“A miserably weak line……….” R. E. Lee

The "Mule Shoe"

What we typically think of when we discuss the “Mule Shoe”

On May 9, 1864 Gen. Robert E. Lee rode along his line and commented “This is a miserably weak line, I don’t see how it can be held.” Many times this statement has been used to show that Lee disagreed with the construction of the salient which has been labeled “the Mule Shoe”.

But, and I believe it is an important But. The Mule Shoe may not have existed at the time Lee made his comment! At daybreak on the 9th the line ran in a generally straight line from the Brock Road north westerly to the vicinity of the Landrum House. It was not until the Third Corps under Jubal Early took up positions astride the Fredericksburg Road that things changed. In order to connect the line the right of Johnson’s Division would have to reorient its line.

According to Capt. McHenry Howard of Steuart’s Brigade, the brigade was half finished with construction of their line of breastworks when the engineers ordered them to stop. Rather than complete the line they were ordered to move the left of the line forward and  connect with Jone’s Brigade on the left, at the same time they were to  swing the right of the line back at right angles to the original. This, while it would run the line in the direction of the Third Corps on the right given the available men it would not reach that Corps line. To prevent it providing cover for an attacker the original line was to be leveled.

While we do not know at what time the order to build a new line was given it probably was well into the day. According to Howard it was midday on the 10th before the new line was considered adequate to provide protection. The salient was completed when Johnson’s pioneers constructed an extension to Steuart’s line which ran down to the McCoull Branch.

So perhaps the flaws in the line went beyond the obvious one of it being a Salient?

About Russ

Founded Roadraceparts.com in 2004. Started with used parts and now have a full service parts business specializing in parts for the tube frame TransAm and GT cars. We supply both new and used parts. In addition build and sell Gt cars. Avid amateur historian and has a keen interest in archaeology.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Johnson's Division, McHenry Howard, Mule Shoe, Steuart's Brigade and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to “A miserably weak line……….” R. E. Lee

  1. Steve Keating says:

    I.ve followed the line up into the woods at the top left of the picture. The works are just inside the woodline. Are those part of the original digging in, or were they added later?

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    • Russ says:

      Stephen
      The Confederate line from the Brock Road to the apex of the Salient is original. At the apex that all changes. The original line went straight ahead, but the line that runs back to the east was built as I mentioned beginning at some point on the 9th.

      Or, the Confederate works well out in the woods in front of Dole’s Salient? If them they were built sometime after the repulse of Upton’s charge.

      My point of course was that even before it became a Salient lee thought it was a bad line.
      Hope this answers your question.
      Russ

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  2. Steve Keating says:

    The line I am talking about goes northeast from the apex, eventually getting to the Ni river (which I believe is what you call the original line). It is a very well perserved set of trenches.

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    • Russ says:

      That, or at least a part of it, was the end of the original line. On a couple of the maps, one of which I have on an article I hope to finally finish soon, definitely shows it as such. The Federals occupied this during most of the day on the 12th and again latter.
      From Howards account I envision Jones line ending near the apex originally. However this leaves a very long stretch for a single Brigade.
      Russ

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  3. Phil Gardner says:

    What I want to know is the actual nature of the works as regards the way in which they were built and how they looked when completed.Did they have a uniformaty along the whole length or were there variations which depended on various factors such as the varying terrain and the local materials available at a given point in the line. .Also time was an obvious factor and these works would have been constructed at breakneck speed.Having seen some of the very few photographs taken at the time, it would appear that the area was very wild.The very thick brush and many dead tree trunks still standing after hundreds of them well felled for use in the construction of the works give the area a very hostile and difficult to negotiate look, that would not help an attacking force.I am planning a large diorama of a section of the mule shoe at the moment of Hancocks breakthrough.The model must be as acurrate as possible but there is so little information regarding the construction of the works and the nature of the terrian.I need to get the ground and all the growth of underbrush and trees etc spot on. Much of the area was untouched be humans at this time and therefore was thick with brush and would have many fallen trees littering the ground’ rotting away or dried out by the sun.

