In a previous blog post pertaining to traveling to battlefields, I stressed the point to always, ALWAYS do your research before going so you won’t inadvertently miss any important or interesting spots in the park. Well, I didn’t take my own advice last year when trekking through the Overland Campaign battlefields. I missed quite a bit at Spotsylvania and I’m kicking myself for not being more diligent in my planning. However, in my defense, I only had an hour, we had to get somewhere by a certain time, and we had just come from the Wilderness battlefield, so we were a little tuckered out.
That being said, I did get to visit two points of interest that should definitely not be missed.
On May 10th, Emory Upton was given the task of taking his 12 regiments of 5,000 troops to slam into the western side of the salient that had been formed by the Confederates. He would be throwing his troops headlong toward Brigadier General Junius Doles’ three regiments of Georgians defending that stretch of the line. Visitors to the Spotsylvania Battlefield Park can walk the trail called “Upton’s Approach” and follow in the footsteps of those regiments as they made their advance. This action, though not an overall success, gave Ulysses S. Grant the right strategy to break the Confederate line. He would implement this all-out punching tactic again with Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps on the morning of May 12th.
You can walk this short trail from the park’s driving tour stop #2 to Upton’s monument, which gives the regimental list of the Union side and Confederate side of the attack. This monument was dedicated in 1994. Along the way to the monument and tree line, you can catch glimpses of old Union rifle pits and the farm road that Upton would have used in his advance. If you cross the open field toward what remains of the Confederate earthworks, you’ll see how different the terrain varies between the right and left flank of the attack. Always keep terrain in mind when on the battlefield. Cannons within the earthworks today represent where the Virginia Howitzers were set up that morning, and also marks the high watermark of Upton’s attack.
The second point of interest that I squeezed in was the Bloody Angle. You can either walk from the end of Upton’s approach to the left (north) as I did, or walk back to your car and drive to tour stop #3 on the park map. This spot marks where the Union attacked on the morning of May 12th, 1864 with four divisions, the entirety of the II Corps against Richard Ewell’s Second Corps within the salient. There are a few monuments here, one to the 15th New Jersey, the 49th New York, and to Brigadier Samuel McGowan’s South Carolina brigade. You can distinctly see the Confederate earthworks, but for the love of all that is sacred and historical, do NOT walk on them. Use the bridge to cross over them safely to view the two Union monuments. These trenches would have been piled high with the dead and wounded as the battle progressed through the morning and afternoon. Then, walk toward the expanse of open ground that the II Corps would have had to charge across on that misty morning.
Follow the path down the ravine. Imagine what it would have been like that day, with the rain pouring down and the earth becoming marshy and muddy. At the top of the ridge opposite the Confederate works/salient, you can go left or right to follow the Union line. I recommend going to the right toward the Landrum House site. Further into the woods going north would be Hancock’s approach and the former site of the Brown House that served as his headquarters, but it’s now taken up by modern development.
Looking back toward the salient, you can really get a feel for the terrain and the scope of the battle, as all of this would have been covered in Federals for over 20 hours of intense fighting.
You can walk the trail back to the salient and continue around the entirety of the Confederate line to the left, seeing the place where General Johnson was captured, the furthest point of penetration by the Union army, the McCoull house site, Harrison House site, and Lee’s “last line” of defense where Confederates retreated to on the morning of May 13th. I highly recommend you make time to walk these trails and see these points of interest on the battlefield.
You can find a general map and driving tour details at the Exhibit Shelter. At the shelter, you’ll find a basic overview of the battle. A short walk from the parking lot here, you can see General John Sedgwick’s mortuary monument, which is an approximate location of where he was shot early in the battle. Another walking trail continues across the intersection to Spindle Field, where heavy fighting occurred between Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Richard Anderson’s First Corps around Laurel Hill. Recreated earthworks along Anderson Drive can give an excellent, hands-on visual of the kind of fortifications that made Lee’s position nearly impenetrable. Another great asset for your trip is the Emerging Civil War book titled “A Season of Slaughter: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, May 8 – 21, 1864” by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher White. On page 65 is an excellent map showing all of these little trails and markers.
And if you’re not able to see the places in person (which is a bummer) the NPS website offers a Virtual Tour of the battlefield with some great pictures. You can find it here: https://www.nps.gov/frsp/learn/photosmultimedia/virtualspot.htm
Some other pictures from the battlefield: