Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

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Battle of Spotsylvania Court House: Virginia and the Civil War

Union Army Report for Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Spottsylvania* Court House, Va., May 8-18, 1864. Army of the
Potomac. At 3 p. m. on May 7, while the Army of the Potomac was
still on the battlefield of the Wilderness, a messenger arrived at Grant's
headquarters with the information that Gen. Butler, with the Army
of the James, had landed at City Point, completely surprising the Con-
federates there, and was ready to advance on Richmond. Lee had retired
behind his works, leaving open the road to Richmond round his right
flank, and as soon as the intelligence of Butler's successful beginning
was received Grant issued orders for a night march of the whole army
toward Spottsylvania Court House. (For the organization of the
Army of the Potomac at this time see Wilderness.) From the Wil-
derness a road ran east to Chancellorsville, where it was intersected by
another that ran southeast to Piney Branch Church. The Brock road
ran in a southeasterly direction to Spottsylvania and about 3 miles south
of it, and nearly parallel to it, ran the Shady Grove road. The former
was in possession of the Federals as far as Todd's tavern and the latter
was in the hands of the enemy. Beyond Todd's tavern the Brock road
was held by the Confederate cavalry under Stuart. From the tavern
the Catharpin road ran southwest and intersected the southern road at
Shady Grove Church. Gen. Warren, commanding the 5th corps was
to move by the Brock road and was to be followed by Gen. Hancock
with the 2nd corps, while the 6th and 9th corps, respectively commanded
by Gen. Sedgwick and Gen. Burnside, were directed to move by way
of Chancellorsville and Piney Branch Church. Gen. Sheridan, command-
ing the cavalry, was ordered to "have a sufficient force on the approaches
from the right to keep the corps commanders advised in time of the
approach of the enemy." The trains and reserve artillery were moved
to Chancellorsville in the afternoon, from which point they were to
follow the army. Nearly parallel to the course of the army ran the Po
river on the south. The Catharpin road crossed this river at Corbin's
bridge; the Shady Grove road at what was known as the Block House
bridge, and the road running from Spottsylvania to Richmond crossed
it at Snell's bridge about 2 miles south of the Court House. Some con-
troversy and criticism have been indulged in as to why these bridges
were not taken possession of by the Federal forces. Badeau, in his
Military History of Grant, says: "These bridges were of first impor-
tance, for they commanded Lee's only approaches to Spottsylvania, and
Sheridan, who had been ordered to keep a good look-out toward the
enemy, disposed his force so as to secure all three positions. * * *
Had these orders (Sheridan's) been carried out, every avenue to Spott-
sylvania would have been closed to the rebel army." Sheridan's corps
consisted of the three divisions commanded by Gregg, Merritt and
Wilson. His instructions to Gregg, issued at 1 a. m. on the 8th, show
the disposition of his forces with regard to the bridges. They were as
follows: "Move with your command at 5 a. m., on the Catharpin road,
crossing at Corbin's bridge, and taking position at Shady Grove Church.
Gen. Merritt will follow you, and at Shady Grove Church will take
the left hand, or Block House road, moving forward and taking up
position at that point (viz.. Block House). Immediately after he has
passed, you will move forward with your division, on the same road,
to the crossing of the Po river, where you will take up position sup-
porting Gen. Merritt. Gen. Wilson with his division will march from
Alsop's by way of Spottsylvania Court House and the Gate to Snell's
bridge, where he will take up position."

