Was this really a Federal Line? – REWRITTEN April 11 and April 21, May 5.

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This past Monday morning I went out to Spotsylvania to take a closer look at a short line of earthworks near the apex of the salient that had piqued my interest.  Using my smartphone, I record a short video as I walked along the line. While doing so I recorded my impressions of what I saw. To give a little context of the location note the LIDAR photo below. As you will quickly notice there are two lines of earthworks running roughly parallel to each other. Not only are the two lines parallel, but they merge into one line at either end. And taking a closer look at the LIDAR you will see that the rearmost line is on a ridge while the outer line is on lower, undulating ground. To be more specific the lines are at the head of a valley which reaches out toward the Landram House about 800 yards away.

The innermost, or rear, line has generally been thought to have been built by Federal troops. This would have been done sometime during their occupation of the area after the initial charge of May 12. The belief being that it was built to span the gap between the two faces of the main Confederate line which made up the salient. After the initial success Confederate counterattacks had recaptured significant portions of the lost works along each face. Even so, large numbers of men from Hancock’s Second Corps held on to several hundred yards of works along each face of the Salient. By building a line which spanned the gorge they would both shorten the line and make it more effective.

 

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(A) is I believe the deflection point. (B) where the line was adjusted when Steuart’s brigade was swung back (C) the point where all the various lines intersect. (D) Where I believe Steuart refused his original line to cover his flank. (E) Point where the refused flank of Steuart’s original line ends.

During their occupation of the captured works the Federals turned portions of the captured line. Evidence of this is obvious at some points particularly on the East Face of the salient. Along these works they held periodically after the 12th they add traverses which are still visible today. These are most numerous near the original apex. Also, the position and configuration of this line does appear to be well suited for spanning the gap, running as it does along the crest of the ridge which continues in the direction of the Ni River.

This breastwork however has as much if not more in common with those which we are confident are original Confederate lines. They all have a ditch dug on the side facing the interior of the salient.  Traverses do exist along long stretches on each face of the salient. They are found along both faces of the salient. However, neither the line we are discussing nor the line out in front of it show evidence of traverses, with one exception. On the outer line, there is a short segment where the line crosses the mouth of a ravine which is traversed. We do know from accounts by men of Hayes Louisiana Brigade, the Stonewall Brigade, and Steuart’s Brigade that traverses were built by men from those commands. As for Jones’s Brigade, we don’t have direct testimony about that but it would seem logical that they did. Of all these units only the work of Steuart’s men is visible along the east face. That of the Stonewall Brigade begins near the west Angle then continue along the line further west almost to Doles Salient. Few traces remain along the several hundred yards between these two groups.

So, is there anything we can tell from the way it was apparently constructed? Something that would confirm to us whether it was indeed erected by the Federals? The placement of the ditch many times gives us a clue. Then of course traverses or baulks are almost always an even better indicator. In their case they tell us both which side of the parapet was being used for cover and where the occupants perceive the threat to be coming from. In this case neither one is a tool that gives us the answer. The lack of a ditch on the Federal side means nothing. By the same token the ditch on the other side isn’t definitive either. There were large numbers of Federal troops close by for most of the 12th. Being veterans they could have built an earthwork like this relatively quickly. We can imagine that work parties would begin by removing the revetments and other wood from the Confederate works near the apex. Then it would have been a matter of carrying them a short distance, sketching out the line by simply laying them on the ground. Other groups would then quickly have created a parapet by digging a ditch on the side facing the Confederates. The dirt would be tossed in front of or on the piles of logs.  the dirt onto the rails. When not under fire this is the generally accepted way of creating a breastwork. Troops are reluctant to do it however when under fire. As to the lack of traverses that isn’t definitive either. Perhaps the occupants felt no need for them. That they were not exposed to enfilading fire. Certainly, there is no evidence of traverses on the exterior of the line all the way to and beyond the West Angle. The same isn’t true along the east face where the Confederates of Pegram’s brigade were occupying large portions of the works.

If not a Federal work, what are the possibilities that it was constructed by the Confederates? Having shot the video, it seems more likely that the line was originally Confederate, built on the higher ground when the lead brigades of Johnson’s division took position along the ridge on the evening of May 8th.

When Lee’s army arrived near Spotsylvania Courthouse it assumed a blocking position west of the village. Cavalry had been fighting a delaying action since the previous afternoon as it fell back under pressure from the Federals. Their final position was astride a low ridge which straddled the Brock Road near its intersection with the Old Court House Road.

The infantry of the First Corps, hastened forward by calls for help by the cavalry, arrived just in time to repel the first assault by Federal infantry. The infantry units initially deployed along both sides of the Brock Road. Arriving units extended the line further to the left to match Federal movements.

Next to arrive was the Second Corps whose lead division was under Major General Robert Rodes. Rodes deployed to the right of Kershaw’s division in time to foil a Federal effort to outflank Kershaw’s position. He then counterattacked drove the attackers back a short distance. The fighting was confused in the growing darkness with each side having some success. Finally, each side fell back to what they felt were more defensible positions. Rodes reformed his men and began fortifying along a low ridge which extended generally northward from the Brock Road.

