Battles in the East

The Final Week of Bloodshed – Conclusion to Spotsylvania

The fight thus far at Spotsylvania had been nothing short of a slaughter house. The continuous fighting for twenty hours at the Bloody Angle was the pinnacle of that slaughter with 17,000 casualties in all.

Who was to blame? Many pointed fingers at Lieutenant General Ulysses Grant’s “grit of a bulldog” as Abraham Lincoln called it. “Once let him get his ‘teeth’ in, and nothing can shake him off.” Grant’s determination to “fight it out if it takes all summer” mentality supported that image. While that can be an overall positive quality in a commanding general (better than retreating at the drop of a hat), the Army of the Potomac suffered for his impulsive orders that were executed without the level of planning and recon that George Gordon Meade might have implemented if he were in full command. But it was because of Meade’s caution that Grant thought it necessary to take the lead, tasking Meade to simply make sure that his orders were carried out. The only bit of luck that was on his side at the Bloody Angle lay in the heavy mist that shrouded the field that early morning, the fact that the Confederate’s powder had become wet from the rain, and Robert Lee had withdrawn the artillery from the salient at the worst possible time.

But the fighting at the Bloody Angle might have gone differently if Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps had some better direction on what exactly their plan had been. Yes, they were ordered to attack en masse, and they did, but then what? Organization dissolved once the line was broken and there was little exploitation of that break following the assault. The lack of direct communication between Grant and his corps commanders also crippled any effort to adequately reinforce or hammer at the right spot. Messages were sent via telegraph and couriers. If Grant or Meade had personally visited the sites, they might have had a better understanding of what was going on and how to properly react.

Worst of all was the total absence of cavalry on the Union side. Phillip Sheridan had been given leave to pursue JEB Stuart and done some considerable damage at Yellow Tavern on May 11th, but he left Grant blind to the Confederate’s position. Multiple times, Grant had assumed Lee was moving troops from one part of his line to another when that was simply not the case. An example lay at the Po River on May 10th. He thought that Lee had pulled some of Richard Ewell’s Second Corps from the salient to meet the threat on his left when Hancock made to cross and roll up Richard Anderson’s First Corps at Laurel Hill. This was not true at all and if he had realized that Lee actually had weakened his right flank and taken two divisions from his Third Corps under Jubal Early, Grant might have pressed Ambrose Burnside a little harder to attack on that front. This piece of information could have saved lives, and then Grant wouldn’t have sent Emory Upton’s attack force to punch through the “weakened” salient. (My point: Cavalry is important and no one can convince me otherwise)

Similarly, blame can be found a little further down the food chain in the corps commanders. Hancock was accused of not pushing his corps after the breakthrough, but simply letting them there to figure it out for themselves. Horatio Wright (new commander of the VI Corps after John Sedgwick was killed) didn’t properly manage the reinforcements he was given at the angle in the afternoon. Gouverneur Warren’s performance with the V Corps was erratic, making charge after charge at Laurel Hill’s strong defenses, and then balking at orders to attack once he found out that doesn’t really work out too well. And then Burnside… Burnside was doing “Burnside things” (as I affectionately relate to my husband when I have to explain ANYTHING Burnside does). His reticence and inability to be controlled by Grant’s incessant orders ensured that the perfect opportunities to obliterate Lee’s line were completely squandered. The above-mentioned example when Early’s corps were weak, Burnside didn’t give his all into any substantial assault on the Confederate right when the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.

Despite all of this, Grant was unfailingly optimistic and even recommended Meade for a promotion, while Meade was looking for an opportunity to resign.

The Army of Northern Virginia now had a taste of what Grant’s tenacity would mean for them in the coming months. A Virginian wrote home after the fighting, “Grant has shown no remarkable generalship – only a bull-dog tenacity and determination in a fight, regardless of the consequences of the loss. If it required the loss of twenty-five thousand to rob us of six thousand he was doing a wise thing for we yield our loss from an irreplaceable penury, he from super abundance. Ultimately, such bloody policy must win.” The Army of the Potomac, as well, were beginning to see what all the hype was about. A colonel from Maine wrote, “There is no enthusiasm in the army of Gen. Grant, and on the other hand, there is no prejudice against him. We are prepared to throw up our hats for him when he shows himself the great soldier here in Virginia against Lee and the best troops of the rebels.”

