GRANT, Ulysses S. Letter signed ("U.S. Grant") as General in Chief, to Major General Ambrose Burnside, "Near Spotsylvania C.H., Va.", 4 P.M., 11 May 1864. 2 1/3 pages, 8vo (8 x 4 7/8 in.), evidence of mounting on verso of second leaf, otherwise in fine condition.
THE BLOODY ANGLE AT SPOTSYLVANIA: GRANT ORDERS A "VIGOROUS ATTACK AGAINST THE ENEMY"
A historically important letter which initiated one of the most brutal days of combat in American history. After the Battle of the Wilderness, both armies promptly marched south to seize the important crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House. Lee's Army entered the sleepy village first and built strong entrenchments to fend off the inevitable attack. Grant sent probing assaults against sectors of the Confederate line, but none were able to breech the Confederate position except one. The aggressive Emory Upton advanced his brigade in a compact column formation which pierced the enemy entrenchments at the salient known as the Mule Shoe. Upton was forced to retreat for lack of support, but his success encouraged Grant to try the attack again but on a grander scale, utilizing Winfield Hancock's entire II Corps supported by Burnsides IX Corps on its left.
Here, Grant sends orders to Burnside for the assault: "Maj. Gen. Hancock has been ordered to move his entire Corps under cover of night, to join you in a vigorous attack against the enemy at 4 o'clock A.M. of to-morrow, the 12th inst. You will move against the enemy with your entire force promptly and with all possible rigor at precisely 4 o'clock to-morrow morning. Let your preparations for this attack be conducted with the utmost secrecy and veiled entirely from the enemy." To ascertain that the movement proceeded without delay, Grant sends assistance: "I send two of my Staff Officers, Cols. [Cyrus] Comstock and [Orville] Babcock in whom I have great confidence, to remain with you and Gen Hancock, and who are acquainted with the direction the attack is to be made from here, with instructions to render you every assistance in their power." He assures Burnside of close support: "Generals [Gouverneur] Warren and [Horatio] Wright will hold their Corps as close to the enemy as possible, to take advantage of any division caused by your and Hancock's attack and will push in their whole force, if any opportunity presents itself."
Unbeknownst to Grant, the Mule Shoe presented a rare opportunity. On the night before the scheduled attack, Lee had withdrawn most of the defending artillery in anticipation that the enemy would again move south. Launching their assault at 4:30 A.M., the Federals quickly penetrated a portion of the Confederate works, causing one Rebel to remark "the storm had burst upon us" (Rhea, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House p. 235). Both sides rushed reinforcements into the seething salient and the fighting became so intense that the Mule Shoe was rechristened the Bloody Angle. Union and Confederate soldiers fought desperately with bayonets and fists. One soldier labeled the Bloody Angle a "hissing cauldron of death," another remembered the fighting as "ghastlier than anything ever seen before in this land," and a third admitted: "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania because I should be loath to believe it myself, were the case reversed" (Rhea, pp. 293-294). Burnside's advance, which moved across more difficult terrain, was met with stiff resistance and his men failed to break the enemy line. The fighting around the Bloody Angle lasted until dark and, despite Hancock's success, Lee was able to reconstruct his defenses across the base of the salient. Several days later, Grant would be forced to admit that he was locked in a stalemate at Spotsylvania and began moving his men beyond Lee's right to the south.
Provenance: Calvin Bullock (sale, Christie's, 14 May 1985, lot 30).