previous next

Trees whittled down at Horseshoe.

Captain W. W. Old gives a graphic account of this memorable engagement.

Personal reminiscences.

Senator Daniel refers to war Record of prominent Norfolk Attorney.

A number of accounts by gallant participants in the sanguinary conflict variously termed the salient or Bloody Angle and the Horseshoe have appeared in previous volumes of the Southern Historical Society Papers. It is referred to also by Col. Cutshaw in his admirable and graphic address, ‘The Battle near Spotsylvania Courthouse on May 18th. 1864,’ first delivered before the association of Richmond Howitzers, Dec. 14, 1905, and repeated before R. E. Lee Camp, No. 1, C. V., Jan. 10, 1905. Col. Cutshaw who had not long before visited the scenes, enhanced the value of his narration with diagrams of the sections. The republication in this volume is amended by Captain Old.—Ed.

The following communication was published in the TimesDis-patch, on Sunday, August 27, 1905, and with the correction of some typographical errors, hurriedly made by me, was republished in the Public Ledger, of Norfolk, Va., on August 30, 1905. As there still appeared some errors, I here give the communication as republished in the Public Ledger, with further corrections.

Captain W. W. Old, writing to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, contributes an interesting chapter to civil war history that will be read with interest here by his friends and by those who were associated with the stirring period about which he writes. As a preface to Captain Old's review of the tree incident at Bloody Angle, the Times-Dispatch published on Sunday a short reference to the captain's war record by Senator Daniel. The entire contribution follows:

Captain William W. Old, the eminent lawyer, of Norfolk, Va., served as aide-de-camp of Major General Edward Johnson, and after [17] the capture of his chief at the Horseshoe, May 12, 1864, with Lieut. Gen. Ewell, and after the latter's assignment to command in Richmond, he was with Lieut. Gen. Early until August, when General Johnson, being exchanged, he attended that officer to his new assignment under General Hood.

Captain Old was severely wounded while serving in the West, and returned disabled to his native State. He was held in great esteem, not only for his gallantry, but also for his sound judgement, and was greatly distinguished as a staff officer. Few men have such familiar and accurate knowledge as he of the ‘overland campaign’ from the Rapidan to its culmination at Cold Harbor, and he has contributed in the enclosed article a valuable account of some of its movements.

General Gordon's statement in his book that General Edward Johnson was surprised on May 12th is erroneous, and both General Gordon's and General Johnson's reports of the battle show that there was no surprise. The trouble was occasioned by the withdrawal of the Confederate artillery and by slowness in sending back to position when the enemy's plans of attack had been discovered.

Captain Old's interesting paper explains how ‘the Horseshoe,’ sometimes called ‘the Bloody Angle,’ happened to be formed and fortified, and furnishes other valuable data which will enlighten the historian.

Very respectfully,

Editor of The Times-Dispatch.
Sir:—I have read with interest and pleasure ‘Four Years Under Marse Robert,’ by Major Robert Stiles.1 It is one of the best if not the best of the contributions to that class of literature which attempts to give those who were not in the army some insight into the sufferings, vicissitudes and endurance of the Confederate soldier, that has been made by any one, and those who know Major Stiles would never accuse him of exaggerating the picture he was drawing, while his comrades in the army can truthfully corroborate all he has said in that respect. The fact is Major Stiles is one of our Confederate heroes, and should be ranked as such, and every Confederate soldier should read his book. There are some slight [18] inaccuracies in the book, such as the statement2 that Jackson had left the Valley and was hovering over McClellan's right flank and rear just before the battle of Seven Pines (page 92), but I do not purpose to refer to these, as they are unimportant. My purpose is, apart from expressing my gratification in reading this book and my admiration of the author, to call attention to what he says in regard to the fact, so often reported that two trees were whittled down by bullets in rear of our lines at the ‘Bloody Angle’ on May 12, 1864. He refers to this fact on pages 262-3, and though he quotes what Colonel Taylor had written on the subject in his ‘Four Years with General Lee,’ he seems to doubt the fact simply because he did not happen to see these trees himself, and his doubt, considering his position on the lines, would have some weight with the general reader.

