Union Forces Commanded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
Missing / Captured
Confederate Forces Commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, sometimes simply referred to as the Battle of Spotsylvania, was the second battle in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign. It was fought in the Rapidan River -Rappahannock River area of central Virginia.
The battle was fought along a trench line some 4 miles long, with the Army of Northern Virginia, under Gen. Robert E. Lee, making its second attempt to halt the spring offensive of the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Taking place less than a week after the bloody, inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, it pitted about 60,000 Confederate soldiers against about 120,000 Union troops.
After Lee checked the Union advance in the Wilderness, Grant decided to take advantage of the position he held, which allowed him to slip his army around Lee's right flank and continue to move south towards Richmond. He already had troops on the move by the night of May 7, just one day after the Wilderness fighting ended.
On May 6, as darkness settled over northern Virginia that evening, the Battle of the Wilderness came to a close. The first encounter between the war's most prominent military leaders, Grant, commanding all Union armies from a headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac, and Lee had ended.
On May 7, at 6:30 A.M., Grant issued a directive to the Army of the Potomac commander, Maj. Gen. 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." That night, the Union V Corps and the Confederate I Corps, moving independently and unknown to each other, led the marches of their respective armies toward Spotsylvania Court House.
On May 8, Grant sent Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren and his V Corps to take Spotsylvania, 10 miles to the southeast. Lee anticipated Grant's move and sent forces to intercept him: cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and the 1st Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson. 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. Grant's and Meade's advance on Richmond by the left flank was stalled at Spotsylvania Court House and the Confederates won the race to get there first.
On May 9, each army began to take up new positions north of the town. The Confederate III Corps marched along the Shady Grove Church Road to the village of Spotsylvania Court House. The Union II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, moved from Todd's Tavern along the Brock Road, then moved off the road to take position to the right of the V Corps, overlooking the Po River. Union forces probed Confederate skirmish lines to determine the placement of defending forces. Lee deployed his men in a trench line stretching more than 4 miles, with artillery placed that would allow enfilade fire on any attacking force. There was only one major weakness in Lee's line—an exposed salient known as the "Mule Shoe" extending more than a mile in front of the main trench line.
On May 10, Lee recognized this weakness during the fighting when 12 regiments under the command of Col. Emory Upton followed up a concentrated, intense artillery attack by slamming into the toe of the "Mule Shoe" along a narrow front. They actually broke the Confederate line, and the II Corps had a hard time driving them out. Upton's attack won him a promotion on the spot to brigadier general.
Lee, seeing the danger, began to lay out a new defensive line across the heel of the "Mule Shoe" that night, but before he could get it finished, Grant sent his entire II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, to attack the position in the same manner Upton had. This time, the breach in the Confederate line was complete. The II Corps took close to 4,000 prisoners and probably would have cut the Army of Northern Virginia in half if the IX Corps, under Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, supporting it with an assault on the Confederate right flank, had pushed its attacks home with force.
Instead, Lee was able to shift thousands of his men to meet the threat. Due to ineffective leadership displayed by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Lee felt compelled to personally lead II Corps soldiers in the counterattack. His men realized the danger this would pose and refused to advance until Lee removed himself to a safer position in the rear. The battle in the "Mule Shoe" lasted for an entire day and night, as the Confederates slowly won back all the ground they had lost, inflicting heavy losses on the II Corps and the reinforcing VI Corps in the process.
On May 12, at 4:35 A.M., the Union II 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 Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell's II Corps before being driven back to the outside of the works by Confederate reserve forces. Both sides forwarded reinforcements, and the northern face of the salient became the focus of close firing and fighting that lasted for 23 hours.
In midafternoon, a division of the IX 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 3/4 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.
The Union attack against the Bloody Angle at dawn, on May 12-13, captured nearly a division of Lee's army and came near to cutting the Confederate army in half. Confederate counterattacks plugged the gap, and fighting continued unabated for nearly 20 hours in what may well have been the most ferociously sustained combat of the Civil War. The Confederates successfully withdrew to a newly constructed line along the base of the salient at 3:00 A.M.
On May 13, during the night, the Union V and VI Corps marched around to the Fredericksburg Road and went into position south of that road on the left of the IX Corps. By 3:00 A.M., just as the Confederates had completed expelling the II Corps from the "Mule Shoe", and Lee had his battered men retire behind it. More than 10,000 men fell in the Mule Shoe, which now passed to the Union forces without a fight.
On May 15, the II Corps joined the other 3 Union corps so that the Union lines, east of the village, now faced west and ran north and south. Three days later, 2 Union corps returned to the salient and attacked the Confederates' final line but were unsuccessful.
On May 18, Grant sent two of his corps to attack the new line, but they were met with a bloody repulse. That convinced Grant, who had vowed to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," that Lee's men could not be dislodged from their Spotsylvania line.
Grant, checked by Lee for a second time, responded as he had 2 weeks earlier. He shifted the weight of his army to the right flank and again moved to the southeast along roads Lee was unable to block.
On May 19, Ewell's Confederate II 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 Union troops that had formerly manned the forts surrounding Washington, D.C. These heavy artillerymen, under Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler, were acting as infantry. The resulting engagement on the Harris Farm exacted a heavy toll on both sides. The Confederates were beaten back with severe casualties.
VI Corps commander Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter; he was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright. Rice was also were killed. Sedgwick was killed by a sharpshooter's bullet as he prowled the front lines. Shortly before, he 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."
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 2 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.
On May 20-21, both armies departed Spotsylvania. 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 disengaged and continued his advance on Richmond. This 2-week battle was a series of combats along the Spotsylvania front. Once again, Lee's tactics had inflicted severe casualties on Grant's army.
At Spotsylvania, the Confederates had to pull men away from other fronts to reinforce Lee. Making matters worse, the army was taking heavy losses among its veteran units and its best officers. This may have saved Grant from a disaster at the Battle of North Anna, when his decimated army was positioned badly and was ripe to be attacked. Lee never did, because the Army of Northern Virginia was unable to do so. In fact, Lee's army would never regain the initiative it lost in those 2 weeks of May.