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Chapter 11: the Bloody angle

  • The angle described
  • -- Upton's report of battle -- the tree cut down by bullets -- the appearance of field next morning

The angle in the fortifications of the enemy was obtuse and turned back from the ridge along which the line to the left ran. This ridge continued for some distance to the right from the apex of the angle. A tree of considerable size stood at the angle, and from it in both directions traverses were built at frequent distances along the rifle pits to protect their occupants from a flank fire. The works were of the most formidable character, with the log on the top to protect the heads of the defenders while they were able to fire under them in comparative safety. Early on the morning of the 12th under cover of a dense fog, the Second Corps had assailed and carried these entrenchments with comparatively little loss. Their defenders were so utterly surprised that many of them did not fire a shot, and the entire division occupying them was taken prisoners. General Lee had made provision for just such an attack and had placed General Gordon with his brigade of Georgians, in the center of a circle within the angle so as to be equally distant from the sides, with instructions to be ready to attack and repel any successful assault that might be made on any portion of the line. When the Second Corps men were advancing with exulting shouts, confident, and disorganized, they were struck unexpectedly by this veteran brigade, and hurled back in confusion to, and in some places, over the works, they had so recently carried. It was this brigade [142] of Georgians that had on the 5th struck the left of the Sixth Corps so staggering a blow, and now with quickly gathered reinforcements was attempting to retake their captured works. General Upton's report of the all-day battle is as follows: “May 11th the brigade made some unimportant changes of position. Early on the 12th it moved with the division toward the right flank of the army but to the left again at 7 A. M., arriving in the rear of the Second Corps at 9:30 A. M. The right flank of this Corps being threatened, General Russell directed me to move to the right at double quick to support it. Before we could arrive it gave way. As the 95th Pennsylvania Volunteers reached an elevated point of the enemy's works, about six hundred yards to the right of the Lendrum House, it received a heavy volley from the second line of works. Seeing that the position was of vital importance to hold, and that all the troops had given way up to this point, I halted the 95th Pennsylvania, faced it to the front and caused it to lie down. Its left rested near the works connecting with the Second Corps, while its right lay behind a crest oblique to the works. Had it given way the whole line of entrenchments would have been recaptured, and the fruit of the morning's victory lost; but it held its ground till the 5th Maine and the 121st New York came to its support, and the 96th Pennsylvania passed on to its right. Shortly after, the Third and Vermont brigades arrived. A section of Gillis' battery of the 5th U. S. Artillery, Lieutenant Metcalf, came up and opened fire, but was immediately charged and lost nearly every horse, driver and cannonier. The enemy charged up to his works within a hundred feet of the guns, but a well-directed fire from the infantry, behind the crest prevented his farther advance. At the point where our line [143] diverged from the works the opposing lines came in contact, but neither would give ground. And for eighteen hours raged the most sanguinary conflict of the war. The point remained in our possession at the close of the struggle, and is known as ‘The Angle.’ ”

During this all-day conflict, the tree, a red oak, standing at the angle of the works was cut down by the bullets fired from both sides, but mostly by men of the 121st. Colonel Upton noting that the enemy kept seeking shelter behind it from which to fire upon the battery and our troops, ordered Captain Weaver with a part of the regiment to keep up a constant fire upon that point, and thus prevent the Rebels from putting their heads above the works. After keeping up this fire for several hours the men saw the tree begin to waver and it soon after fell with a crash upon those near it, inside the enemy's rifle pits. A section of the tree in the ordnance department at Washington is labled as having been “cut down by musket balls in an attempt to recapture the works previously captured by the Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, May 12, 1864. Presented to the Honorable Secretary of War by Brevet Maj.-Gen. N. A. Miles, commanding First Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac.” The dimensions are given as 5 feet high and 22 inches in diameter. So this must have been the stump of the tree below the point where it was cut off. The inference from this label is that men of the Second Corps are to be credited with the cutting down of the tree. But the fact is that the Second Brigade of the First Division of the Sixth Corps, occupied the position directly in front of the tree, and Captain Weaver and his men fired for hours directly at the Rebels seeking shelter behind it, until it fell. [144]

For the particular part which the 121st took in this affair we may turn again to the narrative of Colonel Beckwith.

