Withdrawing the Guns – Creatures of Habit?

Much has been made over the last one hundred and fifty years about the withdrawal of the artillery from the “Mule Shoe” on May 11, 1864. Or more accurately, the artillery which could have been at the point that Hancock’s Federal Corp struck the next morning. The generally accepted reason given is that Gen. Lee anticipated the Federals moving away from Spotsylvania Courthouse during the night. If they did so he  did not want the guns to hinder the movement of the infantry away from the lines around the Courthouse.  In fact the Federals did not move but instead attacked the apex of the “Mule Shoe”. It was this miscalculation which, according to most people, certainly most Confederates, led directly  to the initial disaster on May 12.

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

Disposition of Second Corps Artillery Battalions at sunset May 11, 1864

So lets take a look at that event and see if we can perhaps dig a little deeper as to why it may have happened.

First to be clear while guns were certainly withdrawn it is incorrect to say “the” guns were withdrawn from the “Mule Shoe”. On the afternoon of the 11th there were 46 Confederate cannon within the boundaries of the “Mule Shoe” Salient. (1) Of these guns only 26, from Nelson’s and Page’s battalions would be withdrawn later that afternoon. Therefore 20 cannon, from Cutshaw’s and Hardaway’s battalions, still remained in the Salient when Hancock struck the  next morning. While still a formidable force unfortunately for the Confederates none of them were able to take Hancock’s assault force under fire before they broke through the line. The repositioning of forces following Upton’s charge, combined with the preperations for a march away from Spotsylvania had seen to that.

The manner in which the  withdrawal of guns was executed however is quite interesting. The premise for this is generally given that  “those guns which were difficult to access” were to be withdrawn. An additional justification is that it was predicted to be “a dark rainy night”. Both reasons appear, at least on the surface to be quite reasonable. Yet Brig. Gen. Armistead Long, commander of the artillery of the Second Corp is singled out for criticism, albeit in a left-handed way, for withdrawing  guns prior to the order to march. Of course this is because of the disaster on the morning of the 12th. It is seldom mentioned that the sector the guns were withdrawn from had been relatively inactive. Nor is it mentioned that as a result of Upton’s charge the same sector had been devoid of guns at the same time the previous day. But the comparison is always made to Brig. Gen. Porter Alexander, Gen. Longs counterpart in the First Corps. Alexander, although making preparations to move choose not to withdraw any of his guns prior to the movement of the troops. Interestingly enough Col. Lindsey Walker of the Third Corps is not mentioned in the matter. Preliminary research indicates that he, like Alexander, chose not to withdraw guns from the line.

So why did Gen. Long chose to withdraw those particular guns? Was it simply that they were “difficult to access”?, or perhaps the luck of the draw? Before we address that question I must say that in succeeding posts we will look at the subject of a proposed march in much more detail.  However first to understand what happened we need to go back a few days to the Battle of the Wilderness.

May, 7, 1864. The day before the Second Corps marched from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Courthouse. By now both armies had decided that this battle was over. The Confederates were trying to anticipate Grant’s next move so that they could preempt it. As a result preparations were made to move the army.

While it is certainly true that the battle of the Wilderness was primarily an infantry fight it was not exclusively so. On the front of the Second Corps all five artillery battalions were ultimately involved. Casualties, while not heavy did include Col. J. Thompson Brown, who was killed by a Federal sharpshooter on the 6th. Col. Brown, along with Col. Thomas Carter had been given command of a division of the artillery, reporting directly to Gen. Long.

On the afternoon of the 7th, Gen. Long ordered the battalions of Cutshaw , Hardaway and Nelson to withdraw their battalions to the vicinity of Verdiersville. The last of these units would arrive and go into camp at around 2 am the morning of the 8th. From there these battalions would march at 1 P.M. that same day by a separate route from the infantry. Their route would take them by way of Antioch Church on Terry’s Creek, to the North Anna and finally they would camp on the Po River near Shady Grove the evening of the 8th. They would not arrive at Spotsylvania Courthouse until sometime on the 9th.

Meanwhile the remaining battalions of Carter Braxton and R.C.M. Page marched with the infantry on the more direct route toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. Note that only two battalions marched with the three divisions of infantry, not the customary one per division of infantry. These batteries arrived near the Courthouse along with the infantry late on the afternoon of the 8th.

Now lets move back forward to the afternoon of the 11th. The artillery of the Corps is distributed as follows. Braxton’s Battalion is in reserve near the Courthouse as are the heaviest guns in the Corps, the 20 lbers of the Rockbridge Artillery from Hardaways battalion. Smith’s battery from Hardaways Battalion is in camp refitting and recovering from the hammering it had taken on the 10th.  The Salem Artillery, also of Hardaway’s Battalion,  had yet to join the army, being delayed because of a lack of horses.

The remaining two batteries of Hardaway’s battalion, along with Garber’s battery of Cutshaw’s Battalion were in the line in front of the Harrison House. They were in direct support of Rodes Division. Cutshaw’s remaining two batteries along with the entirety of Nelson and Page’s Battalions were in support of Johnson’s Division in the toe of the “Mule Shoe”.

Gen. Long was evidently instructed to remove those guns difficult to access late in the afternoon of the 11th. (2) He then went to Col. Carter and instructed him to withdraw Nelson and Page’s battalions to their camps for grazing and water. (3) He also met with Maj. Wilfred Cutshaw and ordered him to have his horses brought up from behind the second line. (4) While preparations were to be made for a move he was not to move before the infantry did. (5) Similar instructions would later be given to Maj. Hardaway.

With the withdrawal of Col. Carter along with the battalions of Neslon and Page the infantry were, like in the Wilderness, left with two battalions to march with them. Neither of these battalions had accompanied them on the march to Spotsylvania. Which would fit the  standard procedure of rotating the order of march. Units were rotated if at all possible to share the hardship of bringing up the rear.

As darkness fell on May 11th the artillery dispositions of the Second Corps, as it anticipated moving away from Spotsylvania,  were thus roughly the same as they had been before leaving the Wilderness. Was this coincidence or by design? Of course we will never know because they did not march that day. When they did move later the battalion organization was totally different.  So again was Gen. Long a “creature of Habit?”

The next post tentatively titled “The March that Never Happened” will look at the prospects for the Second Corps moving away from Spotsylvania on the night of May 11/12.



(1) Hardaway had 8, Cutshaw 12, Nelson 12, Page 14.

(2) The term “evidently” is chosen deliberately as there is a great deal of confusion on this point. Whether it was in the form of an order or a suggestion is not clear. Plus as will be addressed in a later post it was not at all clear that the army would be moving that night, in fact probable it would not.

(3) Carter was in charge of the guns within the “Mule Shoe”. Perhaps this why he told Maj. Hardaway that his guns were to be withdrawn. Hardaway, evidently doubting those instructions, went to Gen. Long himself and found that Carter was wrong. He was, like Cutshaw, to only move when the infantry did.

(4) This would be what we today call Gordon’s Line, not the reserve line running about a hundred or so yards behind Rodes right and extended across the McCoull Lane on the 11th

(5) Gen. Long had personally supervised the placement of Carrington and Tanner’s batteries only a few hours earlier. In fact he had placed Tanner’s battery in a position he had chosen over the objections of Maj. Cutshaw and Gen. Walker commanding the Stonewall Brigade.


About Russ

Avid student of military history as well as amateur historian. Has a keen interest in archaeology. Founded his company Roadraceparts.com in 2004.
This entry was posted in artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Bloody Angle, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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