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    • Russ says:

      Wow. What a question. I dont think the area is as wild as you believe. If you would look at the maps by Michler, or my favorite Duane. (Michler is certainly available over the internet) it would give you a good feel for the ground cover.
      As to fortifications, I think that differences between units existed, and contrary to what we think today it was not one long straight line. And the line while started in great haste was continually improved (think it would be similar to units occupying a trench in the great War) over the 3-4 days they were there.
      One occupant of the Stonewall Brigade described the works as two rows of posts, with horizontal cribbing, the interior filled with earth. Of course in the area beginning midway between Dole’s Salient and the West Angle, than continuing all the way around the salient to the creek traverses ran back from the works. These are easily seen today in the Google Earth of the area. Note that they are not generally perpendicular, rather angled to reflect the direction of the threat.
      Have to go to work but can go into more detail if you would like.
      Thanks for reading.

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Many thanks for your comments Russ,in answer to my enquiry regarding the exact structure and methods used to build the works along the line at Spotsy.Also the actual terrain,of which you say was not as wild as I thought.Your interest in this subject and knowledge gives me the great satifaction of knowing that I am not the only one out there who is facinated by the battle and how it was fought.You say that the area was not as wild as I believe,however I have several books about this battle and there are a few photographs taken after the battle, of the area immediatly in front of the confedearate works.In these rare images you can see some trees still standing but some of them look like deadwood and others have some foliage but it is all near the tops of the tree.These are obviously pines,and for some reason were not cut down at the time.As regards the ground cover,in one of the photo’s it looks very thick with brush,and all manner of wild tangled thickets.Possibly briars and various other species of wild undergrowth.This does not mean to say that this was the case all along the line however.There is no doubt that the area immediatly in front of the works would have been cleared to a large extent in order to give a clear field of fire, and even abatis laid,time permitting.Of course if you look at contemporary pictures of the site today,the ground for the most part,appears to have been farmed,presumably at a later time and therefore it has lost its wild nature. I cant help thinking that the park authorities keep it that way (tidy) for the sake of the visitors.A friend of mine who is an ex stonemason but also a master model maker,is researching the battle regarding the nature of the works (for modelling purposes) and the topography,including the actual make up of the soil and ground cover.We have both concluded that as the trees were cut down they would’ve been dragged back to the line,in many cases by horse teams which would’ve flattened to some extent,the brambles, grasses etc in front and in some areas behind the works.I would like to get an accurate as possible description of the ground just prior to Hancocks attack with his entire corp.This is the area that will be depicted in my diorama,although I am interested in the whole line from start to finnish.Including Lee’s fall back base line.Great to read your comments and hope you have more to add.Your advice is very much appreciated. Phil

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    • Russ says:

      I find your request very interesting thus will be happy to answer any specific questions you may have. The photos I have posted in particular those from the works themselves along with the Michler and Duane maps give some ideas on topography.
      But first I think you have to specify what day you are referring to. For example in the area between the West McCoul Lane and Doles Salient there was a stand of pine trees. These were out in front of the Stonewall Brigade. They went out on the night of the 10th and cut them down.
      The 2nd line did not extend all the way to the West McCoul Lane until the afternoon/evening of the 11th.
      Most of the pictures of the works which are shown today as at the West Angle are really from the 1st Corps area around Laurel Hill.
      Guns behind the line were generally in lunettes. Several different methods of this are visible today. One method which will later gain favor is for the gun to sit on the natural ground, the horseshoe embankment in front is dug from the outside, leaving an exterior ditch. Then a slit trench is dug on either side of the piece for protection of the gunners. The other method is to scoop out a central pit which provides the soil for the horseshoe. This lo0wers the gun below grade. Guns in the line generally had their wheels in a widened section of the trench while the muzzles protruded through embrasures. Although there is ONE comment by a Louisiana infantryman who mentions sitting on “artillery mounds” whatever they were , and firing on the Federals.
      Traverses probably ran back about 20 feet or so from the works.
      Again look forward to your project.

