Battles of Spotsylvania Court House : May 8-21, 1864
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is a continuation
of the Battle of the Wilderness. General Grant's decision to move forward to Spotsylvania changed the course of the
war. For the first time in the Eastern Theatre, the Army of the Potomac advanced after a battle and maintained control of
the initiative for the remainder of the Civil War. If viewed as one campaign, the Wilderness / Spotsylvania Campaign is the
bloodiest in American history.
|Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Map
|(Civil War Virginia Battle Map)
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, and 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 mid-afternoon 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.
(Related reading below.)
Sources: The Civil War Battlefield Guide; National Park Service.
Recommended Reading: The Battles
For Spotsylvania Court House And The Road To Yellow
Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. Description: The
second volume in Gordon C. Rhea's peerless five-book series on the Civil War's 1864 Overland Campaign abounds with Rhea's
signature detail, innovative analysis, and riveting prose. Here Rhea examines the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864,
when Grant left the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee's line by frontal assault reached a chilling
climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle. Drawing exhaustively upon previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional
wisdom about this violent clash of titans to construct the ultimate account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania.
the Author: Gordon C. Rhea is also the author
of The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5–6, 1864; To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864, winner
of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award; Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26–June 3, 1864, winner of the Austin Civil War
Round Table’s Laney Prize, and Carrying the Flag: The Story of Private Charles Whilden, the Confederacy’s Most
Unlikely Hero. He lives in St.
Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, with his wife and two sons.
To the North Anna River: Grant And Lee, May 13-25, 1864 (Jules and Frances Landry Award Series).
Description: With To the North Anna River, the third book in his outstanding five-book series, Gordon C. Rhea continues his
spectacular narrative of the initial campaign between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in the spring of 1864. May 13 through
25, a phase oddly ignored by historians, was critical in the clash between the Army of the Potomac
and the Army of Northern Virginia. During those thirteen days—an interlude bracketed by horrific battles that riveted
the public’s attention—a game of guile and endurance between Grant and Lee escalated to a suspenseful draw on
Virginia’s North Anna River. Continued below...
the bloodstained fields of the Mule Shoe to the North Anna River, with Meadow Bridge, Myers Hill, Harris Farm, Jericho Mills,
Ox Ford, and Doswell Farm in between, grueling night marches, desperate attacks, and thundering cavalry charges became the
norm for both Grant’s and Lee’s men. But the real story of May 13–25 lay in the two generals’ efforts
to outfox each other, and Rhea charts their every step and misstep. Realizing that his bludgeoning tactics at the Bloody Angle
were ineffective, Grant resorted to a fast-paced assault on Lee’s vulnerable points. Lee, outnumbered two to one, abandoned
the offensive and concentrated on anticipating Grant’s maneuvers and shifting quickly enough to repel them. It was an
amazingly equal match of wits that produced a gripping, high-stakes bout of warfare—a test, ultimately, of improvisation
for Lee and of perseverance for Grant.
Recommended Reading: The Spotsylvania
Campaign: May 7-21, 1864 (Great Campaigns). Description: A very detailed
examination of the Spotsylvania Campaign. A dramatic study of the campaign and the clash of the titans - Robert E. Lee against
Ulysses S. Grant – and it is a book that you will refuse to put down. Continued below…
the Author: John Cannan has established
a reputation among Civil War writers in a remarkably short time. His distinctions include three books selected by the Military
Book Club. He is the author of The Atlanta Campaign, The Wilderness Campaign, and The Spotsylvania Campaign. Cannan is an
historic preservation attorney residing in Baltimore.
Recommended Reading: The Spotsylvania Campaign (Military Campaigns of the Civil War) (Hardcover).
Description: The Spotsylvania Campaign marked a crucial
period in the confrontation between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee in Virginia.
Waged over a two-week period in mid-May 1864, it included some of the most savage fighting of the Civil War and left indelible
marks on all involved. Approaching topics related to Spotsylvania from a variety of perspectives,
the contributors to this volume explore questions regarding high command, tactics and strategy, the impact of fighting on
officers and soldiers in both armies, and the ways in which some participants chose to remember and interpret the campaign.
They offer insight into the decisions and behavior of Lee and of Federal army leaders, the fullest descriptions to date of
the horrific fighting at the "Bloody Angle" on May 12, and a revealing look at how Grant used his memoirs to offset Lost Cause
interpretations of his actions at Spotsylvania and elsewhere in the Overland Campaign. Continued below...
Meet the Contributors:
A. Blair, Grant's Second Civil War: The Battle for Historical Memory
—Peter S. Carmichael, We Respect a Good
Soldier, No Matter What Flag He Fought Under: The 15th New Jersey Remembers Spotsylvania
—Gary W. Gallagher, I Have
to Make the Best of What I Have: Robert E. Lee at Spotsylvania
—Robert E. L. Krick, Stuart's Last Ride: A Confederate
View of Sheridan's Raid
—Robert K. Krick, An Insurmountable Barrier between the Army and Ruin: The Confederate Experience
at Spotsylvania's Bloody Angle
—William D. Matter, The Federal High Command at Spotsylvania
A Hard Road to Travel: The Impact of Continuous Operations on the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in
—Gordon C. Rhea, The Testing of a Corp Commander: Gouverneur Kemble Warren at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania
Reading: If It Takes All Summer: The Battle
of Spotsylvania (Hardcover). Description: The termination of the war and the fate of the Union hung in the balance in May of
1864 as Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia and Ulysses S. Grant's Army of the Potomac clashed in the Virginia countryside—first
in the battle of the Wilderness, where the Federal army sustained greater losses than at Chancellorsville, and then further
south in the vicinity of Spotsylvania Courthouse, where Grant sought to cut Lee's troops off from the Confederate capital
of Richmond. This is the first book-length examination of the pivotal Spotsylvania campaign
of 7-21 May. Drawing on extensive research in manuscript collections across the country and an exhaustive reading of the available
literature, William Matter sets the strategic stage for the campaign before turning to a detailed description of tactical
movements. Continued below...
He offers abundant
fresh material on race from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania, the role of Federal and Confederate cavalry, Emory Upton's brilliantly
conceived Union assault on 10 May, and the bitter clash on 19 May at the Harris farm. Throughout the book, Matter assesses
each side's successes, failures, and lost opportunities and sketches portraits of the principal commanders. The centerpiece
of the narrative is a meticulous and dramatic treatment of the horrific encounter in the salient that formed the Confederate
center on 12 May. There the campaign reached its crisis, as soldiers waged perhaps the longest and most desperate fight of
the entire war for possession of the Bloody Angle—a fight so savage that trees were literally shot to pieces by musket
fire. Matter's sure command of a mass of often-conflicting testimony enables him to present by far the clearest account to
date of this immensely complex phase of the battle. Rigorously researched, effectively presented, and well supported by maps,
this book is a model tactical study that accords long overdue attention to the Spotsylvania campaign. It will quickly take its place in the front rank of military studies
of the Civil War.
Reading: Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Civil
War America) (Hardcover). Description: In the study of field fortifications in the Civil War that began with Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil
War, Hess turns to the 1864 Overland campaign to cover battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor.
Drawing on meticulous research in primary sources and careful examination of trench remnants at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania,
North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred, Hess describes Union and Confederate earthworks
and how Grant and Lee used them in this new era of field entrenchments.