The Face of the Mule Shoe

During the American Civil War there were hundreds if not thousands of miles of field  fortifications created across the countryside. While some were simply a few logs or brush tossed together in a matter of a few minutes they were probably the exception. The majority, particularly if troops were there more than a few hours, were some form of  large piles of earth placed between a soldier and his opponents. This would provide protection from harm as well as an obstacle to anyone trying to seize the position. Most of these were dug with backbreaking labor by either the soldiers themselves, by slaves, or even in some cases by workers employed by their respective government. To the great pleasure of the public and historians alike, so much was done that in many parts of the South substantial and imposing earthworks remain even 150 years after they were built.

Of all the lines of field fortifications created during the war, few if any are as well-known as the “Mule Shoe”at Spotsylvania Courthouse in Virginia. While the name is descriptive and conjures up a mental image, to those interested in the American Civil War it means some of the most brutal fighting of the entire war. In fact you could argue that, it along with its subset “The Bloody Angle”  is more famous than the battle during which they were created. Today the ground on which the “Mule Shoe” was built is the core of the Spotsylvania component of the Fredericksburg Spotsylvania National Military Park.

Hotchkiss Map of 2nd Corps (Confederate) works at Spotsylvania

Hotchkiss Map of 2nd Corps (Confederate) works at Spotsylvania Courthouse

But what exactly was the “Mule Shoe”? Where, why and how was it created? The basic answers are simple enough.  Where is outside the town of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, the county seat and road junction, southwest of Fredericksburg. As for the question of what were they? It was merely a portion of the field fortifications created by  the troops of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia during the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse in May of 1864. Generally speaking it is the portion of the line held by the Second Corps of that army  from the time they reached the battlefield  during the night of May 8, until they were  abandoned during the night of May 12/13.  Where were they?  Beginning on the right or northeastern side of the Brock Road it runs in a north – northeasterly direction before turning southeasterly then finally south. The only thing to distinguish this from hundreds of other similar ones was its unique shape. In its final form it took on a shape that if looked at from overhead resembled a horseshoe. But evidently “horseshoe” wasn’t sexy enough so some Confederates dubbed it the “Mule Shoe”, and the name stuck. But note that this was not the name used by the officers during the battle. To them it was just “the salient” or “the offset”, a title that overlooked the fact that the army’s line contained a fair number of similar although less prominent salients. In fact two of them, Doles (although within the larger “Mule Shoe”) and Heth’s salients, named for the commanders of the units manning them, experienced a considerable amount of  the significant fighting themselves.

Crudely colorized map of the area in and around the Mule Shoe

Crudely colorized map of the area in and around the Mule Shoe

When the armies moved from the Wilderness toward Spotsylvania Courthouse they had one objective in mind, to reach the area first and grab control of the road junction there. By doing so they would have the shortest road to what was perceived as the ultimate goal, Richmond. It was the cavalry of each army which had led and screened the movements of their respective armies during the movement  Despite their best efforts the Federal cavalry had made slow progress in driving their opposite numbers down the Brock road toward Spotsylvania. Finally in an effort to brush aside Jeb Stuart’s pesky horsemen, the Federal Fifth Corps had been added to the fight. Having fought a classic delaying action the Confederate horsemen been driven from one barricade to another. Now they  had made another stand on the Spindle Farm, along a slight ridge which crossed the Brock Road just north of where it intersects with the Blockhouse Road. The leading elements of the Fifth Corps, the three brigade division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson was ordered to attack quickly before the Confederates could burrow in. But before the Federal infantry could deploy and launch their attack help arrived.  Fortunately the lead division of the Confederate First Corps under Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw along with Haskell’s battalion artillery had been close by and answered Stuart’s request for help. Two brigades along with a pair of batteries arrived on the scene with just enough time to quickly establish a  line and repelled the first hasty attacks. Realizing that the added firepower provided by the  infantry and artillery had shifted the advantage to the Confederates the Federals began to prepare more serious efforts to push them off the ridge.

At the same time a separate advance by the Federal cavalry division under Brig. Gen. James Wilson had managed to seize the Courthouse community and following the Brock Road  was threatening to take Anderson’s position at Laurel Hill in reverse.  Two more brigades of Kershaw’s division, some of Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, now free to assist their comrades, along with the balance of Haskell’s battalion were sent to assist Rosser in driving the Federals back. While the Federals were driven out of the sleepy little county seat  they did not go away. Rather they fell back along the Fredericksburg road, took up positions not far outside of town and awaited reinforcements.

Back along the Brock Road front the lines began to stretch out as more and more troops arrived for each side.  On the Confederate side Anderson’s corps was followed by the infantry of the  Second Corps under Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell (1).  Leading the march was the division of Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes. His men had left the Wilderness at about 8:00 that morning and marched toward Spotsylvania Courthouse via Shady Grove Church. Nearing the Blockhouse road intersection at around 6:00 his leading brigade was looking forward to going into camp. Hearing firing to their left front they were told that Anderson’s men had repulsed the first attack, but needed help. Hurrying forward they formed a line of battle, probably on the Brock Road between Old Court House Road and Shady Grove Church Road.  (2) Having aligned his brigades, Ramseur’s, Daniels, Doles, and Battle (3) Rode’s moved his men forward. Fortunately he was  just in time to blunt a Federal attack that threatened to outflank Anderson’s right-wing. Advancing on the right side of the Brock Road he was able to drive the Federals back for some distance until he reached a line of hastily thrown up breastworks. Finally the darkness, stiffening resistance and confusion amongst the attackers brought his attack to a halt.

