In the spring of 1864, the newly installed Union commander Ulysses S. Grant did something none of his predecessors had done before: He threw his army against the wily, audacious Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia over and over again.
At Spotsylvania Court House, the two armies shifted from stalemate in the Wilderness to slugfest in the mud. Most commonly known for the horrific twenty-two-hour hand-to-hand combat in the pouring rain at the Bloody Angle, the battle of Spotsylvania Court House actually stretched from May 8 to 21, 1864—fourteen long days of battle and maneuver. Grant, the irresistible force, hammering with his overwhelming numbers and unprecedented power, versus Lee, the immovable object, hunkered down behind the most formidable defensive works yet seen on the continent. Spotsylvania Court House represents a chess match of immeasurable stakes between two master opponents. This clash is detailed in A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May –21, 1864.
A Season of Slaughter is part of the new Emerging Civil War Series offering compelling, easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important stories. The masterful storytelling is richly enhanced with hundreds of photos, illustrations, and maps.
“[A] wonderful book for anyone interested in learning about the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House or who would like to tour the area. It is well written, easy to read, and well worth the price.” —Civil War News
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"It has been nothing but one scene of horror and blood shed since we crossed the Rapidan," wrote Pvt. Ransom F. Sargent in a letter. It was May 19, 1864 — the first day in nearly three weeks that the musician from the 11th New Hampshire had the chance to sit down and write a letter. Sargent and his regiment — like the rest of the Army of the Potomac — had been relentlessly marching, fighting, and maneuvering through oppressive heat, pouring rain, pitch- black night, impenetrable wilderness, and apocalyptic forest fires — all in hostile territory.
The movement started on May 3, 1864, when Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commanding all Union armies, ordered the Army of the Potomac to march south from its winter quarters around Culpepper and Brandy Station Virginia. The army's mission: "to hammer continuously against the armed force of the enemy and his resources, until by mere attrition, if in no other way, there should be nothing left to him." This represented a significant shift in strategy. Previous Union efforts had been aimed at the Confederate capital, not the Confederate armies: "On to Richmond!" Northerners cried.
Grant had other ideas. "Lee's army will be your objective," he told Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac. "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also." Grant knew that if the vaunted defenders of Richmond were vanquished, nothing would stop the Union juggernaut from then just marching through the capital's front door.
Grant intended Meade's army to move in concert with several other Union armies: Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler'sArmy of the James was to move up the Virginia Peninsula and threaten Richmond from the southeast while Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel moved southward up the Shenandoah Valley, securing the breadbasket of the Confederacy; Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's army group, consisting of the Armies of the Tennessee, Ohio, and Cumberland, were to push into Georgia toward Atlanta; and Maj. Gen. Nathaniel P. Banks' Army of the Gulf was to push from New Orleans toward Mobile, Alabama. The coordinated effort would prevent Confederates from using their interior lines to shift reinforcements from one theater of battle to another, "preventing him from using the same force at different sections against first one and then another of our armies," Grant wrote.
Under this strategy, Grant intended to apply pressure on all points of the Confederacy while letting each army commander call his own shots, even as he kept a big-picture eye on everything. However, he felt the Army of the Potomac deserved special attention because of its high-profile position so close to the capital and the population and media centers of the east — not to mention the difficulties that army traditionally had with its Confederate counterpart, the Army of Northern Virginia. As a result, Grant chose to make his headquarters in the field with Meade's army, although he still intended to let Meade execute the actual day-to-day operation of the army. Grant would also shield Meade from the politics of Washington.
Meade, so irascible that his men called him a "godammed google[eyed snapping turtle," had actually expected Grant to sack him in favor of a hand-picked successor, and so Meade had even offered Grant his resignation. The gesture so impressed Grant that he kept Meade in command of the army.
"[Grant] is so much more active than his predecessor, and agrees so well with me in his views, I cannot but be rejoiced at his arrival, because I believe my success to be the more probable," Meade wrote in a letter to his wife. "My duty is plain, to continue quietly to discharge my duties, heartily co-operating with him and under him."
