The Battles of The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House
The American Civil War’s third full year of combat was its most vicious and destructive yet. The Battles of Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga produced costly Union victories, but failed to subvert the Southern rebellion. In March 1864, President Abraham Lincoln promoted Ulysses S. Grant—the accomplished commander of Union armies in the Western Theater—to General-in-Chief of all U.S. forces, hoping he could deliver a decisive blow against the Confederacy. Instead of overseeing operations from the comforts of Washington D.C., the Lieutenant General chose to headquarter with the Army of the Potomac, although formal field command was maintained by Major General George G. Meade.
Grant devised an ingenious offensive strategy—the Overland Campaign—that sought to unify the Federal war effort and destroy Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Meade’s Army of the Potomac, augmented by Major General Ambrose Burnside’s independent IX Corps, would cross the Rapidan River and engage the Confederates in battle between Washington and Richmond. Major General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James would simultaneously approach the Confederate capitol from their barracks in Hampton Roads. Meanwhile, Major General Franz Sigel’s Army of the Shenandoah would sabotage transportation and agricultural infrastructure in the Shenandoah Valley, disrupting crucial Confederate supply chains. Faced with three fronts, Lee would surely crumble.
THE BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS: MAY 5 – 6, 1864
On the morning of May 4, 1864, over 100,000 Union troops crossed the Rapidan River below Lee’s right flank. Brigadier General James H. Wilson’s 3rd Cavalry Division fended off Confederate pickets at Germanna Ford, where Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps and John Sedgwick’s VI Corps pontooned. A few miles downriver at Ely’s Ford, Brigadier General David M. Gregg’s 2nd Cavalry Division led Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps across the Rapidan. Burnside’s IX Corps, acting as the army’s rearguard, temporarily remained north of the river. Grant hoped to move quickly through the Wilderness—a seventy-square-mile, second-growth forest beset by tangled deadfall and nearly impenetrable brush—and engage Lee in open territory. However, logistical complications with their wagon trains forced the Union army to camp around Wilderness Tavern that evening.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia numbered 66,000 men, leaving it grossly outnumbered and outgunned, comparable to the Battle of Chancellorsville the previous year. Lee understood the criticality of confronting Grant within the Wilderness, where unfavorable terrain and wooded thickets would diminish the Union army’s numerical advantages. From his riverside entrenchments, the Confederate commander dispatched General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps along Orange Turnpike and General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps down the Orange Plank Road to confront the Union colossus. The two columns, totaling forty thousand men, were to delay the Union army’s advance until General James A. Longstreet’s First Corps arrived from Gordonsville, nearly thirty miles away.
THE BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS – MAY 5
“We were compelled to crawl like snakes whilst working our bodies through some devilish entanglement."
– Unknown Union soldier
The Federal army resumed its southward march during the pre-dawn hours of May 5. At 7:15 a.m., Brigadier General Samuel Crawford, commander of the V Corps advance guard, observed Confederate forces along Orange Turnpike near Chewning Farm. Believing only a small rebel contingent was present, Grant ordered Warren to attack immediately “without giving time for disposition”—in actuality, the approximate adversary was Ewell’s entire Second Corps, who had firmly entrenched themselves above a clearing known as Saunders Field. Despite Grant’s direct order, the V Corps commander was apprehensive about attacking in the Wilderness. Warren postponed the attack by several hours, waiting for Sedgwick’s VI Corps to protect his right flank. When Sedgwick’s force failed to arrive by noon, an impatient Meade indignantly directed Warren to proceed without reinforcements.
At 1 p.m., the Union V Corps surged across Saunders Field—Brigadier General Charles Griffin’s division held the right flank while General James S. Wadsworth pushed through bristling woods on the left. Ewell’s Confederates welcomed the approaching enemy with a fearful torrent of lead, inflicting heavy casualties unto Griffin’s exposed troops, although some infantry units managed to penetrate the rebel earthworks. Brigadier Generals Joseph J. Bartlett and Lysander Cutler overran Confederate brigadier John M. Jones’s position, killing the Southern general in the process. However, the Union troops advanced a half-mile beyond their support, exposing their flanks to a punishing counterattack led by Confederate General John B. Gordon.
Lead elements of the VI Corps reached Saunders Field at 3:00 p.m. Sedgwick renewed action within the woods adjacent to Orange Turnpike, but after several hours of inconclusive combat, both belligerents retired from battle and began strengthening their earthen defenses.
