The Battle of Spotsylvania was the second stage of U.S. Grant’s 1864 campaign against Robert E. Lee. Having suffered a tactical defeat at the Wilderness (4-7 May 1864), Grant did not act in the same way as his predecessors in the east would have done, retreating back to his camps, but instead decided to continue with the campaign.
His plan now was to move east, in an attempt to get past Lee’s right flank. At this stage in the campaign, Grant’s best hope of a quick victory was to somehow get between Lee and Richmond. His target this time was a road junction at Spotsylvania, that if captured would mean Grant was nearer to Richmond than Lee was. Grant’s hope was that if that happened, Lee would either attack the Union positions, probably at great cost, or be forced to retreat from the vicinity of Richmond.
Grant was not able to achieve his aim at Spotsylvania. Lee quickly worked out what Grant was doing, and sent his cavalry to slow down the Union march. Meanwhile, Anderson’s corps raced towards the crossroads. They got there in time to dig in, and on 8 May were able to repel the first Union corps to reach their new position (Warren’s Fifth Corps). Later on the same day another attack also failed to dislodge the Confederates from their trenches.
It is this phase of the Civil War that is often said to foreshadow conditions on the Western Front during the First World War. Both armies dug elaborate trench networks whenever they came into contact. All that was missing was barbed wire and machines guns. However, at least at Spotsylvania the comparison was a little premature. These were not the permanent defences of the later war, but rather field defences. Unlike in 1914-17 the trenches came to an end. There were still open flanks to be found, and even some potential for success in a well planned frontal assault.
Grant was to try both at Spotsylvania, and come close to success. On 9 May he attempted to turn Lee’s left flank. This move was easily foiled by Lee, who was able to move troops from his right to deal with the slow moving Federal attack. The next day saw an unsuccessful Union attack on a wide front, launched in the false expectation that the Confederate centre must have been weakened to see off the previous days flanking move.
Only one part of the Union attack had any success. One part of the Confederate line, a salient called the mule shoe, had a weak spot, where Union troops could reach within 200 yards of its west flank. This was spotted, and an attack ordered. That attack was planned by Colonel Emory Upton, a very able young officer who had put some thought into the problem posed by just such defences.
His plan involved twelve regiments of infantry, formed into four lines of three. The first line was to attack the first Confederate line. Once it had breached that line, its job was to turn left and right to expand the breach. The second line was to charge through the gap and attack the second Confederate line. The third line was to follow close behind as a reserve, the fourth to do the same from a little further back. A key element of the attack was that every regimental officer had to know exactly what their role was. The attack must not be allowed to turn into a simple charge.
The attack went in a 6.10 P.M. after a ten minute artillery bombardment, and was a total success. Upton’s men captured 1,000 prisoners, and opened a breach in the Confederate lines. However, in a genuine foreshadowing of the Western Front, his success was not properly supported. Half hearted attacks on other parts of the Confederate lines did not help his cause. When darkness fell, Upton’s men had to retreat.
When an earlier Union commander had been replaced, Lee had suggested that his biggest fear was that the Union would find a commander he did not understand. Grant now appeared to be that man. He decided to repeat Upton’s attack on 10 May, but with a much larger force – an entire army corps. When Lee’s scouts reported movement behind the Union lines on 11 May, Lee did not guess Grant’s true intentions, but instead thought that another flanking manoeuvre was about to begin. Accordingly, he ordered twenty-two guns pulled out of the mule shoe, ready to move to deal with the new threat. Lee realised his mistake in time to order those guns back, but not in time for them to arrive back where they had started.
Aided by early morning fog, the initial Union attack on 12 May was a spectacular success. The twenty two guns along with most of the mule shoe fell to the attackers. For a brief moment Lee’s line was broken. Luckily for him, the Union attack now lost momentum and structure. This time too many men had gone in in the initial attack, and now their units were desperately mixed up, and temporarily out of control. This was the right moment for the Confederate counterattack. Organised by General John B. Gordon, that counter attack stopped the Union advance, but failed to throw them out of the mule shoe.
The fighting that followed was some of the bloodiest of the war. At very close quarters the bayonet was as important as the musket. The fighting went on all day, and earned the tip of the mule shoe its more famous name – the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania. It is amazing that neither side broke under the pressure. The fighting only ended when Lee ordered his men to pull back to a new line.
Another difference between Grant and earlier Federal commanders was that he did not stop to rest after the fighting on 12 May. Over the next week he probed at Lee’s lines, attempted more flanking moves and another assault. Only on 20 May did Grant finally decide to move again. This time his target was to be Hanover Junction, a crucial rail junction just south of the North Anna River.
Spotsylvania was another costly battle for both sides. Lee’s losses were around 12,000, Grant’s just over 20,000. Once again Grant had failed to outflank Lee, although had come close to breaking his lines. Once again, the true significance of Spotsylvania was that after it Grant kept on fighting.