155 years ago this evening, Ulysses S. Grant began his withdrawal from Spotsylvania Court House, swinging once more around Lee’s right flank, moving south. To recap the anniversary of the two-week battle, I want to share a project I did in my capacity as historian-in-residence at Stevenson Ridge. (For those who don’t know, Stevenson Ridge is a historic property, owned by my wife’s family, on the eastern edge of the Spotsylvania battlefield.)
For Stevenson Ridge’s blog, I did a day-by-day account of the battle, focusing on action that took place on the oft-overlooked eastern front of the battlefield. I’ve collected the entire series for you here:
May 8, 1864: The Battle Opens
Today, May 8, kicks off the 155th anniversary of the battle of Spotsylvania Court House. For two weeks, portions of the Federal army will occupy the area now known as Stevenson Ridge–then part of the Beverley Farm.
The first action to take place on the property happened early on May 8 when Federal cavalry splashed across the Ni River in an attempt to get behind Confederates who were blocking Brock Road–the northwest approach to the village of Spotsylvania Court House some three miles to the west.
James Wilson, who had underperformed thus far in the spring campaign, led a full division of horsemen on the expedition. A single brigade of Confederate cavalry under Williams C. Wickham tried to slow Wilson’s advance, but Wilson brushed them aside easily.
Confederate infantry responded by shifting into position to intercept Wilson, who realized he was outmatched and well beyond the aid of any reinforcements. He wisely chose to withdraw.
Wickham would reposition his brigade to again guard the Fredericksburg Road–modern Route 208–which was the northeast approach to the village. Federals would approach again soon enough….
May 9, 1864: Battle of the Ni
One hundred fifty-five years ago today, a portion of the Federal army appeared along the Fredericksburg Road–modern day Rt. 208–and moved southwest toward Spotsylvania Court House. The previous day, three-fourths of the army had collided with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the west along Brock Road, where Confederates successfully bottlenecked them. The Federal army was so huge, though, that a quarter of it had to circle around to the east and come to the battlefield a different way–down Fredericksburg Road.
That portion of the army, the IX Corps, was commanded by the genial but mediocre Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. Burnside sent his first division forward under Brig. Gen. Orlando Willcox with orders to clear the way into the village. Willcox’s men splashed across the Ni River–then sometimes called the Ny River–where Confederate cavalry raised an alarm. The previous day, the single brigade of cavalry was the only thing blocking the road, but by May 9, four North Carolina regiments under Brig. Gen. Robert D. Johnston moved into the area to block the road. Initially under the command of Robert Rodes, Johnston’s men would fall under the command of Cadmus Wilcox by day’s end by dint of proximity.
Thus, it would be Willcox versus Wilcox for control of the back door into Spotsylvania Court House.
Federals deployed across the property that is now Stevenson Ridge and advanced. Confederates checked them at almost every opportunity, although much of the fighting was back and forth. At one point, nearly the entire Federal line collapses, but a rally by a regiment of Pennsylvanians put the Federals back into the fight, eventually capturing all their lost ground and pushing on closer to Spotsylvania.
By early afternoon, Burnside was content to consolidate his position rather than risk further fighting. He was far from the rest of the Federal army and so, if he got into trouble, he would have a tough time getting reinforcements. His play-it-safe attitude may have seemed prudent at the time, but a more aggressive commander could have used the far superior Federal numbers to force the Confederates back before they had time to consolidate their own position. As it was, Burnside’s delay allowed Confederates to dig in and more reinforcements shift into the area.
Burnside would instead try to make a strong push tomorrow.
May 10, 1864: The Death of Thomas Greeley Stevenson
Today is the 155th anniversary of the death of Brig. Gen. Thomas Greeley Stevenson, the officer for whom Stevenson Ridge is named.
At Sevenson Ridge, we always take a moment on this date to remember the fallen general. You can read this remembrance I wrote several years ago at Emerging Civil War.
You can also watch a new video on the Emerging Civil War YouTube page.
May 11, 1864: “Sad but Heroic Hearts”
On May 11, 1864, a pall of disappointment and discouragement sat over what is now Stevenson Ridge.
First, the death of Brig. Gen. Stevenson on the previous day had knocked the wind out of the IX Corps’s sails. Then, a late-afternoon push into Spotsylvania Court House ended in an inexplicable withdrawal. The corps had made gains that put the army as close to the village as it would ever get during the two-week battle, but army commander Ulysses S. Grant got cold feet. He thought the IX Corps too exposed and vulnerable and so ordered it back to its previous, more secure position, erasing the day’s gains.
