Throughout the day of May 10 the Federal skirmishers had made life miserable for the gunners of Smith’s Company of the Richmond Howitzers. Not just them but the infantry of Dole’s and Daniels brigades of Robert Rodes Division dug in along that same section of the defensive line near Spotsylvania Courthouse. Shortly before sunset the Confederates were to find out why.
From the time the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia had taken up defensive positions near Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 8th, artillery support had been provided by the two battalions that had accompanied them on the march from the Wilderness. Along Maj. Gen. Robert Rodes line support had initially been provided by the three batteries of Major Carter Braxton’s battalion. The four batteries of Major R.C.M. Pages battalion similarly supported Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division on the right of the corps line. When the remaining three artillery battalions arrived near the battlefield those units could be relieved and given a brief rest. During the early morning hours of the 10th Braxton’s men and guns were quietly withdrawn from their positions along the line. At sunrise on the morning of the 10th three batteries from the newly arrived battalion of Maj. Robert Hardaway occupied those recently vacated positions. However only the light artillery pieces, Napoleon’s and 3 inch rifles, were to be used here, the heavier 20 lb rifles of the battalions remaining battery, the 2nd company Rockbridge Artillery, were placed near the Courthouse where the open fields were more suitable to the range of their weapons.
The light artillery batteries were dispersed into positions along Rodes line in the following manner. On the left was Capt. Lorraine Jones Second Company of the Richmond Howitzers. His guns were placed among the infantry of Ramseur’s Brigade. Approximately two hundred yards and fifty or so yards to the right (1) along the line of Daniels Brigade were the men of Capt. Benjamin Smith’s Third Company of the Richmond Howitzers.interestingly enough there were no guns along thhe line held by Dole’s brigade. the battalions last battery, Dance’s, was in position supporting the left center of Johnson’s Division a short distance to the right. (2)
Smith’s Battery was, like many in Confederate service, although unique within hardway’s battalion, hybrid or mixed battery. That is the type of guns was not uniform. The first section consisted of two-three inch rifles, while two 12 pound Napoleons made up the second section. While this complicated the supply situation it had advantages in the terrain that the units habitually fought in. The 3 inch rifle, when used with good ammunition, had more range and was more accurate, particularly at longer ranges. The Napoleon, with its larger bore, was more effective with canister, therefore better in the short-range defensive role. For this reason perhaps the rifles were placed on the batteries right where it was more open, while the smooth bores were placed on the left closer to the woods which ran up to the line on their left. (3)
To make room for Smith’s guns five companies of infantry from Daniel’s North Carolina brigade had to move from the works. These men who had constructed the positions the artillery assumed would take up new positions in a second line just to the rear of the main line. Connected to the main line by a re-entrant line close to daniel’s right, which ran perpendicular to the main line approximately sixty yards to the rear. This line ended where a farm road separated it from another line of works which ran parallel to the main line. This line ran down the hill toward the Confederate right and like the re-entrant line was intended to provide support for the main line in the evevt of a breakthough along the swale.
Beginning about thirty yards to the left of the re-entrant the positions Smith’s four guns took up was overlooking an open field that sloped slightly downward toward a dense pine woods approximately 300 yards away. Beginning about 200 yards to the left of Smith’s position the Confederate line ran thru a body of oak woods. This section of the Confederate line was roughly straight as far as could be seen. To his right the ground rose slightly to a crest about 225 yards away. The line of works curved out gradually toward the woods until they reached the crest where they turned back to the right. This turn together with a grove of pine trees within the confederate lines prevented a clear view of the positions to the right. Just beyond the crest was a farm road that led out across the field to the woods then on to the Shelton House. Thus the field commanded by the guns was about 300 yards deep by 350-400 yards wide.
As soon as it became light enough to see a target firing between the opposing pickets and skirmishers began. This fighting would continue throughout the day as each side struggled to gain an advantage. During the day the skirmishers from Dole’s Brigade on the right had not been able to push the Federal skirmishers back further away from the Confederate works. In front of Daniel’s Brigade, to their left, was somewhat a different story. On his right, and in front of Smith’s Company, Gen. Daniels had not posted any skirmishers, perhaps because of the open field which could be covered by the artillery. On his left however where the oak woods led right up to his works he had concentrated a considerable number. (4) These men suffered significant casualties from the Federal skirmishers. The result of this odd arrangement was that the Federals were able to penetrate between the groups of Confederate skirmishers to within rifle range of the works. As a result several casualties were suffered among Smith’s men and they were greatly harassed in their efforts to work the guns. By nine o’clock the situation necessitated the gunners of Smith’s Company being ordered to open fire on the Federal skirmishers in the woods. This was a process that would have to be repeated throughout the day. When the Federals would get too aggressive the guns would fire a few rounds of canister to drive them back further into the woods. They also periodically exchanged a few rounds with a Federal battery which was shelling up and down the Confederate line. (5) This Federal battery, while apparently unable to see the Confederate line, poured round after round into the batteries position.