With General Johnson in the Horseshoe.

I was on Major General Edward Johnson's staff as aide-de-camp during that battle, and was with him at the ‘Angle’ until a moment before his capture. I was sent for General Evans' brigade, which was about a quarter of a mile to our left and rear, for the support of Rode's and Johnson's divisions in case another attack such as was made on Rode's front on May 10, 1864, should occur. Evans'3 brigade was in Gordon's division, and as I started for the brigade, General Gordon himself appeared, and when I told him my mission, he urged me to go for the brigade, as he had no staff officer with him. After General Johnson's capture I reported to General Ewell and was with him on the 12th, carrying his orders, and continued with him until he was relieved from the command of the corps and General Early was placed in command.

On the morning of the 13th or 14th of May, I saw the trees that were whittled down. I think my attention was called to them by some of our men, and I examined them carefully. Later in the day [19] I reported the fact to General Ewell, who at the time was with General Lee and some other general officers. When I did so, General Lee, seeming in doubt what I reported, in his quiet way said: ‘Captain, can you show us those trees?’ I replied that I could, if he would follow me, and, leading the way, I guided General Lee and the party to the trees.

Description of the trees.

They were two oak trees, standing near together, and in rear of Walker's (Stonewall) brigade, and the Louisiana brigade, which joined the Stonewall brigade on its right. One of the trees, fourteen or sixteen inches in diameter, was whittled down by the bullets about four feet from the ground, as if a gouge had been used, and in such manner that the two parts of the tree above and below the break presented the appearance of two cones, not entirely symmetrical, however, with the apex of one resting on the apex of the other, before the tree fell. This tree had fallen prostrate—it was literally whittled down, or, I might more properly say, gouged down by bullets.

The other tree was about the same size of that already described, perhaps, according to my recollection, a little smaller, and this was also gouged by the bullets very much the same as the other, but I do not think it would probably have fallen, if a shell had not struck it, in the top, about twenty-five feet from the ground, and toppled it over. It fell aginst another tree, and hung on it, otherwise it also would have fallen to the ground. The fact that a shell had struck it was apparent, because the tree was split in the top. I saw a part of the latter tree in the museum at the hotel in Fredericksburg, some years ago, when I was visiting that place, and I saw a part of the former at least, it was so represented, at the centennial in 1876, brought there, as I was informed, from Washington with a label on it: ‘Cut down by rebel bullets.’ I think it was preserved by the war department, amongst its curiosities, and I think I recognized the stump. At any rate I inquired about it, and was informed it came from the Spotsylvania battlefield. I knew I remonstrated with the party in charge of the exhibit about the label on it. How it occurred I am not prepared to say, but I can say that these two trees were shot down by bullets in the manner I have stated. Our division was stationed on each side of and around the horseshoe, improperly called ‘angle’ Walker's brigade and the [20] Louisiana brigade, being to the left, Jones' brigade, at the toe, and Steuart's brigade to the right. The attack was made on the right and left, as well as in front of the toe of the horseshoe, and there was a concentrated fire, which must have met just about where these trees stood. It seemed to me, while at what was the toe of the horseshoe, that morning, the air was full of bullets, and the fact that these two trees were whittled down in the manner I have stated, proves that fact for no other such occurrence is recorded in the annals of our war, or in those of any other war, of which I ever read.

The ‘Horseshoe’ or ‘Bloody Angle.’

While I am writing on the subject, I hope you and your readers will pardon me, if I write a little more.

Major Stiles, page 263, touches upon the subject of faulty formation in our lines, with an implied query about what was known as the ‘salient,’ or ‘bloody angle.’

