- James Houser
May 12, 1864 - The Battle of Spotsylvania
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 12, 1864. After their bruising fight at the Wilderness, the Union army of Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee square off at a country crossroads near Spotsylvania Court House. At a place called the Bloody Angle, possibly the bitterest fighting of the Civil War is about to take place. Welcome to the 2nd Quarter of Grant versus Lee – the Super Bowl of American military history.
On May 7, I discussed Grant and Lee’s first encounter at the Wilderness, a hellish fight whose last hours took place in a burning Virginia forest with enormous loss of life on both sides. If you need to refresh your memory, the link is here: (post link)
If you’re good without that, on with the show.
We left Grant and Lee, and their armies, watching each other over the bloody battlefield west of Fredericksburg, Virginia and trying to catch their breath. Grant had been trying to slip past Lee on his way to the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House, from where he could march to Richmond. Grant wasn’t trying to just take Richmond; he was trying to force Lee’s army out in the open where greater Union numbers and superior artillery could lead the Union to triumph. Lee was too quick to allow Grant that opportunity, leading to the fight in the dense Wilderness.
Neither army had really won the Battle of the Wilderness, but Grant decided to keep marching south, a move that earned him much respect from both his own troops and the Confederates. Lee famously intoned, “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before it reaches the James River. At that point, it will become a siege, and then it is only a question of time.” What Lee meant was that if Grant pinned Lee in front of Richmond, Lee could no longer use his famous flanking maneuvers and surprise attacks to drive off the blue-coated forces. He would be slowly squeezed to death by the superior Union resources.
On the evening of May 7, Grant began subtly shifting his troops south to move to Spotsylvania Court House. Seizing this crossroads would mean that he could bypass Lee and possibly force the open battle he wanted. He sent General Philip Sheridan with the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry ahead as an advance force to seize the crossroads, with the infantry to follow. General George Meade, the actual commander of the army (Grant commanded all the Union forces, but was staying with the Army of the Potomac to shield it from political interference) ordered Sheridan to be on the road early, but when the infantry came up their path was blocked by the cavalry, still in camp.
Meanwhile, Lee had replaced General James Longstreet, severely wounded at the Wilderness, with South Carolinian Richard Anderson. Anderson had not exactly been an all-star in Lee’s command team, and no one really knew what to expect of him. Anderson, though, led his men on a forced overnight march. By doing this, he outran even the Union cavalry (thanks to the mixup in orders on the Union side) and by morning on May 8 had occupied the critical crossroads at Spotsylvania and begun digging trenches.
When Meade’s infantry marched down the road to Spotsylvania, only to find Confederate infantry already in their way hidden in trenches and behind abatis (felled trees to block an enemy advance) Meade was furious with Sheridan. Due to the disorganization of the Union cavalry, they had lost the race to Spotsylvania. When Meade raged to Grant, he mentioned that Sheridan claimed he could whip JEB Stuart, Lee’s legendary cavalry general. Grant perked up. “He said that, did he? Well, he generally knows what he is about. Let him try and do it.”
As Sheridan’s cavalry split from the main army and set off in a raid towards Richmond, Lee detached Stuart’s Confederate cavalry to follow. In the meantime, the Union began a series of frontal assaults on Lee’s arriving army. Meade hoped that by breaking through, he could still gain the crossroads before the main Confederate force arrived, and May 8 and May 9 were spent assailing the rebel works. The Union attacks failed, though, and heralded a new stage in the war.
In most previous battles of the Civil War, the armies had met in traditional European style: long infantry lines and attack columns, firing volleys. Trenches were considered “defensively minded” by many amateur officers. Lee had always been a fan of digging in and preparing positions, though, and by 1864 it was common practice in the Army of Northern Virginia to start digging as soon as a position was established. Within 48 hours, any infantry in their trenches and earthworks were nearly invulnerable.
By May 10, Grant and Meade had agreed on trying to shift around Lee once again. As his earthworks grew to left and right to keep the Union from getting around him, one part of Lee’s defensive line protruded out into a three-sided salient surrounding some critical high ground. Due to its shape, the Confederate generals nicknamed it “The Mule Shoe.” A miniature fortress occupied by General Richard Ewell’s II Corps – once upon a time Stonewall Jackson’s command – it dominated the land on three sides. It was an excellent defensive position, and due to its height could not be effectively bombarded by artillery. It was, however, very exposed.
One Union Army Colonel, Emory Upton, decided he could crack the nut. On May 10, he assembled a picked force of about 5,000 men to launch an attack on the 15,000 men in the Mule Shoe. In sharp contrast to typical infantry tactics, the Union strike force would not march across to assault in line formation; instead, they would rush across the open ground, reaching the Confederate lines before the enemy could react.
Upton’s troops were highly motivated, and for good reason. Their beloved General John Sedgwick, commander of the VI Corps, had been killed by a Confederate sniper the previous day. Sedgwick’s ironic last words “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!” are some of the most famous in history, but expressed the general’s jovial attitude to his men. Even Grant, an old Mexican War comrade, was stunned by Sedgwick’s death. “Is he really dead?” he kept asking, in grief-stricken astonishment.
Upton’s plan was a great success. His troops penetrated into the Mule Shoe trenches with almost no casualties and took a great many prisoners, but the support he requested failed to come up and his men were forced to retreat, suffering heavy losses. Upton, slightly wounded, was promoted to General that same day by Grant at the age of 25. His infantry tactics were far ahead of their time, resembling something from the last years of World War I than anything widespread in the 1860s.