By 2 o’clock the fighting had spread along the line so that brisk skirmishing was going on in front of Ramseur’s Brigade as the Second Company of the Richmond Howitzers watched. To the right where there were no Confederate skirmishers to endanger the Third Company opened fire for a short period. (6) After firing some fifty or sixty rounds the Howitzers “ceased fire” hoping the enemy would do so as well. What the Confederates did not realize was that the increased Federal pressure was designed to drive them out of the woods in Doles front. This was necessary to allow a assault force to assemble within striking distance of the Confederate lines. By about 4 o’clock the Federal skirmishers had gained the upper hand . The Confederates whose line had been barely inside the wood line in the morning were driven completely back out of the woods and into the works by early afternoon. When this fact was reported to Gen. Ewell he recognized the threat this meant to his line and ordered Rodes to have his picket line reestablished at all cost.
Around 4 o’clock Maj. Hardaway was at Gen. Johnson’s position supervising the withdrawal of Capt. Dance’s battery. His battery was removed from the line and replaced by Millredge’s battery of Nelson’s Battalion. It was at this time that Mott’s Division of the Federal Second Corps made the first assault against the “Mule Shoe”. This attack was scheduled to be part of a major assault against the line held by the Confederate Second Corps. In addition to Mott’s division a improvised force under the command of Col. Emory Upton was to assault the salient held by Dole’s Brigade of Rodes division. The plan was for a simultaneous attack by the two forces preceded by a brief but violent artillery bombardment. However almost from its inception the plan began to unravel. Poor staff work by the Federal commanders led to Mott being given multiple unrelated tasks to perform. Tasks that were hardly within the capabilities of his division however. Under strength to begin with, he was also tasked with being the connection between the main army and Burnside’s Ninth Corps. Then Upton was ordered to delay his attack until 6 o’clock. The order if it was sent was not received by Mott however. Right on time his men stepped off and advanced in the general direction of the Confederate lines. Passing the Landrum House his men made little headway against the combined artillery and musketry from the defenders. Seeing that they could not succeed and that the promised support on their right had not charged Mott’s men retreated into the woods behind the Landrum House. A retaliative quiet then resumed on that section of the battlefield.
Shortly before 6 o’clock the quiet was abruptly broken when three Federal batteries opened fire on the Confederate lines between the woods to Captain Smith’s left and the right of Rode’s Division. When the firing started Maj. Hardaway was on the battalions left with Jone’s Second Company of the Howitzers. Maj. Watson was with Capt. Smith’s Company. For ten minutes the Federals shelled up and down the line as vigorously as possible. Fortunately for the defenders most of the shells passed over the line doing little damage. However the trajectory of these shells meant that many of them landed on the slope of the hill on which the Harrison House was located. Gen. Robert E. Lee was evidently meeting with Gen. Ewell there at the time. Men in the line noticed him and focused their attention on him and his actions during the shelling. (7) One shell in particular attracted the mens attention. Crossing the line so close “that it appeared to leave a trail of dust”, it burst close enough to the individual they believed to be Gen. Lee to obscure him from sight. Despite this and several other near misses he calmly watched the Federals thru his binoculars as the shells continued to come in. During this time the Confederate artillery was ordered not to return the fire but to wait for the Federal infantry. With nothing else to do the defenders generally took a seat behind the works. The tired, or perhaps more resigned went to sleep or at least feigned to do so. Promptly at 6 o’clock they ceased fire and all became quiet. The defenders noting the time thought that perhaps the Federal gunners had stopped for their supper.
It was only a few moments later when they were disabused of that hope. From out of the woods in front of the crest to the right burst a body of federal infantry. Several ranks deep they were obviously guiding on the farm road as they headed for the works only a couple of hundred yards away.
Both Smith’s battery and from the left Jone’s company of the Richmond Howitzers enfiladed the right flank of the Federals. (8) The canister rounds swept through the Federal ranks but could not stop them from reaching the Confederate works. It wasn’t long before orders were issued for the guns to “Cease firing – our men are charging!” A long line of Confederates are seen to be rapidly advancing toward the Federal line. The artillerymen jumped up on the works to cheer on the charge. Very quickly someone noticed that those men were not carrying weapons! The supposed charge was actually Confederate prisoners being herded back toward the Federal lines.
