CARMEL – In the spring of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was ordered by Abraham Lincoln to leave his command of the Union forces fighting in the Western Theater of the Civil War and to proceed to the East where he would take command of the entire Union Army.  

Grant, who has sometimes been criticized as a less-than-adroit tactical commander, was brought East by Lincoln because he possessed the characteristic that the president valued most – he wasn’t afraid to fight, and he was relentless. Grant also was a mathematician at heart who understood the basic numbers of the Civil War and was prepared to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to enable the superior numbers of men and material which the North commanded to ultimately break the back of the rebellion.

Grant moved the Union Army into the entangled morass of the Wilderness and during May 5 until May 7 fought a bloody encounter with Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s gray-clad forces. The casualties were heavy with 2,246 killed and 12,037 wounded in Grant’s forces and 1,495 and 7,928 wounded fighting for the Confederate Army. Prior to this time in the Civil War, Union generals in the Army of the Potomac had the annoying behavior of stopping after a bloody battle and either regrouping in place or withdrawing from the field of battle to restock men and supplies. This dubious behavior enabled Lee to slip off the hook after both Antietam and Gettysburg and allowed his smaller army to thwart every Union advance.  

Seemingly true to form, after the three days of hard fighting, Grant ordered his wounded to be evacuated from the field of battle and for his men to be prepared to march. Grant moved his army of 85,000 men to the east of the Wilderness battlefield where the weary veterans of the Army of the Potomac assumed that the Union forces would fall back to the north and the relative safety of Fredericksburg, Virginia. This time they were surprised when Grant ordered his army to turn to the south and toward the heart of the Confederacy. Grant was a different kind of general and he did not intend to let Lee slip away this time.

The 20th Indiana Volunteer Infantry had seen some of the hardest fighting in the entire Civil War and had been decimated by brutal fighting during the Peninsula Campaign, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The regiment had lost its commanding officers at Second Manassas and Gettysburg. Its new Col. William Taylor was exhausted from the ordeal of the Wilderness and as the regiment now moved to the south, it was commanded by Lt. Col. George Meikel.

The 20th Indiana was part of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s Second Corps, and it was moving inexorably to its next rendezvous with history near a small town named Spotsylvania Court House. The regiment moved out on the afternoon of May 9, serving as skirmishers for the brigade of Brigadier Gen. Hobart Ward. As skirmishers, the job of the 20th was to serve as an active screen between the main Union forces and the main body of the Confederates.  

As the men of the 20th prepared to cross the Po River, rebels hidden in the bushes on the far side of the river opened fire. Corporal James Torrence was struck in the head by a musket ball and killed instantly. Privates Reynolds and Fuller both went down when they were struck by the same ball that killed Torrence. Part of the Ward’s Brigade was called forward and the Hoosiers and 99th Pennsylvania Infantry drove the rebels back from the Po. The Hoosiers were then subjected to a heavy bombardment by rebel artillery and the Confederate infantry then made a determined attack to drive the Indiana men back into the Union lines.

The Hoosiers thought that they might be allowed to rest and recover from the past week of movement and hard fighting, but it wasn’t to be. Lee’s Army had entrenched itself along a line running east to west, obstructing the advance of Grant’s Army. By a quirk of fate, the Confederate line had developed a massive bulge that resembled an inverted “V”. The men all came to call this bulge in the Confederate line, “The Mule Shoe.” 

Gen. Grant penned a brief note to President Lincoln after the hard fighting on May 10. He told the president that, “I propose to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer.” The note was written in ink, but it would be underlined in blood. In the sharp fight on May 10, Col. Emory Upton, commanding a brigade, had tried an innovative attack on the Confederate line that briefly succeeded but ultimately failed for lack of men and follow-up forces. The innovative attack was one that would be closely studied by military schools around the world and copied repetitively by World War II German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Upton had attacked across a narrow line with his brigade regiments stacked vertically like a spear aimed at the rebel heart. The attack captured the attention of Gen. Grant who commented to his subordinate officers, “Today a brigade, tomorrow a corps.”

Getting a full corps of 15,000 men aligned en echelon took all of May 11, but by early morning of May 12, the full Second Corps was ready. The men were ordered to build extensive campfires to mask the movement of the corps to the position of the launch point of the attack. They were also ordered to move as quietly as possible with anything that might rattle and alert the rebels to their presence to be left behind.

Gen. Hobart Ward had spent most of May 11 drinking, but instead of falling into a stupor, he was instead fortified by his liquor and ready to fight. The entire Second Corps was ordered to use the 20th Indiana as its guide regiment. All eyes would be on the Hoosiers and their Pennsylvania mates as they led the attack in the first line on the Confederate salient. Four hundred yards from the rebel line, the Union troops broke into a headlong run toward the Mule Shoe. The rebels were taken totally by surprise. The Hoosiers quickly were in and among the panicking Confederates and drove the southern men of Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson’s division to the rear. The Indiana men commandeered rebel artillery and turned the big guns on the retreating Confederates. Johnson’s division was shattered and thousands of his men were captured along with most of the artillery of Richard Ewell’s corps.

The initial attack had been so successful that the men of the 20th Indiana became emboldened, and they rushed on toward the second and third lines of the Confederates. The Hoosiers moved forward bereft of any orders from their officers as the attacks became a disorganized wild rush toward their enemies. This reckless attack invited a strong rebel counterattack and as the Indiana men reached the third and last line of the Confederates, a terrific volley of musketry blasted all down the southern line and the most advanced men of the 20th Indiana were mowed down like wheat. Privates Archer, Frantz, Briner and Coppeck were ripped to pieces by the first volley, killed instantly. Pvt. Stephens and Capt. Corey were severely wounded as the Confederates counterattacked and drove the Hoosiers back to the first line of rebel entrenchments.

The fighting at the apex of the Mule Shoe marked a nadir in the ferocity and inhumanity of the Civil War. Prior to this moment of battle, there had been ample examples of chivalry, honor, compassion and respect, even in the midst of the war’s bloodiest battles. Men had often behaved as men and not as mindless, blood-lusting animals. Here, along the trenches of the Mule Shoe, no shred of honor remained.  

Soldiers of both armies, who had been subjected to every imaginable deprivation, inconvenience and suffering, finally snapped and reverted to their primal instincts.
Opponents stood toe to toe, bayoneting each other and swinging clubbed muskets, smashing heads and firing point blank into the faces of their opponents. No mercy was requested and none offered; only the mutual desire for annihilation. “Cheer and fire was all anyone did. Men tore off pieces of their clothing to wipe out their guns and then went to work firing again,” Maj. Erasmus Gilbreath reported.

The men of the 20th died by the score in the bloodbath, many falling face down in the ever-rising mud which had thickened from the driving, cold rain now falling. Officers and men died hideous deaths that morning in the Spotsylvania trenches. Capt. Joh Thomas was felled by a bullet and his lifeless body was virtually dissected by the barrage of both rebel and friendly bullets. Capt. Lafayette Gordon nearly had his shoulder blown off by a musket shot fired from close range, a wound that would soon prove fatal. Lt. Michael Sheehan was struck down for the second battle in a row. Lt. John Bartholomew was severely wounded, and Capt. Thomas Logan was wounded again, his second in one week.

Darkness brought an end to the fighting at the Mule Shoe. That night a Confederate band played Handel’s “The Dead March”. The Union forces responded with a rendition of “Nearer My God to Thee.” Thus ended the seven days of murderous combat at Spotsylvania.

As the roll was called by the surviving officers of the 20th Indiana, fewer than one 150 men answered. Eighty-five Hoosiers who climbed the hill at the Mule Shoe were either dead, wounded or missing. The flag presented to the regiment on their departure from Indianapolis, in April, was now riddled with forty-seven bullet holes.

As we come to Memorial Day, 2022, let us remember the courage, suffering and sacrifice made by those who came before us and gave their all so that we might enjoy our God-given freedoms. It is the least we owe the perished and maimed Hoosiers of the Mule Shoe.

Dunn is the former Howard County Republican chairman.