Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Location: Spotsylvania County, VA
(near Spotsylvania, VA)
Dates: May 8 - 21, 1864
Ulysses S. Grant, Lieutenant General
Robert E. Lee, General
In early March, 1864,
Ulysses S. Grant was called to Washington, D.C.
Congress had recently reinstated the rank of Lieutenant General, regular
army. It was widely speculated that Grant would receive promotion to
that rank while there. On March 9, in a formal ceremony, at the White
House, Grant received his commission, to Lieutenant General - the first
person to hold that rank, since George Washington.
As Lieutenant General,
Grant would be the supreme commander of all U.S.
land based forces, the largest force ever commanded - nearly 600,000 men.
Grant went right to work, placing his friend,
William T. Sherman, in charge
of all armies in the west. Determining to be near the action, Grant
chose to have a remote headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, currently
camped in northern Virginia. Upon arriving at the headquarters of the
Army of the Potomac, Grant met with its commander, Major General
Gordon Meade. Meade immediately offered to step aside, and allow Grant
to place one of his confidants in charge. After meeting with Meade,
Grant determined that it would be better for troop morale to keep Meade in
place. In his first order to Meade, he made things very clear, "Lee's
army will be your objective. Where he goes, there you will go also."
Grant's overall strategy was one of action. His armies would no
longer focus on capturing points, it would focus on annihilating the
Meade would focus on
Lee's Army of Northern Virginia,
Sherman would focus on
Joseph Johnston's army, now in Georgia. There
would be simultaneous assaults, starting when the weather broke, that would
keep Lee off balance and not allow CS President Jefferson Davis to redirect
forces to other theaters.
On May 5 and 6, 1864, the Army of the Potomac went into action.
Again crossing the Rapidan River, into Spotsylvania County,
Lee for two days of fighting in what would be called the Battle of the
Wilderness. This battle took place on the same ground that one year
earlier witnessed the most brilliant victory of Lee's career. In May
1863, Lee would divide his army, hitting "Fighting"
Joe Hooker's Army of
the Potomac in the flank and rear. Hooker would suffer a terrible
defeat in the Battle of Chancellorsville. It was
Grant's desire to
quickly cross the Rapidan and push through the tangle of the Wilderness, and
meet Lee somewhere in the open. Instead, Lee was one step ahead of him
and hit Grant before all of his army was prepared. The toll on both
sides were terrible. Many of the wounded, that were unable to walk, or
crawl, were burned alive from fires created overnight by artillery shells.
In the end, the battle waged two days, with neither side gaining much
The north, and the south, would soon realize that
U.S. Grant was not like the
previous generals, in the east. In the past, when
Bobbie Lee would hit the eastern troops, the
army would retreat across the river to "lick its wounds." Grant was
determined to press Lee. On May 7, Grant issued
Meade a simple
directive, "General: Make all preparations during the day for a night
march to take position at Spotsylvania Court-House." During the early
morning hours of May 8, the troops pulled back from their lines at the
Wilderness and started marching east. Many of the troops were
sure that Grant would, like previous commanders, retreat north.
However, when the army turned south on the Brock Road, many cheers were
given up for Grant. No longer would this army retreat in front of the
The Overland Campaign, as the battles, starting with the Wilderness,
would be known, would usher in a new age for the fighting troops.
Grant would continue to pound away on his foe, in an unrelenting fashion,
for six unremitting weeks. Civilians on both sides of the Mason Dixon
Line, would be appalled by the blood shed.
Troops from Major General
Gouvernour Warren's V Corps and Major General
John Sedgwick's VI Corps would arrive near Spotsylvania Court House, on May
8. Upon arriving, they would find portions of
Lee's Army of Northern
Virginia had already arrived and blocked the Brock Road near the Spindle
farm. Fighting would start during the mid-morning, on May 8 and would
last through most of the day. On May 9, troops from Major General
Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps would arrive along with Confederate troops
under Lieutenant General
A.P. Hill's 2nd Corps. Hancock would send two
divisions, under Major Generals
David Birney and
Francis Barlow to aide
Warren's V Corps placing them on the right flank. These troops
were opposed by one brigade under CS Brigadier General
William Mahone and a
division under CS Major General
Earlier in the day, on May 9, the U.S. Army would lose the highest
ranking officer, killed in action, during the entire Civil War. While
assisting in placing his troops, Major General, regular army,
John Sedgwick was chiding his lieutenants for
attempting to "dodge" sharpshooter musketry. Speaking to his
lieutenants, Sedgwick said, "What! What! Men dodging this way
for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the
whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at
this distance." At this, Sedgwick laughed, "All right, my man.
