Spotsylvania Court House, VA
 
 

SPOTTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE, VA
MAY 8TH-18TH, 1864

Spottsylvania Court House, Va., May 8-18, 1864. Army of
the Potomac. At 3 p.m. on May 7, while the Army of the
Potomac was still on the battle-field of the Wilderness, a
messenger arrived at Grant's headquarters with the information
that Gen. Butler, with the Army of the James, had landed at
City Point, completely surprising the Confederates there, and
was ready to advance on Richmond. Lee had retired behind his
works, leaving open the road to Richmond round his right
flank, and as soon as the intelligence of Butler's successful
beginning was received Grant issued orders for a night march
of the whole army toward Spottsylvania Court House. (For the
organization of the Army of the Potomac at this time see
Wilderness.) From the Wilderness a road ran east to
Chancellorsville, where it was intersected by another that ran
southeast to Piney Branch Church. The Brock road ran in a
southeasterly direction to Spottsylvania and about 3 miles
south of it, and nearly parallel to it, ran the Shady Grove
road. The former was in possession of the Federals as far as
Todd's tavern and the latter was in the hands of the enemy.
Beyond Todd's tavern the Brock road was held by the
Confederate cavalry under Stuart. From the tavern the
Catharpin road ran southwest and intersected the southern road
at Shady Grove Church. Gen. Warren, commanding the 5th corps
was to move by the Brock road and was to be followed by Gen.
Hancock with the 2nd corps, while the 6th and 9th corps,
respectively commanded by Gen. Sedgwick and Gen. Burnside,
were directed to move by way of Chancellorsville and Piney
Branch Church. Gen. Sheridan, commanding the cavalry, was
ordered to "have a sufficient force on the approaches from the
right to keep the corps commanders advised in time of the
approach of the enemy." The trains and reserve artillery were
moved to Chancellorsville in the afternoon from which point
they were to follow the army. Nearly parallel to the course
of the army ran the Po river on the south. The Catharpin road
crossed this river at Corbin's bridge, the Shady Grove road at
what was known as the Block House bridge, and the road running
from Spottsylvania to Richmond crossed it at Snell's bridge
about 2 miles south of the Court House. Some controversy and
criticism have been indulged in as to why these bridges were
not taken possession of by the Federal forces. Badeau, in his
Military History of Grant, says: "These bridges were of first
importance for they commanded Lee's only approaches to
Spottsylvania, and Sheridan, who had been ordered to keep a
good look-out toward the enemy disposed his force so as to
secure all three positions. * * * Had these orders
(Sheridan's) been carried out, every avenue to Spottsylvania
would have been closed to the rebel army." Sheridan's corps
consisted of the three divisions commanded by Gregg, Merritt
and Wilson. His instructions to Gregg, issued at 1 a.m on the
8th, show the disposition of his forces with regard to the
bridges. They were as follows: "Move with your command at 5
a.m., on the Catharpin road crossing at Corbin's bridge, and
taking position at Shady Grove Church. Gen. Merritt will
follow you, and at Shady Grove Church will take the left hand,
or Block House road, moving forward and taking up position at
that point (viz., Block House). Immediately after he has
passed, you will move forward with your division, on the same
road to the crossing of the Po river, where you will take up
position supporting Gen. Merritt. Gen. Wilson with his
division will march from Alsop's by way of Spottsylvania Court
House and the Gate to Snell's bridge, where he will take up
position."

