Battle of Spottsylvania. Creator: [Boston] : L. Prang & Co., 1887. Facsimile print of work by Thure De Thulstrup. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington)

All that remains of the Confederate “mule shoe” fortification here is a fragile, moss-covered mound that arcs across a landscape where visitors are asked not to tread.

In the open fields where the Yankees charged, tall grass rustles in the wind. And the sheltering stands of pines in the surrounding woods sway and creak in the quiet.

There are only a handful of monuments to the nightmare battle that was fought here in May 1864. There is no on-site visitor center, few tourists, and a silence that contrasts with the extraordinary violence that unfolded 150 years ago.

“An air of suffocating loneliness reigns,” Katherine Couse, 28, a prescient resident wrote of the place just before the battle.

“The wind has a peculiar howling sound as if ghosts and witches were around,” she wrote to friends. “Do not think me superstitious. Troubles seem to be attracted to this spot.”

Silas A. Shirley of Co. H, 16th Mississippi Infantry Regiment, killed at Spotsylvania. (Library of Congress/Library of Congress)

On May 10, 11 and 12, a huge Union army hurled itself against entrenched Confederate forces in a relentless and often futile series of attacks that culminated in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

It was not the biggest battle of the war, nor the deadliest, and it was sandwiched between others that came in quick succession that tortured season.

But for sustained, frightful fighting at close quarters in horrible conditions, it is perhaps unsurpassed in the annals of the war. Participants found it worse than the earlier battles at Gettysburg and Antietam.

And in crucial ways, it changed the course of the Civil War, launching a savage kind of trench combat and setting an ominous tone for the conflict’s closing months.

“The human experience there was so vastly different than in any other battle,” said John Hennessy, chief historian at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

“Somehow, some way, all the kind of accumulated, pent-up frustration, anger, violence of the war seemed to find expression that day,” he said. “Not just for a moment, but for 22 hours.”

Around the mule shoe, a heavily fortified Confederate position named for its shape, soldiers fought in the pouring rain, and the opposing forces were packed so close to each other that one rebel was grabbed by the hair and pulled into the Union lines.

“Skulls were crushed with clubbed muskets, and men stabbed to death with swords and bayonets thrust between the logs in the parapet which separated the combatants,” Horace Porter, a top aide to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, remembered.

Wounded men fell in the mud, then were trampled and buried under the bodies of the dead.

A large oak that stood in the line of fire was chopped down by sheets of flying lead about five feet from the bottom, about the height of a man’s head. The stump stands today, a century and a half later, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, scored and shredded, with bullets burrowed into the wood.

“I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spottsylvania,” a Union staff officer wrote. “I should be loth to believe it myself, were the case reversed,”

A soldier from Mississippi called it “one vast Golgotha in immensity of the number of the dead.”

An officer from Michigan wrote: “This spot should be consecrated ground. No other has drank so deeply of brave men’s blood.”

And as Kate Couse huddled in her home on May 12, and the battle raged in the rain outside, she wrote: “Great God how more than awful. . . . [My] very soul almost dies within me.”

‘The grit of a bulldog’

On the morning of May 11, 1864, Gen. Ulysses Grant rose and had a breakfast of coffee and nearly burned beef, just the way he liked it. After eating, he lit a cigar.

Grant had turned 42 in April, and in March, after a string of victories in the western theater of the war, he had been given command of all the Union’s armies.

He took charge of the North’s Army of the Potomac, in the Eastern theater, and on May 4, he moved it across the Rapidan River, west of Fredericksburg, to attack the main Confederate army, under Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Lee had outwitted four previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac — besting them in battle on the Virginia peninsula, at Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, and surviving a near defeat at Antietam.

He had been beaten at Gettysburg, but remained a cunning and deadly opponent.

Grant brought a new approach and mind-set to the struggle, however. He knew he had a larger army and better equipment, and he was undaunted by setbacks.

His plan was to attack Lee without letup, to seize the initiative and not let it go, according to Gordon C. Rhea, a historian of the 1864 campaign.

“He has the grit of a bulldog,” President Abraham Lincoln is said to have remarked of Grant. “Once let him get his ‘teeth’ in and nothing can shake him off.”

