In the past, the Army of the Potomac would have taken time to regroup and develop new plans after suffering a bloody tactical defeat as it had at the Wilderness. But this time Grant ordered the army of 100,000 men, commanded by George G. Meade but under Grant’s personal direction, to continue campaigning and maneuvering in the direction of Richmond. On May 7, he ordered Union cavalrymen to clear Confederate horsemen from ten miles of the Brock Road leading from the Wilderness south to Spotsylvania Court House. After dark, the infantry and artillery began a night march, expecting to cook breakfast at the courthouse on the morning of May 8.
Lee, with about 54,000 men, weighed Grant’s options and concluded that the Union general would likely either press south or withdraw east toward Fredericksburg, where he would find better transportation routes. Posting Confederate forces at Spotsylvania would let Lee cut off a southern thrust while still allowing the Confederates access to roads that could take them quickly east if Grant instead moved in that direction. In the race for Spotsylvania, however, the Confederates were at a disadvantage: Union troops controlled the roads while Lee’s men were actually forced to hack a route through the brambles and overgrown landscape. Luckily, Confederate general Richard H. Anderson, commanding James Longstreet‘s First Corps after Longstreet’s wounding at the Wilderness, had already moved toward Spotsylvania without orders, fleeing the previous battle’s choking fires.
Union general Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps advanced about four miles to Todd’s Tavern when, after midnight on May 8, Union commanders discovered that their cavalry had been unable to drive J. E. B. Stuart‘s men any farther, and had bivouacked for the night. If this was not bad enough from Meade’s perspective, the cavalrymen had had no new orders for the day from their new commander, Philip H. Sheridan. A furious Meade, whose temper led some to compare him to “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” ordered troopers back into their saddles to continue clearing the road in the predawn hours. When they faltered, he ordered his infantry forward, leading to a full-scale engagement.
Maps of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Meade, reminded of Sheridan’s failure and once again furious, exploded at the famously short New Yorker—”a brown, chunky little chap,” in the words of United States president Abraham Lincoln—who had previously fought in the West with Grant. About as intemperate and feisty as Meade, Sheridan exploded right back at his commander. He wished to take the fight to the Confederate cavalry and wanted to be released from the usual duties of the cavalry—reconnaissance and screening the march of the infantry. Sheridan boasted that he “could whip” Stuart “if he (Meade) would only let me.”
Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who was intrigued. “Well, he generally knows what he is talking about,” the general-in-chief observed. “Let him start right out and do it.” The exchange left Meade feeling humiliated, and noticeably strained his relations with Grant. Meanwhile, Grant’s decision to let Sheridan have his way and chase after Stuart ended up greatly harming the Army of the Potomac, which needed its cavalry to screen its movements and provide intelligence. Although Sheridan eventually whipped Stuart at Yellow Tavern, leaving Stuart mortally wounded, Grant was forced over the next several days to base his plans on imperfect information regarding Confederate positions and movements.
In the meantime, Confederate soldiers took up positions along hills and ridges with open fields to their front, constructing defensive earthworks into the night. The next day, May 9, Confederate officers realized that they had formed a salient, or U-shaped bulge, in their line that was nicknamed the “Mule Shoe” by the men because of its shape. Vulnerable to attack from three sides, such a position required more men to defend than a straight line. At first, Lee wanted to abandon the salient, but other officers convinced him that it could be held if properly supported by artillery. Although the Confederates retained the Mule Shoe as the main line, Lee ordered construction of new line across the base of the salient.
Numerous engagements were fought along the lines during the fourteen days the armies spent at Spotsylvania. One of the more consequential involved a young West Point–educated Union colonel named Emory Upton, who concluded that attacking well-constructed earth-and-log works required a new way of fighting. Rather than attack in long lines of infantry that halted in the open in order to exchange fire with a well-protected enemy behind earthworks, Upton argued for storming columns that never stopped to open fire, but advanced right up to the earthworks, engaging the enemy with the bayonet. He tested his new tactics as part of an all-out attack on the evening of May 10. They worked, but when supporting troops failed to arrive, Upton was forced to retreat. Grant was impressed, however, promoting Upton to brigadier general and deciding to duplicate the maneuver on a larger scale, with the support troops directly behind the assault column.