Between the prisoners and the guns of Smith’s battery was a large body of Federal troops who have, after crossing the works turned to the right to expand the breech. These men who were rapidly advancing towards the guns but so far to the right that to fire on them would most likely kill as many Confederates as Federals. Still the guns were swung as fair as possible and a few rounds fired into the mass. This slowed their advance but the fire of these four guns was unable to stop the onrushing Federalists.
More dangerous was the fact that the Federals were now gaining the rear of the batteries position. Upton’s plan was that when the line was breached, some of his men would push on to the second line, while others swung right and left. These men would expand the width of the breach and secure the shoulders against a counterattack. The regiments which had swung to the right were driving the Confederate infantry back up the line past Smith’s guns. Others facing little resistance quickly moved past the rear of the battery position. As the infantry support was driven back one by one the guns of Smith’s Battery were in danger of being captured. And the rapid advance of the Federals behind them left the gunners with few options. With no way, or time, to withdraw the guns it was either fight or run. Like good soldiers the gunners obeyed orders and stuck to the guns. In succession first the caisson, then the limber chest and finally the guns of all but gun number four on the extreme left were taken by the Federals. Then the limber chest of that gun was taken as well. Seeing that the situation was hopeless Lieutenant Paine, in charge at the gun, asked the battalion executive officer, Maj. David Watson, “What must be done?” Maj. Watson gave no answer but his expression answered for him, the gun obviously could not be saved. Everyone who was able, officers and men alike, went across the works in front and ran down the line reentering it further down the works. Some went as far as the guns of Captain Jones Second Company. (9) Others joined various infantry units, while others didn’t attach themselves to any group.
Some of the survivors from Smith’s battery joined the infantry of Daniel’s Brigade who were regrouping in the second line. Gen. Ewell ordered these men to counterattack the Federals and recover the guns. This, probably the first counterattack, managed to reach the abandoned caissons of the Howitzers. (10) The Federals inflicted such heavy casualties on this small force that they were quickly driven back.
As these men were reforming under Gen. Ewell’s urging a new brigade under Brig. Gen. Ramseur arrived on the scene from the left. Leaving their position to be covered by Battle’s Brigade extending its line, they quickly took up a line perpendicular to the works. Executing a quick left flank they, along with the survivors of the earlier charge, moved out toward the Federals. Braving the fire they advance until at twenty yards they came to a halt and the two lines blast away at each other. The numerical superiority of the Confederates began to tell and they surged forward and drove the Federals back from the first gun. But the Federals resisted ferociously and had to be driven from the guns one by one. (11) The Confederates had stopped the breakthrough and recaptured the guns but the Federals were far from defeated. They fell back a little more and took shelter behind the re-entrant line and resumed the struggle, bringing the Confederate counterattack to a halt. (12)
As Ramseur’s men had started the counterattack Maj. Hardaway ordered his Adjutant, Lt. Reid, to gather all the men from Smith’s Company he could and to follow him to the guns. As soon as one of the guns had been recaptured the Confederates attempted to put it back into action. The added firepower would be useful in helping to blast the Federals out of the line. But this was easier said then done. The implements to load and fire the guns could not be found, evidently taken with them by Smith’s men when they abandoned the guns. The few artillerymen, and this included both the battalion staff as well as some few men from the Second Howitzers, who returned to the guns had to be supplemented by infantrymen drafted to help. Despite the lack of implements the ad hoc crew of the fourth gun, including Maj. Hardaway as loader, and Lt. Reid as gunner was able to put the piece into action. Opening with canister on the determined Federals at virtually point-blank range. (13) After about seven rounds being fired the next couple of guns had been recaptured. Leaving Lt. Reid in charge of the Napoleon Maj. Hardaway went over to one of the 3 inch rifles. The other Napoleon was bypassed because it had so many bodies around it that it couldn’t be worked. Initially his crew consisted of three infantrymen that he persuaded to assist in working the piece. Working any of the guns was dangerous as anyone at the guns immediately became a target for the Federals. To make matters worse the range was extremely short. Not only were the Federals firing from behind the captured works but from some “pens put up by ambulance men about sixty yards to our right”. (14) For nearly an hour it seemed the two sides infantry plus the Howitzers guns blazed away at each other.
At some point as each side blazed away at each other, Col. Sandie Pendelton, Ewell’s Chief of Staff, brought one of the several reinforcing brigades up near the guns. Seeing his opportunity, Maj. Hardaway ran up to him and asked him to send up the first gunners he could find to help work the recaptured guns. Returning from his mission as guide, Pendelton went to Gen. Lee explaining the situation and also Hardaway’s urgent request for men. Lee turned to the nearest battery, Capt. Asher Garber’s Staunton Artillery for the needed men. (15) The General personally ordered Garber to leave his guns with his drivers and take the gun crews and report to Maj. Hardaway.
