The Mule Shoe

Confederate Salient, Spotsylvania

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The Mule Shoe Salient

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The Mule Shoe, as seen from the Union view.  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 section of the Mule Shoe.

Mule Shoe Confederate salient General Ewell

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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 Mule Shoe Earthworks Spotsylvania

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More entrenchments.  You can see how far back they are from the edge of the hill.  There are traverses here; they look to me like they might have been for artillery, but certainly they were traverses to protect from enfilading fire.

Mule Shoe salient looking toward the Bloody Angle

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This gives you a good look at it.  The Confederate earthworks are along the left, and look at the broad flat expanse before you reach the crest of the ridge, and then the hill slopes downward.  You'll see it even more clearly in the next pictures.

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This is a few from part way down the hill into the valley.  You can stand up straight here, and not see the earthworks.  You can see the edge of the hill, and sure they had skirmishers and rifle pits in this area, but the Union troops would have driven those in easily, and then the main Confederate line had no way to fire upon this area.  You can maneuver easily in this area, and come up to assault the line wherever you like.

Mule Shoe Monuments at Spotsylvania

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Again, you can see how steep the slope is, and how the Confederate line on the left simply cannot fire into this area.  This is looking roughly along the line back toward the Bloody Angle.

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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.  

Mule Shoe Hancock's Assault

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You can see here how the distant hills can be fired upon, but anything in close is quite hidden in dead ground.  No wonder General Hancock's assault here, and stretching farther to the right, succeeded. 

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