Before the hour fixed for the cavalry to move, Corbin's bridge and
the Block House bridge were both in the hands of the enemy. Snell's
bridge was not used by the Confederates, nor was any attempt made to
use it, because it was too far out of the way. When Lee learned, on
the afternoon of the 7th, of the movement of the Federal trains, his
first impression was that Grant was falling back to Fredericksburg and
determined to interpose a force between him and Richmond. He there-
fore ordered Longstreet's corps, now commanded by Gen. R. H. Ander-
son, Longstreet having been wounded in the battle of the Wilderness,
to move to Spottsylvania that night, to be followed by Ewell's corps
at daylight the next morning. Anderson moved at 11 p. m. and at day-
light his advance had reached the Block House bridge. Had Gregg and
Merritt undertaken to carry out Sheridan's order, they would have
encountered this entire corps as it was marching along the Shady Grove
road. In fact they would have met the enemy before reaching that road,
as Hampton was on the Catharpin road between Corbin's bridge
and Todd's tavern. Wilson did move forward to Spottsylvania, where
he found Wickham's brigade of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, which he drove
from the town and held the place for two hours, when he was recalled
by Sheridan just as Wofford's and Bryan's brigades of Anderson's com-
mand were moving to attack him. It was not the failure to carry out
Sheridan's order regarding the bridges, but the presence of Fitzhugh
Lee's cavalry on the Brock road, that prevented the Federals from gain-
ing possession of Spottsylvania Court House. Warren moved at 8:30
p. m. and was expected to reach the Court House by daylight on the
8th. At Todd's tavern he was delayed for more than an hour by the
headquarters escort and 2 miles farther on he encountered the enemy's
cavalry. Merritt was directed to move 'forward and clear the road
for the infantry. The Confederates were forced back slowly, leaving
the road obstructed by fallen trees, so that Warren's progress was
necessarily slow. At 6 o'clock in the morning Merritt was relieved
by Robinson's division, which succeeded after a sharp contest in driving
the enemy from the road, but at this hour Warren's advance was still
several miles from the Court House.

At 8:30 a. m. Robinson came out of the woods into the open fields-
of the Alsop farm, about half way between Todd's tavern and Spott-
sylvania. Here the Brock road forked, the two branches coming together
again about a mile farther on. Robinson took the left hand road,
Denison's brigade on the right, Lyle's on the left and Coulter's
(formerly Baxter's) on the left rear. Griffin's division moved on the
right fork with Bartlett's brigade in line of battle in advance, the bri-
gades of Ayres and Sweitzer following the road. Robinson reached
the junction of the roads before Griffin, formed his command in column
of regiments and threw out a strong skirmish line in front. Near the
intersection of the Brock road and the old Court House road the former
entered a piece of timber. When Robinson's advance was about 300
yards from this timber the enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery and
musketry upon the front and right from a line of intrenchments just
inside the wood. Robinson was seriously wounded at the first fire and
the national troops were forced back, closely pressed by the enemy, who
tried to turn Lyle's left, but was prevented from doing so by the prompt
action of Denison, who placed his brigade in the edge of the wood where
he checked the further advance of the Confederates and finally com-
pelled them to retire to their works. Soon after Robinson's division
became engaged. Bartlett's line of battle came under the enemy's fire
when about half-way across the open fields of the Alsop farm. At
first Bartlett's men gave way, but fortunately just at that time Ayres'
brigade occupied a sunken part of the road and under cover of this
position the line was reformed. Griffin then advanced his whole divi-
sion, Crawford came up with his division and drove the enemy from the
woods on Griffin's left. The Confederate force with which Robinson
and Griffin had been engaged up to this time was Henagan's and Hum-
phreys' brigades of Kershaw's division, which had formed Anderson's
advance on the Shady Grove road. When Kershaw reached the Block
House bridge about daylight he heard the sound of the firing over
on the Brock road where Fitzhugh Lee was engaged with Merritt and
Robinson. Turning sharply to the left with the two brigades he
reached the woods just as Lee was falling back, threw up temporary
breastworks and awaited the Federal advance. He was followed a little
later by Field's division, which came up on Griffin's right about the
time that Crawford was driving the enemy from the woods. Cutler's
division, the last of Warren's corps to arrive, came up in time to pre-
vent Field from turning Griffin's flank and drove him from the woods,
after which the entire corps was pushed forward as far as possible and
intrenched, the 6th corps coming up and intrenching on Warren's left.

