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Heart of Hell - Book Review by Colin Wilks

I gave up reading battle micro histories some time ago, I used to love them but nowadays find they are too complicated and confusing, more like a book of lists than a story (there are some exceptions like Tim Price, Eric Wittenberg and Stephen Davis who actually tell a story.) I tend to stick to biographies these days.

However, in the last year or so I have read and enjoyed a number of books explaining, in detail, actions that took place in one small area of a bigger battle. These books tend to have more maps in them than some of their weightier comrades and, with a smaller cast list, I find less confusing. The Cornfield at Antietam, the Peach Orchard, Wheat Field and Culps Hill at Gettysburg have all come under my scrutiny and I have just finished The Heart Of Hell, The soldiers struggle for Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle by Jeffry D Wert.

Many of us have stood at the Mule Shoe on the battlefield with a general idea what had transpired there in May 1864. Although this book does feature Emory Upton’s famous attack, and taking of the Mule Shoe on 10th May, as well as his withdrawal through lack of any back up from his comrades, it is the day’s afterwards, and in particular 12th May, that take up the most part of this narrative.

This book is not for the faint hearted, Jeffry D. Wert has conducted the most impressive research using primary sources and eyewitness accounts. It is these memoirs that really make this book special. The concentration is on the private soldier and it is their words that give this story it’s shock impact. The descriptions of the bloody trench warfare with combatants only the length of a rifle barrel apart and in continual torrential rain are unsettling but riveting reading. One Union private described the action as “seething, bubbling, soaring hell of hate and murder.”

By the time 13th May had come around 17,500 officers and men from both sides had been killed, wounded or captured.

To quote the insider cover piece, “Wert’s harrowing tale reminds us that the war's story, often told through its commanders and campaigns, truly belonged to the common soldier.”

Highly recommended!

Colin Wilks


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