Such swings in fortune hurt morale. Then it started to rain on May 11, making the mood of the men even worse. “[T]he drenched earth and dripping trees made our positions anything but a comfortable one,” a Maine soldier wrote.
Burnside spent the late part of the day and into the drippy night preparing for a dawn assault against a portion of the Confederate line known as the Mule Shoe.
“With anxious hearts the men stood around their camp-fires in the pitiless storm,” one Federal soldier wrote, “speculating as to the chances of the morrow, and with sad but heroic hearts wondering if they should survive the terrible carnage which they knew well was before them.”
Dawn will bring renewed fighting, some of the most up-close and personal—and terrible—of the war.
May 12, 1864: The Mule Shoe and Heth’s Salient
May 12 would see some of the worst fighting of the Overland Campaign—some would say of even the entire war.
Federals launched an attack against the tip of a horse-shoe shaped portion of the Confederate line that has since become known as the Mule Shoe Salient. For 22 consecutive hours, the armies locked in combat, much of it hand-to-hand, in the pouring rain. In some places, water filled the trenches up to the men’s knees, and the mud sucked down the wounded and suffocated or drowned them.
In support of the assault, Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps was to attack the eastern base of the salient. Thus, the area now known as Stevenson Ridge became a staging area on May 11 for troops preparing to go into the May 12 fight. “[W]e formed into line of battle and moved forward a little to the right of the road running toward the court house,” a Pennsylvanian said. Then, just as dawn began to lighten the sky, they went into the fight.
Initially repulsed, Burnsides’ men fell back—not quite all the way to Stevenson Ridge—and then regrouped for a second assault. Tangled in the thickets and woods, the men lost much of their unit-level cohesiveness and instead began fighting in small groups and as individuals. Men called this type of fighting “bushwhacking.”
In the afternoon of May 12, both army commanders tried to relieve pressure at the Mule Shoe by launching attacks on the eastern front at a place called Heth’s Salient, named for Confederate General Henry Heth, who commanded the men ensconced in that part of the line. Neither knew the other was launching an attack, although both happened almost simultaneously. Confederates got the jump on the Federals and crushed their left flank, leading to yet another retreat.
Overshadowed by the fighting at the Mule Shoe, the fighting on Burnside’s front was nonetheless severe for many of the men engaged, some calling it some of the toughest fighting they’d ever engaged in.
And the battle of Spotsylvania Court House was not yet over.
May 13, 1864: All Quiet on the Eastern Front
The morning of May 13 saw carnage across the Spotsylvania battlefield unlike anything the armies had before seen. Once the fighting at the Mule Shoe settled down and Lee settled into his new fall-back position, Union forces took stock of their situation. The cries and moans of the injured drifted across the muddy landscape and through the devastated forests. Otherwise, fighting quieted all along the line.
During the previous day’s fighting, Burnside’s men had shifted westward for their assaults on the Mule Shoe and Heth’s Salient. That left some of their original works near the Fredericksburg Road thinly occupied.
Ulysses S. Grant decided to shift the bulk of his army toward Burnside’s former position astride the Fredericksburg Road. He could not get at Lee along the Brock Road or in the center at the Mule Shoe, so perhaps an opportunity existed against the Confederate right. After all, he reasoned, the Confederates had to be weak somewhere.
He cut orders for his V Corps, occupying a position along the Brock Road called Laurel Hill/Spindle Field, to shift eastward to the Fredericksburg Road. In doing so, the V Corps would disengage from its current position, slide behind the VI Corps and then the II Corps, then cross behind the IX Corps and into the IX Corps’s original trenches. The IX Corps, meanwhile, would consolidate its position.
Once the V Corps finished its move, the VI Corps would then disengage from its position and follow the V Corps eastward, eventually extending the line farther east and south. There, Grant saw an opportunity to capture a piece of high ground occupied by Confederates, known as Myer’s Hill. Possession of Myer’s Hill would protect the new Federal left flank and allow the Federal army to threaten Lee’s position—and perhaps even get into Lee’s rear.
Grant set his army in motion with an eye toward a dawn attack on May 14. Assault hadn’t allowed him to break Lee’s line, but perhaps maneuver would.
May 14, 1864: Myer’s Hill
On May 14, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant planned to throw his V and VI Corps against the Confederate left flank in an early morning attack. As it was, Mother Nature worked against him. As his men tried to shift into their new positions, the rain that had started on May 11 continued to drench them. “The mud was dreadful, the night dark, we forded streams up to our knees, and the mud all the time was over our shoes,” said one Massachusetts soldier.
V Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K, Warren, who took up his headquarters at the Beverley House known as Whig Hill—directly across Route 208 from today’s Stevenson Ridge—tried in his official report to put as positive a spin on the movement as possible:
At 4:00 a.m. I was at the appointed place with about 1,000 men, and all that could be done was assault the enemy’s cavalry on a commanding position on our left,which we did and took. It required the whole day to get my command up and together again. A brigade of the Sixth Corps was sent to hold the hill, which we had taken, but the enemy drove it off. After that, I had it retaken with Ayres’ brigade.
The “commanding position” the action centered around was called Myer’s Hill. Had Federals been able to get into position there in time, they would have had open access to the Confederate flank and rear because Gen. Robert E. Lee, slow to recognize the threat, did not adequately respond.
Following Warren’s initial capture of the hill, the VI Corps brigade of Emory Upton occupied the position and Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade rode to the hilltop to inspect the situation. When Confederates launched a counterattack, they nearly captured Meade, who narrowly escaped by jumping the Ni River. His dander up by the near-capture, Meade sent elements of the V and VI Corps to re-take the hill.
Recently, the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust launched an effort to preserve Myer’s Hill. You can find out more about that effort here (and you can make a donation to help preserve the land at www.cvbt.org). I recently had the chance to walk the ground with Ted Schubel of Fredericksburg’s NewsTalk 1230; you can see the video here.
Myer’s Hill wasn’t Warren’s only excitement on May 14, though. “During the day,” he reported, “my pickets were withdrawn, and the enemy’s cavalry got into our hospitals before the wounded were gotten off, but they did no damage. They were unable to capture any of our trains.”
The rain that began on May 11 continued without letup for days. By May 15, Spotsylvania was well soggy. Grant continued to probe for an opening to get at Lee, but with the Federal cavalry away on a raid toward Richmond, Grant was left without his eyes and ears. As a result, his infantry had to grope blindly, hampering effective movement, made even more difficult by the foul weather.
Lee, too, sought information. He sent a division of troops under Joseph Kershaw on a “reconnaissance in force” along the Brock Road front to find the Federal right flank. Kershaw’s troops ran into David Bell Birney’s II Corps division, which made up the new right of the Federal army. After a tense engagement, Kershaw’s men withdrew, but not before learning valuable information about the Federal position.
Lee also sent a cavalry force under Thomas Rosser to collect information. Rosser’s men tried to circle behind the Federal army, aiming first down the Catharpin Road toward the old Chancellorsville battlefield. Along the way, they routed a regiment of Ohio cavalrymen, who sought the protection of the Federal wagon train in the army’s rear. Rosser’s men pursued, only to run into a deployment of United States Colored Troops. For the first time, USCT forces engaged with elements of the Army of Northern Virginia. This time, Rosser’s men were routed–an embarrassment so deep that Rosser refused to mention it in his report for the day.
Meanwhile, along Fredericksburg Road, the Union V Corps spent the day settling into their new position, initially laid out and fortified by the IX Corps. While no major fighting occurred, the property now known as Stevenson Ridge saw a lot of activity as V Corps forces re-fortified and troops along the front line skirmished with their Confederate counterparts.
May 16, 1864: In the Pits
“All day in pits,” wrote an officer with the 95th New York infantry on May 14, referring to his men’s time in the earthworks. On May 15, he wrote the same: “All day in pits.” On May 16, he wrote the same again: “All day in pits.”
The pits, indeed. The rain that had begun on May 11 continued through the 16th, continuing to dampen activity along the Fredericksburg Road.
“Spent the day getting affairs in order,” V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren wrote on the 15th. “In the evening General Burnside threatened with an attack. My troops under arms to attack as a diversion, if needed.” The attack amounted to nothing, though. “Rained heavily in the afternoon,” Warren noted.
The soggy conditions and dour mood continued through the 16th. “Remained mostly quiet in lines, getting up stores and supplies, and awaiting developments,” Warren wrote.
Quiet for Warren, perhaps, but not necessarily for the men in the trenches, who were, said Brig. Gen. Romeyn Ayres, “exposed to shell fire and sharpshooters” the entire time. “While here there was continuous firing on the skirmish line,” added Lt. Col. John E. Cooke of the 76th New York, “but no distinct engagement.”
Officers had troubles, too. “About these times it was a serious question with officers as to how they and their horses could exist without rations—cause, mud,” said Col. William S. Tilton of the 22nd Massachusetts.
