May 12

This Day in History

Civil War

May 12, 1864:

North and South see bloody day at the Bloody Angle

Close-range firing and hand-to-hand combat at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, result in one of the most brutal battles of the Civil War. After the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee raced respective Union and Confederate forces southward. Grant aimed his army a dozen miles southeast of the Wilderness, toward the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. Sensing Grant's plan, Lee sent part of his army on a furious night march to secure the road junction before the Union soldiers got there. The Confederates soon constructed a five-mile long system of entrenchments in the shape of an inverted U.

On May 10, Grant began to attack Lee's position at Spotsylvania. After achieving a temporary breakthrough at the Rebel center, Grant was convinced that a weakness existed there, as the bend of the Confederate line dispersed their fire. At dawn on May 12, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock's troops emerged from the fog and overran the Rebel trenches, taking nearly 3,000 prisoners and more than a dozen cannons. While the Yankees erupted in celebration, the Confederates counterattacked and began to drive the Federals back. The battle raged for over 20 hours along the center of the Confederate line—the top of the inverted U—which became known as the "Bloody Angle." Lee's men eventually constructed a second line of defense behind the original Rebel trenches, and fighting ceased just before dawn on May 13.

Around the Bloody Angle, the dead lay five deep, and bodies had to be moved from the trenches to make room for the living. The action around Spotsylvania shocked even the grizzled veterans of the two great armies. Said one officer, "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania."

And yet the battle was not done; the armies slugged it out for another week. In spite of his losses, Grant persisted, writing to General Henry Halleck in Washington, D.C., "I will fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."

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