The division of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson, following some distance behind Rode’s had been expecting to halt for the night after an exhausting march. Instead it was turned off the road to the left so that it could move up and take up a position in the rear of Rode’s line. His leading brigades, Steuart’s and Jones (4) had taken up a position about one hundred yards behind Rode’s line. However the fighting drew to a close for the night before it was necessary to commit them to the fight.

The third and last division of the Corps to arrive was normally commanded by Jubal Early.  But in another one of the reshuffling of leaders effecting the army, Early had been temporarily assigned elsewhere. Lt. Gen. A. P. Hill, commanding the armies Third Corps had reported sick, being too ill to even mount his horse.  With Hill obviously unable to lead his command  a substitute was needed.  Richard Anderson, the senior division commander had been  temporarily put in command of the First Corps. Evidently none of the Corps division commanders was seriously considered for the job. When Longstreet’s wounding necessitated the immediate appointment of a new commander for the First corps  the choice had supposedly been between R. H. Anderson and Jubal Early. In that case Anderson had been chosen, despite Lee’s preference for Early. Supposedly the corps staff felt the men of the First Corps had more familiarity with him. Now, because of Hill’s illness Early was to be given the chance to command a corps in action. He was placed in temporary command of the Third Corps, and after some judicious moves to clear the way, John Bell Gordon was given command of his division. Arriving on the field about sunset the division was placed in a position to support either Rodes and Johnson.

As darkness fell units of each side tried to align themselves in the most defensible positions for the expected renewal of combat in the morning. Northeast of the Brock Road each side took up positions on opposite sides of a small valley.The men of Rodes Division were ordered to fall back from their advanced positions until they were  on a ridge which ran in a gentle curve from the Brock Road in a general north – northeast direction. The line would connect with  Anderson’s right hand brigade, Humphrey’s Brigade of Kershaw’s Division,  about two hundred and fifty yards west – northwest of the Harrison House. Opposite them would be the Federal Fifth Corps.

Properly placing a line was a serious business, one on which scores, perhaps hundreds of mens lives would depend. With the day fading rapidly the job had to be done not only correctly but quickly. Only after they had taken up at least a rough line would Johnson’s division be able to go into position. Along the center of Rode’s line the officers of Daniel’s Brigade came up with a simple plan to ensure that the line was placed properly. One sergeant  from each regiment was ordered to report to Brigade Headquarters. Under the command of Captain W. L. London of the brigade staff, they were then led forward  and put into position. Each man was placed on the highest point of a low ridge covered with a pine thicket. Placed about a regiments distance apart each man was ordered to listen for a low call from the right. The soldier was to repeat the call for those on his left. This was to be repeated until all the men of his regiment, guided by the sound of his voice, were aligned on his position. Eventually all the units were in position and construction of the line could begin. (5) We can only assume that the other brigades acted similarly. While a very practical solution it would be seen to have serious repercussions later.

Daliels Brigade

view from the works held by Daniels Brigade. This particular spot was a gun pit of the Richmond Howitzers Federal sharpshooters in the trees opposite harassed them on the 10th. At times the guns had to open on them to keep them at a “respectful” distance

Daniel's left or Ramseur's right

Clearly not on the crest.  This was along Daniels left flank  or Ramseur’s right, taken to the left of the picture above by about 100 yards.

But the ridge did not extend far enough for all four of Rode’s brigades to take up a position along it. Because of this and the desirability of having a reserve Battle’s Brigade was initially not put into the main line. Instead it took up a position behind the line, probably on the left of the division’s front.  Further complicating matters was the fact that a block of woods was along the curvature of the ridge, which extended toward the Federal line. Of course the desire for a field of fire as well as concealment mandated that the line be placed immediately in front of these woods. By curving the line around this clump of woods rather than following the crest of the ridge a small salient was formed.  We would come to know it by the name of the troops who occupied this section of the line, the Georgia brigade of Brig. Gen. George Doles. Thus Doles Salient it would be. Just to the right of the point where the line bent back the ground sloped downward to the northeast before rising again. Just at the point where the rise began was a farm road leading from the McCoull House out to the Shelton House.  Getting the units all aligned took so long that it was nearly dark before actual construction of the line could begin. The line when constructed was in the edge of an old pine field. In front was a field of broom straw, sloping down to a small branch over a quarter of a mile away.