Under Grant's orders, Meade moved the Army of the Potomac southward on May 3 with an eye toward the open country around Spotsylvania Court House. There, the army would have several possible avenues of approach toward Richmond. Although the Confederate capital was not the army's true objective, the Federal commanders reasoned that, by threatening the city, they could draw the Army of Northern Virginia out into the open for a decisive battle. With just over 123,000 men, the Federal army would hold a significant numerical advantage in any such contest.
First, the Federal army had to move through an area known as the Wilderness — 70 square miles of nearly impenetrable second-growth forest. "[A] most appropriate term," said Theodore Lyman, a member of Meade's staff, "a land of an exhausted, sandy soil, supporting more or less dense growth of pine or of oak. There are some cleared spaces, especially near the Germanna plank ... The very worst of it is parallel with the Orange Plank and upper part of the Brock Road."
"This Wilderness is a generally level barren, covered with a matted growth of scrub oak, stunted pine, sweet gum brush and dogwood," recounted Col. S. D. Thurston of the 3rd North Carolina. "The surface of the earth is indented occasionally with low basins, through which the rainfall, washing from the higher margins, cuts long gullies and often deep and wide washouts."
It was here in the Wilderness, on the morning of May 5, where things started to go wrong for Ulysses S. Grant.
"Lee's army will be your objective. Wherever leegoes, there you will go also."
* * *
After an autumn of cat-and-mouse with the Army of the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia had settled into winter camps along a defensive line that paralleled the Rapidan River, from an area along the edge of the Wilderness westward toward Orange Court House. The army's First Corps, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, had been away on detached service in Tennessee for much of that time but returned in April, bringing Confederate strength up to 66,000 men fit for duty. Although Lee didn't know the exact strength of his Federal counterparts, he knew they outnumbered him significantly.
Ever audacious, Lee looked for a way to even the odds through mobility and surprise. When he got word about the Federal movement, he first assumed the Army of the Potomac would turn westward and strike him directly — but as soon as he realized the Federals were marching southeast, he decided to take the fight to them. Striking out along parallel roads, Lee launched the Army of Northern Virginia into the exposed flank of the Federal column as it tried to march through the Wilderness.
Initially, Grant planned to move through the area in a single day, but much to his chagrin, the Army of the Potomac plodded along at a far slower pace than anticipated. During his time in the Western Theater, Grant had commanded fast-marching, hard-scrabble armies that adapted on the fly and responded quickly to his orders. The much larger Army of the Potomac, however, proved to be a far more ungainly creature. As May 4 wore on, it became apparent that the army would not clear the Wilderness. Meade ordered the army to camp for the night and resume the march toward Spotsylvania in the morning.
But when morning arrived, so did Lee's army, and the sight of Confederates proved too tempting for Grant to resist. "If any opportunity presents itself of pitching into a part of Lee's Army," Grant said, "do so without giving time for disposition." Fifth Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren — leading the corps into battle for the first time, and therefore eager to prove himself a capable fighter — deployed his men for attack. The resulting engagement in Saunders field opened a two-day slugfest that proved to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
The Wilderness worked against Federals because Meade couldn't bring the full weight of his army online. The Wilderness offered no room for maneuver, thereby countering any advantage his numbers might otherwise have given him. Similarly, cavalry had very little room to maneuver, and artillery had few places to deploy.
As shrewdly as Lee used the terrain to equalize the odds, he failed to gain a fuller advantage because he could only feed his army into the fight piecemeal. Poor communication among his subordinates led to poor coordination, which in turn led to several Federal breakthroughs — averted each time by Confederate audacity and luck. That luck finally ran out on May 6 when Longstreet, appearing on the scene at quite literally the nick of time, was accidentally shot by his own men while executing a surprise flank attack. Longstreet's wounding, while not fatal, would knock him out of the campaign — an incident that would have serious implications for Lee in the days to follow.
The see-saw fighting on May 6 ground into a stalemate that Grant knew he could not break. On the morning of May 7, he cut orders to begin a withdrawal from the Wilderness. Once more, thought the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, they had run into Bobby Lee and come up short, and once more, their new commander was going to pack it in and turn tail.
That all changed on the evening of May 7. With the Wilderness burning around them, Grant and Meade and their staffs rode down to the scene of the battle's worst fighting, the intersection of the Brock Road and Plank Road. It was the most important crossroad of Grant's life. He could direct the army eastward along the Plank Road, out of the Wilderness and back toward the safety of the Rappahannock River or Fredericksburg. Every other defeated Union commander had executed a similar retreat following a drubbing from Lee, and everyone expected Grant to do the same.