Before the hour fixed for the cavalry to move, Corbin's
bridge and the Block House bridge were both in the hands of
the enemy. Snell's bridge was not used by the Confederates,
nor was any attempt made to use it, because it was too far out
of the way. When Lee learned, on the afternoon of the 7th, of
the movement of the Federal trains, his first impression was
that Grant was falling back to Fredericksburg and determined
to interpose a force between him and Richmond. He therefore
ordered Longstreets corps, now commanded by Gen. R. H.
Anderson, Longstreet having been wounded in the battle of the
Wilderness, to move to Spottsylvania that night, to be
followed by Ewell's corps at daylight the next morning.
Anderson moved at 11 p.m. and at daylight his advance had
reached the Block House bridge. Had Gregg and Merritt
undertaken to carry out Sheridan's order, they would have
encountered this entire corps as it was marching along the
Shady Grove road. In fact they would have met the enemy
before reaching that road, as Hampton was on the Catharpin
road between Corbin's bridge and Todd's tavern, Wilson did
move forward to Spottsylvania, where he found Wickham's
brigade of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, which he drove from the
town and held the place for two hours, when he was recalled by
Sheridan just as Wofford's and Bryan's brigades of Anderson's
command were moving to attack him: It was not the failure to
carry out Sheridan's order regarding the bridges, but the
presence of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry on the Brock road, that
prevented the Federals from gaining possession of
Spottsylvania Court House. Warren moved at 8:30 p.m. and was
expected to reach the Court House by daylight on the 8th. At
Todd's tavern he was delayed for more than an hour by the
headquarters escort and 2 miles farther on he encountered the
enemy's cavalry. Merritt was directed to move forward and
clear the road for the infantry. The Confederates were forced
back slowly, leaving the road obstructed by fallen trees, so
that Warren's progress was necessarily slow. At 6 o'clock in
the morning Merritt was relieved by Robinson's division, which
succeeded after a sharp contest in driving the enemy from the
road, but at this hour Warren's advance was still several
miles from the Court House.

At 8:30 a.m. Robinson came out of the woods into the open
fields. Of the Alsop farm, about half way between Todd's
tavern and Spottsylvania. Here the Brock road forked, the two
branches coming together again about a mile farther on.
Robinson took the left hand road, Denison's brigade on the
right, Lyle's on the left and Coulter's (formerly Baxter's) on
the left rear. Griffin's division moved on the right fork
with Bartlett's brigade in line of battle in advance, the
brigades of Ayres and Sweitzer following the road. Robinson
reached the junction of the roads before Griffin, formed his
command in column of regiments and threw out a strong skirmish
line in front. Near the intersection of the Brock road and
the old Court House road the former entered a piece of timber.
When Robinson's advance was about 300 yards from this timber
the enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery and musketry upon
the front and right from a line of intrenchments just inside
the wood. Robinson was seriously wounded at the first fire
and, the national troops were forced back, closely pressed by
the enemy, who tried to turn Lyle's left, but was prevented
from doing so by the prompt action of Denison, who placed his
brigade in the edge of the wood where he checked the further
advance of the Confederates and finally compelled them to
retire to their works. Soon after Robinson's division became
engaged, Bartlett's line of battle came under the enemy's fire
when about half-way across the open fields of the Alsop farm.
At first Bartlett's men gave way, but fortunately just at that
time Ayres' brigade occupied a sunken part of the road and
under cover of this position the line was reformed. Griffin
then advanced his whole division, Crawford came up with his
division and drove the enemy from the woods on Griffin's left.
The Confederate force with which Robinson and Griffin had been
engaged up to this time was Henagan's and Humphreys' brigades
of Kershaw's division, which had formed Anderson's advance on
the Shady Grove road. When Kershaw reached the Block House
bridge about daylight he heard the sound of the firing over on
the Brock road where Fitzhugh Lee was engaged with Merritt
and Robinson. Turning sharply to the left with the two
brigades he reached the woods just as Lee was falling back,
threw up temporary breastworks and awaited the Federal
advance. He was followed a little later by Field's division,
which came up on Griffin's right about the time that Crawford
was driving the enemy from the woods. Cutler's division, the
last of Warren's corps to arrive, came up in time to prevent
Field from turning Griffin's flank and drove him from the
woods after which the entire corps was pushed forward as far
as possible and intrenched, the 6th corps coming up and
intrenching on Warren's left.