On the rainy night of May 11, Union troops went into position to attack the apex of the Mule Shoe. In addition to the shifting of troops, the Confederates observed Union wagons and ambulances going toward Fredericksburg. Lee concluded that the Union army was marching away from Spotsylvania and his impressive line of earthworks. He therefore determined to strike Grant’s men when they were on the move. Because the rain could turn dirt roads into mud and slow his planned pursuit of the Union troops, Lee decided to move his artillery out of the salient before the storm turned any worse. After the cannons had been extracted, the Confederates concluded that the Union troops had not continued on to Fredericksburg after all, but had stopped opposite the apex of the Mule Shoe. The Confederate artillery started back to the front lines.
At 4:30 a.m. on May 12, 15,000 men of the Union Second Corps under Winfield Scott Hancock advanced Upton-style with bayonets fixed across a fog-shrouded field on Edward Landrum’s farm, just as the Confederates were returning their cannons to their former positions. About twenty guns were captured—some without firing a shot. A few Confederate infantrymen tried to shoot, but damp powder from the mist prevented many guns from firing. In a short time, Hancock held a half mile of the Confederate trench line and took nearly 3,000 prisoners, including Generals Edward “Allegheny” Johnson (a Virginian) and George H. Steuart, along with the remnants of the famed Stonewall Brigade.
While the Union reserve troops advanced right behind the attack column, it soon degenerated into a mob that did its best to proceed down the Confederate line and deal with the prisoners. Smaller-but-better-organized Confederate units launched counterattacks, stalling the Union advance. While Lee rallied his men, he also observed his senior corps commander, the profane, one-legged veteran Richard S. Ewell, failing miserably in his attempts to do the same. “All [the men] that General Lee addressed at once halted and returned to the assistance of their comrades,” observed a staff officer, but “All that General Ewell so angrily reproached continued their flight to the rear.” Lee was forced to confront Ewell: “How can you expect to control these men when you have lost control of yourself?” Lee stayed dangerously close to the front lines until Georgian John B. Gordon and his men came up and convinced him to retire to the rear. (Similar to an incident at the Battle of the Wilderness, this is one of several “Lee to the rear” episodes recounted by veterans of the war.)
Realizing that he could not repulse the Union troops from the earthworks, Lee instead focused his efforts on completing the last line of earthworks at the base of the Mule Shoe and on retaking a hill where the earthworks made a slight bend. The latter place, where the fighting was horrific, became known, appropriately, as the Bloody Angle. A ravine directly in front of the poorly laid-out Confederate line offered protection for thousands of Union soldiers, from Hancock’s Second Corps and Horatio G. Wright’s Sixth Corps, who repeatedly surged out of the swale to grapple with the Confederates. (The Sixth Corps’s longtime commander, John Sedgwick, had been killed on May 9, making him the highest-ranking Union casualty of the war.) Union and Confederate forces battled from six o’clock on the morning of May 12 to three o’clock on the morning of May 13, much of it hand to hand.
The fighting at the Bloody Angle is regarded as being the most intense of the war. In places, the dead piled up in the Confederate trenches five deep. “No man thought at all,” a Mississippian remembered. “That function seemed to be suspended.” A Vermont general recalled that “many were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between the logs; men mounted the works, and with muskets rapidly handed them, kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their place and continue their deadly work.” A confused and impromptu truce was called at one point after rumors led small pockets of Union and Confederate troops to believe that the other had surrendered. In a few cases, men were captured or even killed. One soldier described the incident as “very absurd blundering … a number on each side fancying that the men on the other side wished to surrender. [It was] a sort of parley in which almost everybody talked, and hardly anybody listened. Men are unlike women, who can talk and listen at the same time.” As night fell, some Confederates were even injured when an oak tree, twenty-two inches in diameter, was cut down by musket fire.
Grant eventually broke off contact with the Confederates at Spotsylvania, sending a segment of his army east with the hope that Lee would chase after it. He continued to maneuver south, however, and next confronted Lee May 27–28 along the banks of the North Anna River. Spotsylvania, like the Wilderness, had been a tactical draw that Grant—even at the cost of 18,000 killed, wounded, and captured—turned into a strategic victory by refusing to retreat. Lee’s losses probably numbered more than 12,000 as he tried and failed to blunt Grant’s advance. After North Anna, the armies would battle at Cold Harbor, after which Grant was finally able to swing around Lee and all the way south to Petersburg. There he would dig in and lay siege for nine and a half months. Grant finally broke through in April and within a week Lee surrendered.