crossing the interior of the salient while Nelson’s guns were trying to withdraw from the salient. Lastly it better positioned them in case of a move by the Federals during the night. As Braxton’s battalion was already in the camps behind the Courthouse this completed the typical pattern for the Corps prior to a march. (6) This left one battalion of guns still along the line of each division and available to march with that division. And those battalions were well positioned in case the Federals were to attempt a repeat of Upton’s assault. Along Rodes’ front the guns of several batteries of Hardaway’s battalion and Garber’s battery of Cutshaw’s battalion held the line, the remaining two batteries of Cutshaw’s  were positioned along the left of Edward Johnson’s line. Thus all the batteries were near trails that allowed easy access to lanes which led to the Brock road.  In anticipation of such a move Cutshaw was ordered to bring his horses forward from their position behind the second line. He was admonished by Gen. Long however that he was not to move prematurely, but only to move when and with Edward Johnson’s division did . However Johnson, who had not been at the last meeting with Lee and the rest of the key commanders of the Second Corps, was uncertain of his orders. In fact he was clearly surprised to meet Col. Thomas Carter as he was supervising the withdrawal of the artillery from the area around the East Angle. Not expecting that his division’s orders to move would be imminent, he agreed to Cutshaw’s request for  permission to return the horses to camp along with his drivers and sick men. (7) Just at dark Sgt. Hunter led the horses and sick from Carrington’s battery away from the battery and to the battalion’s camp on the Trigg Farm across the Brock Road. (8) Before Major Cutshaw left his  batteries and returned to camp he gave Carrington notice that he could expect to move early in the morning “out the trail which ran through the works”. (9) The battalion’s Executive Officer Major Stribling stayed behind for a while to attend to some last-minute details. He too left just as darkness was falling. Arriving at the battalion camp, he reported to Major Cutshaw that “all was quiet”.  With their departure Capt. Carrington would be the senior artillery officer along Johnson’s front that night.

As darkness fell the men put what final touches they could on their positions before they quit for the night. Any further improvement would have to wait until morning. With the exception of those on guard duty the rest of the men would spend the night eating, making repairs to gear and getting some much-needed sleep while sheltering from the damp night air. As happened on several occasions at Spotsylvania the Federal bands played some airs as darkness began to fall, one was of course “the Star Spangled Banner”. In the quiet evening air it seemed to some that the musicians weren’t over 100 yards away, but of course they were.

side view of West Angle Position

Side view of one of the positions behind the West Angle. Notice that in this case there is no interior ditching. Ditch is outside, forming a large horseshoe, the dirt thrown to the inside.

As all of this was happening, behind Carrington’s guns the infantry was busy extending a second line of earthworks further to the right. (10) This second line which ran roughly parallel to the main line beginning near the crest of the hill  above Dole’s Salient had ended at the edge of the West McCoull Lane. Now it would be extended past the McCoull Lane, run between Carrington’s and Tanner’s batteries and run  to a point roughly just past the West Angle. The extension would allow one of Gordon’s Brigades to take up a position closer to the apex of the “Mule Shoe” itself.

Another view of the same position shown above.

Another view of the same position shown above.This time from within the position. Note the broken sapling for scale.

The night was quiet, but about 9 o’clock it began to rain again. While the breastworks were some protection from the elements they also would become mud holes if the rain lasted too long. Some of the men in the Stonewall Brigade were fortunate in having shelter tents, many captured from the Federals at the Wilderness, which held two men and made the wet evening slightly more bearable. The artillery had tarpaulins for the guns and ammo chests to shelter under. Of course not all of the men were so fortunate however, and many would spend a long miserable evening.

As so often happens the night would not pass without its share of vexations and alarms. Sgt. Maj. Davis, of Carrington’s Battery, would later recall being  awakened by one of his men regarding two suspicious characters within the batteries position. Evidently men looking for their command, they were traveling along the line asking searching questions. Some of the men suspected them to really be Federal spies. A brief unsuccessful search was held in the vicinity. The alarm died away and quiet returned. (11)

But seldom does a  night in the field pass with a just single interruption. Sometime around eleven o’clock Capt. Carrington was awakened and informed that Gen. Johnson wanted to see him and was waiting at one of the batteries guns. Quickly pulling himself together Carrington hurried over to the gun to meet the General. Carrington remembered the conversation thusly: “He  stated to me in his abrupt way, that he did not know exactly what was going on in his front, but that he wanted the utmost vigilance that he was suspicious of an attack.  (12) This was the first indication Carrington had of any immediate danger to their position.

