Battles in the East

“Sheer Madness” – Spotsylvania, May 10th, 1864

The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were stuck again at Spotsylvania Court House, with the Confederates maintaining the high ground at Laurel Hill as they had over the last two days, and the Federals under Ulysses Grant desperate to find a weak spot in the graycoat’s defenses. Under the impression that Robert Lee’s left flank was weak and dangling next to Richard Anderson’s First Corps, the II Corps under General Winfield Scott Hancock was sent across the Po River late in the evening on May 9th, 1864. Seeing this, Lee rushed two divisions from Jubal Early’s Third Corps on the right flank to meet them. The difficult part for the Yankees about crossing the Po River at the west end of Anderson’s line was that the river took a sharp bend from southeast to southwest. This meant that if Hancock were to cross at the Block House Bridge, but needed to retreat swiftly to rejoin the Union lines, he would have to cross the river twice. Lee was counting on this challenge to trip up the Federals in their efforts to roll up Anderson’s line at Laurel Hill.

At daylight on May 10th, 1864, the rebel guns on Laurel Hill across the Po River fired and the Union artillery on the north side responded in kind about 6am. When Hancock was able to assess the situation, one look at William Mahone’s Confederate earthworks on the other side of the river had changed his mind upon crossing at the bridge as he had intended that day before. Instead, he sent men under Major James Briscoe from General David Birney’s staff to do some recon and find a suitable crossing point. Harassed by elements of Wade Hampton’s cavalry during the mission, Briscoe also ran into Henry Heth’s division around Glady Run (a creek running off Po River). The Federals put up a fight around Talley’s Mill on the north side of the creek, but were sent scrambling back. The threat to the II Corps was discovered and two regiments from Birney’s division were sent to assist them along the road to Waite’s Shop between the two strips of the Po River.

Meanwhile along the main line, Union General Gouverneur Warren and his V Corps barraged Laurel Hill again, but found Anderson’s line had been turned into a nearly impregnable artillery fortress – thanks to artillery commander Edward Porter Alexander. “The ball opens this morning along the entire line with artillery and musketry and it bids fair to be a day of great struggle,” one Union aide had recorded. Skirmishers of the V Corps continued to probe and tried to find weak points, but to no avail.

Grant, however, was not discouraged and stuck to his resolve that there was no going back. The Army of the Potomac would not initiate another retrograde movement as long as he had anything to say about it. At about 9:30am, he wired Henry Halleck in Washington, asking for more provisions, more men, and more ammunition. The new development in front of Hancock gave rise to suspicions that Lee was putting troops from the center of his line around the vulnerable salient to reinforce his left. This, of course, was in error. Lee hadn’t moved any of Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, but had left only one of Early’s divisions to defend against General Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps on the right flank. In fact, Grant thought Ewell’s corps had completely retreated to Richmond to address the threat of General Benjamin Butler coming up the James River. Without his cavalry with Phillip Sheridan, intelligence would continue to be erroneous for the duration of the battle. In consequence, Grant wanted all but one of Hancock’s divisions to rejoin the V and VI Corps for a unified assault upon Laurel Hill and the west side of the salient, while Burnside would move down the Fredericksburg Road on the left. The assault was scheduled for 5pm, which should have given Hancock enough time to move his men back across the river and to the east.

Hancock (seated), Barlow (left)

It was decided that Francis Barlow and his division would stay behind to distract Heth while the divisions under Birney and John Gibbon went to rejoin the rest of the army at about 11am. Barlow set up his defenses along Shady Grove Church Road by the bridge, with a dense forest behind him and Union artillery to back him up beyond the other side of the river. They gave cover to the other two divisions and were told to wait until given the word to cross. Briscoe’s recon party came dragging themselves in at about noon with Heth hot on his tail. Skirmishers managed to push him back, but the division realized just how in over their heads they had become.

Word was sent back to General George Meade that they were about to get clobbered and Meade in turn told Hancock to go save his troops. One officer wrote, “A defeat to our troops in such a situation, far from the rest of the army and with the river between them, would have meant something very like destruction.” With Rebel artillery enfilading their position and Heth’s skirmishers poking around for weak spots to exploit, that destruction seemed imminent. Hancock would withdraw Barlow’s men in stages starting around 2:30pm. The four brigades of Paul Frank, Nelson Miles, Thomas Smyth, and John Brooke would move toward the pontoons that had been set up earlier in the corps’ crossing. Defenses were thrown up to help protect their extraction, but that didn’t keep their movements a secret. 

