Stalemate: Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. General George G. Meade versus General Robert E. Lee
Forces Engaged: 153,000 total USA 100,000 and CSA 52,000
Casualties: 30,000 total USA 18,000 and CSA 12,500
As darkness settled over
northern Virginia on the evening of May 6, 1864, the two-day series of
military engagements that would become known as the battle of the Wilderness
came to a close. The first encounter between the war's most prominent military
leaders - Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding all United States
armies from a headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac, and
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia - had ended.
At 6:30 A.M. on May 7 Grant issued a directive to the Army of the Potomac
commander, Major General 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
On the night of May 7-8 the Union
Fifth Corps and the Confederate First Corps, moving independently and unknown
to each other, led the marches of their respective armies toward Spotsylvania
Court House. In the morning the lead elements met on the Spindle farm along
the Brock Road, and the fighting lasted throughout the day as more units from
each army arrived. Elements of the Federal Sixth Corps joined in the attack
around midday, but the Union troops were unable to force their way through,
and nightfall found two sets of parallel fieldworks across the Brock Road.
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
More units of each army continued
to arrive on May 9. The Confederate Third Corps marched along the Shady Grove
Church Road (today State Route 608) to the village of Spotsylvania Court
House. The Federal Second Corps, commanded by Major General 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 Fifth Corps, overlooking the Po
River. Late in the afternoon troops from the Second Corps crossed the river
and moved east on the Shady Grove Church Road as far as the Block House bridge
over the Po before darkness halted them.
During the night Lee sent one
brigade, commanded by Brigadier General William Mahone, to block and one
division, led by Major General Henry Heth, to attack the Federal force the
following day. On the morning of May 10 the three divisions of the Federal
Second Corps south of the Po River were directed to return north of that
stream to assault another segment of the Confederate line. Two divisions
recrossed successfully, but the third crossed under Confederate fire.
Elsewhere that day, the Federal
commanders attempted to execute a combined attack all along the lines. A
series of piecemeal assaults by elements of the Fifth and Second corps at
Laurel Hill proved unsuccessful. A bit farther east a charge by twelve Union
regiments against the western face of a great salient in the Confederate line
was far more carefully arranged. The British military historian C. F.
Atkinson, writing in 1908 in Grant's Campaigns of 1864 and 1865,
labeled the charge "one of the classic Infantry attacks of military
history". This dramatic action also failed, because of the failure of a
supporting assault and because of strong Confederate counterstrokes.
Grant decided to attack the apex of
the Confederate salient with the entire Federal Second Corps on May 12. Two
divisions of Major General Ambrose Burnside's Ninth Corps were to attack the
east face of the Confederate position simultaneously. The Second Corps moved
into position after dark.
At 4:35 A.M. on May 12 the Federal
Second 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 Major General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps before
being driven back to the outside of the works by Confederate reserve forces.
Both sides forwarded reinforcements (the Federals added units of Major General
Horatio Wright's Sixth Corps to the assault), and the northern face of the
salient became the focus of close firing and fighting that lasted for
twenty-three hours. In midafternoon a division of the Ninth 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 three
quarters of a 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.
A Federal Second Corps soldier,
viewing the churned landscape around the "bloody angle" on the
morning of May 13, 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." Sometime before 2:00 A.M. on May 13 a
large oak tree just behind the west face of the salient crashed to the ground.
Its trunk, twenty Inches In diameter, had been severed by musket balls.
The Confederates successfully
withdrew to a newly constructed line along the base of the salient at 3:00
A.M. On the night of May 13, 14 the Federal Fifth and Sixth corps marched
around to the Fredericksburg Road and went into position south of that road on
the left of the Ninth Corps. On May 15 the Second Corps joined the other three
Union corps so that the Federal lines, east of the village, now faced west and
ran north and south. Three days later two Union corps returned to the salient
and attacked the Confederates' final line but were unsuccessful.
On May 19 Ewell's Confederate
Second 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 Federal troops that had formerly manned the forts surrounding
Washington, D.C. These heavy artillerymen, most of whom were serving under
Brigadier General Robert 0. Tyler, were acting as infantry for the first time.
The resulting engagement on the Harris farm exacted a heavy toll on both
sides: It cost the Confederates 900 casualties and the Federals slightly more
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 two 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.
Confederate casualties for the
two-week long battle were estimated at 9,000-10,000 (combat strength: 63,000).
Federal casualties were reported as slightly less than 18,000 (combat
strength: 111,000). Perhaps the most notable death was that of Sixth Corps
commander Major General John Sedgwick, killed by a sharpshooter's bullet as he
prowled the front lines on May 9. Shortly before, Sedgwick 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
Both armies departed Spotsylvania
on May 20 and 21. 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 had sent a dispatch on May 11
declaring, "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all
summer. It would take that long and more.
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