It rained all night and by the smoky pine fires we could scarcely boil our water for coffee, or scorch our pork for our breakfasts. Then we moved some distance to the right and halted in the pines. At this place an officer rode up with a yellow tissue paper in his hand, and as we stood at attention, he read a congratulatory order from the general commanding; and we were informed that a Rebel division and twenty cannon had fallen into our hands that morning. While the men were cheered at the news, there was but little cheering. In a few moments we moved back, our company leading the regiment, passing on beyond our former position and in the direction of the heavy timber. Some of the boys said, “D n those yellow paper orders. That means more fight,” and about 9 o'clock we came under fire again. Moving quickly forward we passed over an elevation that was swept by bullets, and rushed down to a line of works occupied by the 95th Pennsylvania of our brigade. The fog, rain and mist, loaded with smoke, obscured our view partially. The enemy's fire came from our right and front, but we were partially protected by their works and we kept up a continuous fire. This was the point where the Second Corps had carried their works early in the morning. Where we were, the works were V-shaped, the point or bottom of the V being toward us. We held the works from the point down the left side of the V as it faced us, and the Rebs held the right side and the works beyond towards where we charged on the night of the 10th. The Second Corps had been driven out just as the 95th Pennsylvania came up and held the works, until our regiment and the 5th Maine came to their support. The ground [145] on which we were was boggy and swampy, and we sank in the mud up to our ankles. Here all day long we kept up a constant fire. The wounded had to take care of themselves, officers as well as men, and many were killed. Captain Adams of our company lost an arm, and several others of our officers and men were wounded. A little after we went in, the Third brigade of our division joined us, also the Vermont brigade and the 49th New York and the 119th Pennsylvania. Some of the Vermonters came in where we were, and a line behind us fired over our heads. Every time we were reinforced the Rebs seemed to put in a new line, and the firing would break out more fiercely. We nearly shot away the head logs on the works. A section of a regular battery, the 5th U. S. Artillery, commanded by Lieutenant Metcalf, came up on a run, unlimbered, and ran the pieces as close to the Confederate works as they could be used effectively, and opened fire upon the crowded mass of Rebels in the angle with cannister. The Rebels elated by their success in forcing us back for a short space from their captured works, vainly endeavored to take the guns, and for a time withstood the terrible slaughter of the combined infantry and artillery fire, but finally gave up the attempt and sullenly retired. Not however until they had shot the men and horses, and in fact disabled the guns themselves with musketry fire.

It was at this time that Capt. J. D. Fish of Company D, 121st, then acting as acting adjutant general to General Upton, was killed while engaged in bringing up cannister to the guns of the battery. It was also at this time that the works on both sides were crowded with combatants and the killing and wounding of the closely crowded men was awful. The smoke from the guns and bursting [146] shells mingling with the mist and rain sometimes obscured the view of the Rebel works, close as they were. The accumulation of the dead and badly wounded increased the horror of the situation and added to the desperation of the combatants and their efforts to bring the battle to a conclusion. Where we occupied the reverse side of the breastworks, men would load and stick their guns over the head log and raising the butts of their pieces, fire down into the mass of men huddled on the opposite side. Now and then a soldier or an officer, crazed with excitement, would jump upon the parapet and fire down into the enemy, but they speedily paid the penalty of their reckless daring, by being shot, and falling to one side or the other.

Batteries behind and in front of us kept the air full of the shrieking noise of their projectiles, and a mortar battery behind us sailed shell after shell over us, and dropped them on the massed Rebels in the trenches. The rain fell continuously. Occasionally a lull would occur in the firing for a little time, and many Rebels, taking advantage of it, would raise a white flag and surrender themselves as prisoners. An incident of this kind would be followed by a burst of firing again, usually better directed than the preceding one, and so we stopped the white flag business, the last squad of surrendering Rebels, about thirty of them, getting the fire of both sides, nearly all being shot. So the battle continued. Ammunition was brought up on pack-mules, and served to us. Some of it would not fit our guns and the boxes with other emptied boxes, filled with dirt and placed in front of us, made some protection.

After noon the Rebels finding it useless to attempt to drive us back to our works, slackened their fire somewhat, but it was not till dark that the firing [147] diminished below the roar of battle. It was a day never to be forgotten for its fierce fighting, bulldog tenacity and terrible slaughter.

Just before dark we got word for Upton's men to assemble behind our rifle pits in the rear, and many went back, but I waited until after dark, preferring to stay where I was, than to run the gauntlet of the rain of bullets, that swept the ground up to the crest, or rise, in our rear.

This was the worst day's experience I ever had, and it thoroughly disgusted me with war. Finding the regiment after a short search, I found Baldwin, Chapin and Tucker of my company and several others were there also. Being nearly starved we got some hot coffee and cooked some pork and crackers. We were all covered with mud and powder and smoke and grime, hands parboiled with rain, and our clothing loaded with moisture. We presented a very tough appearance, but being very near exhaustion it was possible for us to huddle about the smoky pine fire with our rubber blankets over us and get some sleep, even though bullets and shells flew in close proximity to us, at frequent intervals during the night.

In the morning the Rebs were found to have fallen back from the “Bloody angle” during the night, and the firing had almost stopped, but sharpshooters kept the curious, and carelessly inclined reminded of their skill.

The writer though not a combatant, visited the scene of conflict during the 12th, and for a time watched the working of the mortar battery, of which Comrade Beckwith speaks. It was commanded by a Frenchman who appeared greatly excited. He was never still. Dancing around the guns while they were being loaded, and springing upon the parapet, when each was fired to observe where the shell fell, he seemed the incarnation [148] of activity. After visiting brigade headquarters, and not having anything else to do, I retired to a safer place and waited for the result. In the morning I went to the angle and surveyed the field. The wounded had been removed during the night but the dead lay strewn thickly over the ground, on our side of the breastworks, and along the ridge to the right. On the brow of this ridge, early in the day, Captain La Mont of the 96th Pennsylvania I think, had fallen and all day from both sides bullets had been fired across the ridge, and there did not seem to be a square inch of his body that had not been penetrated by a bullet. But horrible as was the sight on our side of the works, that on the other side was far worse, for the gray clad bodies were piled in the trenches from three to five deep. Our loss was terrible but that of the Confederates was far greater; and if the importance of the victory of the morning is to be measured by the desperate effort made to retake the position captured, it certainly was a decisive victory.

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