Once the position of Rode’s line was nearly finalized,  Johnson’s division which had been in line in support of  Rode’s, was ordered to extend the line. This would take them from Dole’s right northeastward toward the Ni River. The entire division was shifted from a line to a column formation and marched toward what appeared to be some high ground on the right. (6) This high ground was along a ridge making off from the main ridge on which the Courthouse was located. (7) To call it a march however would be a generous use of the term. Moving across country is difficult in the best of times. Keeping the column together in the gathering darkness was an order of magnitude worse. Rode’s right, under Brig. Gen. George Dole’s, ran across a field between two blocks of woods. Since his line ended in the field Johnson’s units almost immediately entered into some dense woods at the McCoull Lane. This combined with the fading light, meant that officers had difficulty determining the terrain and aligning the men. Thus there was a lot of movements and counter movements for seemingly no reason. The frustrating process went on well into the night, fraying nerves and wearing out the men. On the left this was complicated by having to conform to Dole’s position. At one point near midnight, the Stonewall Brigade had the men of its two left regiments standing in ankle-deep water. (8) Much to the relief of the men they were withdrawn to higher ground on the brigade commanders authority. While the men may have been pleased the high command was not. The Brigadier, James Walker, received a severe and heated reprimand from Gen. Ewell, who had not approved the movement. Finally some time after midnight it was felt that the line was located in such a position that work could start on the defenses. (9) The Stonewall Brigade, the left of the division, took up a position t starting in the field to the left of the farm lane. The lane ran back, crossed a branch below a spring and ran up to a farmhouse on the hill behind them. This farmhouse, owned by the McCoull family became the headquarters of Maj. Gen. Johnson and would be one of the focal points of the battle. To the right of the Farm lane the line  ran along the front of some woods, across a small rise before beginning to descend again into a swale.

This swale was actually across the mouth of a shallow ravine which split off from the main ravine that ran northward in the general direction of the Landrum house. From about this point the line would run virtually straight northward from the Stonewall Brigade to  another elevation.  This one was actually the end of the ridge that the division had been following as it marched north north-westerly. Ahead the ground began to drop off as it led down to the Ni River. Because of the terrain two slight bends were created along the line to this point. These would go down in history as the “West Angle” and “East Angle” respectively. This section between the two elevated points, would be roughly the center of Johnson’s line. Along it he posted the combined Louisiana Brigades of Stafford and Hayes as well as Jones Virginia Brigade All  three of these brigades had been handled severely in the Wilderness. Not only had they suffered serious losses of men but the leadership had been especially hard hit. Two of the three were under new commanders as both Jones and Stafford had  been killed. The third, that of Harry Hayes had formerly been in Early’s division. It had been reassigned to Johnson in order to clear the way for Gordon’s promotion to division command.

The right of Johnson’s line was held by the Brigade of Brig. Gen. George “Maryland” Steuart. His brigade being at the head of the column had the frustration of many fits and starts as the leaders tried to find the way in the darkness. Finally the men had been halted in a wood with low dense undergrowth. Because of this it was difficult in the growing darkness to discern the surroundings and the lay of the land. Attempts to coordinate with neighboring units made it even more frustrating. After hours of fruitless and vexing attempts the line was finally formed to the satisfaction of the officers.

Tired as they were by morning an adequate line of works had taken shape. Though tools were few the men were getting quite familiar with this type of work. One observer would describe the line as being two rows of stakes driven in the ground with logs and dirt pile between. While the works themselves were considered passable, their location was not. Already ready some were noting them as being somewhat suspect. One of the senior NCO’s in the Stonewall Brigade said of them ” Contours of the line very defective but was not changed”. (10)

Capt. W. W. Old would later offer an explanation as to why Johnson’s division adopted the position which it did.  Moving across country to extend the line of the corps toward the Ni River, they had followed as closely as possible a ridge line extending northward. This meant  struggling through  dense woods and thickets which were in some cases almost impassable. Finally coming to the edge of the thickets they saw camp fires almost directly in their path and below them. Seeing that the ridge turned sharply to the right, the line was turned to follow it. Thus Steuart’s Brigade and a part of Jones’s were swung back from the rest of the division. (11) This view is apparently contradicted by the evidence of the ground as well as other officers from the division.

Mule Shoe earthworks

Note that this map of the battlefield prepared by Federal mapmakers clearly shows the confederate line extending toward the Landrum House – from Library of Congress collection

Capt. McHenry Howard, adjutant of Steuart’s Brigade offered a different view of the position. In his “Recollections………” he described the line initially built by Steuart’s men as not being connected with Jone’s Brigade. Rather it was in his words fifty to seventy-five yards behind the point of the ridge. Yet rather than turning to follow the ridge the line then ran off towards the Ni River. It was only sometime on the 9th that the line was changed to its configuration that we know today.

Certainly the evidence on the ground seems to confirm  that there was a line built by Confederate troops running northward from the apex of the Salient. The remains of numerous traverses are proof of that. Looking at aerial photos of the works seems to confirm Howard’s statement that Steuart’s original line did not  connect with Jones, but was tied in later. It was this  relocation of Steuart’s line which formed the “quadrilateral” to the right of what became the toe of the “Mule Shoe”. While this  would seem to agree with Howard’s account of events it does raise another question. Certainly the line from the apex to the Landrum House seems extraordinarily long for a single brigade.  It seems most likely that at least a portion of Jones’ Brigade was also along that line. Also that the line was as Howard described later moved forward to include the point of the ridge, It was then turned back ninety degrees and run off towards the southeast. On that point at least both Old and Howard agree.

