Monday, June 20, 2022

Booknotes: The Heart of Hell

New Arrival:
The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle by Jeffry D. Wert (UNC Press, 2022).

If you asked a group of Civil War military history students which battle comes to mind first when envisioning prolonged, face-to-face combat at its costly worst, the most common answer would surely be Spotsylvania.

From the description: "The struggle over the fortified Confederate position known as Spotsylvania's Mule Shoe was without parallel during the Civil War. A Union assault that began at 4:30 A.M. on May 12, 1864, sparked brutal combat that lasted nearly twenty-four hours. By the time Grant’s forces withdrew, some 55,000 men from Union and Confederate armies had been drawn into the fury, battling in torrential rain along the fieldworks at distances often less than the length of a rifle barrel. One Union private recalled the fighting as a "seething, bubbling, soaring hell of hate and murder." By the time Lee's troops established a new fortified line in the predawn hours of May 13, some 17,500  officers and men from both sides had been killed, wounded, or captured when the fighting  ceased. The site of the most intense clashes became forever known as the Bloody Angle."

Of course, Spotsylvania is well represented in the literature, with major battle studies from William Matter and Gordon Rhea along with an essay anthology from the classic Military Campaigns of the Civil War series and a host of minor works. Atlas coverage is also scheduled for publication in the near future. With its bibliography heavily populated with newspaper and unpublished firsthand accounts written by soldiers of all ranks, Jeffry Wert's The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle focuses its attention on the fighting man's perspective of this ferocious action. Wert's narrative "draws on the personal narratives of Union and Confederate troops who survived the fight to offer a gripping story of Civil War combat at its most difficult." This "harrowing tale reminds us that the war’s story, often told through its commanders and campaigns, truly belonged to the common soldier."

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