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Civil War

Spotsylvania Court House

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May 8 - 21, 1864

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

On May 7, Ulysses S. Grant issued orders for the Army of the Potomac to march toward Spotsylvania Court House, a small town along the route to Richmond. He hoped to get between Robert E. Lee's army and Richmond or, at the very least, to draw the Confederates into the open field where he could take advantage of superior Union numbers. It was Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart's job to prevent the Federals from reaching Spotsylvania. For two days, a division of Stuart's cavalry, led by Fitz Lee, had battled Union horsemen for control of the Brock Road, the most direct route between the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. Forced to relinquish his position near Todd's Tavern, Lee withdrew to a rise of ground known as Laurel Hill on May 8. Laurel Hill was the last defensible position this side of Spotsylvania. If the Confederates lost Laurel Hill, they would also lose Spotsylvania. 

Fortunately for Stuart and Fitz Lee, help was near at hand. General Richard Anderson, now in command of James Longstreet's First Corps, had marched for Spotsylvania during the night, and by the morning of May 8, his troops were within two miles of Laurel Hill. Anderson's corps had just gone into bivouac near the Po River when one of Stuart's couriers arrived warning him of the Union army's approach. The new corps commanders instantly put his troops back on the road and let them toward Laurel Hill. 

Believing Spotsylvania to be within his grasp, Union Maj. Gen. Gouveneur K. Warren advanced his Fifth Corps up Laurel where they were surprised to find Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson and the men of Longstreet's corps opposing them. Warren's attempts to drive the Confederates were rebuffed with heavy losses and the two sides began to entrench. During this time, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, commander of the Union Sixth Corps, was shot dead, becoming the highest ranking Union officer killed during the war. 

Grant tried to break the deadlock and Spotsylvania over the next two days. On May 9, Grant sent a portion of Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's Second Corps across the Po River in an effort to find Lee's left flank. Spying Hancock's move, Lee shifted two divisions to counter the Federals at Block House Bridge, forcing the Yankees back across the river. Grant spent the next day probing Lee's line for weaknesses and nearly found one when a young colonel named Emory Upton briefly breached the Confederate line with a tightly packed, fast-moving column of regiments. Though Upton's assault was indecisive, it gave Grant an idea. 

By May 12, the Confederates had established a long line of earthworks, which included a huge half-mile bulge in the Confederate line called the Muleshoe Salient. Basing his plan off of Upton's attack, Grant massed 20,000 men of the Second Corps opposite the tip of the Muleshoe. Lee noted the Federal movement, but mistakenly believing Grant that was preparing to withdraw, removed his artillery from the salient. Thus, when Hancock's men advanced on the morning of May 12, they broke through the Confederate line that was without artillery. After the initial breakthrough, however, Lee shifted reinforcements into the salient just as Grant hurled more troops at the Confederate works. Fighting devolved into a point-blank slugfest—amid a torrential downpour—which lasted for 22 hours and claimed roughly 17,000 lives. 

The stubborn stand by Confederate troops at the Bloody Angle gave Lee the time he needed to construct a new line of earthworks across the base of the Muleshoe Salient. The Army of the Potomac, exhausted from its attacks on the Angle, did not test the new line—at least, not right away. Instead, Grant slid his army to the left. When Union troops finally moved forward toward this position early on May 18, they were met by the massed artillery fire and easily repulsed. Stymied but undaunted, Grant called off the attack and resumed shifting his troops to the left. The campaign of maneuver would continue.