The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

At Spotsylvania, Virginia, within miles of the Confederate capital, the rebels had constructed the strongest defensive position yet in the war. Robert E. Lee, despite any evidence of a Union movement in that direction, presciently ordered his men to the town as it was the “best strategic point” for the federals.[i] Ulysses S. Grant, continuing his offensive into southern territory, opted to divide his men for both a flank maneuver around the fieldworks and a direct attack on them.

John Sedgwick. By: Mathew Brady.

The Confederate works had allowed for rebel sharpshooters, with their “imported Whitworth rifles” and “telescopic sights,” to “draw a bead on anything blue that moved.”[ii] Even with the distance being as far as half a mile, the federal soldiers felt their morale sag as they regularly were “ducking and dodging” to the great frustration of their commander, John Sedgwick, known to his men as “Uncle John.”[iii] He exclaimed to his men: “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”[iv] He repeated himself, laughing this time: “I am ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”[v] Just minutes later, Sedgwick’s chief of staff heard a crack and watched Sedgwick stiffen, “slowly turn his head to show blood spurting from a half-inch hole just under his left eye,” and fall forward.[vi] He did not speak again but “smiled strangely” and within minutes was dead to the great shock of his men.[vii] One of the most valorous generals on the Union side and the “best-loved general in the army” was gone, and “spirits were heavy with intimations of mortality.”[viii]

Grant, upon learning of Sedgwick’s death asked twice: “Is he really dead?”[ix] He noted that his death was worse “than the loss of a whole division” as he “was never at fault when serious work was to be done.”[x] With one his best generals gone, he chose Winfield Scott Hancock to lead an attack on the Confederate left, but because Hancock and his men had to twice cross a river, Lee had sufficient time to send two divisions and repulse the advance.[xi] Simultaneous to Hancock’s maneuver, Grant ordered five divisions to attack the left-center of the rebel entrenchments, but the assault was fruitless: Lee had shifted reinforcements from the right side of the line.[xii]

On May 10, a Union Colonel, Emory Upton, led twelve regiments organized in four lines to the high ground known as the Mule Shoe to attack the center of the Confederate line.[xiii] The charge started in “200 yards of open ground” and, as the soldiers came near the works, they broke into a run.[xiv] Belting out screams as they advanced in a narrow formation, the first Union line broke through and fanned out to secure the breach and were soon followed by the second line which made its way to the next “network of trenches a hundred yards farther on” backed by the third and fourth lines.[xv] The incisive attack allowed the federals to take 1,000 prisoners—causing Grant to send a message saying, “Push on with all vigor”—and push on they did for they continued their fight until artillery shells came raining down on them; Upton’s men were “a half-mile from their own lines” and could not survive a rebel counterattack.[xvi] They had no choice but to retreat as darkness was falling and they had already lost a quarter of their men as casualties in the assault.[xvii]

Casualty at Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Seeing Upton’s attack as a model, Grant drew up a plan to send a whole corps through Lee’s line—Grant remarked while puffing a cigar, “A brigade today, we’ll try a corps tomorrow”—and rebel intelligence would not help Lee to prepare: rebel patrols saw Union supply wagons on the move and predicted another attempted flank on Lee’s rear, causing Lee to remove twenty-two guns to prepare for a counterattack.[xviii] Before Lee’s men moved the artillery, 15,000 federal troops were already preparing to attack. Confederate soldiers heard a slow, steady rumble through the woods that some analogized to the “muffled thunder of a waterfall” or the “grinding of a powerful machine.”[xix] Then, as the intensity of the noise grew, out came the Union troops charging with their “deep-chested roar”—as opposed to their adversaries’ “high-throated scream” known as the rebel yell—into the Confederate trenches, capturing guns and prisoners but more importantly splitting Lee’s army in two parts.[xx] Lee rallied his men for a counterattack, and a division of Virginians and Georgians surged forward into a “disorganized mass” of Union soldiers who jumped into the trenches and sought to stand their ground using the works their adversaries had built.[xxi] For eighteen hours, with rain falling in sheets on the battlefield, the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania was the site of “some of the war’s most horrific fighting”: soldiers on both sides would take turns leaping onto the parapet and firing down on their enemies until shot down or bayoneted, and the storm of minié balls was so thick that it cut down an oak tree nearly two feet in diameter.[xxii] Whereas some fell from exhaustion and overexertion of their nerves, one man stopped fighting to rummage through an abandoned knapsack for a fresh set of clothes, underwear and all, and changed into them only to return to the battle.[xxiii] One Union officer wrote: “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania because I should be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed.”[xxiv] These were the “red hours” of the war: “hours no man who survived them would forget, even in his sleep, forever after.”[xxv] Well into the night, perhaps realizing the futility of the bloodshed without territorial gain or loss, Lee ordered his survivors to fall back and form a line half a mile away.[xxvi] During the following week, Grant and Lee continued the fight in the vicinity of Spotsylvania, but even with additional Union casualties, the rebels did not cede ground, and a short reprieve came in the fighting.[xxvii] Back at the Bloody Angle were bodies “piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation.”[xxviii] Spread throughout the “fast-decaying corpses” were “convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies,” showing that there remained wounded men “struggling to extricate themselves from their horrid entombment.”[xxix]

