Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

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Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Virginia Civil War History

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick Memorial
Gen. John Sedgwick Memorial at Spotsylvania.jpg
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
The Wilderness Campaign History

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was killed by a Confederate Sharpshooter during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court HouseThe memorial inscription: "Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the Sixth Corps, was one of the most popular senior officers in the Army of the Potomac. On the morning of May 9, 1864, Sedgwick arrived here to direct some minor redeployment of his troops. Ignoring warnings from his chief-of-staff, Sedgwick stalked about admonishing his men to cease worrying about the occasional fire of Confederate sharpshooters concealed in the woodline far to your front. "I am ashamed of you dodging that way," scolded Segdwick. "They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Shortly thereafter, a bullet slammed into the General's face, killing him almost instantly."

The shot that killed John Sedgwick, the highest-ranking Northern officer to die on a Civil War battlefield, came from a Whitworth rifle at a distance of more than 500 yards. The identity of the marksman who fired the fatal shot remains a mystery, although at least five Confederate soldiers later claimed responsibility.
 
Late on May 7, General Grant rode at the head of his army and approached a lonely junction in the Wilderness. A left turn would signal withdrawal toward the fords of the Rapidan and Rappahannock. To the right lay the highway to Richmond via Spotsylvania Court House.

"Grant pointed right. The soldiers cheered. There would be no turning back."

Veterans of the Fifth Corps considered the night march of May 7-8 one of their worst military experiences. "The column would start, march probably one hundred yards, then halt, and just as the men were about to lie down, would start again, repeating this over and over..."

In addition to this frustrating pace, Fitzhugh Lee and his gray troopers harassed the Federals along the route. They felled trees in the roadway, gobbled up stragglers, and orchestrated scores of little ambushes in the dark.

While this drama unfolded on the Brock Road at Todd's Tavern, Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson led a Confederate column on a parallel route a few miles to the west. Anderson assumed command of Longstreet's corps on May 7 and received orders to make for Spotsylvania Court House before dawn on the 8. Lee had correctly deduced that the tiny county seat would be Grant's next objective because whoever controlled the Spotsylvania crossroads would enjoy the inside track to Richmond.

Anderson searched for a bivouac where his men could rest before their grueling march south, but discovered that the fiery Wilderness offered no practical campsites. Consequently, he put his command in motion without sleep, a fateful decision that saved Spotsylvania for the Confederates.

Warren continued his advance and early on the morning of May 8 spied an open plateau in his front known later as Laurel Hill. The Federals saw only their nocturnal nemesis, Fitz Lee's pesky horsemen, defending the ridge-no match for infantry in a daylight fight. Warren called for an attack.

The Maryland Brigade led the Yankee charge west of the Brock Road. They swept over the rolling fields with a cheer and approached to within 50 yards of the Confederate position when a roar from artillery and rifles dropped them where they stood. This was not dismounted cavalry but the lead units of Anderson's corps. The Confederates had won the race to Spotsylvania.

The armies flowed onto the battlefield the rest of the day, extending corresponding lines of earthworks east and west of the Brock Road. Ewell's corps filed in on Anderson's right and built their entrenchments in the dark to conform to elevated terrain along their front. First light revealed that Ewell's soldiers had concocted a huge salient, or bulge, in the Confederate line, pointing north in the direction of the Federals. The men called it the "Mule Shoe" because of its shape, but Southern engineers called it trouble. Salient's could be attacked not only in front but from both sides, and as a rule officers liked to avoid them. Lee, however, opted to retain the position trusting that his cannoneers could keep the "Mule Shoe" safe enough.

Grant probed both of Lee's flanks on May 9 and 10 to no avail. About 6:00 p.m., a 24-year-old colonel named Emory Upton formed 12 hand-picked regiments along a little woods path opposite the heart of Lee's defenses. Upton had received permission earlier in the day to assail the west face of the "Mule Shoe" using imaginative tactics designed to penetrate the salient and then exploit the breakthrough. The Yankees padded to the edge of the woods 200 yards from the Confederate line and then burst out of the forest with a yell. 

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Map
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Map.gif
Spotsylvania, Virginia, Civil War Battlefield Map

In 60 seconds, Upton's men closed with a startled brigade of Georgians. The Federals seized four guns, a reserve line of works, and almost reached the McCoull House in the center of the "Mule Shoe" before the Confederates recovered. Southern artillery at the top of the salient stymied Upton's expected support, and a counterattack eventually shoved the Bluecoats back to their starting points. But the boyish colonel's temporary success gave Grant an idea. If 12 regiments could break the "Mule Shoe," what might two corps accomplish?

Grant received his answer on May 12, a day remembered by soldiers from both sides as one of the darkest of the entire war. "I never expect to be fully believed when I tell of the horrors of Spotsylvania," wrote a Federal of his ghastly experience. "The battle of Thursday was one of the bloodiest that ever dyed God's footstool with human gore," echoed a North Carolinian.