Shortly after Warren’s departure on Orange Turnpike, Union sentries observed General A.P. Hill’s column headed east on Orange Plank Road towards Brock Road, the primary north-south route towards Richmond. Federal command realized that if the Confederates took possession of the crossroads, they would sever the II Corps—positioned several miles southeast at Chancellorsville— from the rest of the Union army. Grant alerted Hancock, who promptly mobilized his men to seize the intersection, and dispatched Lieutenant Colonel John Hammond’s cavalry to harass Hill’s procession. Hammond’s five-hundred-man force, armed with Spencer repeating carbine rifles, fought dismounted against the approaching Confederates. The vastly outnumbered Union cavalry temporarily delayed Hill’s advance, but were progressively pushed back.
At 10:30 a.m., General Meade tasked Brigadier General George W. Getty’s division to defend the crucial crossroads until relieved by Hancock. Getty reached the crossroads shortly after noon and encountered Hammond’s men, who were nearly depleted of ammunition. Hill’s Confederates followed in pursuit, but fell back to entrenchment lines around Tapp Farm after a brief skirmish.
When Hancock’s corps arrived at 4:00 p.m., Meade ordered an assault against Hill’s position. Getty’s men advanced along the Plank Road where they encountered Major General Henry Heth’s division. The rebels bushwhacked the unwary Unionists with a terrible volley that sent them scrambling back towards Brock Road. Hancock returned the favor as Hill’s men surged against the fortified Union line. For nearly five hours, blue and gray-clad troops fought viciously with neither side gaining a distinct advantage. Darkness ended the day's fighting.
The merciless combat in the Wilderness yielded ghastly consequences for thousands of unfortunate soldiers. Dried brush and timbers took to flame, consuming the wounded writhing about. Live ammunition and cartridge belts ignited, sending deadly shrapnel through ill-fated victims. Stagnant smoke suffocated hundreds more. Many wounded spared themselves these terrible fates by committing suicide.
THE BATTLE OF THE WILDERNESS – MAY 6
“[I saw a man] both of whose legs were broken, lying on the ground with his cocked rifle by his side and his ramrod in hand…I know he meant to kill himself in case of fire—knew it as surely as through I could read
– Frank Wilkeson, 11th New York Independent Battery
Exhausted combatants across the battlefield entrenched overnight in preparation for renewed attacks the following morning. Along the Plank Road, however, Hill’s Confederates remained idle. The corps commander, who anticipated Longstreet’s timely arrival, elected to rest his weary men rather than improve the defensive integrity of his position. This miscalculated judgment nearly proved disastrous for the Army of Northern Virginia.
At 4:30 a.m., Hancock’s II Corps descended upon Hill’s tenuous line. The rebel resistance promptly buckled under the weight of 23,000 Union soldiers, sending scores of disorganized defenders towards Lee’s position at Tapp Farm. Only Lieutenant Colonel William T. Poague’s twelve-gun battery stood between the advancing Federals and Confederate disaster. The artillerymen fired tirelessly, but their efforts did little to stem the Union tide. All hope seemed lost for the Confederacy.
Suddenly, columns of gray hastened up Orange Plank Road. General James Longstreet gallantly rode ahead, leading twenty thousand Confederate reinforcements to the front. The rejuvenated rebel line launched a savage counterattack that sent the II Corps into disarray. The Southerners slowly pushed back Hancock’s line several hundred yards until the two sides reached a stalemate.
At 10:00 a.m., Major General Martin L. Smith, Lee’s chief engineer, informed Longstreet that the Union left flank was vulnerable to attack via an unfinished and unmapped railroad bed. Anxious to break the impasse, Longstreet directed his aide, Lieutenant Colonel G. Moxley Sorrel, and senior brigade commander General William Mahone to lead several brigades against the unsuspecting enemy. Sorrel and Mahone struck the Federals one hour later while Longstreet resumed his main frontal attack. The simultaneous assaults caused the entire Union line to give way. General James Wadsworth tried to rally his broken ranks, but he was shot through the head when his frightened horse bolted towards the Confederate line.