Injured Soldiers from the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

The day before, Grant had sent a dispatch to Washington that found its way into newspapers throughout the northern states: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”[xxx] A feeling of jubilation spread as headlines in Union newspapers read, “Glorious Successes,” “Lee Terribly Beaten,” and “The End Draws Near.”[xxxi] There was a feeling that Unconditional Surrender Grant, as he was christened after his taking of Fort Donelson, was representative of northern resolve to achieve a total victory.[xxxii] One reporter recalled that “everybody seemed to think that Grant would close the war and enter Richmond before the autumn leaves began to fall.”[xxxiii] Others were not making predictions but reflecting on the gravity of the fighting: a New Yorker wrote that “the destinies of the continent for centuries” would be decided.[xxxiv] In the south, reports had ranged from the high of Lee’s early days of success in the Wilderness to “feverish anxiety” as the rebels fell back to Spotsylvania with Union cavalry approaching Richmond.[xxxv] Abraham Lincoln told a group of serenaders that had come to the White House, “I am very glad at what has happened; but there is a great deal still to be done.”[xxxvi]

The fighting had taken a toll on both sides, however: officers and soldiers alike suffered from “shell shock.”[xxxvii] Two Confederate generals, A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell, broke down and even Lee “fell sick for a week.”[xxxviii] One Union officer observed that the fighting in May 1864 had left men “thin and haggard” with the “experience of those twenty days” seeming to add “twenty years to their age.”[xxxix] Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote: Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind & body.”[xl]

[i] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 191.

[ii] See id. at 202.

[iii] See id. at 202-03.

[iv] Id. at 203.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 728.

[xii] Id. at 728-29.

[xiii] Id. at 729.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.; Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. II, 993.

[xvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 729.

[xviii] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 210.

[xix] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 215.

[xx] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 729.

[xxi] Id. at 730.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 222.

[xxiv] Id. at 730-31 (citing Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, [Garden City, N.Y., 1957], 127; Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command, [Boston, 1968], 235; C. Norton Galloway, “Hand-to-Hand Fighting at Spotsylvania,” Battles and Leaders, IV, 174).

[xxv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 221.

[xxvi] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 731.

[xxvii] Id. at 733.

[xxviii] Henry Steele Commager, The Blue and the Gray, Vol. II, 996.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 731.

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] See Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 212.

[xxxiii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 731. (citing War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 36, pt. 2, p. 672; Allan Nevins, The War for the Union, [New York, 1971], IV, 35; Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time [New York, 1895], 148-49).

[xxxiv] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 731.

[xxxv] See id.

[xxxvi] Id. (quoting Noah Brooks, Washington in Lincoln’s Time [New York, 1895], 149).

[xxxvii] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 734.

[xxxviii] Id.

[xxxix] Id. (citing Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, [Garden City, N.Y., 1957], 138).

[xl] Mark DeWolfe Howe, ed., Touched with Fire; Civil War Letters and Diary of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1861-1864 (Cambridge, Mass., 1946), 149-50.

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