Edward Johnson’s division had been in support of Rodes men but was not directly engaged that afternoon. Once Rodes fell back Johnson moved to take up a position on his right. This lead them up onto the ridge where they followed it as it ran in a northeasterly direction.  Capt. W.W. Old of Johnson’s staff described how they followed the ridge as they moved forward.

” When Rodes had gotten his men in line, and the head of our column had reached his right, upon which we were to form, it was nearly dark. Rodes right rested on the edge of the woods, and to extend his line, we had to go through the woods. We had no guides and no lights, and General Johnson, at the head of his division, in column of four, or double file, I think the latter, began to get his men in line, as best he could. I was riding by his side, and soon we entered the woods, with the division following, we came upon a thicket, mostly pine, so thick that the darkness was almost impenetrable.

I remember well that I kept my hands before my eyes, which were really of no use to me at that time, to protect them, and that more than once I was nearly dragged off my horse by the trees with which I came in contact. Our progress under such circumstances, was necessarily very slow. We knew nothing of the topography of the country, but soon we came to the end of the thicket through which we had been passing for formation, and saw camp fires before us, almost directly in the line of our march. what Federal campfires would have been visible?-ED

This was the first light which we had seen. The ground was examined and General Johnson found we were on the brow of a ridge, which turned somewhat shortly to the right. The camp fires in our front seemed to us to be considerably below the plane of our position, as they were in fact. It was now quite late in the night, and General Johnson deflected his line (A) and followed the ridge, so far as it could be determined in the darkness. Up to the point of deflection, there was room for walker’s Brigade, our left, the Louisiana brigade, and the greater part of Jones’ brigade, so that Steuart’s brigade which occupied our right, extended to the right of this turning point. If it had been extended in a straight line, Steuart’s right would have been very close to, and rather in front of the camp fires which we had seen.” Trees Whittled down at Horseshoe, Capt. W.W. Old SHSP Vol 33 page 20-21.

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the point where Jones brigade line deflects from a straight line to follow the ridge. Currently a foot bridge spans the works there. The curvature of the ridge bends the line slightly to the left as it goes away from the camera. The lefthand parapet is for the adjusted line latter the following afternoon. (B)

“When daylight came General Johnson found his division was on the ridge, and except some slight changes in Steuart’s formation, it so remained,” Trees Whittled down at Horseshoe, Capt. W.W. Old SHSP Vol 33 page 21.[The changes in Steuart’s line were more than slight as his line was bent back at a right angle to the main line as was Jones’ right. This necessitated the rest of Jones’ brigade being moved forward off the ridge to reduce the amount of dead ground as well as taking in the high ground for the artillery to be posted there.]

This video of this line was shot on the fly, and is unscripted, which is painfully obvious.

Before we can accept the fact that this the what Old was talking about when he said Johnson deflected his line there are a couple of questions that need to be answered. First and foremost perhaps is the lack of traverses on the Confederate side, particularly on the southern end. Virtually everywhere else along Johnson’s line we see traverses behind the Confederate works.  The brigades along the west face were targeted by the artillery of Wright’s corp almost from the time the Federal guns took up position along the high ground overlooking their lines. However the traverses on the western face of the salient were built in anticipation not only of artillery but another breaking of the line like Upton had done.  Near the apex and along the eastern face of the salient the reason was somewhat different. The men here, and particularly of Steuart’s brigade along the east face were so troubled by the overshots from the Federal artillery who were effectively in their rear, that they added walls to the rear spanning the gap between the  traverses they had built perpendicular to the works. The effect was that they  created little forts, or rooms side by side along their line.  Also Federal sharpshooters were much closer on the left of the divisions line than in front of the apex. Yet there are virtually no traverses along this line, why?  There do seem to be several along the center and northern section, but certainly nothing like what we see elsewhere. Was it was simply a matter of the Federal artillery not being a threat to anyone occupying these works? Probably not. The line was built when the troops moved into position the night of the 8th. Then the following morning, before the line was adjusted, the Federal artillery in Wright’s corps had not become a nuisance or a danger. The Confederates solved the problem when they moved the line forward. They were then at a point where they, being below the crest, or in defilade, were out of the line of fire.  Anything clearing the crest behind them probably sailed harmlessly out into the field.

McHenry Howard commented on the adjustment to the line. He was most likely speaking about this portion of the line as well.    (continue to page 2 from link at bottom of page)

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Looking southwest along the line, notice the remains of the park road bed on the left, the pedestrian footbridge visible in the background. a possible gun position just on the near side of the trees. The fact that we are on the ridge apparent by the slope to the right.

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 1864, American Civil War, artillery in the Overland Campaign, Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Battle of the Muleshoe, Bloody Angle, Earthworks and trenchs, field fortifications, Hancock's assault on the Muleshoe, Jone's Brigade at Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 12, McHenry Howard, Mule Shoe, Overland Campaign 1864, Steuart's Brigade and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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