Troops were killed by thrusts and stabs through chinks in the log barricade, while others were harpooned by bayoneted rifles flung javelin-style across it…Rain fell, slacked, fell again in sheets, drenching the fighters and turning the floor of their slaughter pen to slime. Down in the trenches, dead and wounded men were trampled out of sight in the blood-splotched mud by those who staggered up to take their posts along the works…
~Shelby Foote, Red River to Spotsylvania
The Civil War remains a tragedy in slow motion for many reasons. Brother against brother to end the enslavement of a race, of course. But the numbers are overwhelming.
Bloodiest battle in American history? Gettysburg (over 51,000).
Bloodiest day in American history? Antietam (nearly 23,000).
But if you assess a battle by all-out savagery and despair, then there’s no comparison: the Battle of Spotsylvania and the Bloody Angle. The Bloody Angle at Spotsylvania can arguably be considered the most savage fighting not only in American history, but in human history (at least since the Lydian and Greco-Persian Wars 2500 years ago).
From May 6 to the 21st, Generals Grant and Lee engaged in the first of the final battle of the Civil War, at a cost of 30,000 men, with most casualties inflicted in 24-hour period in a narrow swamp of mud, blood and fortified breastworks known afterwards as the Bloody Angle.
And Indiana was there.
Before Spotsylvania, the 14th Indiana Volunteers, or the Gallant Fourteenth, were as seasoned and decorated as any regiment in the Civil War. In 1861, 1100 Hoosiers assembled in Terre Haute, Indiana, forming one of six Indiana regiments. Originally enlisted for a single year of service, that was extended to three years per President Lincoln’s order.
For the first year, the Gallant Fourteenth fought little, primarily as a reserve unit for skirmishes or ancillary positions in larger battles. It wasn’t until the Battle of Antietam in the Fall of 1862 that the regiment had a chance to earn its reputation. Along with three other regiments, Indiana’s Gallant Fourteenth became known as part of the “Gibraltar Brigade” for its uncanny ability to hold ground.
The regiment’s iron fortitude would be demonstrated again and again in subsequent battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Only at Gettysburg would the Gallant Fourteenth suffer its first heavy losses, 123 casualties in those three sweltering days of July, 1863.
The Indiana regiment joined Grant’s Army of the Potomac in several battles of the Civil War’s Eastern Theatre. At that time, President Lincoln had handed control of Union forces to General Grant. The short, gristly man drank too much, swore too much and was hardly a popular general. Even today, he remains a controversial figure, especially among “Lost Cause” myth proponents.
President Lincoln admired Grant greatly, trusted him even more, and recognized that his new lieutenant general understood the only effective method of defeating Lee: to fight and fight and fight and fight…and win by attrition. The Union had far more men and resources than the Confederacy. Throw enough at them, and the Union would win. Brutal and simple.
Grant and the Army of the Potomac would spend the remainder of the war mercilessly chasing Lee across the South, inflicting and suffering heavy losses, but steadily weakening Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The Battle of Spotsylvania is generally considered a stalemate or inconclusive, but if General Grant’s strategy of attrition were considered, then it was a narrow Union victory. Lee lost 20% of his forces while Grant lost 16%. Grant could easily replace his losses while Lee would struggle. Caught up in that cold calculation was Indiana’s Gallant Fourteenth.
War in the wilderness of the South before reconnaissance technology was like a game of armed Marco Polo. Each side waited for the slightest hint of movement and then attempted to spring first. In this case, both sides raced for the town of Spotsylvania, a small town in northern Virginia. Like many other battles in the War, the strategy was simple: get there first and dig in.
No army could beat Lee’s for speed and efficiency and although Grant tried his damndest, Lee beat him to the town and hurriedly constructed fortifications.
Delay after delay slowed the Union. A popular general sighted the nearby Confederate line, ignoring his staff’s requests for him to step back, out of sniper range. Defining irony for all eternity, the general famously declared, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” and then dropped dead, shot neatly below the eye by an enemy sniper.
By the time Grant had arrived and began reinforcing his own position, Lee had constructed a fortified line of earthworks and breastworks four miles long, complete with artillery placement. A head-on attack would be suicidal.
The only weakness in Lee’s position, and where the Gallant Fourteenth were headed, was to a bump, or salient, in Lee’s line nicknamed the Mule Shoe Salient. Here, the line twisted and bent through the heavy trees, allowing an opponent to attack a single position from several sides at once.
