Battles in the East

The Battle for Laurel Hill, May 8th 1864

At about eight in the morning on May 8th, the Army of the Potomac was hellbent on pushing their way south. After Sheridan failed to carry out his orders to clear the Brock Road of all Confederates, it was down to Gouverneur Warren’s corps to pave the way before the rest of the army arrived. The Federal division under John Robinson came to Alsop House, just three miles south of Todd’s Tavern and where Brock Road forked around two clearings. The north fork, Alsop House, became the splitting point for the army that would try to regroup in the clearing around the Spindle Farm, to the south, where the two branches met again. Another cavalry force under James Wilson was moving around the backside of a ridge called Laurel Hill, to put the pinch on the Confederate cavalry from the rear. Wilson and his men had actually been camped out just north, near Tabernacle Church and the Silver House along Orange Plank Road. Sheridan gave orders for him to move out along the Fredericksburg Road toward Spotsylvania Courthouse. At the same time that Robinson was moving in from the north, Wilson managed to reach Spotsy and was coming up in Fitzhugh Lee’s rear. Unable to divert his troops, Lee detached the 3rd Virginia Cavalry to deal with this new threat. General Robert Anderson – new commander of the First Corps – was privy to this, and sent two more infantry brigades west to intercept.

Benjamin Humphreys’ Mississippians and John Henagan’s South Carolinians, along with John Haskel’s guns, were led by infamous cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart onto the field at Laurel Hill. Utilizing the element of surprise, the men slipped behind the earthworks without raising any alarm to the Federals until it was too late. With graycoats stretching well across Brock Road – Henagan on the left flank and Humphreys on the right – Stuart told them, “Hold your fire until the Federals are well within range and then give it to them and hold the position to the last man. Plenty of help is near at hand.” Warren was more than ready to strike and not afford the Confederates any time to strengthen their works – he learned this lesson well in previous engagements. He threw in more troops toward the front, putting Robinson’s division entirely into the fray and Charles Griffin’s division were on their way to reinforce. “Never mind cannon,” the Union corps commander shouted to his men, “Never mind bullets. Press on and clear this road. It’s the only way to get your rations.”

When Stuart gave the word, the Confederate forces unleashed a “solid and withering volley”, downhill upon the Union ranks. Robinson’s division rolled forward in the storm of artillery from Haskell’s guns and were torn to bits. “What remained of the movement was no longer a column, but a bunched and ragged line.” Commanders dropped like flies, including Robinson who was shot in the knee – his leg would be later amputated. Pennsylvanians of Joseph Bartlett’s brigade managed to reach the barricade of logs and rail fences that made up Henagan’s defenses, but they were either killed or captured. Other parts of the line clashed head-on around the abatis in front of the Confederate line. One of Humphreys’ men on the other side of the road remarked that “for the first and last time in my warring, I saw two hostile lines lock bayonets.”

Enfilading fire from their left caused the remainder of Bartlett’s brigade to fall back “without much regard for order.” Griffin tried to send in two units under Romeyn Ayres and Jacob Sweitzer to take their place, but the retreating soldiers tangled them up and lost momentum before coming under the galling fire of Haskell’s guns. Warren sent in Richard Coulter’s brigade, but they too were repulsed and no ground could be gained along that side of the Brock Road. The Confederates, though outnumbered, proved once more that sturdy earthworks and a solid defensible position could make or break a battle. The Federals also proved that sending in brigades in this piecemeal fashion was (predictably) ineffective.

On the other side, Humphrey’s had successfully routed Peter Lyle’s brigade by outflanking them. The men who made a “zealously charge, amid artillery and small arms fire, and running, jump over a rail fence, stopping within 30’ of the Confederate works”, made an equally slow and grudging retreat back toward Spindle Farm. The entire time, one Confederate observer witnessed Stuart “sitting on his horse amidst a storm of bullets, laughing and joking with the men and commending them highly for their courage for the rapidity and accuracy of their fire.” Warren, repelled on both flanks, was not in the same jovial mood.