Go to your place." Then a dull thud was heard, with the general slowly
rotating as he fell. He had been hit by an errant minie ball, below
the left eye. It is said that his lips were curled in a smile as he
died, perhaps frozen there, upon death, while bantering with his troops.
Sedgwick would be succeeded by Brigadier General
Horatio Wright, who would
command the VI Corps for the remainder of the war.
On May 10,
Birney to disengage, and pull north
of the Po River, to assault another section of the rebel line. Francis
Barlow's division would be viciously attacked by Heth's division while
crossing the Po.
Wright's VI Corps and
Warren's V Corps would
unsuccessfully assault Laurel Hill, while further northeast, at a salient
that would forever be known as the "Mule Shoe,"
Grant would send twelve
regiments into a strongly entrenched foe. While salients were not
always the preferred battle line formation, due to being easily enveloped by
Lee's salient would continue to be a force over the next
several days of fighting.
On May 11,
Grant would continue to prepare his lines for the next
R.E. Lee. However, south of Spotsylvania, at a crossroads
called Yellow Tavern, the largest cavalry engagement to that point, in the
war, was being waged. Before leaving the Wilderness, Major General
Phil Sheridan, commander of the Union Cavalry, had pushed
Meade to let him
move independently on the Confederate cavalry commanded by, Major General
Meade was adamant that he needed Sheridan's force on hand, as they moved to
Grant overrode Meade and told him to send Sheridan.
Sheridan repulsed Stuart's cavalry at Yellow Tavern and rode close to
Richmond, causing much consternation amongst her citizens. The largest
loss at Yellow Tavern was J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart would die from his
wounds, on May 12, and would be grieved in the south nearly as much as the
Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who died, almost to the day, one year
before, at Chancerllorsville. Stuart's death would usher in a new era
of Union cavalry supremacy.
Grant believed that the weakest point, in
Lee's line, would be the apex
of the "Mule Shoe." His plan called for a simultaneous attack to be
launched early on May 12, against the north and east sides of the salient.
Winfield Hancock's II Corps would lead the attack on the north face, while
the east face would be attacked by the recently arrived IX Corps, commanded
by Major General
Ambrose Burnside. At 4:30 AM, Hancock's Corps started marching
across the fields, in front of the Mule Shoe. They reached the Mule
Shoe, quickly, carrying approximately 1/2 mile into the salient, where they
captured approximately 3,000 of
Richard Ewell's troops, before being repulsed all
the way back to the outside of the salient. Grant would feed
additional troops, from
Wright's VI Corps against the west face of the
salient. This area became known as the "Bloody Angle."
Burnside's IX Corps was late starting and ran into a very
strong attack by Brigadier General
James Lane's and CS Colonel
David Weisiger's troops near Spotsylvania Court House. Poor communication
with disparate fighting units, caused many uncoordinated attacks, like this,
during the Civil War. Now, instead of a coordinated attack, against
two sides of
U.S. Grant settled for an all out attack by
Hancock's Corps and would feed
Wright's VI Corps into the west side, more or
less piecemeal. We are left wondering, 140+ years later, what the
outcome would have been had Burnside's attack been coordinated with
Hancock's. Could they have kept the ground that was gained early in
the day? We'll never know.