The Confederates pressed against Hancock’s Brock Road defenses. Longstreet and his staff rode ahead to reconnoiter the enemy position. While doing so, they alerted a Virginia regiment concealed in the woods. Mistaking Longstreet’s entourage for Union patrols, the rebels began shooting. Brigadier General Micah Jenkins and aide-de-camp Captain Alfred E. Doby were killed in the friendly fire. Longstreet was struck in the throat. Much like his beloved counterpart Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet was gunned down by his own men during arguably his greatest tactical maneuver. Unlike Jackson, Longstreet would survive; however, the Army of Northern Virginia would be without his guiding hand for nearly six months. The wounding of General Longstreet paralyzed the Confederate counterattack. Hancock wisely used the respite to reorganize his defenses and reinvigorate his routed corps, urging them to hold the line at all hazards.
While medics tended to the injured Longstreet, Lee personally coordinated Confederate efforts on the Plank Road. Apposite to his aggressive tactical nature, Lee elected to strike the Federals head-on with nearly half his available force, hoping to destroy the Army of the Potomac with one decisive action. The Confederates launched their grand assault during the twilight hours of May 6; however, heavy brush and abatis disrupted the attackers’ cohesion. The stumbling rebel ranks encountered revamped Union defenses; their disjointed attacks withered under relentless Federal rifle fire.
Two hundred yards south of the intersection, the Federal log works caught fire, forcing their defenders to flee. Rebel soldiers rushed through the flames and planted their flag on the burning ramparts, but their success was only temporary. Within minutes, Union reinforcements under General Samuel Carroll recaptured the works, sending the Confederates reeling back to their lines. Lee’s grand assault turned out to be a colossal, bloody failure.
At the Orange Turnpike, inconclusive fighting preoccupied most the day. While Lee conducted his assault on the Plank Road, Ewell authorized General Gordon to perform a concurrent flanking maneuver against Sedgwick’s VI Corps, which held the Union right flank. Gordon struck at sundown, just as the Northerners were preparing supper. Five thousand rebel attackers swarmed through the Federal camp, capturing eight hundred men—including Brigadier Generals Alexander Shaler and Truman Seymour—and scattering thousands more towards secondary lines of works. Gordon’s onrush lost momentum as daylight faded, preventing any further Union ravaging.
Although the Wilderness yielded no clear victor, both armies emerged from the fighting feeling optimistic. Tactically, the Confederates were successful in restraining the Union Army; however, from a numerical perspective, Grant held the upper hand, having reduced the Confederate’s available fighting power by twenty percent. The Army of the Potomac lost 18,000 men while the Southerners sustained 11,000 casualties, including the invaluable General James Longstreet. During previous operations, heavy losses resulted in the termination of Union offensives; however, Grant maintained the initiative for his Overland Campaign, breaking the unfortunate tradition of retreat, much to the delight of his faithful ranks.
WILDERNESS BATTLEFIELD TOUR
There are eight stops along the Wilderness Battlefield Auto Tour, the first being Grant’s Headquarters. Located off the old Orange Turnpike (modern Constitution Highway), this “point of interest” appears no more significant than an unremarkable wooded knoll. However, nearly 160 years ago, this was where General Grant and Meade orchestrated their offensive strategies during the Battle of the Wilderness. Across the main road stands Ellwood (c. 1798)—the centerpiece of a once-bustling, 5,000-acre plantation. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Ellwood was owned by J. Horace Lacy, the same individual who owned Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg. The plantation operated as a Confederate field hospital following the Battle of Chancellorsville, where Stonewall Jackson received his fatal wound. Lacy’s brother, Beverly, who served as Jackson’s chaplain, buried the fallen general’s arm in the family cemetery following its amputation. At Wilderness, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren commandeered the estate as his headquarters.
Stop Two is the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter, which features several displays detailing the battle’s background and significance (the formal visitor center for this battlefield is located at Chancellorsville). The shelter is also the starting point for the Gordon Flank Attack Trail—a 2.1-mile loop that traces around residual Union and Confederate earthworks where nearly one-third of all Wilderness casualties fell.
Located off Hill-Ewell Drive lies Saunders Field, the third stop on the Wilderness Tour. On the morning of May 5, Warren’s V Corps reached the edge of this clearing. Confederate troops, commanded by Richard Ewell, devastated their fragmentary ranks from behind fortifications along the western fringe. Remnants of these battlements are still visible today.