Instead, Grant ordered the army southeast along the Brock Road toward the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House.
The morale of the men soared as they realized the army was moving toward the enemy, not away from it as the army had done so many times before. "[The army] has obtained a grip upon the throat of the Confederacy," one officer said, "a grip that will not be relaxed until treason gasps and dies."
If he could not outfight Lee in the Wilderness, Grant intended to outflank him.
At the Brock Road/Plank Road Intersection
Standing at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection today, it's hard to imagine: the entire war turned at this point. Had Grant chosen to retreat from the Wilderness, Confederates would have had one more notch to add to their string of victories, and Gettysburg, ten months earlier, would have been remembered in history as the same kind of setback Antietam had been. Otherwise, how could Gettysburg have been "the" turning point if Confederates bounced back with another win? By moving around Lee's left and moving south, Grant refused to be beaten.
Today, the Wilderness is hardly wild. With several major subdivisions tucked away beyond the forest that lines the road, thousands of people make their homes there. What had once been a quiet intersection in the dark, close wood is now one of the busiest places on any of the area battlefields. Watch for traffic if you get out to look around.
Off the parking area on the southwest corner of the intersection, a half-mile footpath winds through the forest, covering ground where fighting took place on May 6. The forest today is much more mature than it was in 1864, so the trees now stand taller, with more open space in the understory. In 1864, though, this second-growth forest was nearly impenetrable to see through let alone move through.
The Wilderness has been remembered, in particular, for its own special brand of Hell: in more than a dozen places, the tinder-dry leaves from the previous autumn caught fire. "Swept by the flames, the trees, bushes, and logs which the Confederates had thrown up as breastworks ... took fire and dense clouds of smoke rolled across the clearing, choking the unfortunates who were exposed to it, and greatly hindering the work of the rescuers," the historian of the 146th New York recalled. "The clearing now became a raging inferno, in which many of the wounded perished and the bodies of the dead were blackened and burned beyond all possibility of recognition, a tragic conclusion to this day of horror."
Along the hiking path, visitors will pass numerous interpretive markers, as well as the monument to the Vermont Brigade, placed on the battlefield in 2006. A pair of monuments to the 12th New Jersey Volunteers sits next to the roadside.
The remains of three lines of Federal earthworks also run through the area, although the Orange Plank Road bisects through them. The earthworks formed a defense in depth for the Federals, who needed all three lines to resist a Confederate breakthrough.
The earthworks caught fire during those charges. Through the night and the next day, much of the forest in this area burned, too. Picture Grant and Meade and their staffs riding into that inferno, their exhausted troops expecting retreat, only to have the general in chief lead them south. "Soldiers weary and sleepy after their long battle, with stiffened limbs and smarting wounds, now sprang to their feet forget of their pains, and rushed forward to the roadside," one of Grant's staffers later wrote. "Wild cheers echoed through the forest, and glad shouts of triumph rent the air. Men swung their hats, tossed up their arms, and pressed forward to within touch of their chief, clapping their hands, and speaking to him with the familiarity of comrades."
Also of note just down the Orange Plank Road three- tenths of a mile is the spot where Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men on May 6, 1864 — an event that would have serious repercussions for the campaign ahead. The incident robbed Lee of his "Old Warhorse" at a time when he would need him most, under circumstances that would play to Longstreet's greatest strength. Although the First Corps commander could hit like a hammer on the offense, he had a particular skill at defensive warfare. The battles at Spotsylvania would have been just his style.
The First Corps, hunkered down in this area, began its march toward Spotsylvania from here (see next chapter). Most of the road cut for them by Brig. Gen. William Pendleton no longer exists, obliterated by a housing development. The mouth of the road, while still there, sits on private property not accessible to visitors. The other roads Anderson used to get to the battlefield still exist, however, (see map on pg. 16) and they can lead visitors on a circuitous route to the Spotsylvania battlefield.CHAPTER 2
Out of the Wilderness
MAY 7, 1864
The similarities seem almost eerie. On May 2, 1863, Second Corps commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson's own men accidentally shot him as they successfully executed a surprise flank attack through the Wilderness at the battle of Chancellorsville. One year and four days later on May 6, 1864, less than five miles away, First Corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's own men accidentally shot him as they successfully executed a surprise flank attack through the Wilderness.
