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Wisconsin in the Civil War

Death and Destruction at Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle

The Battle of Spotsylvania, Virginia, in May 1864 pitted 100,000 Union troops against 52,000 Confederates. The fiercest fighting occurred in pouring rain on May 12. For 23 hours straight the two sides fought hand-to-hand in a field near fortifications known as the Mule Shoe, and afterward as the Bloody Angle. Colonel Rufus R. Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry recalls what happened when his regiment was ordered into it during the middle of the battle.

The mud was half boot top deep and filled with the dead of the battle, over whom we stumbled in the darkness. Upon reaching my position I ordered the regiment to open fire.

We stood perhaps one hundred feet from the enemy's line, and so long as we maintained a continual fire they remained hidden in their entrenchments. But if an attempt to advance was made, an order would be given and they would all rise up together and fire a volley upon us. They had constructed their works by digging an entrenchment about four feet deep, in which at intervals there were traverses to protect the flanks. This had the effect of making a row of cellars without drainage, and in them was several inches of mud and water. To protect their heads, they had placed in front logs which were laid upon blocks, and it was intended to put their muskets through the chinks under the head logs, but in the darkness this became impracticable and the head log proved a serious obstruction to their firing. For eighteen hours without cessation our troops aimed their muskets at these head logs, some of which were destroyed, and the bullets passing beyond in this plane cut off the tree, the stump of which may now be seen in the Ordnance Museum of the War Department at Washington. This tree stood behind the enemy's works. This is the true explanation of that phenomenon…

During the early hours of the night the rain poured down in torrents. Sometime in the night I suspected that the enemy were retreating, and I crawled up with one man and satisfied myself that they had gone. I then ceased firing and my exhausted men lay down as best they could, and some laid their heads upon the dead and fell asleep.

In the morning the rebel works presented an awful spectacle. The cellars were crowded with dead and wounded, lying in some cases upon each other and in several inches of mud and water. I saw the body of a rebel soldier sitting in the corner of one of these cellars in a position of apparent ease, with the head entirely gone, and the flesh burned from the bones of the neck and shoulders. This was doubtless caused by the explosion of a shell from some small Cohorn mortars within our lines. The mortar shell is thrown high in the air, and comes down directly from above. On the morning of May 13th, the men were in a deplorable condition of exhaustion, and I marched the regiment away from the horrible scenes at the "Bloody Angle" and allowed the men to lie down and rest in the woods near at hand.

Source: Dawes, Rufus R. "Service With the Sixth Wisconsin Volunteers," Chapter 12, page 268.

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Confederate earth works at Bloody Angle.

The earth works of the Confederate defenses consisted of logs and earth with a ditch behind. Photo courtesy the National Park Service

Tree stump at Bloody Angle.

The intensity of the fight at the Bloody Angle is reflected in this 22 inch oak stump that was shredded by bullets. The stump is on display at the American History Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy the National Park Service

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