The Confederates set the stage for this waking nightmare on the evening of May 11 when they removed their artillery from the "Mule Shoe" under the mistaken impression that Grant had quit Spotsylvania. In truth, Hancock's corps spent the rainy night sloshing into position to launch a massive stroke against the top of the salient. That attack began about dawn and succeeded in capturing most of the "Mule Shoe" and many of its defenders.

Ironically, the sheer magnitude of Hancock's victory retarded his progress. Nearly 20,000 Yankees milled about the surrendered entrenchments gathering prizes, escorting captives to the rear, and generally losing their organization and drive. This delay provided Lee the opportunity he needed.

The Confederate commander directed his counter offensive from near the McCoull House. Again he attempted to lead his troops in person, but John Gordon scolded him to the rear before the colorful Georgian plunged ahead himself. One by one, additional brigades joined Gordon, and by 9:30 a.m. they managed to restore all but a few hundred yards of the original Southern line.

The Union Sixth Corps now joined the fray, and for the next eighteen hours the most horrifying close-quarters combat ever witnessed on the continent spilled the lifeblood of numberless Americans. The fighting focused on a slight bend in the works west of the apex, known to history as the Bloody Angle.

A shallow valley sliced close to the Confederate line at this point, providing crucial shelter for swarms of Union assailants. An appalling tactical pattern developed here throughout the day. Federals would leave the cover of the forest, cross the road leading to the Landrum House, and take refuge in the swale. From there they maintained a constant rifle fire and made periodic lunges onto the works at the Bloody Angle.

Two Southern brigades, one from Mississippi and one from South Carolina, bore the brunt of these attacks. They fought behind elaborate log barricades six feet high enhanced by perpendicular traverse walls at 20-foot intervals. The Confederate works resembled three-sided roofless log cabins and their design explains the miraculous endurance of their occupants - that and the heroic desperation of half crazed men whose world consisted of a tiny log pen filled with rain water and slippery with the mangled remains of comrades and enemies.

The equally intrepid attackers varied their efforts to capture the Angle with an occasional innovation. A section of Union artillery advanced to practically point-blank range, blasting the works until all of its horses and all but three of its cannoneers had fallen. The men of a Michigan regiment crawled on their stomachs along the exterior of the trenches until, at a signal, they leapt over the logs and into a profitless melee with the Rebels.

More often the assaults defied precise definition. The battle assumed an unspeakable character all its own, unrelated to strategy and tactics or even victory and defeat. "The horseshoe was a boiling, bubbling and hissing cauldron of death," wrote a Union officer. "Clubbed muskets, and bayonets were the modes of fighting for those who had used up their cartridges, and frenzy seemed to possess the yelling, demonic hordes on either side."

This organized insanity continued past sunset and into the night. Finally about 2:00 a.m. May 13, whispered orders reached the front directing the battle-numbed defenders to fall back to a new position at the base of the "Mule Shoe." When the Bluecoats cautiously approached the quiet trenches at dawn, they found the Bloody Angle inhabited only by those who could not withdraw. "They were lying literally in heaps, hideous to look at. The writhing of the wounded and dying who lay beneath the dead bodies moved the whole mass..."

Completion of Lee's last line rendered control of the salient meaningless. Grant shifted his army to its left amidst days of heavy downpours, searching for a weak link in the Confederate chain. On May 18, he sent Hancock back to the "Mule Shoe" hoping to catch the enemy by surprise. The Southerners were not footed, however, and by midmorning Grant cancelled the effort.

Clearly, the Federals could not gain an advantage at Spotsylvania and Grant broke the impasse on May 20 by detaching Hancock on a march south toward Guinea Station. The rest of the Union army followed on the May 21. Lee had no choice but to react to Grant's initiative by maneuvering his army between the Federals and Richmond.

Losses during the two weeks at Spotsylvania added 18,000 names to Union casualty lists; 10,000 to the Confederates'. Lee, though, suffered a disproportionate attrition among the highest levels of his command structure. Finding replacements for private soldiers proved hard enough; developing a new officer cadre proved impossible. The essence of Lee's incomparable martial machine disappeared in the woods and fields of Spotsylvania County and the Army of Northern Virginia never regained its historic efficiency.

Grant, however, played no callous game of human arithmetic at Spotsylvania. He sought a decisive battlefield victory that Lee's tenacious, skillful generalship denied him. But in the end, the Federals' constant hammering against the dwindling resources of their gallant opponents, a process begun in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania and continued at the North Anna River, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg, would drive the Confederacy into oblivion.

(Related reading below.)

Source: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield Park; sedgwick.org

Recommended Reading: 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.

From 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.

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Recommended 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.

 

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. Continued below…

About 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.

 

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…

About 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:
—William 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
—Carol Reardon, A Hard Road to Travel: The Impact of Continuous Operations on the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1864
—Gordon C. Rhea, The Testing of a Corp Commander: Gouverneur Kemble Warren at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania
 

Recommended 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. Continued below...

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. 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.

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