Battle History



                                                                                                                      

                               SPOTTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE, VA
                                      MAY 8TH-18TH, 1864

                     Spottsylvania Court House, Va., May 8-18, 1864.  Army of
                the Potomac.  At 3 p.m. on May 7, while the Army of the
                Potomac was still on the battle-field of the Wilderness, a
                messenger arrived at Grant's headquarters with the information
                that Gen. Butler, with the Army of the James, had landed at
                City Point, completely surprising the Confederates there, and
                was ready to advance on Richmond.  Lee had retired behind his
                works, leaving open the road to Richmond round his right
                flank, and as soon as the intelligence of Butler's successful
                beginning was received Grant issued orders for a night march
                of the whole army toward Spottsylvania Court House.  (For the
                organization of the Army of the Potomac at this time see
                Wilderness.)  From the Wilderness a road ran east to
                Chancellorsville, where it was intersected by another that ran
                southeast to Piney Branch Church.  The Brock road ran in a
                southeasterly direction to Spottsylvania and about 3 miles
                south of it, and nearly parallel to it, ran the Shady Grove
                road.  The former was in possession of the Federals as far as
                Todd's tavern and the latter was in the hands of the enemy.
                Beyond Todd's tavern the Brock road was held by the
                Confederate cavalry under Stuart.  From the tavern the
                Catharpin road ran southwest and intersected the southern road
                at Shady Grove Church.  Gen. Warren, commanding the 5th corps
                was to move by the Brock road and was to be followed by Gen.
                Hancock with the 2nd corps, while the 6th and 9th corps,
                respectively commanded by Gen. Sedgwick and Gen. Burnside,
                were directed to move by way of Chancellorsville and Piney
                Branch Church.  Gen. Sheridan, commanding the cavalry, was
                ordered to "have a sufficient force on the approaches from the
                right to keep the corps commanders advised in time of the
                approach of the enemy."  The trains and reserve artillery were
                moved to Chancellorsville in the afternoon from which point
                they were to follow the army.  Nearly parallel to the course
                of the army ran the Po river on the south.  The Catharpin road
                crossed this river at Corbin's bridge, the Shady Grove road at
                what was known as the Block House bridge, and the road running
                from Spottsylvania to Richmond crossed it at Snell's bridge
                about 2 miles south of the Court House.  Some controversy and
                criticism have been indulged in as to why these bridges were
                not taken possession of by the Federal forces.  Badeau, in his
                Military History of Grant, says: "These bridges were of first
                importance for they commanded Lee's only approaches to
                Spottsylvania, and Sheridan, who had been ordered to keep a
                good look-out toward the enemy disposed his force so as to
                secure all three positions. * * * Had these orders
                (Sheridan's) been carried out, every avenue to Spottsylvania
                would have been closed to the rebel army."  Sheridan's corps
                consisted of the three divisions commanded by Gregg, Merritt
                and Wilson.  His instructions to Gregg, issued at 1 a.m on the
                8th, show the disposition of his forces with regard to the
                bridges.  They were as follows: "Move with your command at 5
                a.m., on the Catharpin road crossing at Corbin's bridge, and
                taking position at Shady Grove Church.  Gen. Merritt will
                follow you, and at Shady Grove Church will take the left hand,
                or Block House road, moving forward and taking up position at
                that point (viz., Block House).  Immediately after he has
                passed, you will move forward with your division, on the same
                road to the crossing of the Po river, where you will take up
                position supporting Gen. Merritt.  Gen. Wilson with his
                division will march from Alsop's by way of Spottsylvania Court
                House and the Gate to Snell's bridge, where he will take up
                position."

Before the hour fixed for the cavalry to move, Corbin's bridge and the Block House bridge were both in the hands of the enemy. Snell's bridge was not used by the Confederates, nor was any attempt made to use it, because it was too far out of the way. When Lee learned, on the afternoon of the 7th, of the movement of the Federal trains, his first impression was that Grant was falling back to Fredericksburg and determined to interpose a force between him and Richmond. He therefore ordered Longstreets corps, now commanded by Gen. R. H. Anderson, Longstreet having been wounded in the battle of the Wilderness, to move to Spottsylvania that night, to be followed by Ewell's corps at daylight the next morning. Anderson moved at 11 p.m. and at daylight his advance had reached the Block House bridge. Had Gregg and Merritt undertaken to carry out Sheridan's order, they would have encountered this entire corps as it was marching along the Shady Grove road. In fact they would have met the enemy before reaching that road, as Hampton was on the Catharpin road between Corbin's bridge and Todd's tavern, Wilson did move forward to Spottsylvania, where he found Wickham's brigade of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry, which he drove from the town and held the place for two hours, when he was recalled by Sheridan just as Wofford's and Bryan's brigades of Anderson's command were moving to attack him: It was not the failure to carry out Sheridan's order regarding the bridges, but the presence of Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry on the Brock road, that prevented the Federals from gaining possession of Spottsylvania Court House. Warren moved at 8:30 p.m. and was expected to reach the Court House by daylight on the 8th. At Todd's tavern he was delayed for more than an hour by the headquarters escort and 2 miles farther on he encountered the enemy's cavalry. Merritt was directed to move forward and clear the road for the infantry. The Confederates were forced back slowly, leaving the road obstructed by fallen trees, so that Warren's progress was necessarily slow. At 6 o'clock in the morning Merritt was relieved by Robinson's division, which succeeded after a sharp contest in driving the enemy from the road, but at this hour Warren's advance was still several miles from the Court House.