Hancock, who was expected to move with the 2nd corps at
10 p.m on the 7th, was so delayed by other troops blocking the
road that he did not begin his march until daylight the next
morning. At 9 a.m. the head of his column arrived at Todd's
tavern, where Gregg's cavalry was found skirmishing with that
of the enemy. Hancock threw forward a skirmish line to
relieve Gregg and then posted his division with Mott covering
the Brock road to the right, Barlow on Mott's left, Gibbon
covering the Catharpin road and Birney in reserve. About 11
a.m Miles' brigade of Barlow's division, one brigade of
Gregg's and a battery was sent on a reconnaissance toward
Corbin's bridge. When about half a mile from the bridge this
force was opened upon by the Confederate batteries on the
hills south of the river. Miles ordered his artillery to
reply and formed his infantry in line of battle along a ridge
in the wood, which position he held until about 5 p.m., when
he was ordered to return to the tavern. On the way back he
was attacked by Mahone's brigade of Hill's corps, which was
then on the way to Spottsylvania. Miles repulsed two spirited
attacks, holding his ground until after dark, when he rejoined
the division. Gibbon's division was sent to the support of
Warren and Sedgwick in the afternoon, but the remainder of the
2nd corps did not move toward Spottsylvania until about noon
on the 9th. Then Birney and Barlow moved down the road about
a mile, where they took a road leading to the right and joined
Gibbon's division on the high ground overlooking the Po, the
three divisions going into line of battle facing the river.
Mott's division was moved from Todd's tavern to the left of
the 6th corps at Alsop's. During the day Burnside moved with
the 9th corps from his position near Chancellorsville down the
Fredericksburg pike toward Spottsylvania. On the march
Willcox's division encountered and repulsed a small force at
the bridge over the Ny river, after which the command,
Christ's brigade in advance, pushed on and went into position
about a mile east of the Court House, where several assaults
were repulsed during the afternoon, and where the division
finally intrenched. The presence of the enemy on the
Fredericksburg road led Burnside to report to Grant that Lee
was moving toward Fredericksburg and Hancock was directed to
force a passage of the Po for the purpose of making a
reconnaissance on Lee's left. Although the stream was
difficult to ford and the opposite bank was held by the enemy,
each of his three divisions succeeded in crossing and occupied
the Shady Grove road from Waite's shop, at the cross-roads
between the Po and Glady run, toward the Block House bridge,
which Hancock endeavored to seize, but darkness came on before
the movement could be executed. That night Hancock threw over
three pontoon bridges for the passage of his artillery early
the next morning.

Lee became alarmed by Hancock's presence on his left and
on the evening of the 9th sent Mahone's division to hold the
Shady Grove road. Later Mahone was reinforced by Heth's
division. As soon as it was light enough to see on the
morning of the 1Oth, Hancock made a reconnaissance toward the
Block House bridge with the intention of forcing a passage
across it, but found the enemy strongly intrenched on the east
bank. Concerning his movements in trying to gain possession
of the bridge he says in his report: "After a careful survey
had been made, I concluded not to attempt to carry the bridge,
but sent Brooke's brigade, of Barlow's division down the river
to ascertain what could be effected there. Gen. Birney was
directed to send three or four regiments out on the Andrews'
tavern road to cover Brooke's movement. Col. Brooke succeeded
in crossing the river about half way between the bridge and
the mouth of Glady run. * * * About this time I was informed
by the major-general commanding, that an assault was to be
made on the enemy's works on Laurel Hill, in front of Gen.
Warren's position near Alsop's house. I was directed to move
two of my divisions to the left to participate in it, and to
assume command of the forces to be engaged in the attack."
Pursuant to this order Gibbon was at once sent to the north
bank of the Po and formed his command on Warren's right.
Birney followed, leaving Barlow to hold the ground on the
south side of the river. As soon as the enemy discovered that
the Federals were recrossing the Po, he advanced in force
against Barlow, who was instructed to fall back across the
pontoons. The brigades of Brooke and Brown took up a position
along a wooded crest about 100 yards in the rear of the works
Barlow had constructed, while Miles and Smyth were ordered to
fall back with their brigades to the bank of the river.
Mistaking the movement of Miles and Smyth for a forced
retreat, the Confederates advanced in line of battle supported
by heavy columns and attacked Brooke and Brown, but the
assault was repulsed. A second attack was made soon after and
the combat became close and bloody, but again the enemy was
forced back. In the meantime the woods on the right and rear
of the Union line had caught fire and the flames now came so
near that it was impossible for Brooke and Brown longer to
maintain their position. Taking advantage of the lull that
followed the second repulse of the enemy the two brigades were
withdrawn. This affair is known as the battle of Waite's
Shop. Miles' brigade was the last to cross and as he was near
the river Heth attempted to cross the open ground toward the
pontoons, but was driven back by the fire of Miles men and the
batteries on the north bank.