The action at the salient was not done. All along the works, at the
Mule Shoe, the II and VI Corps continued to slug it out with
The fighting became hand-to-hand, in many areas, with soldiers firing,
through the works, at point blank range, into their foe. In many
cases, they would use their empty muskets to club the enemy or would ram
their bayonet through the works into an unseen rebel. Early the next
morning, a II Corps soldier 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." The area, near the
Bloody Angle, would be so "hot" with musketry, that a 22 inch oak tree would
be cut in two. Its stump now rests in the Smithsonian Institute and
the spot, it was felled, is prominently marked on the west face of the Mule Shoe, where New
Jersey troops from the VI Corps fought. In later years, this battle,
would be compared to the trench warfare used 50 years later during the World
R.E. Lee would be forced to move his lines back to the base of the salient in
the overnight hours of May 13. This position would be easier for him
to defend. At dawn on May 13,
Meade that they were in
the salient and the Confederates had pulled back.
Overnight, on May 14, the Union V and VI Corps pulled out and moved to
the east side of the salient, joining with
Burnside's IX Corps. From
Grant would attack
Lee's new position on May 17.
On May 19, Lee would send
Ewell Corps on a reconnaissance mission to find
the Union right flank. It would be a circuitous route , from the base
of the east side of the salient, around the north side and would end with a
bitter engagement with fresh Union troops under Brigadier General
Tyler, at the Harris Farm. Tyler's troops were "green" having just
arrived from garrison duty at the Washington, D.C. These troops were
artillery men by trade and had been pushed into service, at Spotsylvania, as
infantry. They fought gallantly, losing close to 1,500 casualties,
compared to the 900 that Ewell's veterans would lose. This would end
the fighting at Spotsylvania.
Outcome: Draw (While
Grant did not shatter
Lee's Army, and move onto
Richmond, Lee also did not keep Grant bottled up at the Rapidan River line.)
Union: 18,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 9,000+ (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Once again, after Spotsylvania,
Ulysses S. Grant would disengage his army, and
R.E. Lee's right flank. The armies would meet again, a few
miles southeast of Spotsylvania, on the North Anna River. Once again,
Lee, working on interior lines, would beat Grant there, and entrench, south
of the North Anna. Grant would come very close to sacrificing his army
at the North Anna, if it were not for a masterful disengagement (the battle
of the North Anna is often overshadowed by Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor,
but it was a pivotal battle in the Overland Campaign).
During Spotsylvania, Grant would set the tone for the entire Overland
Campaign, when he stated, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it
takes all summer." It would.
In the end,
Grant was fighting a battle
of numbers. Grant had a supply of fresh troops to continue replacing
his casualties, Lee did not. After Cold Harbor, Mary Lincoln would
call Grant a butcher, a description that would be repeated throughout the
rest of the war. However, Grant did not deserve this characterization.
The numbers do not bear it out. In a terrific analysis, by Edward H. Bonekemper III, "A Victor, Not a Butcher," total Union casualties during the
Overland, Petersburg and Appomattox campaigns, were 116,954.
Confederate losses in
R.E. Lee's opposing army, during the same period, were
106,573. A significantly higher proportion of loss, than Grant
suffered. Bonekemper's analysis lists total casualties, as a
percentage of troops engaged for each of the primary generals during the
course of the war. Grant had a significantly lower number, and lower
percentage of loss than Lee. Grant's total was 15% while Lee was 20%.
Bonekemper's conclusion is that while the losses were staggering during
Grant's Overland Campaign, they were acceptable based on the overall
situation in the north. Grant knew he had to be on the offensive, it
was an election year and in order for Lincoln to keep the presidency,
against the "Copperheads," and Peace Democrats, victories would need to
Grant's strategy worked. Lee had informed Richmond that he
could not win a war, against Grant, if it came to a siege, below Richmond.
This would become Grant's exact battle plan. Separate
Richmond, from their base of supplies in the deep south, and lay siege to
their lines. It took time, but the administration, and the people of
the north knew Grant's tactical plan would work. After another
masterful disengagement, and flanking move, after Cold Harbor, Lincoln would
telegraph Grant, "I begin to see it: you will succeed. God Bless you
The Overland Campaign, would be the opening act for
U.S. Grant, that
would take him all the way to Appomattox, eleven months later, where he
would receive the surrender of
Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.