At 8:30 a.m. Robinson came out of the woods into the open fields. Of the Alsop farm, about half way between Todd's tavern and Spottsylvania. Here the Brock road forked, the two branches coming together again about a mile farther on. Robinson took the left hand road, Denison's brigade on the right, Lyle's on the left and Coulter's (formerly Baxter's) on the left rear. Griffin's division moved on the right fork with Bartlett's brigade in line of battle in advance, the brigades of Ayres and Sweitzer following the road. Robinson reached the junction of the roads before Griffin, formed his command in column of regiments and threw out a strong skirmish line in front. Near the intersection of the Brock road and the old Court House road the former entered a piece of timber. When Robinson's advance was about 300 yards from this timber the enemy opened a heavy fire of artillery and musketry upon the front and right from a line of intrenchments just inside the wood. Robinson was seriously wounded at the first fire and, the national troops were forced back, closely pressed by the enemy, who tried to turn Lyle's left, but was prevented from doing so by the prompt action of Denison, who placed his brigade in the edge of the wood where he checked the further advance of the Confederates and finally compelled them to retire to their works. Soon after Robinson's division became engaged, Bartlett's line of battle came under the enemy's fire when about half-way across the open fields of the Alsop farm. At first Bartlett's men gave way, but fortunately just at that time Ayres' brigade occupied a sunken part of the road and under cover of this position the line was reformed. Griffin then advanced his whole division, Crawford came up with his division and drove the enemy from the woods on Griffin's left. The Confederate force with which Robinson and Griffin had been engaged up to this time was Henagan's and Humphreys' brigades of Kershaw's division, which had formed Anderson's advance on the Shady Grove road. When Kershaw reached the Block House bridge about daylight he heard the sound of the firing over on the Brock road where Fitzhugh Lee was engaged with Merritt and Robinson. Turning sharply to the left with the two brigades he reached the woods just as Lee was falling back, threw up temporary breastworks and awaited the Federal advance. He was followed a little later by Field's division, which came up on Griffin's right about the time that Crawford was driving the enemy from the woods. Cutler's division, the last of Warren's corps to arrive, came up in time to prevent Field from turning Griffin's flank and drove him from the woods after which the entire corps was pushed forward as far as possible and intrenched, the 6th corps coming up and intrenching on Warren's left.

Hancock, who was expected to move with the 2nd corps at 10 p.m on the 7th, was so delayed by other troops blocking the road that he did not begin his march until daylight the next morning. At 9 a.m. the head of his column arrived at Todd's tavern, where Gregg's cavalry was found skirmishing with that of the enemy. Hancock threw forward a skirmish line to relieve Gregg and then posted his division with Mott covering the Brock road to the right, Barlow on Mott's left, Gibbon covering the Catharpin road and Birney in reserve. About 11 a.m Miles' brigade of Barlow's division, one brigade of Gregg's and a battery was sent on a reconnaissance toward Corbin's bridge. When about half a mile from the bridge this force was opened upon by the Confederate batteries on the hills south of the river. Miles ordered his artillery to reply and formed his infantry in line of battle along a ridge in the wood, which position he held until about 5 p.m., when he was ordered to return to the tavern. On the way back he was attacked by Mahone's brigade of Hill's corps, which was then on the way to Spottsylvania. Miles repulsed two spirited attacks, holding his ground until after dark, when he rejoined the division. Gibbon's division was sent to the support of Warren and Sedgwick in the afternoon, but the remainder of the 2nd corps did not move toward Spottsylvania until about noon on the 9th. Then Birney and Barlow moved down the road about a mile, where they took a road leading to the right and joined Gibbon's division on the high ground overlooking the Po, the three divisions going into line of battle facing the river. Mott's division was moved from Todd's tavern to the left of the 6th corps at Alsop's. During the day Burnside moved with the 9th corps from his position near Chancellorsville down the Fredericksburg pike toward Spottsylvania. On the march Willcox's division encountered and repulsed a small force at the bridge over the Ny river, after which the command, Christ's brigade in advance, pushed on and went into position about a mile east of the Court House, where several assaults were repulsed during the afternoon, and where the division finally intrenched. The presence of the enemy on the Fredericksburg road led Burnside to report to Grant that Lee was moving toward Fredericksburg and Hancock was directed to force a passage of the Po for the purpose of making a reconnaissance on Lee's left. Although the stream was difficult to ford and the opposite bank was held by the enemy, each of his three divisions succeeded in crossing and occupied the Shady Grove road from Waite's shop, at the cross-roads between the Po and Glady run, toward the Block House bridge, which Hancock endeavored to seize, but darkness came on before the movement could be executed. That night Hancock threw over three pontoon bridges for the passage of his artillery early the next morning.