Lee, on the other hand, had done rather well in the fight. He, unlike Grant, rode wherever the hardest fighting was and commanded the field himself when needed. He wasn’t afraid to pull troops from one side of his line to reinforce another, as May 12th demonstrated. Two things kept this from being a completely flawless engagement in Lee’s orchestration. One lay in the timing of Anderson’s move from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania. If Anderson had followed them precisely and left at 3am, he wouldn’t have made it in time to stop Warren from taking the high ground at Laurel Hill. Luckily, Anderson took the ball and ran with it, leaving early and arriving early. Anderson also showed quick-thinking in sending bits of his command to help bolster the threatened line at Laurel Hill, saving the position from total capture.

The other lay in the decision to pull out the artillery from the salient just before Ewell would need it the most. Grant’s moves on his flanks (Burnside scooching north and Hancock’s trip through the night to reach the Brown House) sent up red flags that Lee would need to move quickly to gain the initiative before the Union army had a chance to pull away toward Fredericksburg. Lee had the advantage whenever he was given the initiative and that chance had been deprived from him the entire campaign thus far. In this desperate move, Lee left his salient even more vulnerable than it already was. If artillery had been present, Hancock’s attack may have never reached (or at least slowed) the Mule Shoe and it wouldn’t have been renamed the “Bloody Angle”.

Little fault could be found in Anderson or Early. They had both shown he could be flexible with his troops (they moved all over the line). The only issue with Ewell could be that he didn’t act with the kind of promptness that was necessitated by the threats to his line. When word came from Edward “Allegheny” Johnson in the salient that troops were amassing on the night of May 11th, he didn’t send immediate word for the artillery to be brought back up. While it arrived just in time the following morning as the breakthrough was underway, a few hours of hustle would have done them some good.

Nearly all could agree that the battle at Spotsylvania thus far had been absolute hell. The “severest battle” that many had fought in through the entirety of the war. And still, they were optimistic. Lee’s men had left the salient for a stronger, better line that connected between Anderson’s right flank and Early’s left. This ridge overlooked a field several yards in front where they could fire upon any advancing bluecoats with total efficiency.

On the other hand, Meade congratulated his men on this “decided victory”, saying “Your heroic deeds and noble endurance of fatigue and privations will ever be memorable. Let us determine then to continue vigorously the work so well begun, and, under God’s blessing, in a short time the object of our labors will be accomplished.” With Lee’s army practically gutted and forced to stay on the defensive, these might have been encouraging words. But the ball was still in Grant’s court. What would he do with it?

Grant knew he couldn’t get anywhere in Spotsylvania Court House as the lines were. Still, he made preparations to move elsewhere. On May 13th, he ordered the V and VI Corps to circle around Burnside’s IX Corps and strike at Lee’s less-defended right flank and rear. This made Hancock’s II Corps the new Union right and Wright the new Union left. A new assault would be made on May 14th toward a particular piece of high ground that would become known as Myers Hill. But more rain created more mud and the going was rough for these troops working to get into position.

2,500 of Warren’s men were ready to go by dawn while the rest of the corps were still mired down. The 91st Pennsylvania and 14th New York made a reconnaissance in force toward the hill and found it already occupied by the 9th Virginia. The Confederates were pushed off and the Federals took possession of the hill and the house. They swiftly took advantage of the position and moved artillery up while sharpshooters took aim from inside the home. Emory Upton, now promoted – thanks to his performance earlier that week – sent four brigades toward the Confederate line. They soon came into contact with more earthworks and barricades.

Jubal Early sent in a brigade, dismounted cavalry, and four pieces of artillery to try and sweep the hill. The few regiments were outnumbered and unable to hold the hill for long against the tide of gray coming toward them. They fall back and Confederates pursue just as Meade is coming up with the rest of the corps. That tide of gray receded as Wright and the rest of Warren’s corps stormed up to reclaim and hold the hill for the rest of the engagement.

Now, Grant had an undisrupted supply line down the Fredericksburg Road and an open path to Richmond, should he choose to continue south. But Lee was in his front and that’s where he would concentrate. The only thing stopping him now was the rain. Buckets of it. Horace Porter put it well when he wrote, “An ordinary rain, lasting for a day or two, does not embarrass troops. But when the storm continues for a week it becomes one of the most serious obstacles in a campaign. The men can secure no proper shelter and no comfortable rest; their clothing has no chance to dry; and a tramp of a few miles through tenacious mud requires as much exertion as an ordinary day’s march. Tents become saturated and weighted with water, and draft animals have increased loads and heavier roads over which to haul them. Dry wood cannot be found; cooking becomes difficult; the men’s spirits are affected by the gloom, and even the most buoyant natures become disheartened.”

