Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, fought May 8–21, 1864, was the second major engagement of the Overland Campaign during the American Civil War (1861–1865). After the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–6), in which Union general-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant had tried to turn Confederate general Robert E. Lee's right flank and was pushed back, Grant refused to regroup or retreat. Instead, he continued to maneuver south toward the Confederate capital at Richmond, next meeting Lee at the strategically important hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House. There, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed for nearly two weeks, with the heaviest fighting occurring for approximately twenty-one hours from May 12 to May 13. In what some historians have called the most intense combat of the war, the two sides fought largely hand to hand inside Confederate entrenchments. The worst of it occurred at an exposed portion of the line Confederates dubbed the "Mule Shoe" and a nearby a curve that came to be known as the "Bloody Angle." Bodies piled up five deep in a driving rainstorm so that blood mixed with water and some wounded men drowned. "No Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical looking set of devils as we were," a Mississippian recalled. "It was no imitation of red paint and burnt cork, but genuine human gore and gun powder smoke." Casualties were horrific for both sides, but when it was through, Grant continued to push south. MORE...

 

Background

In the past, the Army of the Potomac would have taken time to regroup and develop new plans after suffering a bloody tactical defeat as it had at the Wilderness. But this time Grant ordered the army of 100,000 men, commanded by George G. Meade but under Grant's personal direction, to continue campaigning and maneuvering in the direction of Richmond. On May 7, he ordered Union cavalrymen to clear Confederate horsemen from ten miles of the Brock Road leading from the Wilderness south to Spotsylvania Court House. After dark, the infantry and artillery began a night march, expecting to cook breakfast at the courthouse on the morning of May 8.

Lee, with about 54,000 men, weighed Grant's options and concluded that the Union general would likely either press south or withdraw east toward Fredericksburg, where he would find better transportation routes. Posting Confederate forces at Spotsylvania would let Lee cut off a southern thrust while still allowing the Confederates access to roads that could take them quickly east if Grant instead moved in that direction. In the race for Spotsylvania, however, the Confederates were at a disadvantage: Union troops controlled the roads while Lee's men were actually forced to hack a route through the brambles and overgrown landscape. Luckily, Confederate general Richard H. Anderson, commanding James Longstreet's First Corps after Longstreet's wounding at the Wilderness, had already moved toward Spotsylvania without orders, fleeing the previous battle's choking fires.

Union general Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps advanced about four miles to Todd's Tavern when, after midnight on May 8, Union commanders discovered that their cavalry had been unable to drive J. E. B. Stuart's men any farther, and had bivouacked for the night. If this was not bad enough from Meade's perspective, the cavalrymen had had no new orders for the day from their new commander, Philip H. Sheridan. A furious Meade, whose temper led some to compare him to "a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle," ordered troopers back into their saddles to continue clearing the road in the predawn hours. When they faltered, he ordered his infantry forward, leading to a full-scale engagement.

The Battle

When Stuart's men discovered that they now confronted the Union infantry, it became clear that the entire Army of the Potomac was on the move and headed south. The Confederate cavalrymen encouraged Anderson's infantry to double-time to Spotsylvania. In the meantime, at about eight o'clock on the morning of May 8, they made a stand on the edge of the Spindle Field about a mile north of the courthouse, throwing down some fence rails to fight from behind. They held just long enough; as their lines began to buckle, the vanguard of Anderson's corps appeared on the field. The Union infantry advanced piecemeal across the Spindle Field, and Confederate cavalrymen shouted to their infantry comrades, "Run for our rail piles; the Federal infantry will reach them first, if you don't run." With moments to spare the Confederate riflemen repulsed the first attack. Other units arrived in time to extend the line and throw back subsequent attacks for the remainder of the day. At times Union attacks came very close to succeeding, but the Confederate line held.