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Thanks Russ.I need to research,in particular,the area of the line immediatly to the front and rear of Hancocks attack.Things like,how far was the tree line from which Hancocks boys emerged,in front of the confederate works.Was there any abattis there.Was the ground knee deep in briars ect.Was it swampy,muddy or firm.No doubt there would’ve been plenty of tree stumps due to felled trees (unless of course they where taken from behind the works or from a neighbouring area).As regards the works themselves,of course we all know that Lee retracted much of the artillery from the line,which would’ve left empty gun emplacements(lest they were shored up with timber to give cover).Anyway I have to go to work now and going to be late.Never mind,all in a good cause.There is no doubt that the ground looks totally different now to how it did back then.

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      • Russ says:

        Phil, Please look at the Michler or Duane maps (Both were US engineers, the Michler map was immediately postwar, I’m not sure of the Duane map but believe it was also. They are as good as you will find.) There was another map that I really like which was in the V. D. Brown book “Colonel at Gettysburg and Spotsylvania”. I will attach it to a email and send it to you. That will give you the tree lines.

        The Confederate picket line was out beyond the Landrum House. 800-1000 yards out. Probably not, although we are not certain entrenched. Some of the Federals do mention crossing an empty advanced line. I believe this was the original Confederate line extending dow toward the river. When the 3rd Corps took up positions toward the Courthouse the engineers had the line bent back at almost a 90′ angle. They ordered that the original extension be leveled. My guess is that this was scarcely done as the troops thought it unnecessary.

        There was definitely abatis in front of the East Angle, and to its left. How far we don’t know, but I suspect only in the areas where there was a nearby treeline.
        As to vegetation we only can judge by what is there today.Open areas are generally covered with broomstraw, with patches of briars, but mostly a short spindly bush called and I cant spell it chinkopin. In short farmland which was gone to seed. My guess is it was pasture, no crops are mentioned. However Ms. Brown interupted Mr. Landrum when she visited there, while he was plowing corn in front of the West Angle. A thought, there are pictures of the Federal graves, supposedly in front of the west angle. They show it much like is today.
        Certainly tree stumps and limbs were abundant in the forested area.IMHO they were the reason, along with a lack of a sense of urgency that prevented the movement on either Carrington’s or Tanner’s battery to a new position on the night of the 11th/12th. As I mentioned earlier the left regiments of the Stonewall cut down a copse of trees in front of their works on the night of the 10th.
        Water was not in abundance at Spotsy, then or now. I suspect that mud or standing water was not a issue. In the trenches water of course would collect. Mud would be a issue later after the ground had been churned up by the toing and froing of men. But survivors do not mention it other than visibilty early.
        I suspect that the main line looked much like the pictures you see in the pictures in “Trnch Warfare under Grant and Lee” by Earl J. Hess. Remember these were built by men using hand tools and muscles (men and animals). Not like later at Petersburg where sawmills provided rough finished lumber.
        Anyway I hope you got my email, and I will be happy to answer any questions.

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Thanks Russ,I have a copy of Earl J Hess’s book but could’nt find any detailed referrence to the actual constuction of the works or indeed how they were built.The book tends to be more about the location and route of the works rather than the methods used to build them or the actual finnished product,so to speak.Also I am aware that “Head logs” were used as part of these works and would assume that this may not have been the case all along the line.Is this where and how the troops who, at the Bloody Angle and other places were able to thrust their bayonets through and stab the guy on the other side of the works.I feel that some parts of the line may well have been literally just a single wall of logs supported by uprights.These logs would not have been a perfect fit therefore allowing a bayonet to be thrust through a gap or indeed a ball to be shot through killing or injuring the guy on the other side.Nasty buisiness of course.The so called “Rooms” being nicknamed “Slaughter Pens” due to the fact that they were piled high with the dead and the dying.Will look up those maps.

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      • Russ says:

        The pictures in Hess’s book give us some idea of the construction. While men were always looking for new ways to save their butts, its hard to imagine that the art had progressed much in the week since the Wilderness. Several of his pictures showed works built by Ewell’s men in the Wilderness. Very crude affairs in general. Traverses I think were the major step forward. As I mentioned we see them very clearly in the overhead from Google Earth, Microsoft Terra server also has excellent overheads, particularly of the area around Doles Salient and the second line.
        I suggest you look at one of my earlier post which showed the 1916 map. Note that between the Brock road and Doles Salient the lines coming from each direction do not abutt each other. Rather there is a short section of line at a 45′ angle that connects the two (imagine two railroad tracks being laid from opposite directions where someone miscalculates.) I believe that this is a brigade or divisional boundary. Similarly I believe that some of the features we see in the line today were caused by either unit boundaries or some object that caused the line to deviate.
        And I dont think that every regiment or battery did things the same. Certainly to the left of the East Angle there are faint depressions in front of the remaining parapet. This would seem to suggest that a pile of logs was laid horizontally by one work crew while another was out in front digging. The soil was then thrown up against the the face of the logs. At some places the federals shoveled the dirt over the bodies in the ditch which forever altered what we see. At others they turned the works for their own purposes. Around the West Angle we dont see that exterior depression nor to its left.
        Shame you arent over here we could have fun exploring these subjects on the ground.
        Btw: did you get the email with the Brown map as an attachment?

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      • Russ says:

        Phil
        Another thought. There are accounts, one which comes to mind in the 1st Corps area, of a federal cannon ball penetrating the parapet and its support, still had enough force to kill two men sitting in the ditch behind and wounding another. Combine that with the comments about thrusting weapons between the chinks and maybe they weren’t as imposing as we may believe.

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Russ
        I am trying to find the Michler map on yahoo but no luck yet so will search Google when time permits.As regards Earl J Hess’s book,I may not have the same book as yourself as I believe he wrote at least two,anyway will check online.Also I recommend “A Season Of Slaughter” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D White.There are several photographs that were taken at the time that show the wild terrain in front of the works,particularly pages xvii (Prologue) 17,32,63,87,117,119and 151.In just about all of these images you will see dense tangled undergrowth and in at least one you see what I believe was called “scrub pine”.You will note that these images bear very little comparison to the relatively cleared ground shown in modern day photographs of the area.I still am of the opinion that this area although not as wild and dense with trees and undergrowth as that encountered in the Wilderness battle,we are still talking wild and thick with undergrowth by today’s standards.You only have to study those photo’s taken at the time to see how much nature has been altered by humans since those times in this area,wether by farmers trekkers or even logging and other activities which would change the area over a period of time and we are talking now, 150 years.Yes regarding the round shot that smashed through the log wall killing a couple of men and wounding another,I have read somewhere that the Confederates learnt to their cost that these log walls gave little protection against solid shot.Presumably this would be in areas where the line was not strengthened with earth or enough earth to give a thick enough defence to absorb it or deflect it.I suppose once again time was the governing factor not to mention exhaustion of the troops, who without doubt were tough dudes in those day’s.We can only marvel at the way these feller’s coped with this extremely harsh existance.Anyway your help is vastly appreciated and I will find the Hess book that I have and see if it’s the one your talking about.Meanwhile I am thinking about the possibilty of coming over to see the Spotsy site for myself at some point in the not too distant future. Regards Phil

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  4. Phil Gardner says:

    Russ, I’ve found my copy of Earl J Hess’s book and sure enough it’s “Trench warefare under Grant and Lee” and I’ve found a limited discription of examples of the way in which some of the works were constructed complete with headlog.There are also eyewitness accounts of men who were there,so will be having another look through the book for more clues regarding the whole set up.including the weather effects ie. mud.I have read in one of my books a passage from a Union soldier who was with the survivors of his regiment having been pushed back over the other side of the rebel works,he tells of a wounded confederate laying in the mud only a few yards from where he was standing.The poor guy had been trampled under foot and was in a shocking state but still alive,Every now and again he would try to rise and would make a horrible gasping sound that was enough to sicken even the stoutest heart.Such was the horror of this battle.Glad I was’nt there.Once again you just got to get a copy of “A Season of Slaughter” available on ebay at a good price.

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    • Russ says:

      Phil, Glad you found the Hess book. First let me say that I am a member of the “Civil War Fortification study Group” which has a Facebook page by that name. Good place to ask questions. One of our key members provided much of the technical info for Hess’s work. Interesting what Hess is NOT interested in. But the photos on pages 23,,24,25,29,31,36, 47( looks much the same today) 75 (may actually be at the right of Doles Salient) 77 (definitely Laurel Hill) 81 (fantastic shot of the east angle)are good guides.
      I will look for the book you mentioned, however Bill Matter who wrote “If it takes all summer” was my mentor.
      Some of the photos I posted will give you an idea of the terrain.
      Again did you get the 2 maps I emailed you?

      Certainly the trenches were a in essence a sump, lots of accounts of muddy Confederates,. And in front of the works water may have stood at the bottom of the swales.
      I have the fortune of having a Garmin mapping GPS and have literally crawled the second line (because of briars) and the nuances of the trenches are fascinating. Two much so for me to describe in a coherent fashion. But..
      I have located all 4 of the Richmond Howitzers gun pits. Took photos of them using Geotag(?)which ties the photo into Google Earth.
      Remember the Stonewall Brigade captured a large number of Federal tents at the Wilderness which they were using at Spotsy.
      More as time allows.

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  5. Phil Gardner says:

    Russ
    I have a copy of “If it takes all summer” however have not read it in depth as yet.I will as time permits catch up with following your advice.I have windows XP here and may not be getting some of the stuff you are sending by email etc.I did look at a couple of maps you sent but they were very blurred and indestinct.Did’nt seem to show much except the shape of the line and the roads and the wooded areas from an aerial aspect.Which of course is what maps are designed for.Even if I blow the maps up they are still very blurred and unable to read any of the script.However I will have another go.My diorama will show a section of the line being overrun by Hancocks corp.The base will be 8′ by 4′
    so will only be a short section of the line.It will be modelled in the 20mm,1/72nd scale and I already have plenty of troops ready to grace the scene.There will be a tree line from which Hancocks corp is emerging and the ground right up to the confederate works will be swarming with Union troops charging forward.At the actual line there will be a section showing a breakthrough by the Union troops,swarming over the works.The intention is to have,at this point,some rebels surrendering,some hand to hand stuff (including clubbing and bayoneting) plus some guys running towards the rear in retreat.There will also be guys standing their ground shooting at the Yankees.I will incorperate a couple of field pieces as we know they were not all removed from the line.Anyway I must get a copy of Hess’s “Civil war field fortifications” and there’s another by David Russell Wright..Reckon I have about six or seven books on the subject but still looking for that comprehensive description of the works in detail of how they looked and were built.Many thanks for your help Will catch up with you after work.

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    • Russ says:

      Phil, Certainly an ambitious project.
      One thing that I find very interesting is the angle at which the Feds struck the works. Remember that the 1st Delaware lost its commander who was shot in the Landrum yard as they swept past. That regiment was one of, if not the leftmost regiments in the first wave of the attack.
      Also the federals struck an empty line, where they raised a cheer thinking it was the real works. This line I believe was the original extension toward the river.
      Federals appeared in front of the Jeff Davis artillery and Steuart’s brigade (on the East Face. They were repulsed, according to the Confederates (read “From Selma to Appomattox”) before the main effort hit the apex. According to one of Willie Carters men the Feds were 50 yards away when they fired the gun into them. According to the Feds they first crossed the works 40 yards to their right of the apex.
      Lots of accounts from the Confederates that they could see the attack to the right of the Stonewall Brigade at the West Angle.
      So in short it was a fairly narrow front OR because of the angle they struck the works the rh division was well behind the left. I tend to believe the latter.
      Later.

