The first roadblock on the road to Spotsylvania was Todd’s Tavern. Another important intersection just five miles south of the Union line, Todd’s Tavern lay at the crossroads of Brock Road (north-south) and Catharpin Road (east-west). Ulysses Grant ordered Phillip Sheridan and his cavalry to clear Brock Road of all Confederates.
Here’s where the trouble began.
Confederate cavalry commander Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) was already at Todd’s Tavern with another cavalry unit under Wade Hampton. Sheridan sent Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to do this Brock Road sweep with 4,500 men, only to find the crossroad was fortified by Lee’s dismounted soldiers using rail fence barricades. When the Federals couldn’t make the enemy budge, Meade freed up some of the last cavalry units that were guarding the supply trains, giving Sheridan more troops to work with. Joining George Armstrong Custer and Thomas Devin, he threw Reverse Cavalry unit under Alfred Gibbs down the Brock Road to try and push them back. Gregg’s troops (8,000) took Piney Branch Road and circled around to catch Lee in the rear, but by then, Lee had already fallen back to Hart House just south of the intersection, causing Merritt and Gregg to close over nothing. Fitzhugh Lee had pulled back two miles, backing toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. Already, the First and Second Corps of the Army or Northern Virginia were making their way to Shady Grove Church Road.
Hampton was still a little further down on Catharpin Road near Corbin’s Bridge that spanned the Po River to the west when Sheridan decided to split his forces. David Gregg would try to strike at Hampton while Merritt pursued Lee. Gregg left two brigades to fortify around Todd’s Tavern, pushing four more in the Confederates’ direction. The forces finally clashed at about 3pm on May 7th, 1864, less than a mile from the bridge. Having the high ground, Hampton with elements of two brigades had a significant advantage over Gregg and forced him to fall back toward Todd’s Tavern where he constructed some hastily made earthworks to deter the Rebs from following up on their withdraw. Twice the Confederates assailed these works and twice they were repulsed by artillery. One Union soldier said, “The rebel yell was turned into a whine as they quickly disappeared into the woods.” This knuckled down into a stalemate where both sides took potshots and harassed one another from the safety of their lines.
Lee, meanwhile, set up two lines of defense to the north of the Hart House; the first populated by Wickham’s men, the second by Lomax. Merritt’s Union forces smashed into Wickham’s line, and despite the heavy artillery bombardment they sustained, managed to push back the sooty-faced Confederates in that first line of earthworks. Lee’s men consolidated and stretched with Wickham now on the right of Brock Road and Lomax on the left. A Southerner recalled, “The ground over which they charged was left blue with their slain.” Another said, “For a half hour there was one of the hottest fights between opposing brigades of dismounted cavalry that occurred during the war.” (clearly, he didn’t have Brandy Station in mind)
Fighting continued amongst the dismounted cavalry on May 7th as Sheridan struggled to make headway down Brock Road. By nightfall, he resigned back to Todd’s Tavern, his objective left unfulfilled. Therefore, the Union did not have a clear shot to Spotsylvania. And the boys and blue were due to arrive soon.
That wasn’t the only factor that would set the whole army’s movement behind schedule, though. Sedgwick and Warren’s corps became muddled in a logistics jam that would put any big city rush-hour traffic to shame. “Painfully slow and wearisome” was an understatement for the tired men who were ordered to execute this secret night march around the Wilderness. “Never before did I see such a slow progress made; certainly one step at a time,” recorded Colonel Charles Wainwright, Warren’s chief of artillery. Supply wagons and artillery going east and soldiers moving south became tangled until troops were literally at a stand-still. To make things worse, there were no higher officers to coordinate the unscrambling of the lines. Even worse than that, men passed through the remnants of the battle they all wished they could forget. “At intervals, darkness would be made visible on the right by a blazing branch dropping from some distant tree-trunk, still aglow in the depth of the Wilderness, like a signal-light of goblins… The low, damp air reeked with the pungent, acrid snuff of horse and human slaughter.”
Despite all of that, when Grant made his appearance, scouting up and down the ranks, the soldiers weren’t too tired to show their appreciation for the man who was taking them out of the dreadful woods and on to Richmond. One soldier remembered, “I do not know that during the entire war I had such a real feeling of delight and satisfaction as in the night when we came to the road leading to Spotsylvania Court House and turned to the right.” Cheers and the tossing of hats commenced across the lines, making such a noise that officers worried that the Confederates would catch wind of their movements – as if they hadn’t already.
All that gaiety ended with the enlisted men, as commanders began to show up at Todd’s Tavern and discovered that Sheridan had not held up his end of the orders. Meade, of course, was fuming. He became so incensed that he literally began kicking the sleeping troops awake and booting them up into their saddles again. He ordered Gregg to make another assault to the west and for Merritt to push south one more time. Sheridan was at his headquarters, miles away, penning these same instructions, oblivious to the trouble he was in with the higher command. By dawn of May 8th, Sedgwick’s VI Corps was already at Chancellorsville and Warren’s men were practically left on their own – something Grant wanted to avoid. About 8am, Burnside – tardy as usual – was just then leaving the Wilderness to head that way. Four corps were on the move through the night, logistics were crowding the roadways, and nothing seemed to be going right as Brock Road was still barricaded.
Warren caught up with Sheridan’s cavalry along Brock Road at about 3:30am and rested a while to eat breakfast while Merritt worked diligently to dislodge Lee. When his efforts proved ineffective against Lee’s defenses, he called for help from the V Corps. Warren sent two divisions under Robinson and Griffin, the ideal reinforcements to sweep across the field to flush out the Confederates. After a hot contest, Lee once more gave way and fell back to the Spindle Farm at a piece of high ground called Laurel Hill. For over five hours, Fitzhugh’s cavalry managed to stall the entire Army of the Potomac from reaching their objective.
On the Confederate side, things were running much smoother. The First Corps under Richard Anderson had moved out down Pendleton Road five hours ahead of schedule to reach Shady Grove Church Road and the Block House Bridge about 7:30am. The boys in gray passed by churchgoers on their way to the new battlefield and all could hear the rattle of musketry as Lee continued his stalling tactics. Receiving word about the trouble brewing around Laurel Hill, he sent two brigades from Kershaw’s division to help out Lee’s cavalry. Henegan’s South Carolina brigade and Humphrey’s Mississippians were on their way as more couriers giving news of Lee’s increasingly precarious situation. Little did they know how heated things would become.
(To be continued)