Stop Four is Higgerson Farm. Pamela Higgerson, who owned the homestead during the battle, taunted Union troops as they trampled over her property, predicting their humiliating repulse. “We didn’t pay much attention to what she said,” one soldier recalled, “[she] expressed her view on matters in strong language…but the result proved that she was right.” The Higgerson House survived the war but burned down in 1938. A short trail leads curious park-goers to its meager vestiges.
Chewning Farm constitutes Stop Number Five. On the morning of May 5, these fields were initially occupied by Samuel Crawford’s Pennsylvanians. However, as fighting intensified on Orange Turnpike, Crawford was forced to relinquish his position. Confederate General A.P. Hill moved quickly to seize the paramount property. During the twilight hours of May 6, while Hill and his staff mustered around the farmhouse, a Union infantry regiment unexpectedly emerged from the woods. Fortunately for Hill, they failed to notice his Confederate cavalcade, who safely withdrew into the seclusion of the Wilderness. Like the Higgerson estate, the Chewning House burned down postwar and a short trail leads to its former site.
Stop Six is Tapp Field—location of General Lee’s headquarters and staging ground for General James Longstreet’s remarkable Confederate counterattack against Hancock’s II Corps. Longstreet received his consequential wound nearly a half-mile away at Stop Number Seven.
The final stop on the Auto Tour is the Brock Road – Plank Road Intersection. These two roads were strategically important for both armies to navigate through the Wilderness. Initially, a nominal Federal presence held these crossroads. However, additional troops flooded the vicinity after heavy fighting on May 5. Hancock orchestrated his assault against A.P. Hill here early on May 6. Longstreet’s reinforcements repulsed the stunned Union army back to their entrenchments along Brock Road later that day. Today, a half-mile walking path winds its way around the remaining earthworks and passes by a solemn monument commemorating the Vermont Brigade, which lost 1,234 men in defense of the intersection.
THE BATTLE OF TODD’S TAVERN: MAY 7 – 8
With the Wilderness inconclusive, General Ulysses S. Grant disengaged Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and continued his operations against the Confederate capital. He ordered Meade to prepare his troops for an overnight march towards Spotsylvania Court House—a small town positioned ten miles southeast—while General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry cleared the roadways of rebel resistance. That afternoon, the Union horsemen clashed with J.E.B. Stuart’s mounted Confederates around Todd’s Tavern—an unassuming residence located at the intersection of Brock and Catharpin Roads.
Union brigadier David M. Gregg’s division encountered Major Generals Wade Hampton and W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee on Catharpin Road. Gregg hastily threw up earthen defenses west of Todd’s Tavern and repelled several successive rebel assaults. South of the crossroads along Brock Road, General Wesley Merritt engaged Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry, who were fighting dismounted behind makeshift barricades. Union horsemen repeatedly and ineffectually attacked the rebel defenses. Only when the Confederate works caught fire did the Federals make any progress. Nightfall prevented further fighting. Sheridan bivouacked at Todd’s Tavern while Stuart fell back towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Lead elements of Union infantry reached Todd’s Tavern just after midnight. Meade, infuriated by the sight of Sheridan’s encampment, roused the cavalrymen from their slumbers and ordered them to clear the remainder of Brock Road to Spotsylvania.
At dawn on May 8, Merritt’s division once again encountered Fitzhugh Lee’s dismounted troops behind more sophisticated log barricades. When Merritt’s efforts failed to dislodge Lee, Warren’s V Corps advanced to the front. The Confederate cavalry and horse artillery made fearless stands against the Federal assailment, but ultimately withdrew due to their numerical disadvantage. However, their delaying tactics were successful in allowing the Confederate First Corps—now commanded by General Richard H. Anderson—to reach Spotsylvania Court House before the Union army.
THE BATTLE OF SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: MAY 8 – 21, 1864
“[F]renzy seemed to possess the yelling, demoniac hordes on either side, as soft-voiced tenderhearted men
in camp, fought like wild beasts, to destroy their fellow man.”
– Lieutenant Robert S. Robertson, Union Staff Officer
Fitzhugh Lee established a defensive line along Laurel Hill, a low-lying ridge below Sarah Spindle’s farm. He antagonized the approaching Federals while Anderson’s Corps assembled behind the natural parapets. Wrongfully presuming that only cavalry blocked his path, Warren ordered his division commanders to attack Laurel Hill immediately. Union infantry advanced piecemeal across open fields, sustaining heavy casualties against destructive volleys. Multiple indiscreet attacks failed to break the Confederate line.
