The Mule Shoe

Union cannon would have been placed where this picture was taken, firing at the Confederate lines along the wooded ridge, roughly laid out in the shape of a mule shoe, if seen from above.

The path to the right leads to the area around the Bloody Angle, the path to the left leads to near the apex of the Mule shoe, which is maybe a hundred yards to the left of where the salient bent back and away to the south.  The left side of this picture is where Hancock launched his successful assault against the salient.

Upton’s assault would have originated from the extreme right of this picture, about a mile and a half from here, and obscured by the tree on the immediate right, as well as a host of trees in the distance.  The McCoull farm is about dead center in this picture, in the wooded

All right, I’m walking along the northwest side of the Mule Shoe and one thing really jumps out at me.  You can see it in the picture above, which is right where I was walking, looking back toward the Bloody Angle.  The earthworks run along the line of trees on the left of this picture.  The hill, sloping down to the lowlands on the right, actually starts off of the right of this picture.

You know what that means.

Dead ground.

Dead ground, or defilade, is where your firing trenches don’t have a view of the enemy, and the Confederate earthworks at the Mule Shoe are well back of the edge of the hill, anywhere from a few dozen feet to 60 feet or more.

I have no idea why they entrenched in this manner, but what it does is leave a huge dead space at the bottom of the valley for Union troops to maneuver freely.  what looks like an excellent command of the valley is actually closer to the situation of a convex hill, where an enemy can move through a dead space where you can’t fire at him.

The two red arrows mark the monuments out in front of the Bloody Angle, and the tops of them are barely visible.  All this area would have been dead ground, where Union troops could shelter.

So the Mule Shoe, which looks like it has an excellent command of the surrounding valley, has a very fatal weakness beyond that of being a salient.  There is just way too much dead ground in front of the Confederate lines, which allows the Union troops to move right into close combat without suffering any casualties for the last hundred yards of their advance.

The Mule Shoe is a great place for shelling the Union troops on the far side of the valley, and the cannon on the far ridge, but once Union troops descend into the valley they enter dead ground, and can’t be fired upon until they emerge right in front of the Confederate line.

This is one of the major reasons for how the Bloody Angle came to be named, and why hand to hand combat raged there for an incredible 20 straight hours in the pouring rain.

At Spotsylvania, you can really see how the terrain influenced the battle, as well as what an excellent job the Parks Service has done restoring the battlefield to a close approximation of its 1864 condition and sight lines.

But when you look at how the Confederate defenses were laid out, you can see clearly that the Mule Shoe is no Cold Harbor.