Early saw this and ordered an assault to catch the fleeing Yankees. Those still left on the south side of the Po fired back behind their works. It took three charges for the Rebs to overwhelm the works as artillery on both sides opened up. Heavy hand-to-hand exploded as fires caught the surrounding woods aflame. Survivors remembered, “The rebs came up yelling as if they’d got a special license to thrash us.” “The surroundings were appalling. The men knew that everyone was getting to the rear, that soon the bridges would be cut away and their only chance of escape was gone.” “Our men were falling like game before hunters and still no relief and no orders.”

In reality, Barlow had given orders to those regiments still left in the trenches, but in the chaos of the moment, dispatches and messengers never reached their destination. The order had been given to pull out toward a clearing where the pontoons were set up and many “unstrapped our blankets from our knapsacks and spread them over our heads and shoulders to protect us from the flames. It took fully ten minutes or more of blindly groping and butting against trees to read the clearing, and then only to be fired upon by the Confederates, who in the meantime had taken advantage of our confusion to advance their lines.” Two regiments, the 148th Pennsylvania and 64th New York had been completely left behind, but managed to slug their way across the river without the use of the pontoons.

Brookes would sum up the poorly planned escapade, “In retiring to the Po my command crossed a wide plain, swept by the enemy’s artillery and infantry from the front and left flank, but not withstanding the enemy and the burning forest, we retired with a scarcely perceptible break in our lines. Many of the gallant wounded perished in the flames.” Miles’ brigade was the last to cross and the pontoons were cut. McIntosh’s artillery crossed the Block House Bridge to point northeast toward the Union lines while Early moved into Barlow’s former earthworks to finally secure Lee’s left flank.

General Gouverneur Warren

With Hancock busy on the Union right, Warren was put in charge of the remnants of the II Corps, along with his own. Eager to make up for his poor performance as of late, Warren made a special request to Grant and Meade to take both corps and make a charge against Confederate General Charles Field’s division across from his position before the appointed time of the assault that would have been made in conjuncture with the VI Corps… They agreed… (This can’t end well.)

“Every man in the ranks saw the folly in the attempt,” one soldier said. “I observed the countenance of the officers, from colonels down, and I must say that there were the longest faces upon this occasion of any previous one; and the experience they had had upon this same field two days before, was not calculated to light them up with a smile.” Just about every mother’s son in that corps knew that they would be slaughtered if they made that charge. One survivor remembered, “Comrades gave messages to comrades for the loved ones at home; no jest or gay banter now; every face wears a serious but determined look; that strange hush which precedes a battle was over all.”

To make matters worse, Birney’s division of the II Corps were called away to help with Barlow’s retreat, and for no apparent reason, Charles Griffin’s division on the far left of the V Corps’ line was ordered not to participate in the assault. So the divisions under Gibbon (II Corps), Samuel Crawford, and Lysander Cutler advanced onto the killing field. The number of troops didn’t fairly matter anyway, as one participant said, “Not enough human beings could pass through that deadly storm of musket balls and cannister to reach the crest of the hill or do anything but surrender when they got there.”

Along with that, all three divisions would have to pass through a tough stretch of dead cedar trees that might as well have acted like abatis. Gibbon recorded, “At the given signal the men moved forward, made a feasible effort to get through the woods and stem the storm of bullets hurled against them, then gave it up.” The loss of life in that pointless, unsupported charge against impregnable earthworks was keenly felt by the corps. “Some portions of the corps advanced to the abatis, others halted part way and discharged a few volleys, but speedily the whole line fell back with terrible loss.” Years after the battle, a veteran would write, “Let the fault lie where it will. There is a just God that knows, and the shrieks and groans of the traitor’s victims should follow him to his grave, and a common hell would be too good for him.”

One fortunate thing was that the victorious Confederates allowed the Federals to retrieve the wounded and dead from the field. They, too, realized the immense carnage that was unleashed that afternoon. This early deployment of the II and V Corps would have repercussions later, since Grant’s unified assault was still on the schedule for 5pm. Only, since Barlow’s division wouldn’t return from the Po River until that time, Grant delayed that assault until 6pm, still rather late in the day for any achievable gain.