Meade, reminded of Sheridan's failure and once again furious, exploded at the famously short New Yorker—"a brown, chunky little chap," in the words of United States president Abraham Lincoln—who had previously fought in the West with Grant. About as intemperate and feisty as Meade, Sheridan exploded right back at his commander. He wished to take the fight to the Confederate cavalry and wanted to be released from the usual duties of the cavalry—reconnaissance and screening the march of the infantry. Sheridan boasted that he "could whip" Stuart "if he (Meade) would only let me."

Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who was intrigued. "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about," the general-in-chief observed. "Let him start right out and do it." The exchange left Meade feeling humiliated, and noticeably strained his relations with Grant. Meanwhile, Grant's decision to let Sheridan have his way and chase after Stuart ended up greatly harming the Army of the Potomac, which needed its cavalry to screen its movements and provide intelligence. Although Sheridan eventually whipped Stuart at Yellow Tavern, leaving Stuart mortally wounded, Grant was forced over the next several days to base his plans on imperfect information regarding Confederate positions and movements.

In the meantime, Confederate soldiers took up positions along hills and ridges with open fields to their front, constructing defensive earthworks into the night. The next day, May 9, Confederate officers realized that they had formed a salient, or U-shaped bulge, in their line that was nicknamed the "Mule Shoe" by the men because of its shape. Vulnerable to attack from three sides, such a position required more men to defend than a straight line. At first, Lee wanted to abandon the salient, but other officers convinced him that it could be held if properly supported by artillery. Although the Confederates retained the Mule Shoe as the main line, Lee ordered construction of new line across the base of the salient.

Numerous engagements were fought along the lines during the fourteen days the armies spent at Spotsylvania. One of the more consequential involved a young West Point–educated Union colonel named Emory Upton, who concluded that attacking well-constructed earth-and-log works required a new way of fighting. Rather than attack in long lines of infantry that halted in the open in order to exchange fire with a well-protected enemy behind earthworks, Upton argued for storming columns that never stopped to open fire, but advanced right up to the earthworks, engaging the enemy with the bayonet. He tested his new tactics as part of an all-out attack on the evening of May 10. They worked, but when supporting troops failed to arrive, Upton was forced to retreat. Grant was impressed, however, promoting Upton to brigadier general and deciding to duplicate the maneuver on a larger scale, with the support troops directly behind the assault column.

On the rainy night of May 11, Union troops went into position to attack the apex of the Mule Shoe. In addition to the shifting of troops, the Confederates observed Union wagons and ambulances going toward Fredericksburg. Lee concluded that the Union army was marching away from Spotsylvania and his impressive line of earthworks. He therefore determined to strike Grant's men when they were on the move. Because the rain could turn dirt roads into mud and slow his planned pursuit of the Union troops, Lee decided to move his artillery out of the salient before the storm turned any worse. After the cannons had been extracted, the Confederates concluded that the Union troops had not continued on to Fredericksburg after all, but had stopped opposite the apex of the Mule Shoe. The Confederate artillery started back to the front lines.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 12, 15,000 men of the Union Second Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock advanced Upton-style with bayonets fixed across a fog-shrouded field on Edward Landrum's farm, just as the Confederates were returning their cannons to their former positions. About twenty guns were captured—some without firing a shot. A few Confederate infantrymen tried to shoot, but damp powder from the mist prevented many guns from firing. In a short time, Hancock held a half mile of the Confederate trench line and took nearly 3,000 prisoners, including Generals Edward "Allegheny" Johnson (a Virginian) and George H. Steuart, along with the remnants of the famed Stonewall Brigade.

While the Union reserve troops advanced right behind the attack column, it soon degenerated into a mob that did its best to proceed down the Confederate line and deal with the prisoners. Smaller-but-better-organized Confederate units launched counterattacks, stalling the Union advance. While Lee rallied his men, he also observed his senior corps commander, the profane, one-legged veteran Richard S. Ewell, failing miserably in his attempts to do the same. "All [the men] that General Lee addressed at once halted and returned to the assistance of their comrades," observed a staff officer, but "All that General Ewell so angrily reproached continued their flight to the rear." Lee was forced to confront Ewell: "How can you expect to control these men when you have lost control of yourself?" Lee stayed dangerously close to the front lines until Georgian John B. Gordon and his men came up and convinced him to retire to the rear. (Similar to an incident at the Battle of the Wilderness, this is one of several "Lee to the rear" episodes recounted by veterans of the war.)