While Warren’s infantry faltered against Anderson, Major General James H. Wilson’s cavalry occupied the town of Spotsylvania Court House. Believing he could support Warren’s attack from the rear, Wilson dispatched Colonel John B. McIntosh’s brigade north on Brock Road towards Laurel Hill. Confederate intelligencers notified Anderson of Wilson’s maneuver, and the First Corps commander placed several infantry regiments in McIntosh’s path. However, before any major conflict ensued, Sheridan directed Wilson to withdraw his men.
Following the near collapse of Wilson’s cavalry, a hot-tempered Sheridan stormed into Meade’s headquarters. An animated argument ensued between the two senior Union officers, concluding with Sheridan’s assertion that he could “whip Stuart if given the chance.” When Meade relayed the exchange to Grant, the Lieutenant General replied, “let him start right out and do it.” That afternoon, Sheridan received official orders to launch an aggressive expedition against J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry corps. Sheridan mustered ten thousand cavalrymen and proceeded towards Richmond the following morning. While Sheridan ultimately succeeded in his personal quest to neutralize Stuart—who was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern on May 11—Grant’s decision to authorize such an audacious undertaking greatly harmed the Union army. Without sufficient cavalry, Grant was unable to adequately reconnoiter Confederate positions and maneuvers, leaving him virtually blind throughout the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
Sedgwick’s VI Corps joined Warren’s line on the afternoon of May 8. At 7 p.m., Meade arranged both corps for a coordinated attack against Laurel Hill. However, Anderson’s advantageous position and superior firepower thwarted the renewed Union challenge. Finding no success with frontal assaults, the VI Corps attempted to flank Anderson’s right, only to find Ewell’s Second Corps anchoring the Confederate battleline.
During the night, both armies constructed an intricate series of barricades and breastworks. The Confederates erected a trench line more than four miles long, starting at the Po River and extending past the courthouse intersection. There was, however, one glaring weakness with Lee’s fortifications—an exposed salient known as the “Mule Shoe,” which jutted more than a mile in front of the main entrenchments. While the Mule Shoe incorporated high ground around Anderson’s position, its composition was inherently weak, subjecting its defenders to unnecessary enfilading fire. Although Lee—an engineering officer by trade—was aware of the flaw, he deferred judgement to General Ewell, who oversaw the Confederate center. Instead of repositioning their lines, Ewell believed his men could hold the salient if enough artillery support was provided.
On May 9 around 9 a.m., General John Sedgwick was seated at his Laurel Hill headquarters when a sharpshooter’s bullet whizzed past. Frightened men dropped to the ground. Sedgwick exclaimed, “What are you dodging at? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Several seconds later, another Confederate bullet found its target, just under Sedgwick’s left eye, killing him instantly. Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union officer to die in the American Civil War. Major General Horatio Wright succeeded his VI Corps command.
As the action at Laurel Hill intensified, Grant received misleading reports that the Confederates were shifting troops east. Seizing a potentially decisive opportunity, Union command ordered Hancock’ II Corps to cross the Po River and strike the compromised Confederate left flank. Hancock performed the initial maneuver, but darkness fell before an attack could be made. Lee became aware of the Union maneuvers overnight and deployed Major Generals Henry Heth and William Mahone to check Hancock’s isolated force.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: MAY 10 – 11
“The struggle lasted but a few seconds. Numbers prevailed, and, like a resistless wave, the column poured
over the works…The enemy’s lines were completely broken.”
– Colonel Emory Upton, U.S.A.
The II Corps faced formidable Confederate forces the morning of May 10. Believing Lee had strengthened his left flank with troops from Laurel Hill, Grant recalled Hancock back across the river to support Warren’s V Corps, leaving behind Major General Francis C. Barlow’s division as rearguard to keep the Confederates preoccupied. The Union commander then devised a coordinated attack across Lee’s line, hoping to expose and exploit potential weaknesses in the Confederate formation.
Grant’s unified assault was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m.; however, General Warren—seeking retribution from his corps’ embarrassing struggles in the field—requested permission to attack Laurel Hill independently. For reasons unknown, Meade acceded to Warren’s request. At 4:00 p.m., elements of the II and V Corps assaulted Anderson’s entrenched Confederates at Laurel Hill. To Warren’s frustration, the fragmentary attacks rendered little effect and Union forces were beaten back with terrible losses. Grant postponed his assault to 6 p.m. while Warren’s prostrated troops reformed.