As morning came on the 9th, the results of the nights work became apparent. The individual Brigades or regiments probably were not exactly butted up against each other. Thus there had to be minor adjustments by one or the other of the adjoining units.  In addition with daylight the Federal skirmishers and artillery had begun to make their presence known. Their fire quickly pointed out areas which needed to be changed. In some units an effort was made to provide additional protection. Traverses, a short work running back from the parapet to protect from enfilading fire quickly sprang up. On at least a part of the Stonewall Brigades front, sharpened stakes were driven into the ditch so as to face the enemy. Along some sections of the line head logs, supported by blocks, were placed on top of the parapet for additional protection. (12)

Even with these improvements to the works as close as the opposing lines were sharpshooting was a constant hazard. In some cases the Federals were only two hundred to two hundred and fifty yards away. So anyone who had to expose themselves did so at the risk of his life. In some areas, notably the West Angle they were able to establish a cross fire on the defender’s position.  In addition Federal Batteries on both the left and right were able to fire across the entire salient.  This would mean that some units were exposed to fire not only from the front but the rear as well. This was a problem not just for the front line units. It even applied to Gordon’s division which was in reserve. They had to evacuate their original position because of just such artillery fire.

Other efforts were made to improve the defenses. The low ground along Rode’s right and Johnson’s left was seen as being a weak point. Accordingly a line of works was built across the rear of that section of the line either during the 9th or early on the 10th. While it did not extend as far as the McCoull Lane it did supply support for this section of the line.  In addition a re-entrant line was run back from the main line at Daniel’s right. This would provide cover if any Federals were to break into hollow.  Interestingly enough no similar precaution was taken along Johnson’s left below the West Angle..
A major change in the line occurred sometimes during the 9th. Up until this point the line was roughly straight.  Now however the Federals had appeared along the Fredericksburg Road. The Confederate Third Corps had accordingly taken up a blocking position between them and the Courthouse.  In order to connect the flanks of the two Corps Johnson’s line must be reconfigured.  Ideally the division would abandon the current line and take up a new one spanning the gap between Rodes right and Cadmus Wilcox’s division which was the left of the Third Corps. But a complication arose which required a different solution. It was considered imperative to deny the tip of the ridge to the Federals. Artillery placed there it was feared could deny the Brock Road, an important supply route to the Confederates. So a new solution was arrived at.  The men of Steuart’s Brigade were ordered to abandon the line they were holding and build a new line.  The new line would be pushed forward so as to connect with the right end of Jones’ Brigade. By doing so it would take in the point of the ridge and overlook the large fields reaching out toward the Landrum and Brown houses. Also now rather than reaching toward the Ni River it would be bent back at right angles to the current one. (13) The Landrum House area would be abandoned other than for the picket line. This line near the crest of the ridge would run south-eastward for about three hundred yards. The engineers directed that the portion of the  original line, even though half-finished, had to not only  be evacuated bu leveled to clear the field of fire and reduce cover for any force advancing to the attack. Of course the infantrymen were none too happy with these orders.  So the order to level them was appealed. But it was deemed necessary that they be eradicated and the order stood. Having spent a lot of effort building those positions it probably seemed like unnecessary work to tear them down. Since we see clear evidence today of traverses and ditching by the Confederates it seems likely that after the engineers had left the leveling work stopped.

The new line made almost a ninety degree turn at the crest of the ridge before running back to the south – southeast. It was this turn which created what most consider the famous Apex or East Angle. It then ran back for several hundred yards bending ever so slightly northward to follow the crest of a small ridge before bending back toward the original track. It came to an end roughly 400  yards from the East Angle. This end of course left it hanging in the air vulnerable to attack by the Federal Ninth Corps which, astride the Fredericksburg Road was the left flank of the Federal Line. In addition over-shots from Federal artillery firing on the brigades to the left would come into the rear of Steuart’s line. Therefore some, if not all of Steuart’s line, particularly toward his right had traverses built across the rear. Thus the line came to resemble what some would describe as “a series of rooms without roofs”. While this provided protection it also made movement along the line more difficult.

So it was the fact that the  Third Corps when it had arrived had taken a position so close to the Courthouse, combined with the desire to hold the high ground, that caused Johnson’s line to be swung back. Even so the two corps line did not connect. Rather the Third Corps line ended on a hill several hundred yards to the right rear of Steuart’s line. To guard this gap a regiment of Jone”s Brigade was withdrawn from its position near the East Angle. Moved to Steuart’s right and spread out as skirmishers they would guard the gap until another extension of the line could be built and occupied. This line, probably built by pioneers of Johnson’s Division (14) was built sometimes between the time Steuart had been ordered to redraw his line and the arrival of Lane’s Brigade on the afternoon of the 11th. Connecting to Steuart’s line at the crest this line ran down the slope, crossed the McCoull Branch and connected with Gordon’s reserve line.  Again like Gordon’s line it was vulnerable to the artillery of the Federal 5th Corps overshooting the units on the main line. Despite the presence of the 9th Corps to the east this line would not be manned until the afternoon of the 11th. And with the completion of this section, the “Mule Shoe”  we know today was complete.

