Friday, July 15, 2022

Review - "The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle" by Jeffry Wert

[The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle by Jeffry D. Wert (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). Hardcover, 11 maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. ISBN:978-1-4696-6842-0. Pages main/total:xiv,200/303. $37.50 ]

On May 12, 1864 near Spotsylvania Court House in Virginia, dense columns of Union infantry from the Army of the Potomac stepped out of the early morning gloom and quickly swamped the defenders of the deep, wide salient that formed the Confederate center. Through this action, which captured most of General Edward Johnson's division and blew a gaping hole in the Confederate battle line, Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was threatened with its worst defeat of the war up to that point. However, aided by the confusion and disorganization commonly attendant to even the most successful large-scale attacks, the defenders responded to the breakthrough with alacrity, and reinforcements steadily pushed the intermingled Union assault divisions back. The frightful casualties suffered by both sides during this near restoration of the original line along with the close-contact nature of the fighting itself (especially along the salient's western face that included the infamous "Bloody Angle") led many seasoned veterans of both sides to claim thereafter that the horrors of the fighting on that day were unmatched. Jeffry Wert's aptly titled The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle is the newest account of this terrible battle that followed closely on the heels of the Wilderness fighting of May 5-7.

Most readers of this study will be already familiar with its most formidable book-length predecessors, William Matter's If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania (1988) and Gordon Rhea's The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864 (1997). Both are authoritative narrative histories that contain excellent accounts of the May 12 fighting. Wert's study undoubtedly benefits from a fresh batch of primary sources uncovered during the quarter century that has passed since Rhea's Spotsylvania volume was published, but readers should not go into The Heart of Hell expecting an updated microhistory of every facet of the battle with levels of tactical detail that greatly surpass those found earlier. Instead, what makes Wert's contribution most remarkable (and sets it apart from those earlier works) is the vivid and intensely emotive manner in which it presents the rank and file experience of the no holds barred fighting within the Spotsylvania salient, the pointblank nature of which was unique in scale and duration. Weaving together a strong, blow-by-blow narrative of the fighting with powerfully expressive quotes from innumerable firsthand accounts drawn from exhaustive research in published and unpublished primary sources (most notably in manuscript and newspaper archives), Wert's new history of the bitter struggle within Spotsylvania's bloody salient unfolds primarily from the soldier's perspective and is presented in an evocative writing style that few Civil War military history authors can match. Assisting readers in following the action is a reasonably detailed set of maps scaled at brigade level and above (the narrative not being one that focuses on the movements and positions of every regiment).

Prior to the attack, erroneous military intelligence had led Lee, in anticipation of a general movement of his army, to order the withdrawal of all artillery from the salient. Once that grave error was discovered, the guns were ordered back, but the returning batteries were not in position by the time the blue avalanche struck. This infamous miscalculation on Lee's part and the vulnerable nature of the salient itself are most commonly cited as the primary reasons behind the initial success of the Union attacks, but that can't be the entire story as Confederate trenches were successfully defended on other occasions against steeper odds. Wert's insightful narrative satisfactorily addresses that potential issue by offering readers a persuasive collective argument that the exceptional success of the initial Union assault was the result of an accumulation of factors.

In addition to the lack of artillery support and the salient's bulky projection limiting the capacity of adjacent units to develop overlapping fields of fire against attackers, a heavy morning mist and the large expanse of dead ground immediately north of the salient allowed Union forces to marshal their massive attack columns safe from both harassing enemy fire and prying eyes. Good fortune apparently factored in as well. Confederate positions were not extensively reconnoitered prior to the attack, which is often a recipe for disaster. However, as General Barlow later admitted, his column, which provided the battle's most telling initial blow, managed by sheer luck to discover a perfect line of approach. It has been argued that the other side did themselves no favors, too. The conduct of the unit that found itself Barlow's target on the salient's northeast face, Witcher's Virginia brigade, was accused by some of behaving badly. Wert defends the brigade for being overstretched due to half its regiments being detached for picket duty, but pickets are supposed to prevent overwhelming surprise attacks of the kind that victimized the Virginians and the rest of Johnson's Division. There also appears not to have been enough opportunity for the Confederates to erect obstructions outside the main works.

With Confederate corps commanders James Longstreet wounded, A.P. Hill chronically sick, and Richard Ewell allegedly losing his composure under pressure, it is Lee's direct intervention along with the prompt initiative displayed by his army's division, brigade, and field grade officers that are credited by Wert with sealing off the breakthrough and turning the tide. The high morale, experience, and fighting cohesion in the veteran regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia were instrumental factors behind the counterattack that both rolled back the Union offensive and maintained until nightfall an unwavering front at or near the original line of breastworks and their critically placed earthwork traverses. Impressive as that tactical performance was in staving off disaster, such successes were Pyrrhic in the long term, and the author joins other writers in linking leadership losses produced by such sustained close-range encounters to the crisis of field grade officer attrition in the Army of Northern Virginia that accelerated from the mid-war period onward.

Wert's coverage of the fighting on either flank of the salient, though more summary in nature than his primary account of combat within the salient, further exposes commonly understood shortcomings within the Army of the Potomac's high command. Among corps commanders, only Winfield Scott Hancock receives praise from Wert, and even that is qualified by the general's limitations stemming from his still unhealed Gettysburg wound. Horatio Wright was new to corps command in the army after General John Sedgwick was killed in action, and both Gouverneur Warren and Ambrose Burnside did not perform to General in Chief U.S. Grant and Army of the Potomac commander George Meade's expectations. Both Burnside and Warren were accused by their superiors of being too slow to respond to attack orders and of launching badly prepared piecemeal attacks that were repulsed with heavy loss. Wert also believes that ingrained factors were at play. Agreeing with other assessments regarding the inherent inefficiency of the Grant-Meade dual command system, Wert believes the central reason behind the hesitant performances of some members of the Union high command on May 12 was the lingering influence of General McClellan on the army he was most responsible for creating. That longstanding and still quite popular line of interpretation, which has a lot of historiographical baggage attached to it, will perhaps be too tidy and outdated for some readers.

What does seem inescapably true from a reading of the vast number of personal accounts collected by Wert's research is the exceptional nature of the close combat experience of Spotsylvania. As expressed through their own words, the scale, intensity, and prolongation of up-close bloodletting that occurred in the trenches and traverses of the Spotsylvania salient's western face were seared into the minds of veterans who fought there as being unequaled in their war service. Labeling the contest for the Bloody Angle as "the heart of hell" is no exaggeration. In attempting to come up with a comparable example, only the struggle over the Franklin breastworks comes to mind, but even that cannot match the duration of what occurred at Spotsylvania.

Focusing on the center sector of the battlefield, Jeffry Wert's The Heart of Hell is not a work intended to entirely supplant the major Spotsylvania battle studies that have preceded it. Though its impressive overall battle narrative certainly does deserve top shelf position alongside Matter and Rhea, Wert's study really shines brightest and most uniquely in how deeply it reveals the unforgettable horrors of Spotsylvania that were like no other in the Civil War fighting man's experience.

1 comment:

  1. I met Mr. Wert at the Gettysburg collector’s show last month. Had a nice talk about the book and the war in general. He is a very nice guy.

    Jim NIEMI


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