May 12, 1864, saw some of the most sustained, ugliest, and bloody combat of the American Civil War. In the early morning hours Ulysses S. Grant made good on his pledge to strike once more at the salient in the Confederate center, commonly called the Mule Shoe, by launching Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps in a massive assault. Other corps, notably Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps, would support Hancock’s initial thrust.
It must be said that the assault was poorly planned. Neither Hancock nor his division commanded knew much about the ground over which they were to advance or the nature of the position they were to strike, and they didn’t do very much to remedy that ignorance. Instead, Second Corps commanders and staffers alike shifted the blame to army headquarters, leaving one to wonder about what they thought they were supposed to do (Frank Barlow was especially outspoken in his unhappiness). For once, however, the Yankees stumbled into some good luck, for Lee had directed first the withdrawal and then the return of some two dozen or so cannon from the salient, so the guns were just being moved back into place when the blueclad juggernaut struck. Moreover, Lee had been outfoxed: he thought Grant was preparing to withdraw toward Fredericksburg. Apparently he had not yet heard of Grant’s May 11th pledge to fight it out on this line if it took all summer.
And yet the Confederates would benefit from some luck as well. According to Grant’s original plan of attack Hancock would look to Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps to provide crucial support during the opening assault, but, as on May 6th, Burnside was not up to the task, despite Grant having sent a staff officer, Cyrus B. Comstock, to ride herd over the hero of Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps of some 20,000 men got into position, with Barlow’s four brigades lined up two brigades across and two deep, followed by John Gibbon’s division, while to Barlow’s right David Birney formed his men as did Barlow, with Gersham Mott’s men to follow — more men than had participated in the Confederate assault of July 3 at Gettysburg. They targeted the center of the salient, and within minutes they overran the Confederate position, swallowing up large numbers of prisoners, including two Confederate generals.
Back at Grant’s headquarters, reports of the initial success began trickling in. At first it seemed that at last the Yankees had scored a major success. “By God! They are done! Hancock will just drive them to hell!” exclaimed the usually sober if blunt spoken John A. Rawlins, Grant chief of staff. The commanding general did not join in such histrionics. He did what he could to coordinate the movements of his corps, relying on a field telegraph service to issue orders and receive information.
For Robert E. Lee, it was another day where he had to ride to the front and hope that his personal presence would stave off disaster as his defensive lines dissolved. Once more soldiers shouted “Lee to the rear!” Once more they worked to blunt the Union assault, buying time to construct a second line of defense at the base of the salient. Meanwhile the initial wave of attackers had become disorganized and confused. Instead of managing his attack and regrouping his forces, however, Hancock and his divisions commander lost control of their men and in the process began sacrificing what they had done so much to gain. The divisions of Gibbon and Mott simply piled in behind their comrades, complicating matters still more.
Meanwhile Burnside had commenced his assault, with the lead brigade ramming into James Lane’s brigade of North Carolinians. To the west Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps was also beginning to apply pressure on the Confederate defenders. It was left to John B. Gordon to salvage what he could of Lee’s desperate situation, and he did so with verve, rallying the Rebels and launching counterattacks that stalled the Yankee advance. Burnside failed to support his initial success, and the momentum of the assault slowed as a brutal slugfest commenced, with both sides pouring in more men into the swirling chaos. It would be left to Wright’s Sixth Corps and not Burnside to support Hancock. Wright’s men made the Bloody Angle memorable; while Gordon would write movingly of his own role at Spotsylvania, channeling Joshua Chamberlain, Lane’s critical contribution in halting Burnside would not receive as much attention (shades of Culp’s Hill!).
For the remainder of the morning both sides fed the fight along the salient and the angle, with bullets filling the air and felling a famed tree nearly two feet in diameter. Warren pressed forward in strength to test whether the Confederates had stripped bare their defenses at Laurel Hill, but his heart was not in it, and neither were his men’s, so after some more tough fighting, that front fell silent … although Grant would have been willing to relieve Warren with Andrew A. Humphreys at that point, which might not have been a bad idea.
By late afternoon the fighting was over on May 12. Grant abandoned the idea of hammering away once more: the Confederate had finally completed their second line of defense. For all the damage done and blood shed, the fighting on May 12 had achieved little else.