After giving Carrington his instructions , General Johnson proceeded slowly up the line toward the East Angle, notifying other units in the same way. This technique called “trooping the line”, gave him the opportunity to make his presence known and make sure that all of the commanders had the same information. As a result of the warning the commanders put the men at an increased level of alert.  In at least some units one-third of the men would be up and on duty for the rest of the night.

In a short while General Johnson came back down the line from the right as he made his way toward the West McCoull Lane. (13) Having had time to consider the situation, Captain Carrington stopped the General so that he could make a suggestion. As the senior artillery officer along Johnson’s line he was unhappy with the positions of the guns. He briefly described the position of the guns of the two batteries and made a suggestion: “reminding him of the ravine I have attempted to describe, that I thought either my own or Tanner’s battery could be of more service if we were allowed to move to the position from which Captain Massie’s battery of Nelson’s battalion had been taken.” (14) The General thought the matter over, and after some hesitation agreed, and promised to have Carrington’s horses brought forward so the guns could be moved. (15)  In a short period of time, Carrington thought a half hour, word was received from the General that the batteries would have to stay where they were, as he had received a message that other guns would be coming up in time to take the agreed upon position. (16)

For the remainder of the night the men tried to get such rest as they could. Those that could sleep doing so, the unfortunate ones on watch keeping dry as best they could as they peered into the darkness while trying to stay awake.

Like a watched pot that never boils daylight finally began to approach. It was that time that in the military is called “B(efore) M(orning) N(autical) T(wilight)”, the point when you can just begin to see the first traces of the sky lightning in the East. The men had just begun to stir and stretch after their evening rest. Sgt. Maj. Davis, near the front line, remembered that he ” had just gotten up and was folding my blanket, when a deafening shout from thousands and roll of musketry from our right and rear, through the woods caused us everyone to drop everything else and spring to our guns.”  Men wakened their fellows, and gathered up such kit as they were fortunate enough to have. Along the line to the right there was evidence of confusion and hurried preparation.

The attack that Gen. Johnson had warned off was underway.

(1) Brig. Gen. Hayes had previously been wounded by a shell fragment. There is some question as to who commanded the brigade afterward. Capt. Seymour stated that it was commanded by Col. Monaghan. The remainder of the Louisiana regiments, those formerly under Leroy Stafford before his death at the Wilderness, would remain between the Stonewall and Witcher’s Brigades.

(2) Article in Richmond newspaper May, 1864. The correspondent, after referring to the variety of stories going around about the battle of the 12th, claims that his story is completely accurate, based on  an unnamed source who had as much information as Gen. Ewell.

(3) Apparently Cutshaw in unsigned letter on U. S. letterhead.

(4) Significantly Gen. Johnson was apparently not at this meeting. Rather he was out in front of his lines checking his picket.

(5) Steuart’s brigade had been greatly delayed when crossing the interior of the salient to get at Upton by the retiring guns of Nelson’s battalion.

(6) Interestingly While Braxton, Hardaway and Nelson’s camps were behind the Courthouse, Page was with Cutshaw at the Trigg Farm across the Brock Road.

(7) Why Cutshaw would have made this request is somewhat of a mystery. And he did it for his entire battalion. Otherwise Rode’s would not have had to order Garber to move his guns to the rear by hand. While certainly feeding and watering would be important, if an early move was anticipated most of the available time would be used on the road. One would expect that Johnson would have specified an agreed upon time for the horses to be returned. Hardaway’s horses were evidently not sent back to camp. They were probably in a safe position however.

(8) Sgt. Hunter was expected to receive his promotion to Lieutenant at any time. Therefore he was given this assignment rather than command his gun. Sgt. Maj. Davis would assume temporary command of the right hand gun in the main line.

(9) Sgt. Maj. Wilbur Fiske Davis overheard this. Cutshaw likely meant the reciprocal route along the west McCoull Lane, back towards the McCoull House than to the Brock Road.