Hancock, who was expected to move with the 2nd corps at 10 p. m.
on the 7th, was so delayed by other troops blocking the road that he
did not begin his march until daylight the next morning. At 9 a. m.
the head of his column arrived at Todd's tavern, where Gregg's cavalry
was found skirmishing with that of the enemy. Hancock threw forward
a skirmish line to relieve Gregg and then posted his division with Mott
covering the Brock road to the right, Barlow on Mott's left, Gibbon
covering the Catharpin road and Birney in reserve. About 11 a. m.
Miles' brigade of Barlow's division, one brigade of Gregg's and a bat-
tery was sent on a reconnaissance toward Corbin's bridge. When about
half a mile from the bridge this force was opened upon by the Confed-
erate batteries on the hills south of the river. Miles ordered his artil-
lery to reply and formed his infantry in line of battle along a ridge in
the wood, which position he held until about 5 p. m., when he was
ordered to return to the tavern. On the way back he was attacked by
Mahone's brigade of Hill's corps, which was then on the way to Spott-
sylvania. Miles repulsed two spirited attacks, holding his ground until
after dark, when he rejoined the division. Gibbon's division was sent
to the support of Warren and Sedgwick in the afternoon, but the lemain-
der of the 2nd corps did not move toward Spottsylvania until about noon
on the 9th. Then Birney and Barlow moved down the road about a
mile, where they took a road leading to the right and joined Gibbon's
division on the high ground overlooking the Po, the three divisions
going into line of battle facing the river. Mott's division was moved
from Todd's tavern to the left of the 6th corps at Alsop's. During the
day Bumside moved with the 9th corps from his position near Chan-
cellorsville down the Fredericksburg pike toward Spottsylvania. On the
march Willcox's division encountered and repulsed a small force at the
bridge over the Ny river, after which the command, Christ's brigade in
advance, pushed on and went into position about a mile east of the Court
House, where several assaults were repulsed during the afternoon, and
where the division finally intrenched. The presence of the enemy on
the Fredericksburg road led Burnside to report to Grant that Lee was
moving toward Fredericksburg and Hancock was directed to force
a passage of the Po for the purpose of making a reconnaissance on
Lee's left. Although the stream was difficult to ford and the opposite
bank was held by the enemy, each of his three divisions succeeded in
crossing and occupied the Shady Grove road from Waite's shop, at
the cross-roads between the Po and Glady run, toward the Block House
bridge, which Hancock endeavored to seize, but darkness came on before
the movement could be executed. That night Hancock threw over three
pontoon bridges for the passage of his artillery early the next morning.

Lee became alarmed by Hancock's presence on his left and on the
evening of the 9th sent Mahone's division to hold the Shady Grove
road. Later Mahone was reinforced by Heth's division. As soon as it
was light enough to see on the morning of the 10th, Hancock made a
reconnaissance toward the Block House bridge with the intention of
forcing a passage across it, but found the enemy strongly intrenched
on the east bank. Concerning his movements in trying to gain posses-
sion of the bridge he says in his report: "After a careful survey had
been made, I concluded not to attempt to carry the bridge, but sent
Brooke's brigade, of Barlow's division down the river to ascertain what
could be effected there. Gen. Birney was directed to send three or
four regiments out on the Andrews' tavern road to cover Brooke's
movement. Col. Brooke succeeded in crossing the river about half
way between the bridge and the mouth of Glady run. * * * About
this time I was informed by the major-general commanding, that an
assault was to be made on the enemy's works on Laurel Hill, in front
of Gen. Warren's position near Alsop's house. I was directed to move
two of my divisions to the left to participate in it, and to assume com-
mand of the forces to be engaged in the attack." Pursuant to this
order Gibbon was at once sent to the north bank of the Po and formed
his command on Warren's right. Birney followed, leaving Barlow to
hold the ground on the south side of the river. As soon as the enemy
discovered that the Federals were recrossing the Po, he advanced in
force against Barlow, who was instructed to fall back across the pon-
toons. The brigades of Brooke and Brown took up a position along
a wooded crest about 100 yards in the rear of the works Barlow had
constructed, while Miles and Smyth were ordered to fall back with
their brigades to the bank of the river. Mistaking the movement of
Miles and Smyth for a forced retreat, the Confederates advanced in
line of battle supported by heavy columns and attacked Brooke and
Brown, but the assault was repulsed. A second attack was made soon
after and the combat became close and bloody, but again the enemy
was forced back. In the meantime the woods on the right and rear
of the Union line had caught fire and the flames now came so near that
it was impossible for Brooke and Brown longer to maintain their posi-
tion. Taking advantage of the lull that followed the second repulse of
the enemy the two brigades were withdrawn. This affair is known as
the battle of Waite's Shop. Miles' brigade was the last to cross and as
he was near the river Heth attempted to cross the open ground toward
the pontoons, but was driven back by the fire of Miles men and the
batteries on the north bank.