Without Longstreet, whom Lee called his "Old Warhorse," the Southern army faced the most serious leadership crisis of the war. Longstreet was Lee's most experienced and most trusted lieutenant, and he depended heavily on him. Lee's other two senior generals — Ewell and Hill — meanwhile, had underperformed in the year since their elevation to corps command. Longstreet's absence left Lee without a steady shoulder to lean on.
Fortunately for Lee, the morning of May 7 brought only sporadic skirmishing between his forces and the Army of the Potomac. He had brought the Federals to heel and, for two days, bloodied them savagely. While Lee had not gained any tactical advantage, the Army of Northern Virginia still maintained a relatively strong defensive position. Lee needed only wait out Grant's next move. In the meantime, he turned his attention to the pressing question of leadership for the First Corps.
No one seemed perfect. One option: Maj. Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, a hard-fighting division commander from the Second Corps who'd served with distinction since his early days under Stonewall Jackson during the '62 Valley campaign — but as a Second Corps commander, he was, in one staff officer's words, "quite unknown" to the First Corps.
A second option: Maj. Gen. Jubal Early, "Old Jube" as his men called him. Lee called him "my bad old man." Irascible and profane, Early had proven himself time and again a go-to division commander in the Second Corps, serving with particular distinction at both First and Second Fredericksburg, but his abrasive personality had earned him enemies in the First Corps.
Lee nonetheless seemed to lean in Early's direction — thus surprising everyone later that morning when he promoted a dark horse candidate, Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, commander of the First Corps' third division. The 42-year-old Anderson, while not a spectacular choice, was certainly a safe one — "as pleasant a commander to serve under as could be wished, and was a sturdy and reliable fighter," one Confederate said.
A graduate of West Point's class of 1842, Anderson had been promoted for gallantry during the Mexican War. His postwar army career included stints as a recruiter, time on the Texas frontier, service in Kansas during border troubles in 1856-57, and service in the Mormon War of 1858-59. When his native South Carolina seceded, Anderson resigned his commission and went with the South. He steadily rose through the Confederate army, with notable service on the Peninsula in 1862 and at Chancellorsville in 1863. After Lee reshuffled the army into three corps, Anderson served under Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill in the Third Corps, but the men of the First still knew him well.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Season of Slaughter"
Copyright © 2013 Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White.
Excerpted by permission of Savas Beatie LLC.
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Table of Contents
Touring the Battlefield/List of Maps vii
Chapter 1 The Campaign-May 1864 1
Chapter 2 Out of the Wilderness-May 7, 1864 9
Chapter 3 Todd's Tavern-May 7-8, 1864 15
Chapter 4 Laurel Hill-May 8, 1864 23
Chapter 5 The Death of "Uncle John" Sedgwick-May 9, 1864 35
Chapter 6 Upton's Attack-May 10, 1864 45
Chapter 7 The First Day of Rain-May 11, 1864 57
Chapter 8 The Mule Shoe, Part I: The Union Attack-May 12, 1864 67
Chapter 9 The Mule Shoe, Part II: The Confederate Counterattacks-May 12, 1864 79
Chapter 10 The Mule Shoe, Part III: The Bloody Angle-May 12-13, 1864 89
Chapter 11 Heth's Salient-May 12, 1864 101
Chapter 12 Myer's Hill-May 13, 1864 107
Chapter 13 Mud and Maneuver-May 14-17, 1864 111
Chapter 14 Engineering Over Infantry-May 18, 1864 117
Chapter 15 Harris Farm-May 19, 1864 125
Chapter 16 The Campaign Moves South-May 20-21, 1864 131
Appendix A The Battle of Yellow Tavern Danut T. Davis 139
Appendix B Civilians on the Battlefield Kathleen Logothetis 147
Appendix C A History of the Battlefield John F. Cummings III 151
Appendix D Spotsylvania in Memory Chris Mackowski 155
Order of Battle: Spotsylvania Court House 160
Suggested Reading 172
About the Authors 174