In the first place, the line both to the right and left of the ‘salient’ was on a considerable ridge overlooking the low grounds between it and the Ny river. On the march from the wilderness on May 8, Johnson's division, which followed Rodes' division reached the Spotsylvania field late in the afternoon, and was ordered to form on Rodes' right, and extend it. When Rodes had gotten his men in line, and the head of our column had reached his right, upon which we were to form, it was nearly dark. Rodes' right rested on the edge of the woods, and to extend his line, we had to go through the woods. We had no guides and no lights, and General Johnson, at the head of his divison, in column of four, or double file, I think the latter, began to get his men in line, as best he could. I was riding by his side, and soon after we entered the woods, with the division following, we came upon a thicket, mostly pine, so thick that the darkness was almost impenetrable.

I remember well that I kept my hands before my eyes, which were really of no use to me at that time, to protect them, and that more than once I was nearly dragged off my horse by the trees with which I came in contact. Our progress, under such circumstances, was necessarily very slow. We knew nothing of the topography of the country, but soon we came to the end of the thicket through which we had been passing for formation, and saw camp fires before us, almost directly in the line of our march.

This was the first light which we had seen. The ground was [21] examined and General Johnson found we were on the brow of a ridge, which turned somewhat shortly to the right. The camp fires in our front seemed to us to be considerably below the plane of our position, as they were in fact. It was now quite late in the night, and General Johnson deflected his line and followed the ridge, so far as it could be distinguished in the darkness. Up to the point of deflection there was room for Walker's brigade, our left, the Louisiana brigade, and the greater part of Jones' brigade, so that Steuart's brigade, which occupied our right, extended to the right of this turning point. If it had been extended in a straight line, Steuart's right would have been very close to, and rather in front of the camp fires which we had seen. It was under these circumstances that Johnson's division was placed in line, and fortified it. And so painfully slow was our movement, on account of the woods and darkness and ignorance of the topography of the ground upon which we were forming, we were in our saddles all night.

When daylight came General Johnson found his division was on the ridge, and except some slight changes in Steuart's formation, it so remained, and the enemy was in our front and to our left and rear, so that we were enfiladed, especially Steuart's brigade. Breastworks had already been thrown up, especially along the line of the brigade which had first gotten into position, and every Confederate soldier knows how soon this could be done, as if by magic, but General Johnson had the toe of the horseshoe fortified for artillery, in the form of a salient, and this was done, as I recall it, under the supervision of some of our engineer officers, and it was well done. General Steuart had traverses built in the rear of his line, as he was much enfiladed, and General Walker and General Hays also threw up traverses in their rear for the same reason, though their brigades did not suffer as much as General Steuart's—(Hays' brigade of Early's, and Stafford's brigade of Johnson's division were consolidated under General Henry T. Hays on the march from the wilderness, on May 8th, General Stafford having been killed on May 5th.)

My recollection is that on the 9th of May the engineer officers, with General M. L. Smith at their head, went over the line and considered it safe with artillery, and with this we were at once supplied —two batteries of four guns each.

On May 10 Sedgwick's corps broke through Rodes' line to our left, and penetrated some distance in our rear, but after severe fighting the enemy was driven back and our lines were restored. I was [22] not present on that occasion, as General Johnson had sent Major Ed. Moore and myself back to get our headquarter wagon which had broken down and been abandoned on the march from the Wilderness on the 8th. On May 1, however, General Lee, with General Smith visited our lines, and were of opinion, as I was informed that they could be held with our artillery. On that day General Johnson, with several members of his staff, including myself, went in front of our lines beyond the Landrum house, which was outside of our skirmish line, and no signs of the enemy were seen in our front nor did there appear to be any activity in the enemy's line in our front, until late in the afternoon of that day.

At the Wilderness.