It would not be fair to say that the Confederates ever “completed” the works in the “Mule Shoe” as they were constantly making improvements. However the basic line itself, with the exception of the change in Steuart’s line on the 9th, and the extension down to the McCoull Branch, was laid out on the night of the 8th. So what had they created? Opinions varied. Robert E. Lee himself called them ” a miserably weak line”. (15) His cousin Thomas Carter who commanded the artillery within the salient railed to all who would listen that the salient line had major defects. He was particularly frustrated by his inability to effectively counter Upton’s attack on the 10th. However, in postwar writings he said of the Salient lines, that they were ” as impregnable against front attack as the Rock of Gibraltar with a pocket pistol”. (16) So which were they? Obviously the line was not impregnable as it was easily broken into on two of the three occasions that it was attacked. So why was this line, taken up and held by veteran troops deficient? If indeed it was deficient.

The first things people mention when discussing the “Mule Shoe” are the inherent weaknesses of a salient. These are well-known to most historians so in no certain order I list the most obvious.

1. The enemy is able to concentrate on one side of the salient at a time. That side is not supported by its fellows on the other side.

2. Artillery fire at the face of one side can take the other in reverse.

3. Defensive fires at the apex will diverge rather than converge.

4. A breakthrough on either of the flanks can result in the defenders being trapped and unable to escape.

All of these, and more are true at Spotsylvania. Yet they don’t fully explain what happened. For here in my opinion it was much more involved than that. The actual works themselves were probably the equal of any fieldwork built-in North America up until that time. It was the PLACEMENT of those works that was their chief weakness. This was compounded by the disposition of the troops and guns manning those lines.

When the Confederate Second Corps took up position in the late afternoon of May 8 it was nearly dark. In fact some units, certainly all or almost all of Johnson’s division took their positions well after dark. (17)  Because of this the easiest way to find a position was to find and follow the high point or crest of a ridge. Accounts from Daniels Brigade, in Rode’s Division  indicate that this exactly what they did. Once the units were in place construction on the works began. Even though they had been marching and fighting all day, and few implements were available, the work went very quickly. Well practiced in this sort of work, it was done so quickly that, by morning, a “very passable line” was ready. When morning came the reality of what had been created became visible. Almost immediately there was concern that the line was seriously flawed. This is what apparently led Lee to make his famous comment about “not knowing how it could be held”.   Given this sentiment it seems odd that while the effort to improve them never truly stopped they weren’t in at least some areas re-situated.

One area that a great deal of effort was expended on was the area between Doles Salient and the McCoull Lane. This was in large part because this was recognized to be the weakest point along the entire line. Taking up position in the darkness though units had difficulty aligning with one another. One can imagine the officers thinking that their idea of the position was best, and demanding that their neighbors conform. One of the few places that some physical evidence that the line was relocated is here. In addition there are several features unique to this section of the line. In addition to a second line and the re-entrant line several others should be mentioned. The span of Doles brigade front can probably be gauged by the ditch, dug on the night of the 10th, which runs across its front. (18)

Left of Dole's ditch

Looking toward the West Angle in the distance. Showing the left end of the ditch in front of Doles line. The lane which Upton’s men guided on in the foreground. He assaulted from left to right. Note also that the West Angle, the apex of Doles Salient as well as the East Angle are all approximately the same elevation.

It begins at the road which Upton’s men straddled when assaulting on the evening of May 10. On its opposite end it stops where there is a “vee” shaped notch in the works as if two disparate sections are being joined. To the right of that point the works held by the Stonewall Brigades two left regiments have a different appearance. These regiments, flanked by Upton’s breakthrough had been forced to beat an inglorious retreat. Perhaps as an attempt to shore up the line there is what appears to be a separate parapet running along the front of the works about ten feet away. There is no ditch on either side just dirt mounded up. Extending almost to the current park road it appears to have a very short return at its northern end. Perhaps this is evidence of the original line which, not connecting with Doles, was moved slightly back.  Also tt was along this section of the line that a neck of woods jutted out from the opposite treeline toward the Confederate line.  On the night of the 10th, at the same time that Dole’s people were digging their ditch,  a detail of ax men chopped these trees down and added them to the abatis. (19)

Ideally the line would have been placed on the “Military crest”. This imaginary line is not at the actual crest, but slightly down slope on the side the enemy is expected to attack from. Defenders can, from this position, take the entire approach route under fire. A line placed at the actual crest requires that the defender expose himself to the attacker in order to fire. Along the Second Corps line that principle seems to have been ignored.