By May 11, Grant had his teeth into Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

On May 5 and 6, the two forces had already fought to a bloody stalemate in a tangled forest known as the Wilderness.

Grant, seeking to get at Lee from another angle, slipped to the southeast. But Lee managed to stay ahead of him. After more bitter fighting May 10, the two armies faced off just north of the hamlet of Spotsylvania Courthouse to go at it again.

After breakfast the morning of May 11, Grant was asked to write a note that a visiting congressman could take back to Lincoln. He hesitated, not wanting to raise false hopes, according to his aide, Horace Porter.

He then went into his tent and with his cigar in his mouth wrote a blunt dispatch that summarized his position: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”

Hand-to-hand brutality

In the early morning of May 12, 20,000 Union soldiers waited in the rainy darkness to launch a surprise assault on the bulge in the Southern lines called the mule shoe, about two miles north of the courthouse.

Typically, such bulges in a line are avoided because they are hard to defend. But this one was on high ground that the Confederates wanted to keep. So they bolstered it with trenches, log barricades, and sharpened tree limbs pointed outward to impede attackers.

Grant planned to try a new tactic, one a young subordinate, Col. Emory Upton, had used with some success two days earlier.

Instead of charging in a long sweeping line of battle, and pausing to fire, Upton had used a compact force of 5,000 to overrun his objective in a swift strike without pause. His attack breached the Southern lines but failed for lack of reinforcements.

Grant liked the idea but wanted to use four times as many men.

About 5 a.m., Union forces emerged from the rain and mist, dashed across the open field and quickly overran the mule shoe. Thousands of Confederates were captured, including two generals, and it appeared that the Yankees had achieved a breakthrough.

“It was a brilliant charge with the bayonet,” a Union soldier recalled, according to Rhea’s account, “hardly a gun being fired.”

At Grant’s headquarters, there was elation, his aide, Horace Porter, recalled: “Shouts and cheers . . . made the forest ring.”

But the breakthrough was short-lived. Once inside the confines of the mule shoe, the Union soldiers fell into chaos. Lee quickly organized a series of counterattacks that pushed the Yankees out of the salient, where they clung to the outer face of the fortification.

And there the fighting descended into hand-to-hand brutality.

“It seemed as though instead of being human we were turned into fiends and brutes, seeking to kill all in our way,” a Union soldier wrote.

A soldier from Mississippi remarked that “no Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical looking set of devils as we were.”

And a member of a New Jersey regiment recalled: “There are occasions when minutes exceed, in their awful bearing, the weeks and years of ordinary existence.”

The fighting went on all day and into the night. Individual combatants fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

A Vermont soldier, William W. Noyes, jumped up on the parapet and began firing down on the rebels as comrades handed him loaded muskets, Rhea, the historian, recounted.

Noyes fired 15 muskets before his hat was shot off, and he returned to cover. He was later given the Medal of Honor.

Union troops blasted the fortifications with artillery and used trench mortars to loft explosives inside the Southern lines.

As the fighting went into the night, Lee’s men were busy building a second, log-fortified line across the base of the mule shoe that they could fall back to. At 3 a.m. it was ready, and the remaining Confederates quietly withdrew.

“When the sun came up, Grant discovered he had captured 10 or 15 acres of bloodstained Virginia soil,” Rhea said in an interview. “And Lee was in a stronger position than he had been in the day before.”

Casualties on both sides totaled about 17,000 men killed, wounded or captured. Grant’s army had been reduced by about 9,000 and Lee’s by about 8,000, according to Rhea’s study. But Grant could absorb the losses better than Lee, and Grant knew it.

Two weeks later, the armies fought again at the North Anna River, and two weeks after that, Lee repulsed Grant, inflicting heavy losses, at Cold Harbor.

Spotsylvania had helped transform the war from one of “sporadic spasms of intensity into [an] ongoing, grinding ordeal,” said Hennessy, the Park Service historian.

For the soldiers on both sides, “here was the emotional toil and toll of constant danger without relief,” he said. “And that would be the story of the war until its very end.”

After the armies left Spotsylvania, Kate Couse and her neighbors began venturing out.

“Very calm,” Couse wrote on May 21. “See only an occasional Reb . . . late this eve we hear cannon. It sounds more distant. . . . We are tired. We walked out and I looked at the graves. Sad sights.”