After verifying Grant’s report to delay the operation, the VI Corps assembled its fighting force. Twenty-four-year-old Colonel Emory Upton was assigned to lead twelve infantry regiments (roughly 4,500 men) against Doles’ Salient, on the western edge of the Mule Shoe. Contrary to traditional military tactics, Upton stacked his forces in columns—three regiments wide by four deep—and ordered his men to hold fire until they reached the enemy’s precipice. At 5:50 p.m. Upton charged across two hundred yards of open terrain, breaching the Confederate center and capturing 950 defenders.
Brigadier General Gershom Mott’s II Corps division was originally designated to support Upton’s assault; however, there was little communication between the two infantry commanders. Mott did not receive Grant’s order to delay the assault, so he stormed across six hundred yards of open field at 5 p.m. Little progress and high casualties forced Mott to abandon the operation shortly thereafter, depriving Upton of essential infantry support.
Ewell responded quickly to Upton’s breakthrough. Within thirty minutes, waves of reinforcements recaptured the earthworks. Overwhelmed Union soldiers retreated from Doles’ Salient, sustaining heavy casualties in the process. While the charge was ultimately unsuccessful, Grant immediately promoted Upton to brigadier general for his heroism and brilliance on the battlefield.
Upton’s temporary breakthrough encouraged Grant to repeat the attack on a much larger scale. On May 11, Grant shifted Hancock’s II Corps—more than twenty thousand soldiers—to concentrate opposite the Mule Shoe’s center in preparation for an all-out assault. The IX and VI Corps would assist Hancock by attacking the eastern and western salient faces, respectively, while Warren continued his efforts at Laurel Hill. If Union forces could pierce the Mule Shoe, they could divide the Confederate army, compelling Lee to retreat or face utter annihilation.
Lee was acutely aware of Federal movements, but failed to understand their intent. The Confederate commander erroneously assumed that, after several days of stalemate, Grant was abandoning his offensive campaign. Yearning for the opportunity to launch an offensive himself, Lee prepared to pursue the fleeing Federals. He notified Ewell to “withdraw the artillery from the salient…to have it available for a countermove to the right.” Twenty-two cannons were withdrawn from the Mule Shoe, the very point Grant was preparing to attack.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: MAY 12
”Every Confederate realized the desperate situation and every Union soldier know what was involved. For
a time, every soldier was a fiend. The attack was fierce – the resistance fanatical.”
– Corporal John Haley, 17th Maine
The twilight hours of May 11 – 12 were blighted by rain. The II Corps struggled to navigate the mucky darkness and file into formation for their pre-dawn assault. The ruckus and commotion alerted General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson, whose Confederate brigade held the tip of the Mule Shoe. Johnson ascertained that the Federals were preparing an attack and urged Ewell to recall his artillery. The orders went dispatched, but failed to reach the artillerists until 3:30 a.m., a mere hour before Hancock’s planned operation.
A thick mist loomed over the battlefield when Hancock’s men charged the Mule Shoe. As the Northerners navigated rows of abatis, Confederate riflemen were given the order to fire; however, the previous night’s rain had drenched their weapons and gunpowder, rendering them ineffectual. The Union army crashed through the Confederate works, scattering its futile defenders. General James A. Walker’s Stonewall Brigade and Colonel William Monaghan’s regiment offered stiff resistance against General David Birney’s division, but they, too, were forced to flee. Hancock’s assault was overwhelmingly effective, resulting in the capture of three thousand men—including Generals Edward “Allegheny” Johnson and George Steuart—one of the largest battlefield captures of the war.
Despite Hancock’s initial success at the Mule Shoe, no one knew how to capitalize on the breakthrough. The II Corps crowded into the narrow gap, bottlenecking the attack. Soon all cohesion was lost and the attack devolved into an armed mob. Lee struck back furiously with his reserve division commanded by Brigadier General John B. Gordon, who orchestrated a well-coordinated counterattack that dislodged Union troops from the Mule Shoe’s eastern leg.