Warren’s corps regrouped around the Alsop House along with their artillery. The soldiers blamed the officers for the failed assault, pointing to poor management, and the officers laid equal blame on the soldiers for not trying hard enough. In the defense of the march-weary troops who had to drag themselves out of the Wilderness through the night and early morning, one can hardly reprimand them for not being fighting-fit. One Federal stated, “The sun was so hot, and the men so exhausted from the long run as well as from the five days and nights of fighting and marching, that this retreat, though disorderly, was exceedingly slow, and we lost heavily in consequence from the enemy’s fire.” A Union soldier within Martin’s battery recalled, “We were doing all that mortal man could do, our tongues hanging so low out of our mouths we were liable to step on them.” And then in the defense of the officers, the mismanagement of the troops could be chalked up to rushed planning. They also would have never had to go into battle at all if Brock Road had been cleared out in time for Warren’s men to proceed to Spotsy. They also didn’t beat the Confederate troops to their objective due to the logistical nightmare the night before between the remaining corps. Despite his better intentions, General Ulysses Grant’s worst fears about this phase of the campaign were gradually materializing.

That wasn’t going to keep Warren from pushing harder – contrasting with his previous performance so far in the Overland Campaign. At 10:15am, Warren sent word to Meade that Robinson and Griffin had been repulsed, but that the fresh troops in Lysander Cutler and Samuel Crawford’s divisions were advancing in “fine style” to avenge their rout, falling in on either side of Griffin’s division. But while Warren was licking his wounds from the first repulse, Anderson predicted the needs at Laurel Hill and sent William Perry’s brigade to extend the Rebel line to the left of Henagan.

With this new bolstering of the lines, another assault commenced, but the Union forces still couldn’t push their way through or mount the defenses as their predecessors had. Disaster struck almost every brigade, suffering from the unending artillery fire. A Confederate boasted, “It is astonishing how fast troops that are practiced can load and fire. The old trained veterans decided that the only way to succeed was to be quick and deliberate, fire with precision, so as to kill as many as possible; but after a slaughter of thousands in a few days they seemed to multiply like flies that had been poisoned.”

Warren, defeated and demoralized after this tireless push for the Union, finally resigned back to the Spindle Farm and began construction of earthworks of his own to hide behind while a new plan could be made. He wrote to Meade, “I have done my best, but with the force I now have I cannot attack again unless I see very great weakness on the enemy’s left flank. I incline to think, that if I let the enemy alone he will me… My staff is all tired out, and I have lost the old white horse. I cannot gain Spotsylvania Court House with what force I have… I dare not fall back, for then I shall disclose my feeling of weakness.”

While Warren continued his efforts on Laurel Hill, Anderson didn’t neglect the threat brewing along the road to Spotsylvania. He sent two more of Joseph Kershaw’s brigades to circle back and come up in Wilson’s rear as the budding cavalry unit made its way toward the battlefield. Charles Field’s division was instructed to meet in his front and act as the hammer to Kershaw’s anvil. But the death-dealing swing couldn’t reach the Federal cavalry fast enough. Elements of Wilson’s men under John McIntosh reached the rear of Laurel Hill and were ready to attack. Wilson, realizing the trouble brewing, called off the assault and retreated. His rear guard was fired upon by Kershaw’s men just as the blue coats left Spotsylvania Court House. Wilson swore up and down that if he only had support from Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, he could have carried Laurel Hill and dealt a decisive blow to Lee’s men. The massive flaw with that theory was that Burnside was never ordered to support him and he was nowhere close at the time.

As the action around Laurel Hill began to settle, the tempers of the higher command began to rise. Meade was pissed at Sheridan for not following his orders to clear the road, and Sheridan had enough of his superior’s abuse. The two bulls locked horns in Meade’s tent that afternoon. Meade had “worked himself into a towering passion regarding the delays encountered in the forward movement,” recalled his aide, “and when Sheridan appeared went at him hammer and tongs, accusing him of blunders and charging him with not making a proper disposition of his troops and letting the cavalry block the advance of the infantry.” Sheridan’s language was described as “highly spiced and conspicuously italicized with expletives.” Another aide said that the cavalryman was “plainly full of suppressed anger and Meade too was in ill temper.” Sheridan defended in his memoirs, “I found [Meade’s] peppery temper had got the better of his good judgment, he showing a disposition to be unjust, laying blame here and there for the blunders that had been committed. He was particularly severe on the cavalry.”