In fact, Not only was little attention paid to the military crest, but significant portions of the line are actually built on the reverse slope of the rise. There are two possible reasons for this to be intentionally done. It does to some degree limit the enemies observation of the position. This of course was a major complaint by Hancock’s commanders on the 12th. However, this is more likely due to a lack of reconnoitering by the Federals than anything the Confederates did.  In addition it offered some matter of protection from incoming fire. Yet while this may have offered some protection from Federal fire there was a significant price to pay. It dramatically shortened the time that attackers were exposed to defensive fire. In the defense one needs to fire as many rounds as possible at the enemy once they enter the kill zone. This placement severely limited that ability.  In the words of an artilleryman in Reese’s battery said “From the works to the crest of the hill was but a short distance, and until the enemy appeared above the crest, their approach could not be seen, hence the guns would have but a short time to play on an approaching column…. (20)

In addition the front was very much covered with dead ground. Dead ground is that where an attacker is concealed from the defenders view. In an age where all weapons are “direct fire” this is a major problem. Plus some of these area come uncomfortably close to the defensive line. The secret to Upton’s success, and to a minor extent the main assault on May 12, was that the attacking column could get to the works with a minimal amount of casualties. Reducing the amount of time exposed to the enemies fire allowed this.

Lack of artillery coverage or support along significant stretches of the line.  From the Brock Road all the way to the right flank of Ramseur’s Brigade the line ran thru woods of varying density. Artillery could be of little value there. But from there all along the rest of the Salient there was open ground in front. Along Rode’s center and right, held by Daniel’s and Doles brigades, the field was between two and three hundred yards deep. Because of this two batteries were assigned to this section of the line. They would be able to sweep the open ground as far to the right as the apex of Dole’s salient, and as far left as the woods held by Ramseur’s men. In front of what would become known as the West, or “Bloody” Angle, it was only a little over one hundred yards deep. Along the rest of Johnson’s line the field of fire ranged from three hundred to almost eight hundred yards. This should have given the Confederate artillery ample opportunity to disrupt any attack upon that portion of the line.

But just because a line has an open field in front of it does not mean that an effective defense is guaranteed. Along much of the line there were areas that could not be covered by fire. “Dead ground”  as it were. Part of this was due to the natural dips and folds in the ground. Part was due to the placement of the line and the locations of the batteries. Three areas stand out for comment.  Doles Salient, where Upton’s men charged across a field and broke the line May 10.  The stretch of line between the West Angle and the East Angle.  Reese’s Salient at the right of Steuart’s line where the left flank of Hancock’s assault  on May 12, was initially checked if not repulsed.

Richmond Howitzers RH gun

Another view from the position of the Richmond Howitzers. This one from the  right gun about thirty yards to the left of the reentrant.  Federal skirmishers in the wood line opposite had to be kept at a distance.

the field in front of the Howitzers

The field if front of the Howitzers position. Looking from the apex of Doles Salient to the left. Notice how the ground slopes away to the right.

Looking from the center of the Howitzers position toward the apex.

Looking from the center of the Howitzers position toward the apex. The apex is behind the cedar tree. The re-entrant which is just beyond the cannon extends into the woods on the right.

When the Confederates artillery began to take their positions on the morning of May 9, it was  evidently felt that the line from the apex of Dole’s Salient to the West Angle did not offer proper positions for artillery.  As a result it was not until the morning of May 10, that the 3rd Company of the Richmond Howitzers took a position beginning thirty yards to the left of a re-entrant line on the crest of the hill held by the right of Daniels Brigade. This re-entrant ran back about eighty yards to a second line built across the rear of the line held by Doles Brigade. Its purpose was to protect the hollow running through the lines. This, the batteries position, while closer was  still around one hundred yards to the left of the apex of Dole’s Salient. Following the line to the right the next battery would be to the right of the West Angle.

Because of the shape of the line none of the batteries, left or right, could take Upton’s men under fire when they closed the works along Doles Salient. The bend in the line at the apex of Doles Salient meant that the works themselves provided cover for the Federals. Once they reached the mid-point of the field the works concealed them from view. A similar condition existed on the right of the breakthrough. The re-entrant, designed to cover the hollow, was positioned so that its defenders could not fire into the hollow. Once the  guns of the Howitzers were recaptured they were used to blast away at close range at those Federals clinging to the outside of the captured works. Ramseur’s men having recaptured the guns had moved on as far as the re-entrant line and could go no further. Thus the guns were fired at an oblique angle at the almost point-blank range of sixty yards into the Federals clinging to the exterior of the outer works. (21)

On the right flank of the breakthrough the situation was quite different. There relative straightness of the line worked against the Confederates.  All the guns were positioned to the right of the West Angle. This combined with the drop in elevation to the left of the West Angle concealed the Federals as they crossed the field to Dole’s works. So difficult was it to gain a vantage point that Colonel Thomas Carter was forced to take extraordinary measures. Only when the Confederate counterattack had pushed the Federals back to the main line could the artillery from the toe of the Salient take a part. He had to take guns from Page’s Battalion on the right of the Salient, pass them thru the works and take up positions in front of the works with their backs to any Federals in the front. (22) Under normal conditions this would have been a suicidal move. However with the repulse of a  premature attack by a small Federal Division under Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott earlier that afternoon, largely by Nelson and Page’s guns, the Federals were in no position to take advantage.