Lee became alarmed by Hancock's presence on his left and on the evening of the 9th sent Mahone's division to hold the Shady Grove road. Later Mahone was reinforced by Heth's division. As soon as it was light enough to see on the morning of the 1Oth, Hancock made a reconnaissance toward the Block House bridge with the intention of forcing a passage across it, but found the enemy strongly intrenched on the east bank. Concerning his movements in trying to gain possession of the bridge he says in his report: "After a careful survey had been made, I concluded not to attempt to carry the bridge, but sent Brooke's brigade, of Barlow's division down the river to ascertain what could be effected there. Gen. Birney was directed to send three or four regiments out on the Andrews' tavern road to cover Brooke's movement. Col. Brooke succeeded in crossing the river about half way between the bridge and the mouth of Glady run. * * * About this time I was informed by the major-general commanding, that an assault was to be made on the enemy's works on Laurel Hill, in front of Gen. Warren's position near Alsop's house. I was directed to move two of my divisions to the left to participate in it, and to assume command of the forces to be engaged in the attack." Pursuant to this order Gibbon was at once sent to the north bank of the Po and formed his command on Warren's right. Birney followed, leaving Barlow to hold the ground on the south side of the river. As soon as the enemy discovered that the Federals were recrossing the Po, he advanced in force against Barlow, who was instructed to fall back across the pontoons. The brigades of Brooke and Brown took up a position along a wooded crest about 100 yards in the rear of the works Barlow had constructed, while Miles and Smyth were ordered to fall back with their brigades to the bank of the river. Mistaking the movement of Miles and Smyth for a forced retreat, the Confederates advanced in line of battle supported by heavy columns and attacked Brooke and Brown, but the assault was repulsed. A second attack was made soon after and the combat became close and bloody, but again the enemy was forced back. In the meantime the woods on the right and rear of the Union line had caught fire and the flames now came so near that it was impossible for Brooke and Brown longer to maintain their position. Taking advantage of the lull that followed the second repulse of the enemy the two brigades were withdrawn. This affair is known as the battle of Waite's Shop. Miles' brigade was the last to cross and as he was near the river Heth attempted to cross the open ground toward the pontoons, but was driven back by the fire of Miles men and the batteries on the north bank.

All through the forenoon of the 1Oth there were sharp skirmishing and artillery firing preparatory to the general attack which had been ordered for the afternoon. Gen. Sedgwick had been killed on the 9th and the 6th corps was now under command of Brig.-Gen. H. G. Wright. At 3:45 p.m. he was ordered to attack the works in his front with his whole command and Mott's division of the 2nd corps. Warren was also ordered to assault the works near the Alsop house with the divisions of Crawford and Cutler and the brigades of Webb and Carroll of Gibbon's division. Carroll charged through a belt of burning woods, the right of his line gaining the enemy's works and the whole brigade pressing up to the abatis, only to be forced back by "such a concentrated and murderous fire from two lines as to make the position untenable." Warren was also repulsed with heavy loss, Gen. Rice commanding one of Cutler's brigades being among the killed. Col. Emory Upton, with twelve regiments of the 6th corps, gained the parapet and engaged in some desperate hand-to-hand fighting, capturing several pieces of artillery and about 1,000 prisoners. His assault was to have been supported by Mott's division, but when Mott reached the open field he was met by an enfilading fire from the enemy's batteries, which threw his line into confusion and forced him to retire. The advantage gained by Upton was therefore of little moment, for the Confederates fairly swarmed against him, compelling him to abandon the captured cannon and fall back, though he succeeded in bringing in the most of his prisoners. Altogether the attack was a failure.