All through the forenoon of the 1Oth there were sharp
skirmishing and artillery firing preparatory to the general
attack which had been ordered for the afternoon. Gen.
Sedgwick had been killed on the 9th and the 6th corps was now
under command of Brig.-Gen. H. G. Wright. At 3:45 p.m. he was
ordered to attack the works in his front with his whole
command and Mott's division of the 2nd corps. Warren was also
ordered to assault the works near the Alsop house with the
divisions of Crawford and Cutler and the brigades of Webb and
Carroll of Gibbon's division. Carroll charged through a belt
of burning woods, the right of his line gaining the enemy's
works and the whole brigade pressing up to the abatis, only to
be forced back by "such a concentrated and murderous fire from
two lines as to make the position untenable." Warren was also
repulsed with heavy loss, Gen. Rice commanding one of Cutler's
brigades being among the killed. Col. Emory Upton, with
twelve regiments of the 6th corps, gained the parapet and
engaged in some desperate hand-to-hand fighting, capturing
several pieces of artillery and about 1,000 prisoners. His
assault was to have been supported by Mott's division, but
when Mott reached the open field he was met by an enfilading
fire from the enemy's batteries, which threw his line into
confusion and forced him to retire. The advantage gained by
Upton was therefore of little moment, for the Confederates
fairly swarmed against him, compelling him to abandon the
captured cannon and fall back, though he succeeded in bringing
in the most of his prisoners. Altogether the attack was a
failure.

Lee's line extended from the Block House bridge northeast
across the Brock road to the watershed between the Po and Ny
rivers, nearly north of the Court House, where it turned
sharply to the south, the right being near Snell's bridge.
From his right center the works were thrown forward in a
horseshoe salient around the crest of a spur between two small
tributaries of the Ny river. Ewell's corps occupied the
salient, Anderson's extended the line to the right and Hill's
to the left. Directly. north of the salient, and about three-
fourths of a mile distant, was the Brown house, while inside
the enemy's works on the spur within the angle stood the
McCool house. Very little fighting was done on the 11th, the
day being spent in preparations for an assault on the salient
at daylight the next morning. Mott made an attempt to drive
in the enemy's skirmishers in order to develop the weak place
in the Confederate works, but the effort was only partially
successful. Wright was instructed to extend his left and
concentrate on that wing. Hancock moved his entire corps
after dark to the vicinity of the Brown house, and was to lead
the assault. Warren was to hold the position vacated by the
2nd corps, and when Hancock began his attack Warren on the
right and Burnside on the left were to engage the enemy in
their fronts to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the
salient. Hancock was to advance on a line drawn from the
Brown House to the McCool house. The night of the 11th was
dark and stormy, but the troops of the 2nd corps took their
positions quietly and promptly, fully aware of the desperate
character of the work awaiting them. Barlow's division in two
massed lines was placed on the cleared ground which extended
up to the enemy's line; Birney's was formed in two deployed
lines on Barlow's right; Mott's division was in the rear of
Birney, and Gibbon's was in reserve. The assault was to have
been made at 4 o'clock but owing to a dense fog it was 35
minutes later before Hancock gave the order to advance. With
even pace the troops moved forward in column and when about
half way up the slope broke into a cheer, dashed forward on
the double-quick through the abatis and over the works.
Hancock describes the action here as follows: "Barlow's and
Birney's divisions entered almost at the same moment, striking
the enemy's line at a sharp salient immediately in front of
the Landrum house. A fierce and bloody fight ensued in the
works with bayonets and clubbed muskets. It was short,
however, and resulted in the capture of nearly 4,000 prisoners
of Johnson's division, of Ewell's corps, 20 pieces of
artillery, with horses, caissons and material complete,
several thousand stand of small arms, and upward of 30 colors.
Among the prisoners were Maj.-Gen. Edward Johnson and Brig.-
Gen. George H. Steuart, of the Confederate service. The enemy
fled in great disorder."