All through the forenoon of the 10th there were sharp skirmish-
ing and artillery firing preparatory to the general attack which had
been ordered for the afternoon. Gen. Sedgwick had been killed on
the 9th and the 6th corps was now under command of Brig.-Gen. H.
G. Wright. At 3:45 p. m. he was ordered to attack the works in his
front with his whole command and Mott's division of the 2nd corps.
Warren was also ordered to assault the works near the Alsop house
with the divisions of Crawford and Cutler and the brigades of Webb
and Carroll of Gibbon's division. Carroll charged through a belt of
burning woods, the right of his line gaining the enemy's works and the
whole brigade pressing up to the abatis, only to be forced back by "'such
a concentrated and murderous fire from two lines as to make the posi-
tion untenable." Warren was also repulsed with heavy loss, Gen. Rice,
commanding one of Cutler's brigades being among the killed. Col.
Emory Upton, with twelve regiments of the 6th corps, gained the parapet
and engaged in some desperate hand-to-hand fighting, capturing several
pieces of artillery and about 1,000 prisoners. His assault was to have been
supported by Mott's division, but when Mott reached the open field he
was met by an enfilading fire from the enemy's batteries, which threw
his line into confusion and forced him to retire. The advantage gained
by Upton was therefore of little moment, for the Confederates fairly
swarmed against him, compelling him to abandon the captured cannon
and fall back, though he succeeded in bringing in the most of his pris-
oners. Altogether the attack was a failure.

Lee's line extended from the Block House bridge northeast across
the Brock road to the watershed between the Po and Ny rivers, nearly
north of the Court House, where it turned sharply to the south, the right
"being near Snell's bridge. From his right center the works were thrown
forward in a horseshoe salient around the crest of a spur between two
small tributaries of the Ny river. Ewell's corps occupied the salient,
Anderson's extended the line to the right and Hill's to the left. Directly
north of the salient, and about three-fourths of a mile distant, was the
Brown house, while inside the enemy's works on the spur within the
angle stood the McCool house. Very little fighting was done on the
nth, the day being spent in preparations for an assault on the salient
at daylight the next morning. Mott made an attempt to drive in the
enemy's skirmishers in order to develop the weak place in the Con-
federate works, but the effort was only partially successful. Wright
was instructed to extend his left and concentrate on that wing. Han-
cock moved his entire corps after dark to the vicinity of the Brown
house, and was to lead the assault. Warren was to hold the position
vacated by the 2nd corps, and when Hancock began his attack Warren
on the right and Burnside on the left were to engage the enemy in their
fronts to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the salient. Han-
cock was to advance on a line drawn from the Brown House to the
McCool house. The night of the nth was dark and stormy, but the
troops of the 2nd corps took their positions quietly and promptly, fully
aware of the desperate character of the work awaiting them. Bar-
low's division in two massed lines was placed on the cleared ground
which extended up to the enemy's line; Birney's was formed in two
deployed lines on Barlow's right; Mott's division was in the rear of
Birney, and Gibbon's was in reserve. The assault w^as to have been
made at 4 o'clock, but owing to a dense fog it was 35 minutes later
before Hancock gave the order to advance. With even pace the troops
moved forward in column and when about half way up the slope broke
into a cheer, dashed forward on the double-quick through the abatis
and over the works. Hancock describes the action here as follows:
"Barlow's and Birney's divisions entered almost at the same moment,
striking the enemy's line at a sharp salient immediately in front of the
Landrum house. A fierce and bloody fight ensued in the works with
bayonets and clubbed muskets. It was short, however, and resulted
in the capture of nearly 4,000 prisoners of Johnson's division, of Ewell's
corps, 20 pieces of artillery, with horses, caissons and material com-
plete, several thousand stand of small arms, and upward of 30 colors.
Among the prisoners were Maj.-Gen. Edward Johnson and Brig.-Gen.
George H. Steuart, of the Confederate service. The enemy fled in
great disorder."

