Understanding Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle: an Old Collaboration and a New Blog


from: Harrison

The team of writer and activist Mary Johnston and artist N. C. Wyeth offers a fascinating case study of non-veterans collaborating to interpret Civil War battles.

Public domain images of Mary Johnston (Library of Congress) and N. C. Wyeth (Wikimedia Commons).

Recently, I read portions of Johnston’s Wyeth-illustrated novel Cease Firing (Houghton Mifflin, 1912). It occurred to me that this picture in the book, accompanying her account of the May 12, 1864, fighting at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle, may now be the least known of its nationally circulated and publicized depictions:


(This black-and-white, online version of the artwork is in the public domain; Wyeth’s original painting resides in a private collection but is viewable in low-rez color here. That, by the way, is from a thumbnailed catalog that inventories many of Wyeth’s other historical works, including some of his sketched studies of Civil War soldiers. Wyeth’s Wiki entry is here.)

And Wyeth’s grim vision of the Bloody Angle only hinted at the horrors of Johnston’s, which began with self-narrating stabs by a Confederate’s blade:

The breastwork here was log and earth. Now other bayonets appeared over it, and behind the bayonets blue caps. “I have heard many a fuss,” said the first bayonet thrust, “but never a fuss like this!” “Blood, blood!” said the second. “I am the bloody Past! Just as strong and young as ever I was! More blood!”

The trenches grew slippery with blood. It mixed with the rain and ran in red streamlets. The bayonet point felt first the folds of cloth, then it touched and broke the skin, then it parted the tissues, then it grated against bone, or, passing on, rending muscle and gristle…. Where weapons had been wrested away men clutched with bare hands one anothers’ throats. And all this went on, not among a dozen or even fifty infuriated beings, but among thousands.

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