So far the assault had been a success. Elated by their
victory, the Union troops pursued the flying Confederates
toward Spottsylvania until they encountered a second line, the
presence of which was unknown to Hancock or any of his
officers. This line was held by Gordon, who checked the rush
of the Federals and gave Lee an opportunity to push
reinforcements into the angle. Lee was further aided at this
critical moment by the necessity of reforming the Union lines,
as in the impetuous charge and pursuit practically all
semblance of a regular formation had been lost. The divisions
of Mahone and Wilcox came up from the right and advanced
against the 2nd corps before the disorder of its success could
be overcome, driving Hancock's men back to the first line of
works, where they were reinforced by Wright, with Russell's
and Wheaton's divisions of the 6th corps( which came up on the
right and vigorously assaulted the west angle of the salient.
Again there was some stubborn hand-to-hand fighting in which
Wright was wounded, though he remained with his men, cheering
them on, and through the heroic efforts of Upton's brigade the
line was held against the repeated and determined attempts of
the Confederates to regain it. Hancock ordered his artillery
to the high ground near the Landrum house and throughout the
day charges of canister were fired over the heads of the Union
troops into the enemy's line of battle. On Hancock's left
Burnside assaulted the Confederate works at 4:30 a.m. and in
half an hour had carried two lines of rifle-pits. Stevenson's
and Potter's divisions then moved against the main line of
works, a portion of which was carried by Potter, who captured
a number of prisoners and a battery of 2 guns, but was unable
to hold his advantage and was finally forced to retire with
heavy loss. Several subsequent attacks were made by the two
divisions, and also by Willcox's on the extreme left, but none
succeeded in driving the enemy from his position. The
persistent hammering of Burnside, however, prevented the enemy
from withdrawing troops in his front to hurl against Hancock
and Wright. About 9 o'clock Warren was directed to attack the
enemy on his front, but upon attempting to advance his line
was subjected to a heavy enfilading fire and he was forced
back. Cutler's division was then sent to Wright and later the
whole corps was withdrawn from its position and thrown to the
left, where it became engaged against the west angle, but
failed to carry the works. The firing was so heavy and
constant that several oak trees inside the salient, some of
them nearly 2 feet in diameter, were literally gnawed off by
the bullets. Late in the day Lee gave up the idea of trying
to recapture the outer line of works and retired to Gordon's
line, half a mile to the rear, where he strengthened his
position during the night. The losses on both sides were so
heavy during the action that the salient has passed into
history as the "Bloody Angle."

The attack on the 12th was the last of the hard fighting
about Spottsylvania. Hancock was ordered to hold his corps in
readiness to renew the assault at 4 o'clock the next morning,
but owing to a dark and rainy night the other commands were
not in position at the appointed hour to support him and the
attack was abandoned. Artillery firing was kept up from the
13th to the 18th, chiefly to cover the movement of the army to
a position covering the Fredericksburg road on Lee's right,
and there was a slight skirmish near Piney Branch Church on
the 15th. In his report Grant says: "Deeming it impracticable
to make any further attack upon the enemy at Spottsylvania
Court House, orders were issued on the 18th with a view to a
movement to the North Anna, to commence at 12 o'clock on the
night of the 19th." This movement was interfered with by
Ewell coming out of his works late on the afternoon of the
19th and attacking the Federal right near the Harris farm on
the Fredericksburg road north of the Ny river. The attack was
promptly repulsed, but it delayed the movement to the North
Anna until the night of the 21st.

The Union loss at Spottsylvania, during the ten days
fighting, was 2,725 killed, 13,416 wounded and 2,258 missing.
The Confederate losses were not officially reported and
various estimates have been made, some of which place the
total in killed, wounded and missing as high as 15,000. Maj.
Jed Hotchkiss, who was topographer for Lee's army and author
of the Virginia volume of the Confederate Military History,
places the total loss at 8,000 and significantly adds: "but
these were 18 per cent of the army."

Source: The Union Army, vol. 6

Source Information:

Historical Data Systems, comp. American Civil War Battle Summaries [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: MyFamily.com, Inc., 1999. Original data: Data compiled by Historical Data Systems of Kingston, MA from the following list of works.

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