Grant’s other attacks on May 10, on Lee’s left and right, met with failure. After three days of near-constant fighting, the Confederate position at Spotsylvania was nowhere near cracking. Once again, the situation was much like World War I would turn out to be. Two armies in growing trench lines, battles that lasted days rather than hours, and of course mounting casualties. Grant decided to try something new. He would take Upton’s May 10 tactics and scale them up. He would launch a sledgehammer of an attack directly at the Mule Shoe.
May 11 was a quiet day, with sporadic skirmishing and cannon fire all along the line. Lee was deceived, and became concerned that Grant was trying to slip southwards toward Richmond again. In preparation for Grant’s anticipated movement, Lee made a near-fatal error: he withdrew some of the artillery from the Mule Shoe position so that he could move quickly once he figured out Grant’s plans. The irony, of course, was that Grant was planning to strike precisely where Lee’s cannons had just left.
Grant, for his part, was characteristically optimistic but grim. In a letter to Washington, he wrote “The result to this time is much in our favor. Our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy. ... I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." This was classic Grant, determination and sheer willpower. But it would take much longer than the summer.
May 12, 1864 was foggy, dark and cloudy. General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was supposed to attack at 4am, but due to the low visibility he delayed the attack. At 4:35, he gave the order, and the 20,000 men of the Union’s elite formation began to rumble forward through the thick mist. No cheers, no shouting, no weapons fired, just an enormous phalanx of blue-coated men heading like a pile-driver at the apex of the Confederate line.
The Confederates in the trenches were startled out of their bedsheets when a horde of wildlife – deer, rabbits, and all manner of creatures – came fleeing out of the woods and right through their camp. Excited by the prospect of food, the hungry rebels were shocked when Hancock’s bluecoats crashed into their line like the Kool-Aid man in those old commercials. Most of the Confederate division was overrun, including the vast majority of Stonewall Jackson’s old units. Two Confederate generals were captured, and the victory seemed accomplished.
Then the Union ran into trouble. As successful as the attack had been, the problems that armies would encounter in World War I reared their ugly head. The assault resulted in disorganization; despite officers’ attempts to press the men forward, no one knew what to do next, and the successful drive completely stalled out. General Lee was already personally rounding up reinforcements; with the Mule Shoe’s commander, General Ewell, shocked into apathy, Lee took personal command of the battle.
The Mule Shoe turned into a nightmare, remembered forever after as the “Bloody Angle.” Grant ordered attacks all along the Confederate lines, and soon the whole field at Spotsylvania was in a catastrophic uproar. It was, by my reckoning, the most terrible battlefield of the Civil War. The intensity was numbing and thick; men fought hand-to-hand in the Confederate trenches as sheets of rain poured in periodically. Brigade after brigade was shattered on the moonlike landscape. The vegetation was torn from its roots by the fire, and one 22-inch thick oak tree was completely severed by rifle fire alone. The whistling of shells and shot, the howling of the wounded, and the constant boom of cannon turned the Bloody Angle into hell’s half acre. It was Verdun in Virginia.
Once again, Lee tried to lead Confederate forces personally into the battle, only to be personally stopped by chants from his men and the insistence of Georgia General John Gordon. Lee’s engineers (with the unwilling assistance of black slaves, of course) managed to build a second defensive line that his troops could retreat to. Lee began to pull back his forces even as the fighting raged. The struggle did not die down until 4am the next day, May 13. It had been 24 hours of absolute chaos.
The Battle of Spotsylvania, though it was not over, had reached its apex. For 24 hours, the combat had seen an intensity of firepower and a ferocity of killing that surpassed any battle to this point or until the First World War. The entire landscape was flattened, with the Bloody Angle strewn with corpses piled four or five high. The participants described the fighting as beyond words in the “confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces…the grisly horror.”
On the same day as the Bloody Angle, General Sheridan had made good his promise to "whip" JEB Stuart. At the Battle of Yellow Tavern near Hanover Court House, Sheridan's cavalry got the better of Stuart's, but Stuart himself was killed in the process. Lee had lost, after Jackson's death and Longstreet's wounding, another irreplaceable lieutenant.
Until May 21, Lee and Grant faced each other over the old field of Spotsylvania, hammering here and there, with bloody encounters every few days, but nothing resembling the Mule Shoe again. On May 21, Grant’s armies picked up and quietly moved south. Lee followed, and the bloody dance began once again.
The 14-day grapple of Spotsylvania cost the Union 18,000 casualties and the Confederates 12,000. Combined with the bloodletting at the Wilderness, Grant had lost 36,000 men and Lee 23,000 in less than three weeks. When two masters of war face each other in deadly combat, the result is usually very poor for the men who follow them. But follow them they did…and continued to follow. The Overland Campaign was not over.
One of Ulysses S. Grant’s most famous quotes is: “The art of war is simple enough. Find out where your enemy is. Get at him as soon as you can. Strike him as hard as you can, as often as you can, and keep moving on.” Robert E. Lee had withstood the strikes so far – but he couldn’t stand them forever. Grant, for his part, kept moving on.
Appomattox was still ten months away, and Grant and Lee had many more rounds to go.