Sunday, November 19, 2006

Spotsylvania, VA

Dates: 8-19 May, 1864


Union: Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, Commander-in-Chief of all Federal Armies and Major General George Meade commanding the Army of the Potomac.

Confederate: General Robert E. Lee commanding the Army of Northern Virginia.

Prelude: General Grant, following his defeat at the Battle of The Wilderness (5-7 May, 1864), did something that the Confederates did not expect. In past battles, the Union forces simply pulled back across the Rappahannock or Rapidan Rivers to rest, reequip, and wait to fight another day. Grant was not doing what it was expected him to do. Instead of pulling back to the north, he ordered Meade to send his army to the south in a flanking maneuver around the Confederate right.

Perhaps it was numerical superiority that led Grant to press on with his advance. The Union still had a vast manpower reserve that could keep his troop levels in the 100-120 thousand range. Lee, on the other hand, had practically no reserves to draw on. Every battle from here on out would cost him troops that he could no longer afford to lose. Lee also had to know that if his army was flanked, cutting him off from the Confederate capital of Richmond, it was only a matter of time before the end came.

Grants plan at this point was to do just that. To the south was the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House. Capturing that would hamper, if not cut off, Confederate communications. As the Union army was leaving the trenches at the Wilderness on the night of 7 May, those were the orders given.

Lee also knew about those crossroads and when he found out that the Federals were heading south instead of north, he ordered the corps of Major General Richard Anderson (who had taken over when Lieutenant General James Longstreet was wounded) to secure the crossroads. Lee also ordered his cavalry to harass the advancing Federals.

8 May, 1864: Anderson’s troops reach three-way crossroads northwest of Spotsylvania Court House literally seconds before Union troops under Major General John Sedgwick arrived. Fighting erupts, continuing throughout the day, which prevented the Federals from coming any further. Throughout the day, both sides dig entrenchments and bring up the remainder of their armies.

Soon the battle lines were drawn: On the Federal side, Sedgwick’s VI Corps held the center while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps took the right, anchored on the Po River. Major General Winfield Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps would secure the Union left.

The Confederate line consisted of Anderson’s corps taking the left, from the crossroads where he stopped the Union forces to the Po River. From the crossroads to the northeast, was the corps of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. His line looped around to the south at the McCoull Farm, the resulting line resembled a mule shoe and as such was called “The Mule Shoe.” The Confederate right, from the Mule Shoe to Spotsylvania was held by the corps of Major General Jubal Early (who had taken over for the ill Lieutenant General A. P. Hill).

9 May, 1864: Grant decides to open up the contest with a flanking movement around the Confederate left. Several brigades were sent across the Po River and were attempting to seize the Block House Bridge. They were stopped by a division under Major General Henry Heth.

In the Federal center, Sedgwick was inspecting the new trenches. He stands on top of one and looks on the Confederate entrenchments. Several bullets whizzed by, causing his soldiers to duck. Others pleaded with “Uncle John” to get down before a Confederate sharpshooter gets him. His response was. “I’m ashamed of you dodging this way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” One second later, a Confederate bullet strikes Sedgwick in the head, killing him instantly.

10 May, 1864: After a series of Federal probing attacks, at 6:00 p.m., a formation of 12 Union regiments, led by Colonel Emory Upton, assaults the Mule Shoe with fixed bayonets and manages to seize part of the trenches without firing a shot. Sadly there was no support for that attack and Upton had to withdraw. He would be promoted to Brigadier General for that action. Also by the end of the day, the Federal force at Block House Bridge was attacked and forced to pull back.

11 May, 1864: Grant repositions his troops for another assault on the Mule Shoe scheduled for the next day.

Lee, thinking that Grant is considering another flanking maneuver, pulls out the 30 cannon supporting the Mule Shoe in preparation for movement.

The Confederacy loses another of its ablest commanders when Lee’s cavalry commander, Major General J.E.B. Stuart is mortally wounded as his troopers were engaging Union Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry at Yellow Tavern, north of Richmond.

12 May, 1864: 4:30 a.m., Grant launches a massive attack on the Mule Shoe with 20,000 troops from Hancock’s II Corps. Lee orders those 30 cannon back to their former positions but its too late. The Confederate lines are breached and almost 3000 were captures, among those were two generals and almost the entire “Stonewall” brigade, which was formed and led by Thomas Jackson at the beginning of the Civil War and had earned their nickname at First Manassas. Now that unit was no longer combat effective.

It was said that Lee himself rode out there on his horse Traveler and rallied the fleeing Confederates. Seeing one group of Texans, Lee is believed to have shouted, “I’m ashamed of you.” The Texans rallied around Lee as he prepared to lead a counterattack personally. The Texans, joined by some Georgians and Virginians, were not having their commanding general lead them into certain death. Amid chants of, “Lee to the rear,” Major General John Gordon assures Lee that his men could get the job done but Lee had to stay back. Lee agrees and orders a serried of counterattacks, resulting in about 20 hours of the most savage fighting of the entire war. The apex of the Mule Shoe would become known as “The Bloody Angle.” Lee orders a new line dug at the base of the Mule Shoe for his men to fall back to. When the fighting finally dies out, 6800 Federals and 5000 Confederates lay dead.

On the Federal left, Burnside tries to break the Confederate entrenchments but is repulsed.

13 May, 1864: Grant decides to extend his line to the southeast, sending Burnside and Warren to find a way around the Confederates. Lee has his men in the new line, strengthening his hold on the area.

14 May, 1864: Both Burnside and Warren have concentrated their troops along the Fredericksburg Road, northeast of Spotsylvania Court House, but a planned attack for that day is stopped by rain.

18 May, 1864: After the rains stopped, Grant tries to launch another attack with Hancock’s II Corps on the Confederate lines south of the Mule Shoe and the Bloody Angle without success. Grant decides to make another move to the south.

19 May, 1864: Lee orders Ewell to send his corps forward to see what the Federals are doing. They manage to get past the Federals but is stopped at Harris Farm by a force made up of artillerists dragged from the Washington Defenses and deployed as infantry.

It is interesting to see that Ewell’s corps at this point was a corps in name only. He had 6000 under his command when he went forward. A full strength Civil War infantry regiment consisted of about 1000 men. Ewell’s fighting power was now the equivalent of six regiments, or two brigades. This was the level of manpower that the Army of Northern Virginia had to deal with now.

The entire Spotsylvania campaign ends with Grant ordering the Army of the Potomac to continue shifting to the south. Lee orders his army to fall back to the North Anna River. Grant failed to destroy Lee, but Lee also has failed to stop Grant.


Union: 17,500 but can replace them easily.

Confederates: about 11,500 but can not replace them.

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