Overall, thought, the men of the V Corps welcomed the opportunity to catch their breath. “These operations were most exhaustive to the energies of the men,” wrote Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes, commander of the 6th Wisconsin Volunteers, referring to the army’s time thus far in Spotsylvania, “and perhaps most trying to their morale of anything in the experience of the oldest in service, but the hardships were always ready to put forth their best efforts in the most perilous undertaking.”
On May 17th, the sun would finally make an appearance. Things at Spotsylvania would begin to liven up once more.
May 17, 1864: The Weather Finally Breaks
“We have had five days’ almost constant rain without any prospect yet of its clearing up,” Ulysses S. Grant told Washington on May 16. “The roads have now become so impassable that ambulances with wounded can no long run between here and Fredericksburg. All offensive operations necessarily cease until we can have twenty-four hours of dry weather.”
During the waiting game, the army nonetheless found ways to stay busy. “[T]he army was employed in constant reconnoitering and skirmishing, developing the enemy’s position and learning the ground,” said Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade.
Despite the weather, Grant remained optimistic, and he felt his army did, too. “The army is in the best of spirits and feel greatest confidence in ultimate success,” he attested.
On May 17, the break in the weather he’d hoped for finally came. He couldn’t immediately set his army into motion because the roads still needed time to dry, but he himself got to work on his next plan. Since the fight at the Mule Shoe May 12-13, he had been extending his own line leftward, to the east and south. As he did, Lee somehow continued to match him. Yet Grant reasoned that Lee had to be weak somewhere.
Perhaps, he mused, Lee had been pulling from the Brock Road front—just as Grant had been doing—in order to extend his line on the Fredericksburg Road front. If that was so, then it might be worth striking a blow at Lee’s weakened left flank.
Grant ordered the II and VI Corps to ready themselves for a move back toward the area the army had assaulted on May 12. He planned to once more send the two corps toward the old Mule Shoe—now gone—and assault the Confederate left.
“Whole army moved to the right in the night,” observed V Corps commander Gouverneur K. Warren, ordered to hold tight along the Fredericksburg Road. His corps “took up lines and intrenched so that we could hold our position alone, and allow the rest of the army to be used elsewhere.”
The May 18 assault, planned to be every bit as massive as the May 12 assault, would launch at dawn.
May 18, 1864: Grant’s Next Attack
At daylight on May 18, Gouverneur K. Warren ordered a cannonade all along his line. Twenty-six guns came to bear in a thundering roar.
The “whole army having moved off to our right to make an assault on the enemy,” he wrote, he opened the artillery bombardment in support of the assault. It was also intended to discourage Confederates from making a counter-attack of their own along his line, which was now stretched thin to cover the works abandoned by the VI Corps when they moved into position for the assault.
To Warren’s right, Ambrose Burnside filled the gap between the V Corps and the rest of the army taking part in the attack. Burnside, too, was attacking, once more making a push against the Confederate line at Heth’s Salient where the Federals had come to grief on the afternoon of May 12.
In essence, that left Warren to cover the line across the Fredericksburg Road—with his support logistics occupying the property now known as Stevenson Ridge—and southeast to the Massaponnax Church Road. Grant had originally wanted to attack there, but a recon by the VI Corps on May 16 found the Confederate defenses too strong. Thus, Grant had opted to attach to the north, across the same plain his army had advanced across on May in its attack against the Mule Shoe.
Warren’s bombardment did not go unanswered. “This occasioned a brisk artillery duel between myself and Hill’s corps,” Warren said.
V Corps artillerist Charles Wainwright said the Confederates countered with twenty pieces of their own. “The engagement was brisk for near three-quarters of an hour, and the practice on both sides was very accurate,” he said.
Meanwhile, Grant’s main attack bogged down quickly. “Our forces found the enemy prepared and strongly posted on the write,” Warren reported, “and made no serious attack.”
In the end, Warren said, “Our army moved back to where it was the day before.” In support of their return, Warren’s artillery kept up fire “at intervals during the day without any express object,” Wainwright said, “and with no perceptible result, except the silencing of the enemy’s guns.” (For more on that attack, check out this post at Emerging Civil War.)
Grant realized he had exhausted his options at Spotsylvania. Every time he moved, Lee—with the benefit of interior lines—seemed to effectively counter. However, Grant had transportation advantages of his own: he controlled many of the roads out of Spotsylvania, including the important Massaponnax Church Road to the southeast of the Fredericksburg Road. That route would allow him to repeat the maneuver that took the Federal army out of the Wilderness two weeks earlier: they could go around Lee’s right and once more move south toward Richmond in the hope of drawing Lee out.
Grant cut the orders to begin a move, but before he could, Lee would oblige Grant’s wishes and come out from behind his works for battle.
May 19, 1864: The Battle of Harris Farm
The main action on Spotsylvania’s eastern front opened on May 9 during the battle of the Ny River. Ten days later, in a fight that brought the battle full circle, the last major action of the battle also happened on the eastern front—or, more accurately, in the rear, rather than the front.
Robert E. Lee, discontent to remain on the defensive, looked for some way to strike a blow at Grant.
Following the failed attack on May 18 against the Confederate left, the Union VI Corps withdrew back to its original position southeast of the Fredericksburg Road. Lee sent his own Second Corps in a pursuit of sorts. Just as the VI Corps moved in a clockwise arc to get back into its position, the Second Corps moved in a parallel, wider arc. The Confederates’ objective: strike into Grant’s rear and disrupt the Federal supply line, communications, transportation, and other logistics.
At about 4:00 p.m., Ewell’s men accomplished their goal. After a brief encounter with several Federal units posted on the west side of the Fredericksburg Road, the Confederates reached the road itself. Their breakthrough occurred about a mile to the northeast of modern Stevenson Ridge, on the north side of the Ny River at a place known today as Harris Farm.
When Confederates got to the road, though, they found more than they bargained for—not only wagons full of supplies but regiments full of reinforcements. Grant, whose army had been diminished by more than two weeks of constant fighting, had ordered reinforcements down from Washington, D.C. The first regiments, fresh and large, had begun arriving on the battlefield just the day before, with more of them literally marching down the very road Ewell’s men tried to cut.
A four-hour fight ensued, with Confederates getting the worst of it because the sheer weight of Federal numbers crushed in on them. “The brigade took position in a wood, and although unprotected by any kind of works, and without the assistance of artillery, several [Confederate] attacks made with all the energy of desperation were repulsed,” said a member of the 15th New York Heavy Artillery.
As the green Federals held their ground, more seasoned reinforcements came to their aid from the V Corps, which had been straddling the Fredericksburg Road near Stevenson Ridge. Only darkness saved the Confederates, allowing them to slip away. “[T]he resistance proved too much for him,” the New Yorker said.
Grant had already made the decision to pull out of Spotsylvania, with a planned departure on the night of May 19. The Confederate attack at Harris Farm delayed Grant’s departure while he waited for any other signs of Confederate aggression.
And so, Grant ordered his army to begin preparations for the departure originally set for May 19. On the evening of May 20—after a 24-hour delay—the Union army would begin to pull out of Spotsylvania Court House and move around Lee’s right flank once more, just as they’d done in the Wilderness.
May 20, 1864: The Armies Withdraw from Spotsylvania
Think of the village of Spotsylvania Court House as sitting at the center of a clock. Brock Road, where the armies first clashed on the morning of May 8, sits at roughly 10 o’clock. The Mule Shoe, scene of the horrific hand-to-hand battle on May 12, sits at roughly 12 o’clock (you can decide if that’s noon or midnight!). The Fredericksburg Road, where Burnside showed up on May 9, runs into the village at about 2 o’clock. By May 15, Grant had shifted the entire Union line all the way down to the Massaponnax Road, which runs into the village at about 4 o’clock.
Except, from Grant’s perspective, the road ran out of the village, to the southeast. That gave Grant a clear path to get around Robert E. Lee’s right flank, just as Grant had done at the Wilderness, and begin moving once more toward Richmond.
Grant didn’t much care about Richmond, but he knew Lee would have to come out from behind his defenses and stop Grant from capturing the Confederate capital. That, in turn, would give Grant the chance to crush Lee in open combat using superior Federal numbers.
Grant executed his move on the evening of May 20, sending his II Corps as bait toward Bowling Green. Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had the authority to go all the way to the North Anna River, cross it, and capture the Confederate rail junction at Hanover Station. With any luck, Lee would see the lone corps and make a move to pounce on it in its isolation—and then Grant would pounce on Lee when he did.
As the armies shifted away from Spotsylvania, they left in their wake a blighted landscape. Confederates suffered between 10,000-12,000 casualties, while Federals suffered nearly 18,000. Since the start of the campaign, Federals casualties had topped 36,000.
Coupled with the absence of practically the entire Federal cavalry corps—more than 10,000 troopers—and the soldiers required to guard the ever-lengthening supply train, Grant’s army would be down to almost 68,000 men by the time it reached the banks of the North Anna River on May 23. Lee, meanwhile, would see a small uptick in troops thanks to reinforcements from the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond, bringing his tally up to around 53,000. It would be the closest, numerically, the two armies would ever be during the entire 1864 Overland Campaign.
But the story of that battle along the North Anna River is a story for another time.