Volume XXVII Issue #6 • An Excerpt From:

The Battle of Spotsylvania C.H.

May 13-20, 1864

by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White

Click Here to view a sample map from this article
Note: All Blue & Gray feature articles are annotated.

As dawn broke and the morning fog gave way to thick humidity, soldiers of the Army of the Potomac saw a landscape of carnage unlike anything they had seen in three previous summers of war. The Northern soldiers had endured 20 straight hours of grueling close-quarters combat in the pouring rain against their longtime adversaries, soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia. Their battle, which began in the early-morning hours of May 12, 1864, had resulted in a stalemate, although Federals expected to resume the attack now that daylight had again come.

But Southerners offered no resistance to Federal probes. Under the cover of darkness, they had vacated their position, leaving behind empty trenches

Original and reconstructed earthworks along Lee’s Last Line at Spotsylvania, May 1864.

and thousands of casualties. “In many places the dead and wounded lay three and four deep, with muskets, cartridge boxes, blankets, and everything pertaining to a soldier’s gear, all in the wildest confusion,” wrote one Ohio soldier. “The face and parallel ditches were filled with water and blood, and the dead, from the rains, were bleached and ghastly. In many cases the wounded were so tangled and wedged in among the dead as to be utterly unable to extricate themselves without our help.”

The two armies had battered each other for days, since Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade had ordered his army—some 123,000 strong—southward across the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864 (Tour Map, Pg. 53). Accompanying Meade’s Army of the Potomac was Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces. Grant had originally intended to let Meade call the shots, but as the campaign unfolded, he quickly began to take a more active role in the army’s operations.

Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee wasted little time striking the cumbersome Federal army as it crept south of the river through the densely wooded area known as the Wilderness. He knew his army was much smaller—only 65,000 men—but he also knew the Wilderness would help offset the difference, because the woods would make it difficult for Grant’s large army to maneuver. On May 5 and 6, the two armies hammered at each other before settling into stalemate.

On May 7, refusing to retreat, Grant ordered Meade to march around the right flank of Lee’s army, moving inexorably toward Richmond. “I plan to fight it out along this line if it takes all summer,” Grant would eventually acknowledge.2

Lee used his army’s greater maneuverability and speed to get in front of the advancing Federal juggernaut, thanks, in part, to an excellent delaying action by his cavalry near a small inn called Todd’s Tavern. Lee’s men filed into position along the crest of Laurel Hill, just two miles northeast of the central Virginia town of Spotsylvania Court House. By denying Grant the road to Spotsylvania, Lee prevented him from taking the inside track to the Confederate capital.

The two armies fought on the gently rising slope of Laurel Hill on May 8, and as more troops from both sides arrived, the battle lines extended to the northeast. Taking advantage of the high ground, Confederate engineers inadvertently formed part of their line in the shape of a “mule shoe”—a U-shaped salient that bulged out from the rest of their line.

Page 2Order this issue