And even if the time wasn’t a deterring factor, the lack of communication and support across his line would spell further disaster for the Union army. The modified plan was for Hancock to lead the II and V Corps in another charge against Field’s works, while Emory Upton of the VI Corps would take a crack team of twelve regiments (three lines of four) and punch a hole through a minor salient within a salient where George Doles’ brigade of Georgians were situated. Then, Gershom Mott’s division would sweep in to support Upton once the breach was made. The tough part was that Mott didn’t get the memo that the assault launch-time had been postponed an hour. Also, his line was so strung out because he had gotten orders earlier in the day to try and connect with Burnside’s corps on the far left. His picket line of 1500 was hardly equipped for making a full-on assault against the salient, and even if he could, he’d have to sweep to the west to where Upton was attacking, making himself open to all sorts of attention from Ewell’s troops. On top of all that, the hole that Upton would be making wouldn’t even be there since their time tables were screwed up.

General Gershom Mott

Mott made the charge from their headquarters around the Brown house further north, but “On reaching the open field, the enemy opened his batteries, enfilading our lines and causing our men to fall back in confusion.” The troops whose service was coming to an end soon would withdraw all the way to the Brown house again, the attack an utter failure and leaving Upton without the support he would need in the next hour.

The notion of punching through the Union line with a concentrated attack had been Upton’s idea, so who better to lead the men on the assault? The success of this maneuver hinged heavily on the reliability of support to dive in and widen the breach, as well as the determination and tenacity of the men creating the initial breach. A Union artillery barrage practically announced the coming wave of blue, and once the guns were silenced, the Confederates tensed for the blow. Doles threw out skirmishers, and one southerner noted, “For a moment, a death-like stillness [hung] over the lines.”

On the Federal side, another soldier braced for impact. “I felt my gorge rise, and my stomach and intestines shrink together in a knot, and a thousand things rushed through my mind. Like one man, that immense mass of thousands of men rose up, and instantly were met by a severe and staggering fire.” The mass of men ran for the works, under orders not to fire until they reached their objective. Two Confederate volleys were released before the Federals mounted the works and poured in. Soldiers fanned out to the left and right, fighting like mad to clear the works. It was then that they realized they weren’t just taking one line. They would have to conquer three to fully penetrate the Rebel line.

The fighting devolved into a tangled, bloody, savage melee. Doles’ men were captured wholesale and sent to the other side, rendering the Rebel guns helpless as they didn’t want to fire on their own men. Feds overtook these guns as well and endeavored to spike them, though many of the artillerymen had fled with the ramming rods, making them useless anyway. Lee sent men from other parts of the salient to rush in and mend the breach. Ewell was virtually everywhere, rearranging men to plug the hole and send Upton’s men back over the works. “The Yankees fought with unusual desperation and where the artillery was, contended as stubbornly for it as though it was their own.” An Alabamian wrote that the “immense volumes of smoke which rose from the musketry so darkened [the sun’s] rays as to give the appearance of a bright moon-shining night.”

Without Mott’s support, Upton’s breakthrough couldn’t last forever. The three Vermont regiments he had in reserve, “without waiting for orders (for I certainly heard no order but ‘halt’, and I know of no one that did) they rushed in.” The commander of this charge wrote after the war that, “the twelve regiments had become mixed up so that there was not a single unit under my control.” Upton asked for permission to withdraw and it was readily granted. The Vermonters were the last to vacate the rebel works, and that was reluctantly.

Upton’s assault was over by 7:30pm. Before the charge, a promise had been made that Upton would get his stars if he could carry the works. This promise was fulfilled, though the endeavor was only halfway successful. Two lines of entrenchments had been taken and nearly half a mile of ground had been claimed – momentarily – by the Union army, proving that it could be done. It was the farthest any unit had come to completely breaking the Confederates since the battle began. Finger pointing still ensued, mostly toward Mott who was supposed to be there. Given the circumstances, he could hardly be blamed. Others remarked, “This would not have happened if Uncle John had not been killed.” Either way, the notion that a concentrated, all-out charge could potentially crumble the Confederate defenses had been tested and proven. Grant would remember it.

