Ever since May 13, 1864 the story has been that the reason for the Federal armies initial success the previous day was the defenders lack of artillery support. This it was said had allowed the Federals to quickly smash through the defenses and not only capture 20 pieces of artillery, but annihilate one of the premier divisions in Robert E. Lee’s vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. Certainly there were other factors mentioned, wet powder for example, or poor visibility. Nevertheless most sources claims all go back to the lack of artillery. That it was Lee’s decision to withdraw the artillery which led to the Federals being able to quickly break thru the defenses of the Salient on May 12.
But is that the real story? Or, is it just the quick answer to a more complex problem? One that is indicative of a complete misinterpretation of the situation by the Confederate command? If so was that mistake at the divisional, corps or army level?
When the Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division occupied the position we have come to call the “Mule Shoe” he did so with five brigades. The “Stonewall” Brigade of Brig. Gen. James Walker held the “West Angle” and connected with Rodes division to their left. The Louisiana Brigade commanded by Col. Zebulon York. (1) To their right was the armies other Louisiana Brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Harry Hayes. (2) (3) On the right of the Louisianans was the Virginia brigade commanded by Col. William Witcher . (4) These men held the “East Angle” and the area immediately on either side of it. On the far right was the last brigade, that of Brig. Gen. “Maryland” Steuart. These units, along with the accompanying artillery, held a line that followed the contour of a ridge before turning sharply to the right.
This line had only been directly attacked once during the several days that it was held before the 12th. On the afternoon of the 10th, the understrength Federal division of Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott had made a premature assault designed to support Upton’s attack on Dole’s Salient and been quickly and roughly repulsed. While Upton’s success had exposed the tactical dangers of Johnson’s position they were evidently overlooked. Instead it focused Confederate attention on strengthening Dole’s former position even at the expense of the “Mule Shoe”.
As a result of this fixation fresh forces, both infantry and artillery were moved into position. Hayes Louisiana brigade, now commanded by Col. William Monaghan was pulled out of its position near the “East Angle” and placed in the trenches formerly occupied by first Dole’s then Pegram’s Brigades. (5) The last two batteries of artillery in the Corps which had yet to be committed were moved into positions near the “West Angle”. These batteries were expressly tasked with enfilading the field over which Upton had charged. No attempt was made for them to cover the area to their right.
Of course during the late afternoon of the eleventh Lee issued orders to Gen. Pendleton to prepare for a movement by the army away from Spotsylvania. And as a result of a meeting with the senior commanders of the Second Corp, most of the artillery along Johnson’s front was withdrawn. Only Cutshaw’s two batteries would remain, they however were positioned so that they could have no impact on the Federal assault on the next morning.
The estimated strength of Johnson’s Division was between 5 and 6000 men. Originally four brigades, a fifth, Hayes Louisiana Brigade had been added since the Wilderness. But because of the death of Leroy Stafford at the Wilderness the two Louisiana Brigades were combined under the command of Brig. Gen. Hayes. When the “Mule Shoe” position was formed at Spotsylvania the line consisted, from left to right of Walker – Stafford – Hayes – Witcher – Steuart.
Because of the Louisianians consolidation the strength of the brigades was relatively equal across the front. Walker, holding the “West Angle” and connecting with Rodes right, had between 1050 and 1100 men in his Virginia regiments. Stretching across the gentle swale to the right were the Louisianians. When the campaign started the combined strength of these two brigades had been approximately 1600 men. Of these about 400 had been lost in the Wilderness, leaving about 1200. This was divided roughly equally between the two brigades. At and on both sides of the “East Angle”, Witcher’s Virginia Brigade had started the campaign as the largest brigade in the division with over 1800 men. Despite the heavy losses at the Wilderness it still had about 1250 men and was numerically second only to Steuart’s. Steuart’s regiment held the northeastern leg of the fortifications and did not connect to the Third Corps on the high ground across the McCoul Branch. His regiments could muster almost 1400 men when they arrived at Spotsylvania.
From this we can conclude that there were originally almost 2500 men manning the works between the “Stonewall Brigade” at the “West Angle” and Steuart’s Brigade on the northeast leg of the “Mule Shoe”. When Hayes Brigade was moved on the morning of the 11th, 650 of those men departed, leaving approximately 1800 men along this stretch of line. To fill the gap the remaining Louisianans were ordered to extend to their right.
At the same time one of Witcher”s regiment was moved to the extreme right of Steuart’s line. There they would be on picket to cover the gap between the division’s right and Wilcox’s Division of the 3rd Corps. Wilcox would move Lane’s North Carolina brigade to his left to close the gap as well.
In addition when the blow fell in the predawn of the 12th Witcher had two more regiments missing from the line. One on picket, and one in the process of relieving them. (6) So only 3 of Witcher’s 6 regiments were available. Given that his total was 1250 men before the battle and if we assume that each of his regiments was the same size that leaves him with a total of about 625 men in the trenches. Even this number may be generous. Two of the three regiments in the line had been severely mauled in the Wilderness. At the time the assault started Steuart’s men had not moved leftward to fill the gap left by the missing regiments.
In short, now we have about 1175 men maximum, (7) or about the strength of one average brigade, without artillery support, to confront Hancock’s assault. Due to the fact that the attack did not hit the line squarely (8) it did not have the initial strength of an entire Federal Army Corps. But it certainly must have had a profound physiological impact on the defenders. Judging by the number of survivors from the Louisianans on Witcher’s left they may have, at least in part, abandoned the works before the Federals reached them. It is a maxim of warfare that the attacker needs three times the force of the defender to take a position. While the fortifications may have been strong, the numerical odds clearly favored the attacker here. It’s no wonder that the Federals were surprised at the relatively slight resistance. Several comments were made of the weak resistance, that the obstacles would have been difficult to penetrate if they had been adequately covered by fire.
So was the Federal breakthrough solely due to the lack of artillery? Or was it the fact that the Confederates had seriously weakened the toe of the “Mule Shoe” to stiffen the defenses at Dole’s salient?
(1) This brigade had been commanded by Brig. Gen. Leroy Stafford when the campaign started. However Stafford had been killed in the Wilderness. Command had been assumed by his senior regimental commander
(2) Hayes would not be present at the time of the main attack. He had been wounded on either the 10th or 11th and left the field. Command apparently was then taken by Col. William Monaghan.
(3) The two Louisiana brigades were combined under the command of Gen. Hayes on May 8th. It is not clear whether they were still combined from the time of Hayes wounding until his former brigade was shifted to Dole’s Salient on the morning of May 11.
(4) This command had also lost its commander in the Wilderness. Brig. Gen. Jones had been killed while recklessly exposing himself there.
(5) Its interesting that Pegram was replaced by Monaghan. By removing Pegram from the line they restored the integrity of Gordon’s/Early’s Division, the reserve. But they weakened the toe of the salient, without shortening the line. This brings up some interesting speculation. Hayes brigade had been shifted to Johnson’s division to make room for Gordon as he outranked Gordon. Now that Haye’s was incapacitated the way was clear for his brigade to be returned to its rightful division.
(6) Every brigade had units on the picket line, as well as casualties and sick. How much this would have altered the numbers is impossible to say.
(7) All the numbers shown are based on the information in Alfred Young’s book. “Lee’s Army during the Overland Campaign, a numerical study”. A valuable tool for understanding what happened during the campaign.
(8) The left flank of the lead division actually passed down the front of Steuart’s Brigade. Taken under fire they were initially repulsed, if only briefly. The right division had not been engaged by the time that the center had broken over the works.