On the night of May 8th, 1864, the Army of the Potomac and Army of Northern Virginia found themselves once more in a stalemate. Union General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps bloodied themselves against the unified forces of Confederate General Richard Anderson, the new commander of the First Corps, and Richard Ewell’s Second Corps upon Laurel Hill just on the edge of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Due to delays, misunderstandings, and botched-up orders, the Union army failed to reach their objective before Confederate forces could amass and take the high ground. Now both armies, exhausted from the marching and fighting in this first week of May, spent another sleepless night building up their earthworks and fortifications along their lines.
The Confederate left flank comprised of Anderson’s corps with Fields stretching from the Po River in the west to the Spindle Farm, and Kershaw’s division picking up at the Brock Road and extending half a mile to meet Ewell’s corps on the right. Divisions under Edward “Alleghany” Johnson and John B Gordon might have saved the day with their timely arrival to repulse John Sedgwick’s assault the previous evening, but what took shape in the night made the Confederate high command nervous. A piece of high ground on the far right flank was too precious to give up, so the troops in Johnson’s division ended up curling around this piece of terrain, creating a problematic formation called a “salient”. In short, it’s a bubble in the line that is vulnerable in two ways. The first, if the line should be fired upon from both side of this protrusion, it will sustain enfilading fire on the other side. And then, if they are firing outward, it won’t be concentrated enough to do much good. General Robert E. Lee discovered this unfortunate formation, but tried to rest easy with Ewell’s assurance that he would hold it. Gordon’s division formed a line at the opening of this bubble, creating an ideal fall-back point if it should be needed. The soldiers and reporters, too, realized their predicament. One newsman from the Boston Evening Transcript wrote, “It was Gettysburg reversed – Lee having the inner circle.” History would come to know it as the Mule Shoe (because that’s what it looked like) or The Bloody Angle, for what would take place there.
The Federals were equally nervous and would suffer constant harassment from the Rebs as they dug their entrenchments. One Pennsylvanian remembered, “If any one got any sleep, it was in very short naps in line on the ground with their guns by their sides, or in their grasp, ready to meet threatened attacks which came almost hourly.” One soldier said, “Peal after peal of thousands of muskets would startle the whole army from a deep and greatly needed sleep. For six days not fifteen minutes had elapsed that we did not hear the rattle, and see the effects of these infernal engines of war.” They did, however, between strengthening their works and catching a few minutes of rest, had time to bury the dead from the fighting the day before.
The corps under Sedgwick and Warren had failed to push the Confederates from their position, disappointing their commander, Ulysses Grant. Winfield Scott Hancock with his II Corps were still at Todd’s Tavern, watching more graycoats shuffle behind Wade Hampton’s cavalry screen, jittery as all get-out that another attack like the one they received from one of Jubal Early’s detachments. Nothing would come and Grant had other plans for Hancock, as well as Ambrose Burnside and his IX Corps still sitting at Alrich. One frustration from May 8th lay in the confusion in command between Sedgwick and Warren. Meade finally cleared this up with a direct order to Sedgwick that he is to take command of both corps if he was not on the field himself. Warren, the once rising star in the Army of the Potomac after his save at Gettysburg, no longer held the confidence of his superiors. After opposing orders to charge at Mine Run and the Wilderness, and then his inability to bust through at Laurel Hill, it was any wonder he had lasted this long. Sedgwick, forever amiable, countered by giving the missive to Warren that he still had full authority of his own corps.
Sedgwick himself was busy on the morning of May 9th inspecting his lines and moving troops to relieve a tense situation caused by Confederate sharpshooters that had been menacing the Federals. The center of this scene lay at the northern fork around the Spindle Farm where Battery H of the 1st New York Artillery had set up shop. One of Sedgwick’s aides, Martin McMahon had playfully warned him, “General, do you see that section of artillery? Well, you are not to go near it today.” Sedgwick bantered back, “McMahon, I would like to know who commands this corps, you or I?” McMahon replied, “Well, General, sometimes I am in doubt myself.” Turning critical, he added, “Seriously, General, I beg of you not to go to that angle; every officer who has shown himself there has been hit, both yesterday and today.” Sedgwick answered, “Well, I don’t know there is any reason for my going there.” A change in artillery unit did warrant his presence.
Men of Captain William McCartney’s battery moved in to relieve the New York unit. Some troops in front of the guns had shifted to obstruct their line of sight to the enemy. As Sedgwick was giving the orders for them to correct this, the sharpshooters in the woods started up again. Men ducked and dodged, drawing out Sedgwick’s teasing nature. “What are you dodging at?” he asked a sergeant who had laid himself out on the ground. “They can’t hit an elephant at that distance.” He had told the men this once before already. The sergeant replied with, “General, I dodged a shell once and if I hadn’t, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging.” Sedgwick laughed and told him, “All right, my man. Go to your place.” Soon after, another bullet whistled through the air and found its target with a dull thud. Sedgwick slowly turned toward his aide, McMahon, and the aide was horrified to see that the bullet had lodged itself behind his general’s left eye. Sedgwick fell into McMahon and they hastily carried him to the rear. Though blood continued to pour through his wound like a fountain, his lips held a persistent smile, frozen in the last few seconds of life.