At 6 a.m., the fifteen thousand men of Brigadier General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps launched their attacks against the western edge of the Mule Shoe, known as the “Bloody Angle.” Union and Confederate forces poured troops into the hornet’s nest, neither side yielding any ground for over twenty hours of continuous combat. Heavy rains returned at 8 a.m., turning the battlefield into a muddy mire of carnage. Bewildered combatants trampled over dead and dying alike, pressing their bodies into the suffocating muck. Ravines and trenches were filled with corpses, many mutilated beyond recognition. It was a scene of unparalleled devastation and calamity.
With his II and VI Corps furiously engaged, Grant ordered his V and IX Corps to launch their supporting attacks; however, neither made much progress. Burnside’s approach was stymied by General James H. Lane’s North Carolina Brigade and the V Corps sustained its fruitless struggles against Anderson. Warren informed Meade of his inability to advance after just thirty minutes of combat. Meade, known for his petulance, ordered Warren to attack “at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary.” Warren reluctantly obliged, but the pell-mell efforts continued. Union high command was upset with Warren’s pathetic performance. General Grant authorized Meade to relieve Warren from command, replacing him with Meade’s Chief of Staff Major General Andrew A. Humphreys. In diplomatic fashion, Humphreys declined to relieve Warren but orchestrated an orderly withdrawal from Laurel Hill to reinforce Wright’s corps at the Bloody Angle. No further attacks against Laurel Hill were carried out.
The abject failures by Warren and Burnside provided Lee much-needed flexibility to shift reinforcements and establish a new line of works behind his embattled center. At 4 a.m. on May 13, the Confederates withdrew to more strategic fortifications around the Harrison House—a half-mile behind their original line—ending the gruesome combat. A landscape of unspeakable horror bemired the Mule Shoe Salient. Seventeen thousand casualties piled up by the end of the day. The Army of the Potomac, exhausted from its attacks on the Angle, did not immediately test Lee’s new line.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: MAY 13 – 18
“It was such a picture of war, horrid war, as few people, even those who make a business of war, are
permitted to witness. It would take the pen of Victor Hugo to faithfully described such as scene of death
and carnage, such a hideous and appalling holocaust of human life.”
– Lieutenant Harvey B. Wells, 84th Pennsylvania Volunteers
The struggle for the Bloody Angle marked the apogee of fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, but sporadic skirmishes continued for another week. Grant planned to reorient his lines and shift the battle east of town; however, heavy rains squandered any hopes for a renewed attack. The roads around Spotsylvania Court House had turned into quagmires, making any large-scale maneuver nearly impossible. Grant informed Washington that he would resume operations once they experienced 24 hours of dry weather. The rain continued for five straight days.
When the weather cleared on May 17, Grant observed that Lee had concentrated the bulk of his army at the battlefield’s southern sector. The last thing Lee expected, Grant reasoned, was an attack from the north, across the presumably abandoned Mule Shoe. Federal command organized the II and VI Corps across from the Bloody Angle for another pre-dawn assault on May 18. Unbeknownst to Grant, the salient was still occupied by Ewell’s Seconds Corps, who had used the intervening time to improve their defenses. When Union infantrymen charged the works at 4 a.m., they were quickly repulsed by domineering artillery barrages. Eight hundred Union soldiers were captured in the reckless effort.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE: MAY 19 - 21
“The great battle is not yet over, there is only a lull – the first for twenty-five days, the sullen roar of
artillery even now reminds us that the last act of the bloody tragedy is yet to be enacted.”
– Captain Andrew J. McBride, 10th Georgia Infantry
Hancock’s resounding repulse compelled Grant to abandon efforts at the Mule Shoe. The Lieutenant General redirected the II Corps to maneuver south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, hoping to draw Lee out of his impregnable defenses. However, before Hancock mobilized his troops, Lee instructed his Second Corps to reconnoiter the northern Union flank. On the afternoon of May 19, Confederate columns under Generals Robert Rodes and John B. Gordon proceeded up Brock Road, where they encountered several units of General Robert Tyler’s Union infantry and artillery around Harris Farm. Both sides engaged in violent combat until 9 p.m. Concerned about risking another general engagement, Lee recalled Ewell from his mission. During the withdrawal, several Confederate regiments became lost and subsequently captured by Federal forces. The last major combat of Spotsylvania resulted in 1,500 Union and 900 Confederate casualties. Both armies withdrew to the North Anna River on May 21.
