The Union army’s defeat near the Muleshoe Salient on May 18 convinced Grant that it would be useless to make further attacks against Lee’s entrenched lines at Spotsylvania. To beat Lee, he needed to lure him into the open. Grant planned to do so by sending Hancock’s corps 20 miles south to Milford Station to threaten Lee’s communications with Richmond. With Hancock in his rear, Lee would have no choice but to evacuate his trenches at Spotsylvania and hurry south. When he did, Grant would pounce.
In preparation for this movement, Grant drew Hancock’s and Wright’s corps from the Muleshoe back around to Massaponax Church Road. This puzzled Lee. Was Grant massing for another attack or was he planning to leave Spotsylvania altogether? To find out, Lee dispatched Ewell’s corps on a reconnaissance-in-force to locate the Army of the Potomac’s northern flank.
Ewell started off at 2 p.m. on May 19, crossing the Ni River near the Armstrong house before turning southeast toward the Harris Farm and the Alsop Farm, one-third mile north. Both farms lay along the Fredericksburg Road, modern Route 208, and Grant's supply line with the North.
Standing between Ewell and the road were five regiments of Union heavy artillery, led by General Robert Tyler. Grant had recently pulled the “Heavies,” as they were called, from the Washington defenses, armed them with rifles, and sent them to the Army of the Potomac to offset Meade’s losses at the Bloody Angle. Army of the Potomac veterans derisively referred to heavy artillerymen as “bandbox soldiers.” Although few in number and new to battle, each heavy artillery regiment was the size of a Confederate brigade. Moreover, they fought with spirit. They slugged it out with Ewell’s veterans here until nightfall, with eventual support from other brigades in the army. They paid for their bravery in blood. The 1st Massachusetts, which fought here, suffered 390 casualties. The 1st Maine, fighting at the Alsop Farm, lost even more—481. Union casualties, as a whole, totaled 1,500.
Unable to punch through the heavy artillery regiments and having achieved his objective of finding the Union army’s flank, Ewell fell back to the Muleshoe after dark. It was the last major combat at Spotsylvania. The next day, Hancock’s corps started for Milford Station. Lee followed. The next act in the campaign would be fought along the banks of the North Anna River.