Location: Spotsylvania, Virginia
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse was the second major battle of Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in 1864. After being recalled from the Western Theater, Grant was promoted to Lt. General and given command of all the Union Army by President Lincoln who was by now looking for a commander that would press the mounting advantages of the Union which included both manpower and supplies. General Grant began his Overland Campaign by crossing the Rapidan River to the west of Fredericksburg and entered the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was already familiar with the Wilderness after the Battle of Chancelorsville the previous year and knew the Wilderness would negate the two to one advantage of the Union Army in the wooden thickets of the Wilderness. After a bloody two day battle between the two forces the results were inconclusive and Grant wanted to move the battle to more open terrain where his superior numbers could be used to advantage. However, instead of retreating, he boldly continued on the offensive ordering General Meade to quickly march to Spotsylvania Courthouse, 10 miles to the southeast on May 7-8 along two roads thereby threatening Richmond and forcing Lee to stop him. Meade sent Sheridan’s cavalry to clear the Brock Road of Confederate infantry, but they became bogged down in a running battle with the Confederate cavalry. General Lee was not sure of Grant’s intentions, whether he meant to move east to Fredericksburg or south towards Richmond, but in either case the crossroads at Spotsylvania Courthouse was critical. He had his engineers cut a new road parallel to the Brock Road towards the crossroads and ordered General Anderson, who had replaced Longstreet after his wounding in the Wilderness, to proceed along the new road. Although he did not indicate any haste, Anderson ordered a night march and so doing beat the Union army to the crossroads. At dawn on May 8, 1864, the Confederate cavalry still blocked Meade’s advance down the Brock Road. By the time Meade broke through, Anderson was in position along Laurel Hill with two infantry divisions and artillery brigade. Believing he was still only facing the cavalry, Meade ordered an assault on Laurel Hill and was repulsed with heavy casualties. By noon, the Union army began building earthworks in the Spindle Clearing. General Grant ordered Sheridan’s cavalry to take out J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry which led to the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11, mortally wounding Stuart and threatening the outskirts of Richmond. However, this deprived Grant of his cavalry over the next two weeks which was critical. Over the night of May 8 and through May 9, the Confederates were busy constructing over 4 miles of breastworks from the Po River, through the Laurel Hill line, crossing the Brock Road in a horseshoe shape. Due to a questionable decision by the engineers this line created a bulge or salient in the line known as the “Mule Shoe” which extended over a mile beyond the main line. This weak point would lead to one of the bloodiest single days of combat in the war. General Grant planned on a major attack on all sectors at 5 pm on May 10, however, a Confederate attack at 2 pm and subsequent reactions to reestablish the line caused him to delay the general attack. However, Brig General Mott did not get the word and at 5 pm moved his men up. They were immediately repulsed by Confederate artillery and retreated. Not aware of this, Col Upton led 5000 men against a weak point on the Mule Shoe known as Doles’s salient at 6 pm. They charged the breastworks and initially broke through and took the salient. However, Mott’s brigade, having already been repulsed, was not there to support the breakthrough and a counterattack by the Confederates drove Col Upton back. While the attack was not successful, it gave General Grant the idea that if 5000 men could do so well, what would a concentrated attack of 20,00 men do? This led to the battle along the Bloody Angle on May 12, 1864. Initially the massive attack along the Mule Shoe was successful, with the Union army destroying much of the breastworks along this narrow front, but the ensuing hand to hand combat destroyed all cohesion to the attack and Lee’s counterattack recaptured much of the breastwork. The carnage continued throughout the day with the Confederates desperately holding the Union attack back until Lee would construct new breastworks 500 yards to the south across the base of the Mule Shoe. At 4 am on May 13, the Confederates withdrew to this new defensive position. On May 14, Grant began to reposition his lines to the east of Spotslyvania outflanking the Confederates right flank. General Lee also repositioned his lines to counter. However, after 5 days of heavy rain, Grant had to delay any attack until drier weather which did not come until May 17 when Grant reasoned that Lee had moved his men to the east leaving the previous breastworks unoccupied and ordered an attack on these positions which would flank Lee’s army. However, he was wrong and paid the price with heavy casualties. On May 19, Grant decided to abandoned this entire area, which by now was riddled with defensive earthworks and moved to the south towards Richmond hoping Lee would take the bait and he could engage him before they could construct their earthworks.
1) There is no Visitor Center at the Spotslyvania Courthouse battlefield. Instead there is a kiosk with multiple panels laying out the battle. However, since this battle was over a two week period it was difficult to understand the entire battle. Thankfully, we had purchased a Driving Tour CD of the battle at the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, which held tremendously as it was laid our in chronological order. Of course, this meant you had to backtrack between some of the stops to get the whole picture, but it was worth it.
2) The first stop of the tour is Todd’s Tavern where the running cavalry battle between Sheridan and Stuart began. There is still a convenience store at the location with the same name.
3) The driving tour then directs you to drive all the way back to Spotsylvania Courthouse to discuss its importance to both sides. However, we were running short of time so we skipped this stop.
4) The first stop on the battlefield itself is at the Spotsylvania kiosk which gives a good overview of the battle. It is located at the edge of Laurel Hill. You can’t see much of this stage of the battle or this end of the Confederate line as it is still in private hands.
5) The next two stops deal with the breakthrough by Upton on Dole’s Salient on May 10, first from the viewpoint of Upton and then at the breastwork of Dole’s Salient. The trenches and other breastworks on in amazing condition.
6) The next stop is a short section of the new defensive line constructed by Lee on May 12 during the Battle of The Bloody Angle. At this stop they have reconstructed a short piece of the trench so you can more easily see what they would have been like at the time. While very informative and well worth seeing, the reconstruction could use some work as the wood is nearly rotted away.
7) The tour then takes you to the site of two houses that were on the battlefield and used as headquarters and hospitals by the Confederates, the Harrison and McCoull House. Neither house remains today so there is not much to look at.
8) The next stop is the premier stop of the tour as it deals with the Bloody Angle. This is primarily along the western side of the Mule Shoe, which obviously sticks out way beyond the rest of the Confederate Line. There is a short walk along the Bloody Angle with very good interpretive signs and a few monuments. It is hard to imagine the hand to hand combat that occurred along this wall throughout the entire day of May 12, 1864. The breastworks are again in excellent condition for being 150 years old.
9) The final couple of stops on the driving tour deal with the attempt by Grant to surprise Lee after he had repositioned his lines to the east of the courthouse and then attacking what he assumed were abandoned breastworks along the Fredericksburg Road. Except for a monument there is little that can be seen of this action.
10) In summary, I found this battle difficult to understand except for the Bloody Angle. This was in large part due to the length of time (over a week) and the 4 mile length of the Confederate line. Over this period there were numerous attempts by Grant to find a weakness in this defensive line with Lee responding as needed. Only the most significant engagements are highlighted.