Lee's line extended from the Block House bridge northeast across the Brock road to the watershed between the Po and Ny rivers, nearly north of the Court House, where it turned sharply to the south, the right being near Snell's bridge. From his right center the works were thrown forward in a horseshoe salient around the crest of a spur between two small tributaries of the Ny river. Ewell's corps occupied the salient, Anderson's extended the line to the right and Hill's to the left. Directly. north of the salient, and about three- fourths of a mile distant, was the Brown house, while inside the enemy's works on the spur within the angle stood the McCool house. Very little fighting was done on the 11th, the day being spent in preparations for an assault on the salient at daylight the next morning. Mott made an attempt to drive in the enemy's skirmishers in order to develop the weak place in the Confederate works, but the effort was only partially successful. Wright was instructed to extend his left and concentrate on that wing. Hancock moved his entire corps after dark to the vicinity of the Brown house, and was to lead the assault. Warren was to hold the position vacated by the 2nd corps, and when Hancock began his attack Warren on the right and Burnside on the left were to engage the enemy in their fronts to prevent reinforcements from being sent to the salient. Hancock was to advance on a line drawn from the Brown House to the McCool house. The night of the 11th was dark and stormy, but the troops of the 2nd corps took their positions quietly and promptly, fully aware of the desperate character of the work awaiting them. Barlow's division in two massed lines was placed on the cleared ground which extended up to the enemy's line; Birney's was formed in two deployed lines on Barlow's right; Mott's division was in the rear of Birney, and Gibbon's was in reserve. The assault was to have been made at 4 o'clock but owing to a dense fog it was 35 minutes later before Hancock gave the order to advance. With even pace the troops moved forward in column and when about half way up the slope broke into a cheer, dashed forward on the double-quick through the abatis and over the works. Hancock describes the action here as follows: "Barlow's and Birney's divisions entered almost at the same moment, striking the enemy's line at a sharp salient immediately in front of the Landrum house. A fierce and bloody fight ensued in the works with bayonets and clubbed muskets. It was short, however, and resulted in the capture of nearly 4,000 prisoners of Johnson's division, of Ewell's corps, 20 pieces of artillery, with horses, caissons and material complete, several thousand stand of small arms, and upward of 30 colors. Among the prisoners were Maj.-Gen. Edward Johnson and Brig.- Gen. George H. Steuart, of the Confederate service. The enemy fled in great disorder."

So far the assault had been a success. Elated by their victory, the Union troops pursued the flying Confederates toward Spottsylvania until they encountered a second line, the presence of which was unknown to Hancock or any of his officers. This line was held by Gordon, who checked the rush of the Federals and gave Lee an opportunity to push reinforcements into the angle. Lee was further aided at this critical moment by the necessity of reforming the Union lines, as in the impetuous charge and pursuit practically all semblance of a regular formation had been lost. The divisions of Mahone and Wilcox came up from the right and advanced against the 2nd corps before the disorder of its success could be overcome, driving Hancock's men back to the first line of works, where they were reinforced by Wright, with Russell's and Wheaton's divisions of the 6th corps( which came up on the right and vigorously assaulted the west angle of the salient. Again there was some stubborn hand-to-hand fighting in which Wright was wounded, though he remained with his men, cheering them on, and through the heroic efforts of Upton's brigade the line was held against the repeated and determined attempts of the Confederates to regain it. Hancock ordered his artillery to the high ground near the Landrum house and throughout the day charges of canister were fired over the heads of the Union troops into the enemy's line of battle. On Hancock's left Burnside assaulted the Confederate works at 4:30 a.m. and in half an hour had carried two lines of rifle-pits. Stevenson's and Potter's divisions then moved against the main line of works, a portion of which was carried by Potter, who captured a number of prisoners and a battery of 2 guns, but was unable to hold his advantage and was finally forced to retire with heavy loss. Several subsequent attacks were made by the two divisions, and also by Willcox's on the extreme left, but none succeeded in driving the enemy from his position. The persistent hammering of Burnside, however, prevented the enemy from withdrawing troops in his front to hurl against Hancock and Wright. About 9 o'clock Warren was directed to attack the enemy on his front, but upon attempting to advance his line was subjected to a heavy enfilading fire and he was forced back. Cutler's division was then sent to Wright and later the whole corps was withdrawn from its position and thrown to the left, where it became engaged against the west angle, but failed to carry the works. The firing was so heavy and constant that several oak trees inside the salient, some of them nearly 2 feet in diameter, were literally gnawed off by the bullets. Late in the day Lee gave up the idea of trying to recapture the outer line of works and retired to Gordon's line, half a mile to the rear, where he strengthened his position during the night. The losses on both sides were so heavy during the action that the salient has passed into history as the "Bloody Angle."

End of Report

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Last Modified: Sunday, July 19 1998