Sunday, May 11, 2014

Hidden Spotsylvania

Tonight I am back home from an excursion to Spotsylvania, where I was able to take part in a wonderful seven hour, ranger-led hike focusing on the hidden spots of the Spotsylvania Battlefield. About 85 diehard visitors turned out for this tour, a seven or eight mile trek. Ranger Beth Parnicza was our guide. Peter Maugle was slated to co-lead the tour, but was unable to at the last minute - and Gettysburg National Military Park Ranger John Heiser stepped in as a substitute and admirably filled Peter's role.

For those of you who have never made it to Spotsylvania, it is easily one of the best battlefields to hike. The Park Service makes it easy with their Spotsylvania History Trail, a seven mile interpretive route which allows you to explore nearly the entire battlefield on foot. Today - our path traced much of the History Trail - but we also plunged deep into the woods at times to visit secluded spots.

The Group gathers at our first stop - Doles's Salient.
We began our tour at the end of Anderson Drive, and hiked to Doles's Salient - where Beth recounted some of the details of Emory Upton's evening assault on May 10th.

The tour group stretches single file through the woods as we locate the original trace of Upton's Road.
We then followed the route of Upton's assault in reverse. Here I learned that the actual hiking trail for Upton's attack does not necessarily follow "Upton's Road" - the wooded lane that Upton's troops guided on in their assault. The current hiking trail follows a route laid out by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and diverges a bit from the original road. Beth led the group through the woods to the trace of an old logging path that she believes is probably the true "Upton's Road."

It's hard to make out in this photo - but these curious Sixth Corps earthworks are laid out in multiple rows,
with a few yards separating one line of earthworks from the next line in rear.
Once we had emerged from the woods onto Grant Drive, we followed the park road for a ways and then struck off into the woods north of the road to explore some mysterious entrenchments of the Sixth Corps. Here we found several rows of extremely well preserved earthworks - mostly likely dug by Wheaton's brigade - stacked up one behind another. This strange formation of earthworks has not been noted on any other battlefields other than at Kennesaw Mountain. And Union troops at both locations left no record for why they arrayed their defenses in such a unique configuration.

The group gathers to view the Mule Shoe from the perspective of the Confederate
skirmish line out in front of the main works.
After lunch by the Bloody Angle, John led the group down the Landrum Lane to the site of the Landrum House to discuss the battle on the morning of May 12th. He offered several fascinating details, relating the struggle Union forces had in keeping their units at the Mule Shoe supplied with ammunition throughout the day-long contest.

John Heiser leads us toward the Mule Shoe from the Landrum House site.
From here, we marched across the fields, following the route of Hancock's Corps to the angle. Beth and John discussed not only the action at the Angle, but also the aftermath of the battle, and the horrific task of burying the dead. They related several accounts of burial parties simply knocking down the trenches in this sector to cover over the dead who carpeted those trenches. The Angle was not just a battleground, it was a burial ground.

Earthworks at Heth's Salient.
Leaving the Mule Shoe, we continued on to explore the action on the front of Burnside's 9th corps. In the words north of Burnside Drive we located the 9th Corps earthworks, and after a hike deep into the woods on the south side of the avenue we located Heth's Salient - a well-preserved position that hardly any Spotsylvania visitors get to see.

The tour group begins to straggle a bit as we cross the Harrison Farm - toward the end of the tour.
Retracing our steps back to Burnside Drive, we rounded out our tour with a hike over to Gordon Drive, past the Harrison House, and concluded our experience at the end of Anderson Drive with a discussion of Lee's final line and the Sixth Corps's assault on May 18th.

Throughout the program, Beth and John emphasized the stunningly preserved landscape of Spotsylvania. The battlefield's 14.9 miles of earthworks today stand testament to how the war was changing in May of 1864.

Kudos to the Park Service for an outstanding commemorative program.

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