Spotsylvania Court House
8-21 May 1864
As darkness settled over northern Virginia on the evening of May 6, 1864, the two-day series of military engagements that would become known as the battle of the Wilderness came to a close. The first encounter between the war's most prominent military leaders - Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding all United States armies from a headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia - had ended. At 6:30 A.M. on May 7 Grant issued a directive to the Army of the Potomac commander, Major General George Gordon Meade. The order, one of the most important of Grant's military career, began, "General: Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spotsylvania Court-House."
On the night of May 7-8 the Union Fifth Corps and the Confederate First Corps, moving independently and unknown to each other, led the marches of their respective armies toward Spotsylvania Court House. In the morning the lead elements met on the Spindle farm along the Brock Road, and the fighting lasted throughout the day as more units from each army arrived. Elements of the Federal Sixth Corps joined in the attack around midday, but the Union troops were unable to force their way through, and nightfall found two sets of parallel fieldworks across the Brock Road. What the Federals had thought would be a rapid march into open country had stalled behind these works. The battle of Spotsylvania Court House was under way.
More units of each army continued to arrive on May 9. The Confederate Third Corps marched along the Shady Grove Church Road (today State Route 608) to the village of Spotsylvania Court House. The Federal Second Corps, commanded by Major General Winfield S. Hancock, moved from Todd's Tavern along the Brock Road, then moved off the road to take position to the right of the Fifth Corps, overlooking the Po River. Late in the afternoon troops from the Second Corps crossed the river and moved east on the Shady Grove Church Road as far as the Block House bridge over the Po before darkness halted them.
During the night Lee sent one brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William Mahone, to block and one division, led by Major General Henry Heth, to attack the Federal force the following day. On the morning of May 10 the three divisions of the Federal Second Corps south of the Po River were directed to return north of that stream to assault another segment of the Confederate line. Two divisions recrossed successfully, but the third crossed under Confederate fire.
Elsewhere that day, the Federal commanders attempted to execute a combined attack all along the lines. A series of piecemeal assaults by elements of the Fifth and Second corps at Laurel Hill proved unsuccessful. A bit farther east a charge by twelve Union regiments against the western face of a great salient in the Confederate line was far more carefully arranged. The British military historian C. F. Atkinson, writing in 1908 in Grant's Campaigns of 1864 and 1865, labeled the charge "one of the classic Infantry attacks of military history". This dramatic action also failed, because of the failure of a supporting assault and because of strong Confederate counterstrokes.
Grant decided to attack the apex of the Confederate salient with the entire Federal Second Corps on May 12. Two divisions of Major General Ambrose Burnside's Ninth Corps were to attack the east face of the Confederate position simultaneously. The Second Corps moved into position after dark.
At 4:35 A.M. on May 12 the Federal Second Corps moved forward from its position near the Brown house, advanced across the Landrum farm clearing, and struck the apex of the salient. Continuing forward for about half a mile, the Federals captured approximately 3,000 prisoners from Major General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps before being driven back to the outside of the works by Confederate reserve forces. Both sides forwarded reinforcements (the Federals added units of Major General Horatio Wright's Sixth Corps to the assault), and the northern face of the salient became the focus of close firing and fighting that lasted for twenty-three hours. In midafternoon a division of the Ninth Corps advanced, and a portion of it was struck by an advancing pair of Confederate brigades, James H. Lane's and David A. Weisiger's, in an area approximately three quarters of a mile north of the village of Spotsylvania Court House. The resulting engagement was a wild melee in dark woods, with every soldier trying to fight his way back to his own lines.
A Federal Second Corps soldier, viewing the churned landscape around the "bloody angle" on the morning of May 13, wrote: "The trench on the Rebel side of the works was filled with their dead piled together in every way with their wounded. The sight was terrible and ghastly." Sometime before 2:00 A.M. on May 13 a large oak tree just behind the west face of the salient crashed to the ground. Its trunk, twenty Inches In diameter, had been severed by musket balls.
The Confederates successfully withdrew to a newly constructed line along the base of the salient at 3:00 A.M. On the night of May 13, 14 the Federal Fifth and Sixth corps marched around to the Fredericksburg Road and went into position south of that road on the left of the Ninth Corps. On May 15 the Second Corps joined the other three Union corps so that the Federal lines, east of the village, now faced west and ran north and south. Three days later two Union corps returned to the salient and attacked the Confederates' final line but were unsuccessful.
On May 19 Ewell's Confederate Second Corps made a forced reconnaissance around to the Fredericksburg Road to attempt to locate the right flank of the Union line. There they ran into some newly arrived Federal troops that had formerly manned the forts surrounding Washington, D.C. These heavy artillerymen, most of whom were serving under Brigadier General Robert 0. Tyler, were acting as infantry for the first time. The resulting engagement on the Harris farm exacted a heavy toll on both sides: It cost the Confederates 900 casualties and the Federals slightly more than 1,500.
The battle of Spotsylvania Court House was over. If Grant's intention had been to defeat or even destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, he was unsuccessful at Spotsylvania. Assuming that Lee's primary objective was to hold the line of the Rapidan River and keep the enemy out of central Virginia, the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania can be considered strategic defeats. However, by delaying Grant for two weeks at Spotsylvania, Lee permitted other Confederate forces to resist Union efforts in the vicinity of Richmond and in the Shenandoah Valley, unmolested by the Army of the Potomac.
Confederate casualties for the two-week long battle were estimated at 9,000-10,000 (combat strength: 63,000). Federal casualties were reported as slightly less than 18,000 (combat strength: 111,000). Perhaps the most notable death was that of Sixth Corps commander Major General John Sedgwick, killed by a sharpshooter's bullet as he prowled the front lines on May 9. Shortly before, Sedgwick had chided some infantrymen trying to dodge the occasional minie balls whistling past with the comment that the Confederates "couldn't hit an elephant at this distance."
Both armies departed Spotsylvania on May 20 and 21. Lee rode south, aware that he had to avoid a siege of Richmond or the Confederacy would be doomed. He would next meet Grant at the North Anna River.
Grant had sent a dispatch on May 11 declaring, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer. It would take that long and more.
Source: "The Civil War Battlefield Guide"
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