(10) Lt. Dozzle of the Stonewall Brigade noted in his memoirs that the line was extended during the night of the 11th. Other sources from Pegram’s Brigade seem to confirm this.

(11) Sgt. Maj. Wilbur Fiske Davis – Daniels Collection UVA – letter to his children described this interesting event.

(12) James McD. Carrington – Daniels Collection UVA – 1905 manuscript for a article to appear in the Richmond Times. Includes his draft and editing by Wilfred Cutshaw as well as a letter of commentary by Cutshaw.

(13) Cadmus Wilcox wrote about a journey by train that he shared with Edward Johnson after the war. Johnson stated flatly to Wilcox that he never left the line of his division during the night of May 11-2, 1864. This author has not seen any writing where he even hints that he did. The first person to state that he did was Robert Hunter years after the war had ended and Johnson had passed away.

(13) James McD. Carrington – Daniels Collection UVA – 1905 manuscript. This position was at the mouth of one of the three ravines that extend outward from the Confederate line. I believe it is the one closest to the East Angle.

(14) James McD. Carrington – Daniels Collection UVA – 1905 manuscript. Carrington didn’t remember who Johnson said that he would send his request to. He listed Ewell, Long and a Colonel of artillery, presumably Thomas Carter. This statement implies that this may have been before the request for Page’s guns to be sent back.

(15) For other guns to be taking this position. they must have been the battery (Montgomery’s) from Page’s battalion that would go in just left of the East Angle.


About Russ

Avid student of military history as well as amateur historian. Has a keen interest in archaeology. Founded his company in 2004.
This entry was posted in Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Carrington's Battery, Tanner's Battery, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Before the storm – The guns at the West Angle – Part Two

  1. Steve Keating says:

    Are the Carrington positions between the Muleshoe park path and the reconstructed log work, inside the woods? And is the Tanner positions behind the reconstructed log work? I also noted a postion off to the left of the trail that leads from the road to thee McCool place. Is that the one you label Tanner Google Earth picture?

    Stephen Keating


    • Russ says:

      Thank you for your inquiry regarding the guns. Regarding Carrington’s guns, all accounts specify that two guns were in the main line with the remaining two emplaced along the West McCoull Lane, just inside the tree line. I believe these last two guns were between the main and second line. The appropriate positions exist today although well worn.The ammo would have likely been served from chests dug into the ground rather than expose the caissons to Federal fire. That fire was mentioned by several battery members as a source of grumbling by the men.
      Tanner’s battery was generally placed by men of Carrington’s battery as being behind or to their right. Positions exist roughly in a line behind the second line, and I believe this is what you are referring to. And is the position I use in the article.
      That said, Maj. Cutshaw did place it to the left of the Stonewall Brigade, and some members of the NPS do believe that it was along the park road below the culvert. There are some badly eroded works there (the water is taking its toll) yet I dont see them as lunettes.
      In November a group of us to include one of the prominent members of the Civil War Fortification Study Group is going to go out to this area. (which by the way was never mapped until I took my Garmin Topo GPS out there in March. The goal is to interpret all these positions individually. Therefore we can, hopefully, analyze the Confederate defense and finally conclusively answer these questions with authority.
      BTW: 1st Lt. Benjamin C. Maxwell, who commanded Tanner’s Battery after Tanner was severely wounded at Bristow Station was an ancestor of mine. While we have a large number of effects to include his prison diary, he makes no mention of Spotsylvania.
      I look forward to hearing from you in the future.
      Russ Edwards


      • Steve Keating says:

        Thanks for the reply, can’t wait to see the results of your groups search. Will be interesting to compare it to Earl Hess’s book.


      • Russ says:

        Steve, I’m looking forward to it as well, as I’m sure it will be great fun. But we will be doing something Mr. Hess did not. He concentrated his very fine work on the exterior line. There are no illustrations of the works within the Salient, particularly those behind the West Angle, and around the West McCoull Lane. These were the locations of the artillery left within the salient on the night of May 11. Therefore these guns were the only ones available to defend the Salient until Page’s guns could come up.
        I need not point out that Mr. Hess, who has written a fine and valuable book, would possibly change a couple of things if he were to do it again.
        But we will certainly make public our findings.
        Thanks for your comment.


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