Gen. Lee recognized the deficiencies of the position held by Dole’s men. Shortly after Upton’s men had been withdrawn he sent Gen. Ewell a note giving him unusually specific instructions as to how to improve the defenses where Upton had broken through. (23) Among other things he directed him to try to find a position from which to enfilade that portion of the line. If he were unable to find such a position,  a ditch as well as abatis should be placed in front of that section of the line. We should note that the re-entrant line between the position held by the Richmond Howitzers and the apex of Doles Salient already existed. So obviously that did not meet his criteria. It was perhaps a result of this order, and also perhaps Col. Carter’s vehement complaints, that the remaining two batteries of Cutshaw’s battalion would take position the next afternoon. These batteries were positioned solely to sweep the field in front of Dole’s line exactly as Lee had “suggested”. One has to wonder why this possibility had been overlooked earlier. Today the ditch that was also dug as a result of Lee’s instructions along Doles front remains. Approximately ten feet in front of the parapet it is one of the unique features found within the Salient.

looking along Doles ditch from right to left.

looking along Doles ditch from right to left. The trench line is only a few feet from the road to your left. The apex is just beyond the crest.

Further to the right the line had similar problems. While from the apex of the salient open ground extended out past the Landrum House it was not the advantage it first seemed. While true that guns posted at and near the apex or East Angle  could take any assaulting force under fire there were problems. Folds in the ground would conceal an approaching enemy from any defenders not directly in their front.

View from the apex of the salient

View from the trench at the apex of the “Mule Shoe”. Looking toward the Landrum House site. Notice the folds in the ground in the foreground. These would have provided intermittent cover to the attackers.

But there were other even more serious problems. On both sides of the apex there were ravines close out in front of the line. On the left, both the West and East Angles were on elevations of about equal height. Between them a ravine ran straight out from the lines. About two hundred yards out it intersected the main ravine which ran Northwesterly toward the Landrum House site. This ravine could easily be covered by an artillery battery put into position across its mouth.  Canister from this battery would easily sweep this ravine and both slopes.

the ravine between the West and East Angles.

The mouth of the ravine between the two angles. An artillery battery was positioned to sweep this area. Unfortunately it was removed on the evening of the 11th.

But the positions on both sides were badly sited. At the West Angle, the line was well away from the military crest. While it did have a good view of the ravines to its right, the defenders could not observe that which was in front of them. As a result attackers once they reached the dead zone area in front only had about fifty yards to cross before reaching the parapet.

At the West Angle.

From the West Angle looking obliquely to the right. Notice the ravine running from left to right. It intersects with the one in the previous picture. Thousands of federal troops sheltered there during the 12th.

On the right of the “swale” the situation is, if anything even worse. In many places along the salient line the works are placed slightly on the reverse slope of the ridge. Here, they are on the back or reverse side of a small plateau. The defenders will  have less than a one hundred yard field of fire. Worse yet they have no observation of the approaches to the works. The main ravine, capping the “T” of the one running out from the works is on the other side of the plateau. From this position the defenders don’t even have observation into the ravine at that point. This position, held by the men from the  Louisiana Brigade commanded by Leroy Stafford prior to his death. was one of the weakest on the entire line.

Between the "swale" and the East Angle. Note field of fire.

Between the “swale” and the East Angle. Note how short the field of fire is. The Louisianans were stationed along this portion of the line.

The line from the East Angle to the Apex of the Salient is probably the strongest position along the entire line. Open ground runs all the way out to the Landrum House and beyond. While there are dead zones out in front they are more than offset by the field of fire for artillery posted here and on both sides of the apex. The quadrilateral allows the artillery to fire over the heads of infantrymen in the front, and lower line. The weakness here was not the line itself, but the removal of many of its defenders on the evening prior to the attack.

The remainder of the line, held by Steuart’s Brigade was more of the same. Strong works,  with in many cases a rear traverse because of the Federal fire crossing from the other side of the Salient. Again the works are located slightly on the reverse slope,obviously by design. This shortened the field of fire, but not enough to cause their loss. The defenders of this section of the line were able to repulse the initial attack by Hancock’s left. These men had missed the apex of the Salient, crossed Steuart’s original line and were passing down the front of Steuart’s line. It was not by frontal assault, but rather by troops advancing from the apex down the interior of the works that captured this portion of the line.

The “Mule Shoe” defenses are a fascinating study in the military science. State of the art for the time they deserve more study than they have received. Were they as strong as some say? Or, as weak as others claimed? Ultimately however when we think of the “Mule Shoe” we think of the twenty hours of blood shed on May 12th, and the men who struggled there, not of piles of dirt. Perhaps that’s appropriate.

(1) Two of the five artillery battalions, Page’s and Braxton’s, marched with the infantry from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse. The remaining three battalions were withdrawn the night before the march to Verdiersville. They would take a separate route, via Terry’s Bridge. This is a major point to remember when studying the events of Spotsylvania Courthouse. The similarities between that and the events of May 11th are striking.

(2) William D. Matter – “If it Takes All Summer” page 87

(3) Cyrus B. Watson, “Forty-Fifth Regiment” in Walter Clark, “Histories from North Carolina”, 3:45-46.

(4) Jone’s had been killed in the Wilderness, and his senoir regimental commander Witcher was in command.

(5) William D. Matter – “If it Takes All Summer” page 94

(6) Captain William Seymour of Hayes Brigade, in his memoirs stated that Gen. M. L. Smith, chief engineer of the army, told him “that it was not intended that the line be run out so far in that direction. But, owing to the presence of a hill in that part of the field, upon which the enemy might place batteries and give us much trouble, this salient had to be constructed.”

