Incessant would be the best word to describe the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House in May of 1864. With nearly 100,000 men in tow, General Ulysses S. Grant hammered away at the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee in mid May. Grant hoped to weaken and pound Lee’s forces into submission and shorten the war. Grant said, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” In what has become known as the second part of Grant’s Overland Campaign, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House is was of the least known battles of the war, but it is well-known for its loss of life and the tenacity of Grant to attack at costs. Lee’s army began the battle with 52,000+ men. By the end of the battle, Lee would be left with just about 75% of his men.
After the Wilderness Campaign, Grant did something no Union General accomplished after a battle against Robert E. Lee, Grant kept advancing. His troops were enthused and the result would be known quickly within days. When Grant left the Wilderness battlefield, it soon became apparent to Robert E. Lee that he must keep the Army of Northern Virginia between the Union and Richmond. With his smaller and dwindling force, Lee was able to outmaneuver Grant after the Wilderness to gain a tactical advantage and set up defensive positions near Spotsylvania Court House. From May 8th to the 21st, the two generals would slug it out. Grant knew that Lee could take his punches, but sooner or later, Lee would ultimately run out of men and supplies. The Union could essentially manufacture both.
Over the course of two weeks, Grant tried to remove Lee from his defensive positions. It was to no avail. The tactics were beginning to change in this war. Lee could no longer afford to slug it out like boxers in the middle of a ring. He had to dig earthworks, arrange trees and other objects to provide cover, and most importantly, he had to keep his army alive. Resembling something of what would be World War I trenches some 50 years later, Lee had his soldiers build trenches all that summer to avoid Union sharpshooters and to thwart Union advances.
Over the course of the 14 days of the battle, heavy casualties made headlines. Grant would lose 18,000 of his 100,000 man army while Lee had 12,000 casualties. The loss of life was staggering to many in the press.
However, Grant was not one to dabble in what the press thought. He had one job to do and that was to destroy Lee’s army that summer. At a place called the Bloody Angle, Grant almost succeeded on May 12.
The most vulnerable point of the Bloody Angle for Lee was a place called the Muleshoe Salient which connected two parts of his lines. The Union tried to concentrate its attack there. For 22 hours, forces under the command of Colonel Emory Upton almost broke through the lines on May 10. Two days later, Upton would try again with an entire corps. The Union did capture a large number of Confederate forces but somehow Lee’s forces held on but a terrible cost. Historian Curtis Crockett describes Upton unusual formation for the attack:
Abandoning the standard attack—a line of men charging in a wave—he condensed his troops into a human battering ram, a tight column of men surging at lightning speed with one aim: to breach the enemy’s entrenchments. If it had worked at Rappahannock Station, it would work here. Upton was sure of it […] the struggle at the entrenchments lasted only seconds with the sheer numbers of Union troops prevailing. The first Union men to reach and climb over the works were shot instantly; many were bayonetted by the Georgians who initially refused to give ground. The Union troops gave as good as they got: The flag bearer of the 44th Georgia was stabbed 14 times by Upton’s men.
Attacking an entrenched position would be a struggle for Grant at Spotsylvania but also at the next battle at Cold Harbor. While taking heavy losses, Upton was able to create a small hole in the Salient, but was unable to hold any territory gained. For the Union soldiers, the attack was devastating. One soldier said, “I came back, tired out and heartsick. I sat down in the woods, and as I thought of the desolation and misery around me, my feelings overcame me and I cried like a little child.”
The carnage was unfathomable. Private G.N. Galloway recalled:
“The dead and wounded were torn to pieces by the canister as it swept the ground where they had fallen. The mud was halfway to our knees. . . Our losses were frightful. What remained of many different regiments that had come up to our support had concentrated at this point, and had planted their tattered colors upon a slight rise of ground where they stayed during the latter part of the day.”
The fighting that began at 5 a.m. on the 12th would last until 3 a.m. the next. 22 hours of hell on Earth. This was the highpoint of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. When Lee moved back a few hundred yards to new even more fortified positions, the fighting at the Muleshoe Salient came to a close.
A Confederate counter attack on May 19 took extremely heavy casualties. Lee’s days of fighting an offensive war were over after Spotsylvania. He did not have the men to do so. He was also beginning to lose too many officers. With Longstreet injured at the Wilderness, Lee struggled to maintain his lines and ranks at Spotsylvania because of officers who lacked experience. In addition, while Spotsylvania was a military stalemate, Lee may thwarted Grant from winning the battle, but Lee had done nothing to stop Grant from winning the war. The war in the East would soon become a war of attrition. Grant would give a large-scale attack one more try at Cold Harbor, but soon, Grant would know that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia did not have much left to fight with. So, he would attack and attack some more.
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