So far the assault had been a success. Elated by their victory, the
Union troops pursued the flying Confederates toward Spottsylvania until
they encountered a second line, the presence of which was unknown to
Hancock or any of his officers. This line was held by Gordon, who
checked the rush of the Federals and gave Lee an opportunity to push
reinforcements into the angle. Lee was further aided at this critical
moment by the necessity of reforming the Union lines, as in the impet-
uous charge and pursuit practically all semblance of a regular forma-
tion had been lost. The divisions of Mahone and Wilcox came up from
the right and advanced against the 2nd corps before the disorder of its
success could be overcome, driving Hancock's men back to the first line
of works, where they were reinforced by Wright, with Russell's and
Wheaton's divisions of the 6th corps, which came up on the right and
vigorously assaulted the west angle of the salient. Again there was
some stubborn hand-to-hand fighting in which Wright was wounded,
though he remained with his men, cheering them on, and through the
heroic efforts of Upton's brigade the line was held against the repeated
and determined attempts of the Confederates to regain it. Hancock
ordered his artillery to the high ground near the Landrum house and
throughout the day charges of canister were fired over the heads of
the Union troops into the enemy's line of battle. On Hancock's left
Burnside assaulted the Confederate works at 4:30 a. m. and in half an
hour had carried two lines of rifle-pits. Stevenson's and Potter's divi-
sions then moved against the main line of works, a portion of which
was carried by Potter, who captured a number of prisoners and a bat-
tery of 2 guns, but was unable to hold his advantage and was finally
forced to retire with heavy loss. Several subsequent attacks were made
by the two divisions, and also by Willcox's on the extreme left, but none
succeeded in driving the enemy from his position. The persistent ham-
mering of Burnside, however, prevented the enemy from withdrawing
troops in his front to hurl against Hancock and Wright. About 9 o'clock
Warren was directed to attack the enemy on his front, but upon attempt-
ing to advance his line was subjected to a heavy enfilading fire and he
was forced back. Cutler's division was then sent to Wright and later
the whole corps was withdrawn from its position and thrown to the
left, where it became engaged against the west angle, but failed to-
carry the works. The firing was so heavy and constant that several oak
trees inside the salient, some of them nearly 2 feet in diameter, were
literally gnawed off by the bullets. Late in the day Lee gave up the
idea of trying to recapture the outer line of works and retired to Gor-
don's line, half a mile to the rear, where he strengthened his position
during the night. The losses on both sides were so heavy during the
action that the salient has passed into history as the "Bloody Angle."

The attack on the 12th was the last of the hard fighting about Spottsylvania
Hancock was ordered to hold his corps in readiness to renew
the assault at 4 o'clock the next morning, but owing to a dark and rainy
night the other commands were not in position at the appointed hour to
support him and the attack was abandoned. Artillery firing was kept
up from the 13th to the 18th, chiefly to cover the movement of the army
to a position covering the Fredericksburg road on Lee's right, and there
was a slight skirmish near Piney Branch Church on the 15th. In his
report Grant says: "Deeming it impracticable to make any further
attack upon the enemy at Spottsylvania Court House, orders were issued
on the i8th with a view to a movement to the North Anna, to com-
mence at 12 o'clock on the night of the 19th." This movement was
interfered with by Ewell coming out of his works late on the afternoon
of the 19th and attacking the Federal right near the Harris farm on the
Fredericksburg road north of the Ny river. The attack was promptly
repulsed, but it delayed the movement to the North Anna until the night
of the 21st.

The Union loss at Spottsylvania, during the ten days fighting, was
2,725 killed, 13,416 wounded and 2,258 missing. The Confederate losses
were not officially reported and various estimates have been made, some
of which place the total in killed, wounded and missing as high as 15,000.
Maj. Jed Hotchkiss, who was topographer for Lee's army and author
of the Virginia volume of the Confederate Military History, places the
total loss at 8,000 and significantly adds: "but these were 18 per cent
of the army."

Return to Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Source: The Union Army, vol. 6.

*19th century spelling. Present-day Spotsylvania.


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