Even with the assistance of Garber’s men the fight around the guns was not easy. The Federals were only a short distance away and the disabling of the guns was a life and death priority for them. For the gunners the best defense was to keep the federals heads down with as rapid fire as possible. But this rapid-firing brought its own set of dangers. Not only dangerously heated up the guns but quickly exhausted the supply of ammo and friction primers. Several times the guns had to stop firing so that the men could go back to the caissons and retrieve more supplies. While necessary this exposed the men even more to the deadly musketry. So fierce was the Federal fire there was no thought of bringing the limber chests to the guns. To make matters worse a Federals had opened fire with a battery 600-800 yards to the front. Capt. Garber’s horse was killed by a cannon ball from this battery. Yet while dangerous it was not nearly as much so as the infantry fire.
And that Federal infantry fire was surely effective. Several of the men serving the rifle closest to the Federals were wounded at Maj. Hardaway’s side. By the end of the action Hardaway himself would have nine holes in his clothing and a smashed spy glass. Back at the one operable Napoleon Maj. David Watson along with some men from Jones battery had joined the scratch crew of officers and artillery men left there by Hardaway. But one well-aimed volley from the re-entrant put the gun temporarily out of action. Major Watson was mortally wounded as well as another artilleryman and an infantrymen helping shift the gun was killed. The survivors being too exhausted to continue the fight a litter was found and the Major taken from the field to the Corps hospital. He would die as a result of his wounds five days later. Men from Garber’s or other batteries would man the gun and continue the fight.
The Confederate continued pressure from the infantry was finally able to drive the Federals back enough to take possession of the re entrant. This success only made the artillery’s work more difficult. Because of a curve in the works they could still fire on the Federals still clinging to the works and traverses beyond. But to do so without hitting their own men required careful aiming. For the guns further to the left the problem was even more pronounced. Several times Maj. Hardaway had his hat blown from his head by the muzzle blast of the nearest gun behind him.
While the battle had been raging on this shoulder of the breakthrough, that was not the only struggle. The Federal plan was that once a breach was made in the Confederate line, it would be immediately expanded. While a portion of the force drove straight ahead, others would swing to the left , still others to the right. Then being on the defenders flank, they could roll up the line on either side. The reserve force would be committed to that area where resistance was strongest. Following the plan three regiments had swung to the left and attacked up the line toward the “West Angle”. They were quickly able to rout the two left regiments of the Stonewall Brigade and drive them back as far as the high ground at the “West Angle”. But Johnson’s men had reacted quickly to the threat. The Stonewall Brigade had rallied and with the assistance from neighboring brigades had formed a line along the McCoul Lane. Reinforcements from Witcher’s and Steuarts Brigades along that line engaged in a furious firefight with neither side able to advance. Shortly afterwards R. D. Johnston’s Brigade of Gordon’s Division had attacked across the gorge of the breakthrough and driven the Federals back to the outside of the works. But there the Federals held. The Confederates despite the quick reaction in blunting then rolling back the charge could go no further.
On the Federal side things were looking grim. Despite the initial success Upton and his men could do no more than hang on. This would become more difficult the more power that the Confederates could bring to bear against his dwindling force. Finally realizing that he had committed all his men and that no reinforcements would be coming to his assistance Upton regretfully ordered his men withdrawn back to the wood line.
When the Federals grudgingly withdrew the Confederates, or at least some of them, caught up in the heat of the moment tried to follow-up on their success. Stephen Ramseur’s brigade certainly attempted to do so. In the eyes of some of the artillerymen who saw the action believed that his brigade behaved badly, but not just during the counterattack. Finally reaching the re-entrant they refused to advance further. When the Federals retired across the field to the wood line Ramseur ordered a charge, but none of his regiments moved. Ramseur hoping to inspire the men, leapt over the works, sword in hand, and called for his men to follow him. Again none responded and an embarrassed Ramseur returned to a position of more safety. (16) Little comment was made by those actively involved in this part of the action.
