One of the things that makes history so fascinating is trying to not only understand WHAT happened, but WHY it happened. Sometimes its the little things that have major consequences. And because they seemed little things at the time we don’t know much about them.
The incident I am going to describe, should have been just a simple administrative decision. Yet, that simple process profoundly affected the lives of hundreds of men and certainly the results of a battle. Of course it goes without saying that these decisions were made by men doing the best they could with the information and resources they had at the time.
When Lt. S. H. Pendelton (1) awoke Col. Thomas Carter in the early morning of May 12th, 1864 he was delivering orders from the Corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and endorsed by the Corps artillery commander Brig. Gen. Armistead Long. The order was for Col. Carter to return the artillery to the salient where it could support Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division. Carter endorsed the note saying that it was then twenty minutes to dawn but the guns would be returned as soon as possible. He then sent Lt. Pendelton on to Maj. R. C. M. Page to relay the order to return the guns of his battalion to the Salient.
The receipt of this order triggered a burst of activity in the artillery camp on the Trigg Farm. From Page the order had to be passed down to each of the four batteries. Of course to carry out the order both the men and horses, had to be awakened. Then the horses harnessed, attached to guns and vehicles, and brought into line to assemble the march column. All of this in the middle of a dark rainy night with little lighting to ease the process.
While this was being done Col. Carter met with Maj. Page and they discussed the positions that the guns were to take up when they arrived back at the Salient. (2) Both Col. Carter and Maj. Page were familiar with the positions with the Confederate positions within the Mule Shoe. Col. Carter, commanded not only a division of the Second Corps artillery, but had been placed in direct command of the artillery within the Mule Shoe itself by Gen. Long. Maj. Page’s battalion had occupied a position around the apex of the Mule Shoe for the last several days. His men were being sent back to positions in the line that they had left not twelve hours previously.
It is important to note that at this point there was no definite information beyond Gen. Johnson’s fear that the Federals were massing in his front for an attack. Therefore the two commanders decided that the batteries would take up positions from roughly a hundred yards to the left of the apex to the salient where the line turned to run down to Meadow Run. Therefore the batteries would go into position in the same formation they had held the previous day. From left to right the batteries would be in this order, Montgomery, Carter, Fry and Reese. (see attached sketch) So far everything is apparently straightforward.
But it is in the execution of the order that we can begin to ask ourselves “why did they do that”? In describing the march one of the participants described the route to be traveled once the column reached the part of the route that ran behind the Confederate works. In his words it was “the narrow space between the works and the trees”. And of course this would have been further complicated by tree stumps, tents, ammo boxes, etc. In short all of the things that litter a battlefield. So we know that there wasn’t a great deal of room for the vehicles and teams to maneuver. Therefore we would expect Montgomery’s battery, which being supposed to go to the left of the apex, had the furthest distance to travel to lead the way. Then Carter, Fry and finally Reese would bring up the rear of the column.
However Montgomery’s battery did not lead the column as we would suppose. Instead, according to Thomas Carter himself “my brother Willie’s battery leading by turn”. So Carter’s battery was in the lead, Montgomery’s battery followed in the second position. Because there was not enough room to pass Carter’s vehicles, (3) Montgomery’s men would have to wait in column while Carter put his guns in the works. As it turned out only two of Carter’s guns were able to get into position, the remaining two, as well as Montgomery’s entire battery were caught in column and overrun while waiting for the route to be cleared.
We do know that there was at least a brief amount of time after its arrival before the Federals overwhelmed the defenders. Maj. Page pointed out to Capt. Carter the position he was to take. He then moved back down the column and showed the Lieutenants of Fry’s battery as well as Capt. Reese of the Jeff Davis artillery the positions they were to take. He left Reese’s battery and was returning to the apex when he was almost killed or captured by the Federals that had broken thru.
But again the position assigned to the one section of Fry’s battery on the field that morning was not what we would have expected. Certainly the position pointed out by Maj. Page, was not the position they had occupied the day before. Rather as Lt. Hawes stated later they (the two 3 inch rifles)were ” put in position in the “open” before reaching the works made for our guns the day before”. (4) They were placed in a position to fire over the works in front rather than from the prepared gun pits.
Were these changes made by Page, or Carter? Why, given the supposed urgency of the need to return to the Salient was the order of march what it was? Was the habit of rotating the units in a march column so ingrained that they didn’t think about it? (5) Why did they chose a different position for Fry’s guns then the one they had prepared the day before? If they had no definite knowledge of a Federal attack, why did they decide to change positions? We will probably never know the answer unless some document comes to light shedding more light on it. And did it make any difference in the result? We will never know, however Lieutenant S. H. Hawes who commanded one of Fry’s guns had this to say “I believe we could have driven them back had we been in position of day before, provided Jones’ Brigade had protected our flank.” (6) We do know that three of the four batteries fired on the Federals that morning. Only Montgomeries battery evidently did not.
But it is interesting to wonder what drove the decisions those men made that dark rainy morning in Spotsylvania County back in 1864.
(1) Its not clear whether Lt. Pendelton was attached to Gen. Ewell’s staff, or that of Gen. Long. Accounts state it either way, as Pendelton evidently had been involved in some controversy at his previous command.
(2) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. How long did the two men have to make their decisions? While we don’t really know, Lt. Hawes said “we lay waiting for marching orders for about one hour” In the dark with the excitement and activity that figure seems open to question.
(3) Horse drawn artillery is difficult to put into earthworks. First the vehicle has to come up parallel to the works and make a turn to get perpendicular to the works. Then, because of the difficulty in having multiple horses back up, the gun is unhooked from the limber and run by hand into the position. The ammo chest is typically removed from the limber and placed on the ground. Then the limber is driven away. Time consuming business.
(4) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw Oct. 7, 1905. In his letter Hawes described the position before they left it on the 11th. Saying that Carters battery had been to their left, and that earthworks with traverses for the infantry had been thrown up.
(5) It was standard procedure in the Army of Northern Virginia to rotate the units that led a march. For example the unit that was at the rear of a column today, would be in the lead tomorrow.
(6) S. H. Hawes to Wilfred Cutshaw, Oct. 7, 1905. In this letter the former Lt. who had commanded one of the two 3 inch rifles of Fry’s battery that morning, gives an account of the events of the morning. From the time orders were given to have the horses hitched up until he was captured at his gun.