Union Soldier Writes Home of Death and Loss of “Human Feeling”

May 9, 1864/2014
Volume 5, Issue 19 (187 Issues Since 15 October 2010)
J.E.B. Stuart Battles Custer; Stuart’s Death Major Loss to Lee

On May 11, 1864, the brilliant Confederate cavalry leader J.E.B. Stuart clashed against forces led by Union General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Yellow Tavern in Virginia. Cavalry fought against cavalry as Lee’s and Grant’s armies raced for Richmond. Custer fought with distinction. Stuart was wounded, and he died the next day.

“‘I can scarcely think of him without weeping,’ said Lee, who recognized Stuart for what he was — a consummate cavalier, forever seeking glory on horseback.”


Smithsonian Civil War, Inside the National Collection (2013), p. 204.

The War’s Longest Uninterrupted Battle at Close Quarters, Spotsylvania Court House. “The Bloody Angle.”
May 12, 1864. “Shortly after the bloody Battle of the Wilderness came terribly heavy fighting on May 12, 1864 at Spotsylvania Court House, in Virginia. “It was the war’s longest uninterrupted battle at close quarters, raging continuously through a day of driving rain and on into the night.” (1)  Afterwards, an aide to General Grant, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, visited “the Bloody Angle,” the site of particularly intense fighting. In his memoir, he would write, “Lee made five assaults, in all, that day, in a series of desperate and even reckless attempts to retake his main line of earthworks; but each time his men were hurled back defeated, . . . The battle near the ‘angle’ was probably the most desperate engagement in the history of modern warfare, and presented features which are absolutely appalling. It was chiefly a savage hand-to-hand fight across the breastworks. Rank after rank was riddled by shot and shell and bayonet-thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of torn and mutilated corpses; then fresh troops rushed madly forward to replace the dead, and so the murderous work went on. . . . trees over a foot and a half in diameter were cut completely in two by the incessant musketry fire. A section of the trunk of a stout oak-tree thus severed was afterward sent to Washington, where it is still on exhibition at the National Museum. . . .”. . . Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the ‘angle,’ while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation.

Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late.”


1.) Smithsonian Civil War, Inside the National Collection (2013), p. 204.

Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant (1897), pp. 110-111.

Union Soldier Writes Home of Death and Loss of “Human Feeling”

May 15, 1864. Pvt. Darius Priest, of the Vermont Second, was wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness, which was fought May 5-7, 1864, in central Virginia. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in that first battle of Grant’s 1864 Virginia Overland Campaign. On May 15 from Fredericksburg he wrote his wife in Mount Holly, Vermont: “I am alive but all the boys that you know are either dead or wounded. Some of the wounded are very bad . . . don’t fear for I will live a long time yet. Will and Steph are very bad off but they will get well.”

Two days later, he wrote again from a hospital in Washington, D.C.:  “I arrived here at three o’clock this morning. I left Allen, Will and Stephen at Fredericksburg. I can’t tell when they will get away from thare . . . Fifty of our company have been shot since the fifth of May so there is but ten left in the company now . . . I have shot eight of the devils and killed one with my bayonet. Some of our boys have knocked out their brains with the butts of their guns. I believe we have lost all human feeling whatever, for to step on a dead man or to kneel in pools of blood and lean over the dead bodyes of our own men will get used to it after while . . . I may possibly come to Vermont soon and I may not for six months. I shall not go to the front again at any rate.”


The Battered Stars, One State’s Civil War Ordeal During Grant’s Overland Campaign, Howard Coffin. Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 2002. pp. 201, 205-206.

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1864

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