Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Return to

Location: Spotsylvania County, VA
               (near Spotsylvania, VA)
Dates: May 8 - 21, 1864
Union Commander:  Ulysses S. Grant, Lieutenant General
Confederate Commander:  Robert E. Lee, General
Battle Summary:
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 George 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 opposing armies.  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, Meade's army met 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 ground.

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 foe.

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 Henry Heth.

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, Hancock ordered Barlow and 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 enfilade fire, 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 offensive against 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 J.E.B. Stuart.  Meade was adamant that he needed Sheridan's force on hand, as they moved to Spotsylvania, but 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 loss of 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."

Meanwhile, 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 Ewell's troops, 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 Ewell's troops.  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 War I.

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, Wright informed 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 this position, 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 Robert 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.

Campaign: Overland

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.)

Troop Strengths
Union: 111,000
Confederate: 63,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 18,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 9,000+ (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
Once again, after Spotsylvania, Ulysses S. Grant would disengage his army, and move around 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 occur.

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 Lee, and 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 all."

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.    Close Window