The tragedy couldn’t be hidden from the rest of the army and soon, everyone grieved for the loss of the jovial “Uncle John”. Even Warren, who was ready to tear up Sedgwick’s credibility with a letter to Meade, stowed the hateful words away after he heard the news. The letter that blamed Sedgwick for the army’s follies on May 8th would never be discovered during those wartime years. JEB Stuart, commander of the Confederate cavalry at the time, even sorrowed when he heard about Sedgwick. They had known one another before the war and Sedgwick even tried to convince Stuart not to join the Confederacy, but eventually conceded, saying, “I cannot blame you for going to the defense of your native state.” Though James Ricketts would be next in line for command of the VI Corps, Sedgwick had made it clear that he wanted General Horatio Wright to take over if he should fall.
Skirmishing and sharpshooting would continue in front of these two corps as their flanks were developed throughout the day. Grant had sent away his cavalry under Sheridan to see what he could do about Stuart, leaving the Union army at a terrible disadvantage. While Meade didn’t use his cavalry to its fullest potential, reserving it for guarding supply lines, Grant had hastily given away his extra pair of traveling eyes upon the battlefield. He would have to solely rely on the word of his commanders and what scouts they threw out to know how Lee had set up his line. He directed Hancock to probe toward the west and Burnside to go east. In front of the II Corps, Hampton’s men continued to screen Early’s movements, further convincing that the Confederates would make an attempt upon Todd’s Tavern again. It wasn’t until Early had completely traveled down Shady Grove Church Road and circled around Lee’s lines that the error was discovered.
Burnside sent two of his division down the Fredericksburg Road that would take them directly to the extreme right of Lee’s line and on the edge of the Mule Shoe. They would have to wait for Sheridan’s 13-mile cavalry line to pass before moving in that direction, making themselves late to the party… again. One division under Willcox had become disconnected due to a faulty map and ran into cavalry under Wickham around the Gayle House above the Ni River. While this wasn’t as concerning when Grant thought Early was still to the west, it became more urgent when Hancock sent word that Early had completely passed on around 11:45am. Was Willcox facing Early or something smaller? Grant wasn’t sure, but ordered up the IX Corps division under Thomas Stevenson to reinforce.
Either way, Willcox would come into contact with the Confederates in what would become known as the Battle of the Ni River… which didn’t really live up to its name. Willcox would be driven back by Wickham’s cavalry until Robert Johnston’s brigade came from Gordon’s division to assist on the Confederate right flank. Testing Willcox’s line, they found the 60th Ohio protruding and vulnerable along Beverly Lane. These green troops gave a hard fight, all while the Confederates were flanking them and Union artillery were enfilading the line. A bayonet charge persuaded the Confederates to fall back and the men under Benjamin Christ’s brigade threw up earthworks on the enemy side of the Ni River. Stevenson’s division arrived at 12:30am, well after the fighting had settled down. Sharpshooting fire would rattle for the rest of the day along this section of the line as Early’s men came in to take up the dangling right flank.
That exposed right flank might have been the key to folding the Confederate line if opportunities had been seized by the IX Corps. But, due to the dallying of Burnside (typical) and the absence of Sheridan (unplanned), Grant had missed his chance to move in before Early swept in and plugged the gap. Meade was willing to take a defensive stance, realizing that Warren and Wright now occupied Anderson and Ewell, and wanted to send Hancock from Todd’s Tavern to support Burnside. If Lee was moving troops eastward, it was conceivable that he was making moves toward Fredericksburg to threaten their supplies. Meade wanted to block him. Grant had another notion. If Lee was moving east, that meant his west would be at the mercy of whatever force could be thrown that way. This is where Hancock would go and ideally roll up the Confederates and push them off Laurel Hill.
The orders were given at about noon. The II Corps would move to the high ground southwest of Todd’s Tavern, overlooking the Po River, while Gershom Mott and his men would stay to defend Todd’s Tavern, the backdoor to the Union lines. By 2pm, they were successfully in position. Grant, Meade, and Hancock rode to the Tally House (just a hair northwest) and saw the tail end of Early’s wagon trains making their way on the other side of the river down Shady Grove Church Road. While Meade was reluctant to waste ammunition, the guns fired upon the supply train and wreaked havoc for a short time before Thomson’s Confederate Battery rolled up and a duel ensued. General Ambrose Wright’s brigade of infantry came to assist the battery and they managed to hold off any advance until the wagon train could completely pass on. Then, Hancock’s II Corps crossed the northern section of the Po River around 7pm that evening. Hampton’s cavalry continually opposed the movement, but the Union army now had a solid foothold on Anderson’s flank.
Lee wasn’t blind to any of it. He sent two divisions to oppose Hancock. William Mahone would come in and extend Anderson’s line to face the enemy. Henry Heth, along with General Early, was to sweep around the south and west and come at Hancock from the other side, squishing the II Corps. Lee was looking to bag the whole thing and the dark was working to his advantage. Hancock, with some men still on the other side of the Po River, couldn’t judge the size of the force coming toward him and reached out for advice from his superiors. Meade told him to stay put until dawn when their numbers could be better estimated.
That was a mistake
Hancock did wait until the morning, but found himself on the business end of Confederate earthworks constructed by Mahone.
(To be continued…)
“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