Realizing that he could not repulse the Union troops from the earthworks, Lee instead focused his efforts on completing the last line of earthworks at the base of the Mule Shoe and on retaking a hill where the earthworks made a slight bend. The latter place, where the fighting was horrific, became known, appropriately, as the Bloody Angle. A ravine directly in front of the poorly laid-out Confederate line offered protection for thousands of Union soldiers, from Hancock's Second Corps and Horatio G. Wright's Sixth Corps, who repeatedly surged out of the swale to grapple with the Confederates. (The Sixth Corps's longtime commander, John Sedgwick, had been killed on May 9, making him the highest-ranking Union casualty of the war.) Union and Confederate forces battled from six o'clock on the morning of May 12 to three o'clock on the morning of May 13, much of it hand to hand.

The fighting at the Bloody Angle is regarded as being the most intense of the war. In places, the dead piled up in the Confederate trenches five deep. "No man thought at all," a Mississippian remembered. "That function seemed to be suspended." A Vermont general recalled that "many were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between the logs; men mounted the works, and with muskets rapidly handed them, kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their place and continue their deadly work." A confused and impromptu truce was called at one point after rumors led small pockets of Union and Confederate troops to believe that the other had surrendered. In a few cases, men were captured or even killed. One soldier described the incident as "very absurd blundering … a number on each side fancying that the men on the other side wished to surrender. [It was] a sort of parley in which almost everybody talked, and hardly anybody listened. Men are unlike women, who can talk and listen at the same time." As night fell, some Confederates were even injured when an oak tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down by musket fire.

Aftermath

Grant eventually broke off contact with the Confederates at Spotsylvania, sending a segment of his army east with the hope that Lee would chase after it. He continued to maneuver south, however, and next confronted Lee May 27–28 along the banks of the North Anna River. Spotsylvania, like the Wilderness, had been a tactical draw that Grant—even at the cost of 18,000 killed, wounded, and captured—turned into a strategic victory by refusing to retreat. Lee's losses probably numbered more than 12,000 as he tried and failed to blunt Grant's advance. After North Anna, the armies would battle at Cold Harbor, after which Grant was finally able to swing around Lee and all the way south to Petersburg. There he would dig in and lay siege for nine and a half months. Grant finally broke through in April and within a week Lee surrendered.

