Book Review: The Heart of Hell: The Soldiers' Struggle for Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle


by Jeffry D. Wert

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Pp. x, 310+. Illus., maps, appends, notes, biblio., index. $37.50. ISBN: 1469668424

“No Parallel in the Annals of War.”

In his latest work, Jeffrey Wert takes a look at the Battle of Spotsylvania during U.S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in the Spring of 1864. He opens by discussing the background to the campaign and the character of the armies. Wert explains that unlike earlier Union generals, the Union's Ulysses S. Grant did not concern himself with what Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was going to do, but what he wanted to do to Lee, “To get possession of Lee’s army was the first great object,” adding that “Lee with the capitol of the Confederacy, was the main end to which all were working.”

There followed the brutal fighting in "the Wilderness", where Lee stopped Grant cold. Rather than retreating, Grant, tried flanking Lee, leading to the protracted fighting at Spotsylvania (May 9–21), which a Union private recalled as a "seething, bubbling, soaring hell of hate and murder." By May 12, the Confederates had established a long line of earthworks, included a half-mile bulge called the Mule Shoe Salient. Grant attacked a bulge on the flank of this salient which would become known as the "Bloody Angle". From very early on May 12th, vicious fighting continued into the 13th, by which time the Confederates, although thrown back somewhat, had established a new fortified line. An action describes by Confederate General John Gordon as “wrestle of the giants on the same breastworks” with “no parallel in the annals of war,” leaving thousands of troops on both sides dead, wounded, or captured, Grant broke off the attempt.

Wert does an outstanding job of explaining the changing nature of war, and how Grant learned to cope with it, leading to a "a hard-war" policy and a more coordinated effort against the Confederacy in all theatres. He also many comments from common soldier and officers on both sides, which help us better understand their experiences, motivations, spiritual beliefs, and more, while offering observations on weather, illness, fear, and even humor in the face of battle.

This is a rich work, vivid, and quite often simultaneously tinged with humor and horror, reflecting the complexities of such a bloody, awful, and awe-inspiring event. The Heart of Hell is a readable, balanced, and information look at Spotsylvania, with excellent maps, and is highly recommended.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His most recent previous reviews here include Their Maryland, The Lion of Round Top, Rites of Retaliation, Animal Histories of the Civil War Era, Benjamin Franklin Butler, Dreams of Victory: General P. G. T. Beauregard, Bonds of War, Early Struggles for Vicksburg, True Blue, Civil War Witnesses and Their Books, Love and Duty, When Hell Came To Sharpsburg, Lost Causes, Six Miles From Charleston, Five Minutes to Hell, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", James Montgomery: Abolitionist Warrior, Cedar Mountain to Antietam, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, Count the Dead, All Roads Led To Gettysburg, and Unhappy Catastrophes




Note: The Heart of Hell, a volume in the UNC series "Civil War America", is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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