Once Sheridan had worked himself into a decent froth of indignation as “one word brought on another”, he proclaimed, “I could whip Stuart if he (Meade) would only let me, but since he insisted on giving the cavalry directions without consulting or even notifying me, he could henceforth command the Cavalry Corps himself – that I would not give it another order.” Meade’s prior ideology when it came to cavalry was that they were only good for guarding supply lines instead of shock troops or any distinctive fighting force. Sheridan basically – in so many words – told Meade that if he thought he could do a better job with the cavalry, then he could have it. Meade seemed to sober at this, but the damage had already been done. Meade went to Grant to report this altercation. Grant seemed to perk up at the “I’ll whip Stuart if you let me” part. “Did Sheridan say so? Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it.” At 1pm, orders were given that Sheridan could act as a completely independent command to chase after Stuart.

Meanwhile, Anderson continued to take the initiative of command and had his line extend from the Po River in the west to about half a mile east of Brock Road. A hot artillery duel ensued for almost an hour. A Confederate artillerist described it well. “Bursting shells, jaded fragments, balls out of case shot, it sounded like a thousand devils, shrieking in the air all about us.” It was the “hottest place I ever saw, or hope I shall ever see, in this world, or in the world to come. It nearly melted the marrow in our bones.” By now, all of Anderson’s corps were present and Richard Ewell’s corps were arriving as well, further strengthening their position.

Further north of this storm of artillery, back at Todd’s Tavern, General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps were positioned to guard the Union army’s rear, mostly against the remains of Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry to the west, which were screening the Rebel movements beyond. Divisions under John Gibbon, Francis Barlow, and Gershom Mott stretched along the Catharpin Road with Gregg’s cavalry sitting in the entrenchments they had previously made. A brigade under Nelson Miles was sent to reinforce Gregg at Corbin’s Bridge at about 11am. An exchange of artillery fire ensued and Miles could see a “seemingly interminable column” of Confederates moving south along the Shady Grove Church Road (Ewell’s Second corps coming to join Anderson). By all the signs, it was evident that a mass of Confederates put Todd’s Tavern and the rear of the Union army in jeopardy. Still, when Warren asked Hancock for a “good division” to help him that morning, Hancock gave him one and was reticent to put more troops to the west to help Miles defend against this coming onslaught of gray.

After the bloodbath in the Wilderness, General Robert E. Lee was forced to reshuffle his command. He put Jubal Early in command of the Third Corps, which were to bring up the rear of the entire Army of Northern Virginia as they made their way to Spotsylvania on May 8th. At about 3pm, the Third Corps were headed down the newly forged Pendleton Road and were ordered to travel east down Catharpin Road toward Todd’s Tavern and then south onto Brock Road (the heat of all the action for the last two days). Early sent out William Mahone to feel out the path ahead of them and met up with Hampton’s cavalry in the midst of this engagement with Miles’ Union troops. Miles reacted by bending back his right (north) flank, three regiments above Catharpin Road and two below, to combat these simultaneous attacks from the north and west. To make matters more chaotic, wagons of provisions and a detachment of cattle had been sent to Miles to sustain his troops. These supplies got tangled up in the fight and stampeding cattle became just as deadly as the Confederate bullets. This, however, worked to some advantage as the Rebs became momentarily distracted with raiding. Miles eventually fell back, leaving the Confederates to the spoils of their efforts. Fleeing Federals shouted back, “You Johnny Rebs have nothing but cornbread to eat, and we want you to have a good square meal.”

Despite Hancock sending Thomas Smyth’s Irish Brigade to try and bolster the line, the Federals retreated all the way back to Todd’s Tavern. The dismounted cavalry under Hampton pursued and managed to punch through the skirmish line, but no further. Hancock repulsed any Confederate effort to invade his earthworks. Seeing that his way was blocked, Early called back Mahone’s men to Shady Grove Church. Union artillery rolled into Todd’s Tavern to help hold the position and Hancock was on pins and needles for the rest of the evening. But Hancock would remain tensed, as no renewed assault came upon Todd’s Tavern.

