My Ancestor at the Battle of Spotsylvania

This week is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, one of the bloodiest and most terrible battles of the Civil War.  This particular phase of Grant’s Overland Campaign began on May 7th and lasted until May 19th.  The battle is most famous for the Union assaults on a stretch of Confederate fortifications called the Mule Shoe because of its shape, and particularly for the violence that took place in an area known as the Bloody Angle.

1280px-Battle_of_Spottsylvania_by_Thure_de_Thulstrup

A brilliant young colonel named Emory Upton had come up with a plan to take the Confederate trenches.  Using twelve hand-picked regiments, Upton devised a formation that was narrow but deep – four lines of three regiments each.  Early in the morning on May 10th, the formation would rush forward without making noise or stopping to fire, overwhelm a narrow stretch of trenches, and then the subsequent lines could expand their hold.  But when the division of BG Gershom Mott, which had been assigned to support Upton’s attack, faltered in its attack on the trenches, Upton was forced to withdraw his troops at a high cost in casualties.  Mott’s division was widely blamed for the failure and eventually it was disbanded, just as the Third Corps to which it had previously belonged had been disbanded earlier that spring.  Still, Upton’s idea showed enough promise that LTG Grant decided to try the tactic with the entire Second Corps on May 12th.

Again, the attack initially went very well.  The Union assault annihilated two Confederate brigades, capturing a brigadier general and a major general, some 30 Confederate battle flags, and over 3,000 prisoners.  But the assault left the Union forces heavily disorganized, and Confederate forces were able to establish a new line some 500 yards south of the Mule Shoe.  As the new lines were established, the Union and Confederate infantry fought each other from opposite sides of the fortifications, literally just a few feet away from each other.  In some places they fought like this for 24 hours straight.  It was fighting at an intensity that had never been seen before, with some men claiming to have fired over 400 rounds, an astonishing amount for single-shot muskets.  The entire landscape was stripped of leaves and branches where bullets had clipped them.  In one place an oak tree nearly two feet in diameter was cut down by bullets alone.  Bodies in some places were stacked 9 or 10 deep.  In one area 150 bodies were found in an area only 15 feet by 12 feet.  And many soldiers spoke of bodies that had been struck so many times by bullets that they just fell apart.

For Moses Beaulieu and the 11th Massachusetts Infantry, May 12th was a particularly bad day, being exposed to combat of this intensity.  For one soldier in Moses’ company (Company A), it was the beginning of a period of several weeks of unspeakable suffering, one that literally made medical history.  The following account of one of Moses’ fellow soldiers of Company A, 11th Massachusetts, comes from the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion.  Note that it took him almost two weeks just to get to a rear area hospital.

Case: 1231. – Private Franz Metzel, Co. A, 11th Massachusetts, aged 31 years, was wounded at Spotsylvania, May 12, 1864. On May 25th he was admitted into Armory Square Hospital, Washington.  Surgeon D. W. Bliss, U.S.V., reported:
“This soldier accidentally got between or in the range of cross-firing and received twenty-six separate wounds of entrance and exit, and when admitted was sufficiently strong to converse and relate his sad fate. The wounds were by minie balls, as follows:  1st entered just anterior to external malleolus of left ankle and emerged about the middle of the sole of the foot; 2nd entered left leg just above external malleolus, passed upward, and emerged five inches above the heel; 3rd ball entered left leg six inches above external malleolus, three inches above knee, and emerged on inner side opposite point of entrance; 4th entered just below the head of the left fibula, and emerged on the internal aspect nearly opposite point of entrance; 5th entered left thigh externally, three inches above knee, and emerged on inner side opposite point of entrance; 6th entered left thigh on the external and middle part, passed through, and emerged opposite point of entrance; 7th entered just above the coccyx and remains in parts unknown; 8th entered the back three inches above left hip, and remains; 9th entered just below inferior angle of left scapula and remains in parts unknown; 10th, left arm, two wounds below and three above the elbow, the bones above and below being fractured; 11th entered right leg above the middle and made its exit on the calf opposite point of entrance; 12th entered about three inches below the right knee, a little internal, and remains; 13th entered right thigh externally, about the middle, and made its exit on the inner side opposite point of entrance; 14th entered upper third of right thigh, on the external side, and remains in parts unknown.  He died May 30th, 1864.”

The original three years of service for the regiment expired on June 12, 1864, when those officers and men who had not reenlisted left the front and headed home to Boston, where they were mustered out.  Those like Moses who had reenlisted had to stay.

I don’t know, at least yet, if Moses Beaulieu was ever wounded or sick during the war.  If he was never wounded, it seems like pretty amazing luck.  The 11th had an original enrollment of 990 men, of whom 122 were killed during the war.  Including new recruits, the regiment lost 164 men killed and 402 men wounded in the course of the entire war.  Another 30 died in Confederate prisons, and 67 died of disease or accidents in camp.

~Geoff

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