Thirteen days of cataclysmic suffering produced no decisive victor at Spotsylvania Court House. With almost 32,000 combined casualties, it was the costliest battle of the Overland Campaign. If considered one massive engagement, the fighting at Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House is the bloodiest battle in American history. Some 36,000 Union and 24,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured between May 5-21, a staggering 30% of those engaged. Many on the Northern home front labeled Grant a butcher for the tremendous loss of life. But the Union commander knew he could replace his losses—a critical ability Lee lacked—and the war of attrition continued closer to Richmond’s doorstep.
SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE BATTLEFIELD TOUR
The eight-stop Spotsylvania Auto Tour begins at the Battlefield Exhibit Shelter located across from Laurel Hill, where Warren’s V Corps perpetually faltered against Anderson’s entrenched Confederates. The Sedgwick Monument stands near the park entrance, marking the spot of the ill-fated general’s demise on May 9, 1864.
Stop Number Two features Upton’s Road, where Union Colonel Emory Upton orchestrated his unconventional attack against Doles’ Salient on May 10. A half-mile, out-and-back trail follows Upton’s original route to Confederate earthworks located along Anderson Drive. The third tour stop is the infamous Bloody Angle. Several trails traverse this hallowed ground, each featuring interpretive waysides and regimental markers that discuss the battlefield’s brutal combat. One pathway connects to Stop Six—the East Face of the Salient—which contains some of the best-preserved earthworks on the battlefield.
Stop Four marks the location of the Harrison House—the main Confederate headquarters behind the Mule Shoe Salient. The farmhouse also approximated Lee’s new line of breastworks following the fighting at Bloody Angle. Positioned a quarter-mile away is Stop Five, the McCoull House Site, which witnessed some of the Mule Shoe’s heaviest fighting. Nearly 1,500 Union soldiers were interred on the property immediately following the battle. The number of Confederate burials remains unknown.
Heth’s Salient highlights Stop Seven on the Auto Tour. Here, on the afternoon of May 12, General Jubal Early launched a punishing attack against General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps. The Federals lost over one thousand men in just thirty minutes of intense combat. The final battlefield tour stop is Fredericksburg Road. Generals Ewell and Hancock collided here on May 19 in some of Spotsylvania’s final fighting. The result was a failed rebel reconnaissance mission at the expense of nine hundred indispensable casualties.
The four battlefields that comprise Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park are collectively known as “the bloodiest landscape in America.” More than 105,000 casualties fell across this anguished terrain within eighteen months of incessant campaigning. The perennial scars of war—which devastated Virginia communities for decades—have become somber memorials to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice during this merciless conflict. The magnitude of death and destruction during the American Civil War can never be thoroughly articulated, but those who visit Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park will undoubtedly gain a deeper understanding of the struggles for freedom, circumstance, and American unity.
For more information on the Battle of the Wilderness, check out the National Park Service, American Battlefield Trust, History, Encyclopedia Virginia, Stone Sentinels, HistoryNet, Warfare History Network, and Thomas Legion
For more information about Spotsylvania Court House, visit the National Park Service, American Battlefield Trust, Encyclopedia Virginia, Essential Civil War Curriculum, Thomas Legion, ThoughtCo, and Stone Sentinels
Check out the following publications about the Wilderness:
Auwaerter, John E., Mealey, James. "Cultural Landscape Report for Wilderness Battlefield: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Spotsylvania and Orange Counties, Virginia." Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service, 2021.
Cullen, Joseph P. The Battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House, where a Hundred Thousand Fell. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1966.
Gallagher, Gary W. The Wilderness Campaign. University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Mackowski, Chris. Hell Itself: The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-7, 1864. Savas Beatie, 2016.
Petty, Adam. The Battle of the Wilderness in Myth and Memory: Reconsidering Virginia's Most Notorious Civil War Battlefield. LSU Press, 2019.
Reeves, John. A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Pegasus Books, 2021.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5--6, 1864. LSU Press, 2004.
Check out the following publications about Spotsylvania:
Gallagher, Gary W. The Spotsylvania Campaign. University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Mackowski, Chris, White, Kristopher D. A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8–21, 1864. Savas Beatie, 2013.
Matter, William D. If It Takes All Summer: The Battle of Spotsylvania. University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania. Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1995.
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7--12, 1864. LSU Press, 2005.
Townsend, Dave. Decisions at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House: The Eighteen Critical Decisions that Defined the Battles. University of Tennessee Press, 2020.