Time Line

  • May 7, 1864 - Union cavalry under Philip H. Sheridan engages with Confederate cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart at Todd's Tavern as Sheridan attempts to clear the Brock Road from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House. Some intense cavalry fighting occurs from 4 p.m. to dark between Union general Wesley Merritt and Confederate general Fitzhugh Lee.
  • May 7, 1864, 8 p.m. - Union infantrymen begin the march from Wilderness toward Spotsylvania Court House.
  • May 7, 1864, 10 p.m. - Confederates cut a road south of the Wilderness, and Confederate general Richard H. Anderson's corps follows the new road as he marches to Spotsylvania Court House.
  • May 8, 1864 - After midnight, Union infantry arrive at Todd's Tavern, discovering Union cavalry camped there and the road to Spotsylvania Court House blocked by Confederate cavalry. Union general Wesley Merritt's horsemen resume their attempts to clear the Confederate cavalry from the Brock Road.
  • May 8, 1864, 7 a.m. - In the race south from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House, the Union infantry overtake the Union cavalry.
  • May 8, 1864, 8 a.m.–noon - Union general Gouverneur K. Warren attacks across the Spindle Field and is repulsed by Richard H. Anderson's Confederates.
  • May 8, 1864, 8 a.m. - Union general James Harrison Wilson's cavalry arrives in the town of Spotsylvania Court House, and Confederate general Richard H. Anderson dispatches a portion of his command to drive them out.
  • May 8, 1864, 1 p.m. - After an argument between Union Army of the Potomac commander George G. Meade and Philip H. Sheridan over the use of cavalry, Sheridan receives orders to mass his cavalry for an operation against the Confederate cavalry.
  • May 8, 1864, 7 p.m. - Union generals Gouverneur K. Warren and John Sedgwick unsuccessfully attack across the Spindle Field.
  • May 9, 1864, 9 a.m. - A Confederate sharpshooter kills Union general John Sedgwick, commander of the Army of the Potomac's Sixth Corps. He becomes the highest-ranking Union casualty of the war.
  • May 10, 1864 - Union general Winfield Scott Hancock attempts to turn the Confederate left flank by crossing the Po River, but meets with resistance. Union plans for an all-out attack at 5 p.m. are altered when Union general Gouverneur K. Warren receives permission to attack across the Spindle Field at about 4 p.m. and is repulsed.
  • May 10, 1864, 6 p.m. - Union colonel Emory Upton breaks through the Confederate line, making a bayonet charge from a column formation at Spotsylvania Court House. Though initially successful, Upton's attack fails for lack of support from other troops.
  • May 10, 1864, 7 p.m. - An attack by Union general Winfield Scott Hancock's men across the Spindle Field fails at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
  • May 11, 1864 - Union general Winfield Scott Hancock's troops shift position to prepare for a massive assault the next day at Spotsylvania Court House. Robert E. Lee receives word that the Union army may be withdrawing to Fredericksburg and prepares to strike them by withdrawing his artillery before the heavy rain makes the roads impassable.
  • May 12, 1864, 4:30 a.m. - At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Union troops attack in a formation of about 250 men wide and 20 men deep. Partially concealed by fog, the assault captures 3,000 Confederates who have trouble firing in the rain. Smaller-but-better-organized Confederate counterattacks drive Union troops back to Confederate works but not beyond them.
  • May 12, 1864, 6:00 a.m. - Brutal fighting ensues at the Bloody Angle, as Confederates attempt to complete a final line close to a mile behind them. Union general Gouverneur K. Warren attacks across the Spindle Field yet again, and Ambrose E. Burnside attacks the east face of the Mule Shoe salient to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the Bloody Angle.
  • May 13, 1864 3:00 a.m. - Confederates withdraw from the Bloody Angle near Spotsylvania Court House to a line about three-quarters of a mile to their rear.
  • May 14, 1864 - Union forces test the Confederate position south of the village of Spotsylvania Court House but are intercepted by the Confederate cavalry, delaying the advance long enough to allow the Confederates to position infantry units to meet the threat at Myers Hill.
  • May 18, 1864 - Union forces under Winfield Scott Hancock and Horatio G. Wright test Robert E. Lee's line advancing across the Harrison Field near Spotsylvania Court House. The remnants of Richard S. Ewell's corps easily repulse the Union attack.
  • May 19, 1864 - At the Battle of Harris Farm near Spotsylvania Court House, the Confederates under Richard S. Ewell encounter fresh Union troops pulled from the Washington, D.C., defenses. Ewell loses 900 men against the Union men who had never before seen combat.
Further Reading
Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The Spotsylvania Campaign. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Matter, William D. If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7–12, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Rhea, Gordon C. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13–25, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000.
Cite This Entry
APA Citation:
Mertz, G. A. Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. (2012, December 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Spotsylvania_Court_House_Battle_of.

MLA Citation:
Mertz, G. A. "Battle of Spotsylvania Court House." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Dec. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: June 17, 2010 | Last modified: December 6, 2012


Contributed by Gregory A. Mertz, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Supervisory Historian, author of "Upton's Attack and the Defense of Doles' Salient," Blue and Gray Magazine 8, no. 6 (Summer 2001), and "The Spindle Field and Laurel Hill Fighting," Blue and Gray Magazine 11, no. 4 Summer, 2004.