In addition to what I have said in regard to the selection of this line, one very important fact—one that will be fully appreciated by those conversant with that campaign—must not be overlooked. Johnson's division received the opening attack of Grant's army on May 5th, and during that day and night, and the succeeding day and night, were in line of battle, fighting almost continuously, resisting until late each night the frequent and furious charges of the enemy. There was no rest day or night for our men, until the night of the 7th. So intense was the fighting that on the night of May 5th, the commander of Pegram's brigade of Early's division, which had been sent to extend our left, sent word to General Johnson that the men could not use their guns any longer; that they had fired them so often they had become so hot they could not handle them, and, besides, feared they would explode.

General Johnson, who was on the field very near the lines, sent me to get two regiments to take the place of as many men in Pegram's line, and relieve them temporarily, until their guns had cooled. I think General Pegram suggested this. I went for the regiments and was leading them into position, arranging for them to slide along behind the breastworks until they got into position, when I was informed by some one that there was no place in the trenches for more men; that all they wanted was guns and men were detailed and loaded with guns and sent in the trenches, and in this way Pegram's brigade was supplied with guns that they could use. I know of no other instance of that kind, and never heard of one.


The march to Spotsylvania.

On the 8th we marched to Spotsylvania, and, as before stated, there was no rest for our troops that day and night. My recollection is that I had been in my saddle almost continuously since the morning of May 5th, and on the morning of the 9th, after having been in my saddle all night, I almost fell from my horse about daylight, and went to sleep near where I had tied him under a tree, but was soon waked up by his restlessness, caused by bullets flying around him. I speak of myself only to illustrate the conditions of hardship we had endured. But General Johnson was in his saddle all night, doing the best he could without any assistance from engineers or from any person familiar with the topography of the country in the formation of his division in line, according to the orders he had received, to form on and extend Rodes' right. We did not even know the position of the enemy, and had no intimation of his proximity until we saw the camp fires of which I have spoken. And when daylight appealed, it was found that General Johnson had only done the best he could have done under the circumstances, and this line was afterwards approved by General Lee and his engineer officers, as the best that could have been adopted, because it commanded all the low grounds in our front, over the greater part of which we had full view.

It was suggested to draw the line back from two to three hundred yards from the salient, but this was not done before the 12th, because such line would have been entirely through the woods, and we would have lost the benefit of the view of the country in our front; besides, the salient, fortified with artillery, was considered full protection.

I say all this in vindication of that gallant officer, Major General Edward Johnson, than whom no one was braver, to show that the selection of this line was in no way left to the soldiers, nor even to his subordinates. On the contrary, it was formed with all the care and consideration which could have been expected or required of him on that occasion. And I know whereof I speak.

No surprise of Johnson.

General Johnson was not surprised, nor were his troops surprised on the Morning of May 12th, but the disaster of the fearful day was due entirely to the withdrawal of our artillery from our line on the evening of the 11th. Of this I shall take occasion to write at [24] some future time. I can say this, however, without the risk of taking up too much space at this time. After the disaster of the 12th, General Lee said to General Ewell, in my presence, that he had been misled in regard to the enemy in our front, by his scouts, and that the fatal mistake was in removing the artillery on our line. He and General Ewell both spoke in the kindest manner of General Johnson and commended him for his bravery and the faithful discharge of his duties, General Ewell saying that he never failed to carry out his orders, both without question and with intelligence, and they both exonerated him from any blame for the disaster.

William W. Old, Norfolk, Va., August 1, 1905.

1 The so lamented ‘gallant-soldier, able lawyer and Christian gentleman,’ quietly passed to eternal rest at his residence in Bon Air, Va., Oct. 5th, 1905.—Ed.

2 Major Stiles thinks I misinterpreted what he said on that subject, and being satisfied that I had done so, I frankly admitted the fact in a letter to the Times-Dispatch which was published on September 10, 1905.— Wm. W. Old.

3 More properly Gordon's Brigade of Early's Division. On that day, Early was in command of Hill's Corps, and Gordon was in command of Early's Division, and Col. Evans in command of Gordon's Brigade. But both Gordon and Evans were promoted from that day.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: