Preservation News: CVBT Preserves New Ground at Spotsylvania Battlefield

Our friends at the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust have been hard at work acquiring and preserving more ground on the Spotsylvania battlefield. Last March, we told you a little bit about their work preserving a tract along the Brock Road near Laurel Hill. Last week, they sent the following update to us about the property and the events it witnessed during the battle 154 years ago. As always, you can support the Central Virginia Battlefield Trust in their efforts by visiting their website, CVBT.

The CVBT’s newly acquired property along Brock Road was closely associated with the first day’s fighting on May 8, 1864, when the Union assaulted Laurel Hill at the battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. Several accounts by contemporaneous figures locate the property in conjunction with the fighting.

The property acquired by CVBT can best be described as roughly rectangular, with a rise (currently occupied by an abandoned house of no historical value) on the north where the property runs along Brock Road, a gradual downward slope dropping approximately forty feet over a tenth of a mile to a creek, and then rising gradually again to connect with the National Park Service land at Hancock Road where the main Union entrenchments
were later made. To understand the character of the hurried advances across the terrain, it is crucial to understand the opening stages of infantry fighting on May 8.

After several small delaying actions by Confederate cavalry, which caused a major bottleneck for the Federal army coming down Brock Road, the engagement began in earnest with the exhausted advance of first Peter Lyle’s and then Andrew Denison’s brigades across Sarah Spindle’s field. Their advances occurred east of CVBT’s property. The troops were exhausted from intermittently marching and standing since 9:00 p.m. the
previous night. On top of that, the day was rapidly heating up, with temperatures in excess of 90 degrees.

Lyle’s advance on the Spindle field would be checked by the 3rd South Carolina, which only managed to reach their key position when the Federal troops were sixty yards away. Denison’s brigade would advance under the personal command of division commander John C. Robinson. The brigade broke into a panic as some of the first ranks stopped to fire while their comrades behind them pushed through, breaking unit cohesion. Officers
lost control of their men. Robinson was shot out of the saddle 50 yards from the Confederate position, later losing his leg. Denison simultaneously was shot, later losing his arm.

Because of the bottleneck along Brock Road, the reinforcements of Joseph Bartlett’s brigade (of Griffin’s Division rather than Robinson’s) quickly formed into line of battle along the road in the vicinity of the north end of CVBT’s new property. Rather than coming up the road into the rear of the units already engaged, they aimed to come into the right of Denison. These troops were no better rested. The preceding march had been punctuated with “starts and stops” resulting in a “dilatory pace…well calculated to aggravate weariness,” as Eugene Nash of the 44th New York recorded. One of the brigade commander’s aides shouted: “Hurry up, or you won’t get a shot at them.” Initially convinced that they were up against a light force of dismounted Confederate cavalry, the brigade was quickly disabused of that notion. They came “under a galling fire of infantry and artillery” as they began their charge at approximately 9:00 a.m., shortly after leaving the southeast edge of CVBT’s property. After crossing the Spindle farm, they reportedly would get within twenty yards of the Confederate line before opening fire. Some accounts reported bayonet fighting over the Confederate works.

On the heels of Bartlett’s brigade was Romeyn Ayres’s brigade, rushing to the sound of the guns in what one soldier of the 140th New York called “mad, blind style.” The men struggled to keep up with their general as his horse outpaced them. As the brigade crossed over the land that CVBT now holds, they may have been serenaded with the “cheerful and
inspiring” music of their brass band, ordered by Ayres to try to buoy his exhausted men forward. Many of the men who walked over the property would never walk back. According to historian Gordon Rhea, of the five hundred men with the 17th U.S. Regulars, only seventy returned. Disorganized, the brigade went into the attack bit by bit. Porter Farley of the 140th New York blamed their failure on their “dribbling into the attack regiment after regiment.”

The Confederate extension of their line to the right—which threatened the Union left flank—forced Lyle and Denison’s brigades to fall back by about 9:15 a.m.; Bartlett and Ayres shortly joined them. The pulling back of the Union infantry left the Union Third Massachusetts Battery in a vulnerable position from where they had come up to offer ineffectual support to the Union advances. The six twelve-pounder Napoleons were
reportedly forced to fall back to the vicinity of CVBT’s property as Confederate advances across the Spindle field threatened to capture the guns. As Augustus Buell in his controversial account notes, “The battery fell back with them by the right-hand road, about half a mile, to a small knoll which commanded the valley of a little stream running from our right into the Po.” This description matches the northern section of CVBT’s new
property, which then became an impromptu defensive line for the rallying Union troops. NPS Historian Frank O’Reilly has concluded, “We believe this to be a reference to the knoll on the [CVBT] tract.” A Lieutenant Appleton who was on the scene remembered, “They were on the second line, in position on the right of the road to guard against an attack on our flank.” This would place the battery right at the north end of the property. While in this area, the commander of the battery, Captain A.P. Martin would be severely wounded, getting hit in the back of the neck, “grazing the spine.” The entire movement was tracked by the guns of the Confederate batteries. One eyewitness remarked, “It seemed to be every man for himself, and the devil for us all.”

As Sweitzer’s Brigade came up, they too would have been placed along the northern edge of the property. By 10:30 a.m., the ground would again become a path of advance for Gregg and Robinson’s brigades (now of Cutler’s division) as they launched a second, more coordinated but ultimately unfruitful attack against the rapidly reinforcing and dug in Confederates.

The property would continue to play an important role through May 10th and 12th as the Union army continued to use it as an organizational area just arrears of their front line. By May 14, the Union army had withdrawn from the position to reorganize on the Fredericksburg Road, leaving the 3rd Georgia Sharpshooters, Parker’s Virginia Battery, and Brigadier General Pierce M. B. Young’s cavalry brigade to reclaim the uncontested position briefly before falling back to their own lines.

Those curious to learn more would do well to consider both Gordon Rhea’s 1997 book The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 and Gregg Mertz’s excellent 2004 article in volume 21, number 4 edition of Blue and Gray Magazine.

There is no doubt that CVBT has saved an incredibly important parcel in the 5th Corps tract. But much remains to be done: the non-historical structure requires demolition, wells
require filling, and trash and debris need to be removed. We remain dependent upon the irreplaceable support of our members and their generous contributions to help fund our work.

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