      All this is

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Russ
        This is all meat and drink to me.Got to get the regimental colours right,and in the right places.Have bought some more Bachmann foliage branches,ideal for abattis.Your knowledge of this battle is probably second to none.Feel I’ve struck lucky.I’m extremely busy with work and have been talking this diorama for twenty five years.maybe if work drops off a bit I can get cracking on it.It always amazes me how.despite losing so many men,ie,Johsons division largely taken prisoner and various other confederate unit totally wiped out yet thet still came back at the Fedrerals and pushed most of them out of the works,even though it was, in many cases, just on the other side.will get some info tomorrow,on the net.

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      • Russ says:

        Phil, Thank you for the kind words. I admire your dedication to the project. Its the likes of you that make the history come alive for so many, and reward people like myself.
        As for myself, I look back fondly on Saturdays walking the battlefield with the late Bill Matter, in my mind a wonderful historian. One who while better than myself, would receive more credit is he had possessed the writing abilities of a Gordon Rhea. Also several others who encouraged my work.
        No less the Robert Krick (the younger) says that Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor are the two most misunderstood, or least understood battle son the East Coast. As there is so much contradiction.
        Two points. Federal Brigadier Robert McAllister claimed his men captured an 8 gun battery. Only two places this could have happened. The combined Carrington/Tanner batteries at and two the left of the West Angle, and some combination of Pages guns. The later is unlikely because no 8 guns were in position. McAllister says he held up his advance until the guns could be removed. While that was happening one of his officers spotted several hundred (400) retreating across the field in front. He took men and went out and captured them. Unfortunately we don’t know who they were.
        What info, if any can I provide you to assist?

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      • Phil Gardner says:

        Russ
        many thanks for your continuing help and advice regarding the research of this battle.I was saying to one of my customers yesterday that I desperately need a time machine to go back and get a first hand look at the whole line and area.Reckon that it would’ve been a very dangerous place to be even on the quieter day’s.Still,if given the chance,I would willingly take the risk to walk along the line including the reserve lines and Lee’s stop gap line to the rear.Apparantly this line was even better as regards structure,more solid and therefore far less easier to break.No wonder Grant decided not to try the same tactic.It alway’s amazes me how the southern boy’s seem to inflict more casualties on the Union troops despite having less amunition and infirior weapons Etc.Anyway got to go now will post again later in the day.

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      • Russ says:

        As you know I focus on the artillery, and there are several accounts of dissatisfaction amongst the gunners who went into position on the 11th because of a Federal crossfire. And infantry accounts from the Stonewall that it was worth your life to go to the McCoul Spring for water.
        The weapons were not much different. Artillery ammo on the Confederate side was inferior, mostly because of the fuses. Infantry weapons were equal, maybe slightly better on the Confederate side, Enfield vs Springfield, ammo equal.
        Bill Matter used to say if he had a time machine he would go back and give everybody a note pad, pencil and watch. They would only be allowed to write what they personally saw.
        Remember the participants didn’t agree on what had happened, would we be different?

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      • Russ says:

        Phil
        A point I wanted to make earlier and forgot.
        In the Overland Campaign you see the precursor of the Great War IMHO. Extensive hastily prepared field works of course. But the offensive, like in the Great War, had a huge disadvantage. It could break the line at times, although only if circumstances were greatly in its favor. Yet, it wasn’t capable of exploiting the break. A determined, well led, defender could seal off the break and counterattack quicker than either the initial breakthrough force could reorganize and consolidate or a follow up force be pushed forward.
        That in my opinion is what we see at Spotsy.

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