(7) Maj. H.(ardaway) “Clipping from Virginia Newspaper Probably the Whig, in May, 1864” Museum of the Confederacy.   subtitled “Extracts from the Diary of an Officer of Gen. Lee’s Army” Hardaway’s brief description of the position of Johnson’s division.

(8) Lt. Dozzle, Reminiscences, 4, Library of Congress

(9) Captain William Seymour of Hayes Brigade, in his memoirs recalled that it was nearly one AM before Hayes Brigade was in position.

(10) Sgt. Maj. Joseph McMurran, 4th Va. Inf. wrote that passage in his diary entry for May 8th.

(11) Capt. W.W. Old in SHSP Vol. 33 “Trees Whittled Down At Horseshoe”  pg 20-1.

(12) Account of Lt. Dozzle, 33rd Va., Jed Hotchkiss papers, Library of Congress.

(13) McHenry Howard.

(14) Official Report on the Battle of Spotsylvania by Brig. Gen. James Lane Sept. 16, 1864. Here Lane states that when was ordered to the left on May 11th, he did not like the position. Seeing that he could get a more commanding position as well as shorten the line while connecting with Steuart’s brigade he asked permission to move. One of his regiments, the 28th NC formed close to Steuart in the “double sap” thrown up by Johnson’s Pioneer Corps, it right resting upon a boggy piece of ground.

(15) I believe that when Gen. Lee made this comment the “Mule Shoe” had not been created. That he was commenting on Ewell’s line as originally constructed. More or less a straight line from the end of the 1sts Corps line out to the Landrum House.

(16) Col. Thomas R. Carter, Letter to Major John W. Daniel, Oct. 11, 1904. UVA, Alderman Library, John W. Daniels papers, box 23.

(17) Captain William Seymour of Hayes Brigade, in his memoirs recalled that it was nearly one AM before Hayes Brigade was in position.

(18) The ditch remains perfectly visible today in front of Dole’s line. It measures 417 feet from end to end. This is almost certainly the frontage held by the brigade when it resumed its position the night of the 10th.

(19) Account of Lt. Dozzle, 33rd Va., Jed Hotchkiss papers, Library of Congress. According to Lt. Dozzle the work was completed by dawn on the 11th.

(20) John Purifoy “History of the Jeff Davis Artillery” Alabama Dept. of Archives and History. ” Immediately in front of the left hand pieces, which bore in the direction the assault was expected, the approach of the federals could not be seen far because the line of fortification had been placed below the crest of the hill, and on the opposite side from the expected approach of the Federals.From the works to the crest of the hill was but a short distance, and until the enemy appeared above the crest, their approach could not be seen, hence the guns would have but a short time to play on an approaching column after it made its appearance. For this reason, at this point, the works were badly sited.”

(21) Maj. H.(ardaway) “Clipping from Virginia Newspaper Probably the Whig, in May, 1864” Museum of the Confederacy.  Although subtitled “Extracts from the Diary of an Officer of Gen. Lee’s Army” there is no doubt that it is Maj. Robert Hardaway’s Diary. Detailed account of the movements of his battalion from the time they left camp on May 4, 1864 until his wounding May 12.

(22) Col. Thomas Carter, Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume 21, pages 239 – 242. Carter wrote ” So defective was it that in the battle of the 10th in order to confront that onset I had to transfer the guns and caissons from the inside and right of the toe of the horseshoe to the corresponding positions outside of the works, with our backs to the enemy at this point…..”

(23) Gen. Lee to Gen. Ewell, OR Series I, Volume XXXVI/2. ” …..if no flanking arrangement a ditch had better be dug on the outside and an abatis made in front.”


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, Bloody Angle, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Johnson's Division, Jone's Brigade at Spotsylvania Courthouse, McHenry Howard, Mule Shoe, Steuart's Brigade, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Face of the Mule Shoe

  1. Mark Labeda says:

    Russ – I have enjoyed your articles about the bloody angle. do you ever conduct tours?


    • Russ says:

      Thank you for the kind words, its been a labor of love. To answer your question, yes, I do occasionally conduct tours. Individually or small groups, what did you have in mind?
      BTW: My current project is to create a time line of all the input or orders to the artillery on the 11th, or early morning of the 12th.


  2. Daniel R says:

    Fascinating blog, well thought out, well researched. I was wondering why the Confederates chose the mule shoe formation when I ran into this gem. May I refer to this article as a reference for a book I’m writing, section on Irish Brigade at Spotsylvania?


    • Russ says:

      Thank you very much for the kind words they are very much appreciated. Of course you may use anything I post as a reference for your work. I will look forward to seeing what you are doing, please let me know when it becomes available.
      IMHO Spotsylvania is a battle that hasn’t received its due from historians in the past. Its good to see people such as yourself adding to the research.

      BTW: One of my ancestors, 1st Lt. Benjamin Close Maxwell, was in command of tanner’s Battery that morning of May 12. I’ve written about them a bit in the past. Like so many in wartime, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
      All the best.
      Russ Edwards


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