Reminiscences of the Battle of Spotsylvania

Some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire Civil War took place on May 12, 1864, at the Mule Shoe Salient in Spotsylvania, Virginia. Among the defenders of the Mule Shoe was Brigadier Nathaniel Harris’ brigade consisting of the 12th Mississippi Infantry, 16th Mississippi Infantry, 19th Mississippi Infantry, and 48th Mississippi Infantry. The carnage that took place in this one small piece of the battlefield was almost beyond belief: the fighting was hand to hand for nearly 20 hours, and hundreds of Mississippians were either killed or wounded.

While doing some research recently I found an article entitled, “Reminiscences of the Battle of Spottsylvania,” originally published by the Natchez Democrat, and picked up and republished by the Memphis Daily Avalanche on August 19, 1866. The author of the article is unknown, but he was probably a member of the 16th Mississippi Infantry, as that regiment had two companies from Natchez: Company D, the “Adams Light Guard No. 2,” and Company I, the “Adams Light Guard No. 1.” The author also specifically mentions casualties from the 16th in the article, so I am pretty confident he was a member of the regiment. Coming so soon after the war, the article is one man’s account of one of the bloodiest encounters of the war:

Reminiscences of the Battle of Spottsylvania

The 12th of May dawned like the day of Waterloo; the dark, wet clouds hung low and heavy upon the earth and seemed to struggle to prevent the advent of that day of blood and carnage. For seven days the fierce strife of battle had raged furious and incessant, and from the Rapidan to the Court House of Spottsylvania, the dead lay in heaps upon the gory field. The rain storm that occurred the night of the 11th, somewhat allayed the tumult of battle. It was during this storm, when naught could be heard but the rushing winds and descending rain, that the Federal General Hancock moved his corps silently to within a few rods of the Confederate entrenchments, at a silent angle on the left of the Court House. Here this corps rested on their arms until the first ray of light should give the signal for a desperate assault.

This sketch of the Spotsylvania Battlefield was made by Edwin Forbes on May 10, 1864. Library of Congress

No sooner does the first gleam of day light in the East the murky sky, than the Federals rise to their feet and advance upon the Confederate works. It is, but a short distance, and they are soon reached. The struggle is short; the Confederates, without previous intimation of the dangerous proximity of the foe, are taken partially by surprise, and, contending against overwhelming numbers, are soon overpowered. General Johnston, with his division and several batteries of artillery are captured, hundreds fall bravely fighting, and the works are lost. Now the Confederate line is severed at its centre, and the enemy is advancing steadily through the breach.

In the meantime the battle has become general from right to left, and the very earth trembles with the shock of artillery and small arms. Grant concentrates at this salient all his available force in the attempt to widen the breach and make complete the temporary but important advantage. The annals of war furnish perhaps no instance where the peril of an army was more imminent than is now that of the struggling Army of Northern Virginia; the fate of a nation rests upon it and trembles in the balance of probabilities. Reduced in numbers; exhausted with the constant vigilance of nights, this army would seem to be battling with the courage of desperation, even against destiny.

The great chieftain, mounted upon his iron gray battle steed, rapidly surveys the critical position of affairs. Riding impassively through shot and shell, with couriers and aides all around him on every side. his practiced eye penetrates the smoke of battle, while his

General Nathaniel Harris commanded the brigade of Mississippians who fought at the Mule Shoe Salient. Old Court House Museum, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

warrior mind plans the master stroke of war which is to pluck the laurel wreath of victory from the very jaws of defeat. Dispatching orders in various directions, he rides to the front of Harris’ brigade of Mississippians, (which is awaiting orders, having just arrived in double quick, from a remote part of the line,) and himself directs it to ‘fall in.’

Mahone’s Virginians are put in motion, and General Lee leads Harris’ Mississippians towards the deadly breach – the place of havoc. The dangers are thickening fast around the warrior chief, and his devoted troops murmur fervent prayers for his safety. Now a twelve pound solid shot comes shrieking through the air, and strikes the ground between the forefeet of the General’s horse, causing him to rear and plunge; the General still rides unmoved, but his followers, no longer willing that he should advance to be stricken down, now loudly remonstrate, saying, ‘go back, General, we will do our duty!’

Brigadier General Harris rides up and implores, then commands him to go back. Colonel Venable, of his staff, riding in front and seizing him, holds him in check, exclaiming, ‘General Lee, you must go back; your presence in this danger demoralizes the men.’ Then, says General Lee, turning to the moving column, ‘I will remain if you will drive the enemy from the works.’ ‘We will,’ was the deafening response. ‘Go on, brave men, God bless you,’ says the General, and the troops move forward with an all-conquering enthusiasm and sullen determination, which knows no defeat. They move to victory, though their path the while is strewed thickly with the bravest sons of Mississippi and South Carolina. In this charge were slain the gallant Colonel S.E. Baker and Lieutenant Colonel Feltus, of the 16th Mississippi regiment, and a large number of other Mississippians.

The works are taken and occupied as far as the small force can stretch its front. There is still a breach, but it is narrow, and so well defended on either side, that to attempt its

Remains of the tree that was cut down by rifle fire at Spotsylvania. National Park Service

passage, is to die. At the left extremity of this breach, where the battle raged with continued violence, was situated the famous Spottsylvania tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, which was cut down by Minnie bullets alone, during this battle. There are now a number of returned soldiers in Natchez who enjoy the proud distinction of having defended this point, where the dead, at the close of the engagement, were piled above the surface of the ditch.

Division after division of the enemy is pushed forward to widen the breach and retrieve the lost advantage, and is hurled back decimated and scattered, from the harvest of death. Companies and battalions are swept away, and trampled to the earth to rise no more. The Confederates are immovable in the midst of death. The battle continues with but slight intermission until the Confederates, having fulfilled the promise to their chieftain, and held the disputed point for nineteen hours, retire at daylight of the morning of the 13th, leaving the foe in possession of a vast Golgotha.

Thus closed the most destructive battle of the Confederate War for Independence.

The 16th Mississippi fought very bravely at the Mule Shoe, and had the casualties to show  for it – between May 6-12, the regiment had suffered 36 killed, 84 wounded, and 31 missing. The majority of those casualties took place during the fighting on May 12. The fighting took an especially heavy toll on the leadership of the regiment: Colonel Samuel E. Baker and Lieutenant Colonel Abram M. Feltus were both killed.

These wooden headboards mark the graves of the men from the 16th Mississippi Infantry who were killed at Spotsylvania. National Park Service.

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