Grant did just that. Mustering several brigades and roughly 15,000 men, Grant ordered a massive attack at a single position in the line. At 4:30 in the morning, as night into the gray-blue murkiness of early dawn, 15,000 Union soldiers obliterated a half-mile chunk of the Confederate line, plunging through to the interior of the Mule Shoe.
But the speedy success was short-lived. Thousands of soldiers stood inside the salient, unsure of the next step. The success came so quickly that orders hadn’t yet dispersed. This delay gave the Confederacy enough time to reform their line and, suddenly, thousands of gray-uniformed soldiers stood in the way of the Union victory.
The advantage was lost, and the Bloody Angle was born. Among the Northern troops caught in this confused mass was the Gallant Fourteenth, commanded by Colonel John Coons, fearlessly mounted and calming his regiment, watching the rebels hurriedly reinforce their line.
Rain fell. The dirt turned to mud and the mud to a red, bloody mess as the two armies spent the next twenty hours snarling like rabid dogs over a short trench of improvised breastworks. The heavy rain wetted their gunpowder, making many rifles useless for anything but bayoneting or clubbing. Thousands of men fought without thought, gnashing, tearing, gouging at one another. Soldiers attempted to climb the fortifications, only to fall from a gunshot, slip on the blood-soaked logs or be yanked down and engulfed by enemy hands.
Fighting eventually became hand-to-hand, with small logs separating the two sides by mere inches. Thousands of bullets whizzed in from the rear, fired blindly and smashing the surrounding oak trees. In fact, every tree within firing range of the battle fell, so intense was the exchange. One chunk of these oak trees now sits in the Smithsonian Institute, the only remains of a two-feet thick oak tree that had been pierced and sheared and finally felled by small arms fire.
Past reason, past purpose, the two sides continued the desperate battle, stoked with fresh bodies by Grant and Lee. Men fell dead and others scrambled over them to fight, only to fall dead themselves. For hundreds of yards, bodies were stacked four deep and used like fleshy staircases to reach the enemy.
“[Bodies] were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment.” Lt. Col. Horace Porter, Grant aide-de-camp.
The Gallant Fourteenth fought bravely but viciously in the melee, under the guidance of Colonel Coons, who remarkably had managed to stay mounted during the fight. Over and over again, he emptied his Colt revolver into the Confederate troops, cursing, cajoling and encouraging his Indiana troops, and calmly reloading the pistol.
But his bravado didn’t last long and the colonel fell under enemy fire, slouching off his horse and slipping into the bloody mud. Later on, troops would find his hastily buried body and send it to his hometown of Vincennes for a proper funeral.
As night came again and the fighting continued at the same furious pace, the Confederate forces began constructing earthworks behind the line, giving their fellow troops a safe retreat. At four in the morning, twenty-four hours after the fighting had started, it slowed and then petered out as the last of the Confederate troops slipped away. The Union did not give chase immediately, but instead licked its wounds and surveyed the horror.
Nearly 20,000 troops fell in those twenty-four hours at the Bloody Angle. Although other battles had seen more casualties, these 20,000 fell within five hundred yards of each other. The imagination staggers at how that field must have looked both during and after the fight. Included in that dead and dying mass were nearly a hundred soldiers of the Gallant Fourteenth.
The carnage of Spotsylvania did not continue. Grant almost never backed away from fights, but after enduring five days of rain, he refused to budge until he had a full day of dry weather. The men were demoralized, the roads nearly impassable, and the fighting degraded into clumsy carnage. Spotsylvania’s moment in military history ended there.
The Gallant Fourteenth would only fight one more battle after Spotsylvania; the Battle of Cold Harbor. In June of 1864, after three years and dozens of battles, the war-weary Hoosiers marched to Louisville, Kentucky. There, the regiment officially dissolved, its remaining soldiers returning to their homes in Indiana.
Over two hundred soldiers of the 14th Indiana Volunteers fell during the Civil War, either from wounds or disease, but its contribution to the war effort and the end of Southern slavery are memorialized with monuments at Antietam and Gettysburg. The Gettysburg monument, standing fourteen feet tall, was carved out of pure Indiana limestone, reflecting both the regiment’s origins and its demeanor.