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McGowan’s Brigade at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle
by Mac Wyckoff
Precisely ten years ago (May 12, 1989) today I found a gentleman staring out across the fields in front of the Confederate works at the Bloody Angle. He explained that he had visited this spot years before and had been reading everything he could find in preparation for a visit on the 125th anniversary of the battle, but he had trouble understanding the why question. As he stood there that morning it suddenly hit him that he had remembered the ground as being flat and now he saw that in front of the Confederate breastworks was a swale that ran almost parallel to the Southern lines for 200 yards. He now understood why the Yankees could launch wave after wave of assaults from that nearby protected spot. The preserved subtly of the terrain at the Bloody Angle helped answer his question of why history took the path it took.
There is a second part of the riddle as to why the Confederates were able to endure twenty hours of fighting against overwhelming numbers that may be more obscure to the casual visitor. Union General Horatio G. Wight (in his third day of commanding the VI Corps) did not coordinate the Union attacks and the Bloody Angle was held by tough, experienced Southern soldiers. This essay focuses on the role played by McGowan’s Brigade of South Carolinians.
McGowan's Brigade consisted of the Orr’s Rifles, 1st, 12th, 13th, and 14th South Carolina. By May of 1864 they had become some of the premier shock troops of General Robert E. Lee’s army. At the Wilderness on May 6th as the Confederate lines collapsed along the Orange Plank Road, the Confederate chief had asked General Samuel McGowan “is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” McGowan replied that his men were not whipped and would fight again as well as ever. The 1,300 South Carolinians would have ample opportunity to renew their reputation in Lee’s eyes only six days later.
The morning of May 12, 1864 dawned rainy and foggy on the Spotsylvania battlefield. At the first hint of light, the Union II Corps burst out of the woods and broke open a huge gap in the Southern defenses at the tip of a bulge in the Southern lines known as the Mule Shoe. A counter attack soon restored Confederate control along the east face of the salient. North Carolinians and Alabamians soon recaptured part of the west side. At 8:00 a.m. a significant gap still existed in the Rebel defenses.
Robert E. Lee personally tried to lead forward Harris’ Mississippi Brigade until they convinced Lee to go to the rear. The Mississippians struggled forward to a point near the West Angle of the Mule Shoe. Still a significant sized gap in the Confederates existed to their right. The Confederate commander found one more unit to rush into the maelstrom at the West Angle.
As Samuel McGowan led his men forward he was shot down at the Confederate reserve line some 80 yards from their goal of reaching the main line. In the confusion and "fog of battle", the senior colonel, Joseph N. Brown of the 14th South Carolina, did not know that he commanded the brigade. Remarkably, the brigade surged ahead without a brigade leader. They had followed the path of least resistance in tracing the steps of Harris' men. Reaching the rear of the Mississippians', the South Carolinians came under a flank fire of the 26th Michigan who held the higher ground and were partially entrenched. Under a deadly fire, McGowan's men slowly moved to their right front eventually dislodging the Michigan boys and occupying the trenches.
Here the fight stabilized into a bloody slugfest. Wave after wave of Union attackers came out of the gully to within yards of the Southerners. The long range of Civil War weapons normally kept the antagonists well apart, but hand-to-hand combat occasionally occurred. Because of its extreme intensity, the soldiers could not keep it up for long. Twenty minutes was a long time for such close warfare. What is totally unique in the Civil War was that this fight which pitted about 2,500 Mississippians and South Carolinians against thousands of Federals lasted twenty hours!
Across the earthworks on this 200 stretch of the line centered at the West Angle, soldiers shot, clubbed, stabbed and hacked at their foe through rain and mud. Not even lightning strikes and darkness put an end to the struggle. While the Yankees shuffled men back and forth between the ravine and the front line, the Mississippians and South Carolinians in the trenches had no relief, no support and a gap in the Confederate lines still existed to their right. Maybe most remarkably, the South Carolinians also lacked experienced commanders. The majority of the day was fought with a new commander of the brigade and of all five regiments that had gone into action at The Wilderness a week before. Junior officers stepped up to hold the men in place as they courageously fought on until receiving orders just before daylight to fall back to a new position.
The Bloody Angle fight, essentially a Confederate delaying action, had ended. McGowan’s Brigade had not only redeemed themselves in the eye of Robert E. Lee, they had saved Lee’s army. Yet no monument pays tribute to the remarkably efficient and courageous effort given by those South Carolinians on this day 135 years ago. Perhaps it is now time to begin raising money to erect a fitting memorial to their sacrifice.
Mac Wyckoff has been a historian at Fredericksburg and Spotyslvania National Military Park for thirteen years. He has written books on the 2nd and 3rd South Carolina of Kershaw’s Brigade as well as several essays on South Carolinains. In 1988 he started an annual state wide conference on South Carolina Civil War History.
For more information, see Robert K. Krick's article "An Insurmoundtable Barrier between the Army and Ruin: The Confederate Experience at Spotsylvania" pages 80-126 in The Spotsylvania Campaign, edited by Gary W. Gallagher. Also see The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern by Gordon Rhea.
Written by Mac Wyckoff, 1989
[Used by permission of the author]
Until 12 May 1864, this shattered stump was a large oak tree in a rolling meadow just outside Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. That morning, 1,200 entrenched Confederates, the front line of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, awaited the assault of 5,000 Union troops from the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac. Twenty hours later, the once-peaceful meadow had acquired a new name, the Bloody Angle. The same fury of rifle bullets that cut down 2,000 combatants tore away all but twenty-two inches of the tree's trunk. Several of the conical minie balls (bullets) are still deeply embedded in the wood. Unusual objects of war, such as this tree stump, come to symbolize the horror and heroism of a great battle. Originally presented to the U.S. Army's Ordnance Museum by Brevet Major General Nelson A. Miles, the stump was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1888.