For three days, the roads in and around Spotsylvania became impassable. In that time, he set himself to studying the situation and asked for more reinforcements from Washington. Lee, too, studied Grant to try and figure out what he may do next. He mirrored Grant’s move and shifted Anderson from Laurel Hill to the other side of Early’s flank, extending his line further south as if he were going to block the path to Richmond. His new headquarters were set up on the corner of Fredericksburg Road and Brock Road, just in front of the modern day courthouse. All the while, the Confederates strengthened their line, resembling very much what we know the World War I trenches would have looked like in Europe about fifty years later. Abatis and thick earthen walls made his lines nigh impregnable.

Grant, however, didn’t know that. He assumed that Lee had centralized all of his forces along the Brock Road to defend Spotsylvania. To his thinking, that meant the flanks were vulnerable. If Sheridan still weren’t further south, he could have sent in some cavalry to inspect this first before making plans. Instead, he swapped his troops again. Warren was to slip to the right to join Hancock in an assault across the very ground where so many had already died. They were going back to the Bloody Angle. Only now, it wasn’t an angle and the bodies that they had buried in shallow graves had been washed up to the surface by the torrential rains. For the divisions under Gibbon, Barlow, and Neil, the assault would be nightmarish. Not just because of the black, bloated, decomposing bodies, but because Ewell’s men were plenty rested and ready for a fight.

At 4:30am on May 18th, as the Federals approached the McCoull House, the former center of the Bloody Angle, they were met by skirmishers and an artillery barrage that forced them to retreat back to their lines. Union guns responded to the Confederates, executing one of the more massive artillery exchanges of the Civil War – next to the prelude to Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. W.T.G. Morton, a Union surgeon, wrote of the attack, “Who does not believe it seemed a lifetime to many of those men, who, with bent body an erect bayonet, won their perilous way, foot by foot, through whistling balls, bursting shells gnawing grape.” In the wake of the bombardment, he said, “It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled, ‘Bloody Spotsylvania’.”

Burnside had been ordered to attack Heth’s Salient – again. Divisions under Crittendon and Potter ran into two brigades of North Carolinians and Georgians. They managed to get much closer to the Confederate works, but after a few hours of combat, Grant called off the assault. By 10am, everyone was back where they were. “No attempt ever more completely failed,” said a Union soldier. “We went in, lost some men and came out again – that is all there was to it.”

Grant (back turned and bent over pew) conferring with Meade

Grant might have just realized that he was getting practically nowhere in Spotsylvania. Meade wrote to his wife, “We found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall.” Plans were made for Wright to move his corps – again – around the Federal line to the left and down Massaponax Church Road. Lee, likewise, reflected Grant’s maneuver and sent Ewell from the Confederate left and all the way around the Union flank. On May 19th, they ran into bluecoats guarding the supply train along the Fredericksburg Road. This line of pickets were made up of “heavies”, or heavy artillerist that had been sent from Washington to reinforce Grant. Even though they were trained as infantry, many of these troops would see their first bit of combat at Spotsylvania against veteran Confederates. A Union artillerist remembered, “They consequently went in very much jumbled up, and doubtless did fire at our own men in some few cases… Our loss was probably double what it would have been had the officers seen more service.”

Ramseur with two of John B. Gordon’s brigades easily rolled up this thin defense and intercepted a wagon train making its way down Fredericksburg Road to resupply the Federal army. Unable to pass up the chance to pillage, the Confederates raided the supply train, even as more reinforcements from the north began making their way to Grant.

The commotion toward their right and rear sent some alarm through the high command and elements of all three corps were thrown up to resist Ewell’s efforts. Lee, too, ordered in some of Early’s corps to help, but Hancock had him blocked. Ewell was on his own until the fading of the light allowed his troops to slip away. Ewell’s failed attack would be yet another mark against him, but sickness would remove him from service before Lee could have the chance later in the campaign.

By May 20th, the fighting around Spotsylvania had drawn to a close. The casualty figures loomed large over the last couple of weeks. The Confederates lost somewhere between 10,000 – 12,000 since May 7th, while the Union army lost around 18,000. All killed, wounded, captured, or missing.

With the Confederates back in their trenches and the battlefront quiet for the time being, Grant resumed his new circulative route further east and south. This feign toward Richmond was designed to get Lee out of his earthworks and onto open ground where Grant could minister the final blow. For the most part, it worked. Hancock acted as a decoy down Massaponax Church Road and Warren followed, while Burnside slipped south down Telegraph Road. Lee saw it coming and responded by also sending his troops south to intercept.

The race to North Anna River had begun.

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