At 1:30pm, back at Laurel Hill, Meade knew that Warren couldn’t make any advancement alone. He ordered up John Sedgwick’s V Corps to join Warren in one more big push south down Brock Road. Sedgwick arrived to Piney Branch Road about noon and formed on the left of Warren a few hours later, opposite of Kershaw’s men along the ridge of Laurel Hill. However, nothing would be done until well in the evening at about 6:30pm, thanks to another drama-fest taking place behind the Union lines. Meade’s order to assault the works with a joint effort between Sedgwick and Warren became muddled in a question of “Who’s in command?” By seniority, Sedgwick was to call the shots and this was supported by Meade’s wording to Warren to “cooperate with Sedgwick”. Warren, hot and losing his nerve, contested in a reply to Meade, he said, “You are the commander of this army and can give the orders and I will obey them; or you can put Sedgwick in command and he can give the orders and I will obey them; or you can put me in command and I will give the orders and Sedgwick will obey them; but I’ll be God Damned if I will cooperate with General Sedgwick or anybody else.”

The long march, according to an aide, had transformed the usual calm Sedgwick, along with the other officers of the army, rendering them “jaded and prostate”. Sedgwick gave way to Warren’s temper tantrum and by 6:30pm, their line was fully developed and ready to make their next attempt to take the high ground at Laurel Hill. Their target would be the Confederate right flank, as Sedgwick’s corps now stretched well past its terminus, making it prime for flanking. If the brigades on that end of the line could roll up Kershaw’s division, Anderson would be forced to abandon Laurel Hill. With a mile-long line of over 10,000 Union soldiers, there was no way they could fail.

By now, however, Anderson’s two divisions of Kershaw and Field were joined by two more divisions belonging to Robert Rhodes and Edward “Alleghany” Johnson. These divisions from Ewell’s Corps swung behind Anderson’s line and plugged in on his right flank, extending his line and saving it from a flanking attack. The two sides collided. A Carolinian remembered, “Our brigade was thrown in front of a lot of Pennsylvanians, who seemed to think no one had the right to stop them from going right on to Richmond. But it did not take us more than a couple of hours that evening to convince them this was not the day or time to go undisputed.” Union brigades became lost in the dimming twilight and on the left flank, one brigade became mired in a swamp with no available aid from his neighboring brigades. “Front, rear and flanks were lost in the whirl,” a Federal soldier said, “organization was gone; each man depended upon himself; darkness increased the confusion and the result hung upon personal tenacity.”

The Confederate momentum didn’t keep up, as they were just as exhausted as their bluecoat counterparts. Orders were given to fall back along the line and “slowly the firing ceased, the litter-bearers came in along the line and bore away the wounded.” On the Union side, a soldier from one of these crippled brigades thought that “the thing was so poorly executed that it does not amount to much.” And though the divisions had pulled back, pockets of fighting continued along the lines well into the night, while some regiments were caught in the in-between and sustained fire from both sides. “We were alone,” a soldier from a Maine regiment remembered. “The other regiments had all fallen back; our men were in just the right mood to fight, – weary, hungry, discouraged, mad.” Another survivor of this terrifying night said, “The air was filled with a medley of sounds, shouts, cheers, thuds of clubbed muskets, the swish of swords and sabers, groans and prayers, all combining to send a thrill of excitement and inspiration to every heart.” These separated units managed to sneak back to their own lines by three in the morning.

Thus ended the fighting upon Laurel Hill with no ground gained or lost on May 8th.

Grant had been optimistic that evening and anticipated his army pulling into Spotsylvania by the following day. The failed second assault with Sedgwick’s added corps darkened his prospects. By the end of the day, every soul was tired or aggravated, or a mix of both. The lack of cohesion in the Union command foiled the day. Warren’s first assault, sending brigades in one at a time, had ruined the morning, while all hopes that afternoon dissolved when the two corps commanders dallied in deciding who would lead the second assault. This all gave the Confederates time to amass their troops as the Second and Third Corps were joining with the First. In Sedgwick’s own premonitory words, “everything unlucky!”

In contrast, the Confederate high command performed rather well. Stuart’s leadership of the cavalry helped buy enough time for Anderson to hurry up and reinforce the line along Laurel Hill. Anderson’s quick action of throwing in brigades to aid Fitzhugh Lee had saved the position. Hampton’s effective screening roadblocked any potential Union interference with the funneling of the corps toward Spotsylvania. Despite the heavy toll on the Confederate high command, Lee seemed to be doing well. What would develop the following day, however, would turn the tables on the Southern army and lay the groundwork for one of the bloodiest and most heated battles in the Overland Campaign.

References

“The Battles for Spotsylvania Courthouse and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7 – 12, 1864” by Gordon Rhea

“A Season of Slaughter. The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, May 8th – 21, 1864” by Chris Mackowski and Krisopher White

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