On the other side of the line, Grant was ready to try at Field’s portion of the line again. When the news came to charge the same fortifications, hearts died in their chests. “The men regarded the effort as hopeless from the start, and officers failed to secure any enthusiasm in their troops,” one chaplain recorded. Crawford anguished, “This is sheer madness. I tell you this is sheer madness, and can only end in wanton slaughter and certain repulse.”

Thankfully, they learned their lesson. Griffin, who had witnessed the earlier debacle, didn’t leave his earthworks. Cutler received orders that the charge was called off (though it wasn’t). One soldier of the division wrote, “I do not know how many bullets passed within a few inches of my body or how many hundreds passed within a few feet of me, but this much I do know – I can never go nearer the jaws of death and come out unscathed than I did on the 10th of May, 1864, at Laurel Hill, Virginia.”

Crawford made some effort in the charge, but came reeling back to the safety of the woods, despite Warren’s best efforts to rally them. Gibbon’s men uttered grumblings about the order, but none budged, knowing it would be suicide to try and carry the works again.

Men under Brigadier General J.H Hobart Ward, the only brigade of Birney’s division to contribute to the charge, were fresh and knew little about the disaster from a couple of hours before. Their charge was similarly executed as Upton’s. They ran across the expanse without firing a shot, breached the works for only a moment, but were forced back due to a lack of support. The fighting, too, was just as heavy and horrific with the air “full of bullets as honey bees at swarming time.” Though the assault failed and Ward’s men limped back to safety, it made Field sweat a bit as the Federals finally managed to break his line with no reserves to spare.

But of all the failures that day, the lack of gumption on the Union left flank might be considered one of the greatest missed opportunities of the campaign. Lee’s right flank was only defended by one division under Cadmus Wilcox, facing down the majority of the IX Corps with Burnside. But due to faulty intelligence and a want of initiative on the part of the Federals, next to nothing was exploited in this sector of the line.

In the morning, just as Mott had been trying to do, Burnside was ordered to try and connect with the rest of the army on his right. A thin line of pickets were all that he had between himself and Mott, but the Union high command expected him to be ready to move at a moment’s notice to assist on that section of the battlefield. Before noon, Burnside would also lose one of his more capable division commanders, as Thomas Stevenson was shot through the head while lounging with some of his staff beneath a shady tree. Command of his division was given to Daniel Leasure, but Burnside was less than confident in his abilities to lead. As a result, Burnside broke off his brigades and lent them to other divisions, one to Mott and one to Orlando Willcox.

When the time came (5pm) to make his advance down Fredericksburg Road, Burnside relegated the third of Leasure’s brigades to the rear. With Burnside being Burnside, though, his corps was not in formation until an hour later at 6pm. Cadmus Wilcox maintained a secure hold on the road with his barricade defenses and stalled the Union corps. Off to the northwest, they could all hear the din of battle as Upton’s assault was launched.

Grant then sent new orders for Burnside to make every effort to connect with Horatio Wright’s VI Corps and the orders were given to Willcox to retire from the road. So, the one weak point that Grant had been looking for all day, was totally passed up. With enough pressure and the right intel, he could have broken through the Confederate back door and done serious damage to Lee’s forces. But before any of that could be discovered, Early recalled Heth from the left flank around the Po and sent him back to join Wilcox, reinforcing the line.

In all, Grant had tried to deal some hard blows that didn’t coordinate perfectly. On the night of the 9th, Hancock crossed the Po River too late to do any good and only served to set the Confederates on high alert to that portion of their line, hence the reshuffling of Early’s divisions. If he had struck the following morning with plenty of daylight to burn, he might have had a better chance at Anderson’s exposed flank if Lee didn’t move anyone in to intercept. Grant, too, had shot himself in the foot by allowing Sheridan to go galivanting off to attack Confederate cavalry commander JEB Stuart. Though this also left Lee without his master cavalryman, it left Grant without reliable scouts to tell him what was happening across the line. Poor communication between his commanders and officers didn’t improve the situation. His assaults were not in synch and too isolated.

Lee was on the defensive, and though he did it well, it deprived him of taking any of the initiative, which he needed in order to have any kind of advantage in the grand scheme of things. When Lee held the initiative, he held it well and it could turn the tide of a battle. At 8pm, the best he could do was tell Ewell to strengthen his works and make that salient like a rock that the Union would break themselves against when the next assault came. And he knew it would come. It was only a matter of time.

(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

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