Ask them about Gettysburg, and they’ll eagerly rattle off Chamberlain’s inspired bayonet charge at Little Round Top or the artillery barrage proceeding Pickett’s Charge. Ask them about the Siege of Vicksburg, and they’ll discuss the Anaconda Plan and Grant’s effective stubbornness.
Then ask them about Spotsylvania.
They’ll grow quiet, thoughtful and somewhat reluctant to march through the order of battle. Press the subject, and they’ll hurriedly spit out “Bloody Angle”.
The Civil War (or War Between the States if you identify with the losing side) stands as a tragedy in slow motion for many reasons. Brother against brother to end the enslavement of a race, of course. But the numbers. 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.