Thursday, May 15, 2014

Commemorating the 150th of Spotsylvania Court House

This past Monday I headed to Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park to attend the Sesquicentennial commemoration of the Union attack on the Mule Shoe Salient during the Battle of Spotsylvania. The fighting on May 12, 1864 was some of the most intense and brutal combat of the entire Civil War. An early morning Federal attack by the Union II Corps on Gen. Robert E. Lee's lines at the salient led to an initial breakthrough. The Confederates threw in reinforcements to beat back the Union onslaught. The fighting lasted for twenty-two long hours and resulted in a stalemate. The infamous "Bloody Angle" was the scene of a particularly ferocious struggle. All told, both sides suffered around 17,000 casualties that day.

Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania NMP has offered a myriad of events to commemorate the Sesquicentennial of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Work has been pretty busy in recent weeks, so I had to be selective. Given the prominent place of the Bloody Angle in the narrative of the Overland Campaign, I opted to attend some of Monday's activities at the battlefield.

I headed down I-95 under an early morning sky. Arriving at the battlefield, I couldn't help but notice the difference in weather compared to the same time 150 years ago. The combat at the Mule Shoe Salient took place in foggy, rainy, and muddy conditions. By contrast, the sun on Monday was strong and bright as the day got underway. I was also struck by the number of cars parked along the road around the Bloody Angle stop. A couple hundred hardcore enthusiasts had already come to participate in the pre-dawn hike covering the Union attack, and high turn-out also characterized the tours that I attended. Don't let anyone tell you that the Sesquicentennial is suffering from a lack of interest!

Until Monday, I had never before visited Spotsylvania. I immediately felt chills as I looked out over the ravines and remnants of the earthworks at the Bloody Angle. Here I stood to ponder the enormity of what was happening at that very moment on that very ground 150 years ago. As I have come to learn during the Sesquicentennial, nothing can surpass the feeling of commemorating a battle on the anniversary day.

Red and white carnations covered the remains of the Confederate earthworks at the Bloody Angle.

The National Park Service maintained a "silent sentinel" for 22 hours, May 12-13, to commemorate the 22 hours of non-stop combat at the Mule Shoe Salient.
I attended a two-hour tour at 8 a.m. covering the famous "Lee to the rear!" episode and the Confederate response to the initial Union attack at the salient. We even stopped at the supposed spot where the Rebel commander was urged to turn around and get out of harm's way. At 12:30 I participated in a two-hour hike examining the lesser-known fighting at the east face of the salient, including the site of the Union IX Corps engagement with Confederates under Gen. James Lane. The Park Rangers on both tours were highly informative and helped visitors to make sense of what happened and where. I am always impressed by their knowledge and their professionalism.

Cars lined both sides of the road around the Bloody Angle.

Eric Mink discusses the role of Col. Simon Griffn's brigade (Potter's Division, IX Corps) in the Union attack on the east side of the Mule Shoe Salient. This picture gives a good idea of how large the tour groups were on Monday.
Luckily I found some time to see other sites at Spotsylvania, including the location of Col. Emory Upton's May 10 attack on the Mule Shoe Salient. Following the afternoon hike, I also toured the Wilderness battlefield, where I had the opportunity to visit Saunders Field, the Tapp Field, the site of James Longstreet's wounding, and other well-known spots. I was particularly interested in seeing the Brock Road-Orange Plank Road intersection due to some personally meaningful connections. Everywhere I went on both fields I came across flags and flowers from recent Sesquicentennial commemorations, reminding me that yesterday's sacrifices have not faded from our memory despite the passage of time.

Throughout my personal Wilderness and Spotsylvania tours I relied on the Civil War Trust's Overland Campaign Battle App, which I just installed on my iPhone last week. The app's GPS-enabled map was indispensable to making sure I didn't miss anything I wanted to see.

Monument to Gen. John Sedgwick on the Spotsylvania Battlefield. The Union commander of the VI Corps was killed near here by a Confederate sharpshooter on May 9, 1864.

A visitor placed this lone flower on the monument to Union Gen. Alexander Hays, who fell here on May 5, 1864 during the first day of the fighting in the Wilderness.

The critical intersection of the Brock Road and Orange Plank Road on the Wilderness Battlefield. My ancestor, William Baumgarten, first experienced combat near this spot on May 5, 1864. His regiment, the 102nd Pennsylvania, was part of Gen. Frank Wheaton's brigade of Gen. George Getty's VI Corps division. Getty's men played a key role in defending against Confederate Gen. A.P. Hill's advance on the intersection during the first day of the battle.
Monument dedicated to the First Vermont Brigade at the Wilderness Battlefield. In October 1861, the Vermont Brigade established Camp Griffin near the area where my home now sits in McLean, VA. The men spent the first winter of the war there before heading off to the front. At the Wilderness, the brigade, under the leadership of Col. Lewis A. Grant, also fought as part of Getty's Division at Brock Road. The unit experienced over 1,200 casualties in the battle.
Sesquicentennial events are also social occasions, and this one was no exception to the rule. I had a chance to meet fellow blogger Damian Shiels, who came all the way from Ireland to visit Civil War battlefields and attend the 150th commemorative events at Wilderness and Spotsylvania. I also had the pleasure of meeting John Cummings, who maintains the Spotsylvania Civil War Blog. My friend and Civil War expert Todd Berkoff and I walked together on the first tour, and I appreciated his insights on the battle. I also got to catch up over lunch with Robert Moore, another friend and fellow blogger. He and I joined Damian on the hike of the east side of the salient.

My visit to Spotsylvania on Monday was one of my most meaningful Sesquicentennial experiences. I am pleased that I could walk the hallowed ground at the Mule Shoe Salient to learn about and honor those who fought there 150 years ago. The personal side tour of the Wilderness also allowed me to commemorate the sacrifices that my ancestor made on that battlefield. All told, it was a trip to remember. And now on to Cold Harbor....


Unknown said...

It was great to meet you at the event Ron- hopefully it won't be too long before we rendezvous on another of the battlefields!

Ron Baumgarten said...

Likewise! And see you again out there on the battlefield! Glad you had such a great and rewarding trip.