While the guns and most of the equipment of Smith’s battery was still serviceable the battery was certainly in no condition to stay in the line. Smith himself had been captured and about forty men had been lost. Since the position was obviously one requiring artillery support another unit was required.The decision was made to have Capt. Garber and his battery assume the position. So late that evening the exchange of units took place. The Howitzers guns were rolled by hand out of the pits back about 75 to 100 yards. There on the reverse slope they would be safe until they could be removed to camp. Garber’s guns were brought up from the position near the Harrison House and placed into the vacated pits. A guard of 4-5 men under a sergeant from Smith’s Battery was left with the guns to prevent any looting of equipment during the night. The surviving men and horses were allowed to return to the artillery camp where they could get some badly needed rest. (17)
The cost of this action has never been accurately determined. Gen Ewell estimated that his losses were about losses were less than 1000 men. Recent studies suggest that it was more on the order of 1300-1500. Casualties in the Third Company of the Richmond Howitzers were, 3 killed, 12 wounded, and 24 captured. In addition 25 horses were killed. (18) Federal losses were slightly less than the Confederates, perhaps about 1200.
In the early morning both Gen. Lee and Gen. Long visited the scene of the fight the previous evening. Capt. Garber was ordered to remove the Howitzers equipment and take it to the camp. But before they could reach camp they met the acting battery commander Lt. Henry Carter, with some of the battalion’s horses on a similar mission. He took charge of the equipment and the batteries survivor s and equipment was reunited. Later that morning the dead from the battery were buried in soldiers graves outside the camp.
Interestingly enough on May 12th, the guns of Garber’s Staunton Artillery played a pivotal role in the defense against Hancock’s breakthrough at the Mule Shoe. Still occupying the positions they had inherited from Smith’s battery, they were waiting, expecting to move with the rest of Cutshaw’s battalion, as support for Johnson’s Division. The expectation was that Grant’s army was going to move that night and the Confederates would try to interpose themselves in front of him. Col. Cutshaw had received permission from Gen. Edward Johnson to have the battalions horses and sick men sent back to camp that night for feeding and rest.
Unfortunately the horses had not returned when Hancock’ attack broke thru the defenses that morning. Robert Rodes personally ordered Capt. Garber to run his guns to the rear by hand. These guns went into position along the re-entrant line where they opened fire over Pegram’s brigade as it was moving back to the position from which it would launch its counterattack. The Louisiana Brigade formerly commanded by Harry Hayes withdrew from its position along Dole’s former line and joined the guns in stopping the Federals in their effort to roll up the Confederate line in that direction. These guns stayed in position all day firing on various Federal units and guns in front of the Bloody Angle.
In the small hours of the morning of the 13th, the Confederates abandoned the Mule Shoe line. The guns and infantry fell back to the new line in the rear which we today call the “Final Line”. With the exception of perhaps a few skirmishers, or sightseers Confederate troops would never again occupy those positions.
Time and the C(ivilian) C(onservation) C(orps) have changed the look of those positions in the 149 years since they meant life and death to hundreds of men. However if you look closely and follow the accounts of the men who fought over and behind them it is still possible to find where a fair amount of these events took place. Fortunate the re-entrant line and the positions of Capt. Ben. Smith’s Company of the Richmond Howitzers are a couple of those places.
(1) Creed T. Davis Diary, entry for May 10, W. S. White estimated in “A Diary of the War, a history of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion that the distance was 250 yards. That seems more reasonable.
(2) OR Series 1 Volume 46 pt1 Itinerary of Hardaway Light Artillery Battalion
(3) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 243
(4) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion “, page 243
(5) OR Series 1 Volume 46 pt1 Itinerary of Hardaway Light Artillery Battalion
(6) Creed T. Davis Diary, entry for May 10
(7) Charles M. Miller, letter of Feb 23, 1905, John Daniels Collection, UVA, Alderman Library.
(8) Creed T. Davis Diary, entry for May 11
(9) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 245
(10) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 245
(11) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 245
(12) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 245
(13) The Federals claim they couldn’t put the guns into service against their former owners because of a lack of implements. Since W. S. White claimed that some men from the Second Howitzers were at the gun he was initially at perhaps they brought implements. Major Hardaway evidently moved from gun to gun as they were recaptured. Major Watson was at the fourth gun when he was mortally wounded.
(14) Clipping from Virginia Newspaper Probably the Whig, in May 1864″ This article subtitle “Extracts from the Diary of an Officer of Gen. Lee’s Army” is certainly by either Maj. Hardaway or someone writing for him. Very detailed account of his involvement in the important events of May 10-1. His account of May 11th MAY give an entirely different reason for Hancock’s success. Today we can take this account and go almost certainly to each of the points he mentioned.
(15) Two batteries of Cutshaw’s Battalion, one under Capt. Asher Garber the other First Lieutenant Benjamin Maxwell, were posted across the gorge of the breakthrough. Evidently Garber was closest to Lee when Pendelton passed on Hardaway’s request.
(16) Creed T. Davis Diary, entry for May 11
(17) “A Diary of the War a History of the Richmond Howitzer Battalion”, page 249
(18) Richmond Examiner May 16, 1864.