A “Most Conspicuous” Example from Spotsy

The pine trees stand in formation across the front lawn at Stevenson Ridge, just outside Spotsylvania Court House. They resemble an evergreen skirmish line, paced deliberately apart as they face Courthouse Road. They serve to block out the noise from traffic on the road, but they might well be trying to guard against calamity.

Such was not the serene scene 160 years ago this morning, May 9, 1864. What is now the front lawn of Stevenson Ranch were the farm fields of Francis Beverly, whose home, Whig Hill, stood on the far side of the road from where I now stand. The road, then called the Fredericksburg Road, ran through Beverly’s fields and brought from the northeast—my left—the Federal IX Corps under Ambrose Burnside, marching toward the back door of Spotsylvania Court House.

To approach, the IX Corps first had to cross the Ny River, with only a single good crossing on hand, Mary’s Bridge. It bottlenecked Burnside’s men and forced them to go regiment by regiment into battle against a brigade of North Carolinans under Brig. Gen. Robert Johnston, who successfully staved off the Federal push into the court house. The fighting across the Beverly fields went back and forth, with Federals unable to maintain purchase. Finally, on the south side of the road, future Pennsylvania governor Colonel John Hartranft took the initiative to rally the man and begin a more solid push forward.

But it’s here on the north side of the road, where the pine tree skirmish line now stands, that the outcome of the battle was probably decided. The 50th Pennsylvania infantry held the side of the road alone, where “the whole weight of the attack” fell on them. Reinforcements were slowly trickling through the narrow neck of the bottleneck—the 20th MI, the 51st PA, the 109th NY—but the 50th teetered on the edge of collapse. “[R]everse seemed imminent,” one of the Pennsylvanians later wrote.

And here, the example of a single man made the difference.

Captain Samuel K. Schwenk rallied the regiment’s four right companies and, according to the brigade commander, charging with the bayonet, he drove back the enemy just as the Twentieth Michigan came up on the ‘double quick’ to his support, and the right was restored on the crest.” Schwenk “was most conspicuous and did much to avert disaster.”

Samuel K. Schwenk

Federals surged on the south side of the road, too, “and the enemy was repulsed all along the line.” Confederates fell back toward the court house “behind a narrow strip of woods.”

My colleague Frank Jastrzembski has written about Schwenk, who made a habit of behaving with conspicuous bravery. Schwenk would eventually earn his way up to a brevet brigadier generalship.

Today, Stevenson Ridge’s driveway empties out to Courthouse Road along the crest Schwenk helped secure. His success gave Federals the lodgment they needed. They dug in, securing the road as a shortened supply line for the army and serving as a threat to the Confederate right flank for the rest of the battle.


For a much more detailed account of this fight, see Chris’s forthcoming book A Tempest of Iron and Lead: Spotsylvania Court House, May 8–22, 1864, available later this summer from Savas Beatie.

2 Responses to A “Most Conspicuous” Example from Spotsy

  1. Is there a chance you’ll get some form of historical marker on or adjacent to the Inn?

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