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Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

History--Military history--List of battles

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, sometimes simply referred to as the Battle of Spotsylvania, was the final battle of the American Civil War fought in the Rapidan-Rappahannock river areas, in which more than 100,000 men on both sides fell between 1862 and 1864.

The Battle of Spotsylvania was fought from May 8-19, 1864 along a trench line some four miles long, with the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee making its second attempt to halt the summer offensive of the United States (Union) Army of the Potomac under the command of Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade. Taking place less than a week after the bloody, inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, it pitted 58,000 Confederate soldiers against a Union army numbering 106,000.

After Lee checked his advance in the Wilderness, Grant decided to take advantage of the position he held, which allowed him to slip his army around Lee's right flank and continue to move south toward the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. He already had troops on the move by the night of May 7, just one day after the Wilderness fighting ended, and on May 8, he sent Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren and his V Corps to take Spotsylvania, 10 miles to the southeast. Lee had figured out what Grant proposed to do, and sent cavalry under Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and the First Corps of infantry, commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson because its usual leader, Lieut. Gen. James Longstreet had been wounded in the Wilderness.

The Confederates won the race to Spotsylvania, and on May 9, each army began to take up new positions around the small town. The fighting of May 9 was significant in that Union corps commander John Sedgwick, with the army since 1862, was killed. Lee deployed his men in a trench line stretching more than five miles, with only one major weakness--an exposed salient known as the "Mule Shoe" extending more than a mile in front of the main trench line. Lee recognized this weakness during the fighting of May 10, when a dozen regiments under the command of Col. Emory Upton followed up a concentrated, intense artillery attack by slamming into the toe of the Mule Shoe along a narrow front. They actually broke the Confederate line, and the Confederate Second Corps had a hard time driving them out. Upton's attack won him a promotion to general, and became a staple of miltary textbooks on how to break an enemy trench line. Similar tactics were used by Germany in its successful March 1918 offensive during World War I.

Lee, seeing the danger, began to lay out a new defense line across the heel of the Mule Shoe that night, but before he could get it finished, Grant sent his entire II Corps of 15,000 men to attack the position in the same manner Upton had. This time, the breach in the Confederate line was complete, thanks in large part to an order from Lee that had already pulled much of the Confederate artillery back to the new line. The II Corps took close to 4,000 prisoners and probably would have cut the Army of Northern Virginia in half if the IX Corps, supporting it with an assault on the Confederate right flank, had pushed its attacks home with force. Instead, Lee was able to shift thousands of his men to meet the threat. The battle in the Mule Shoe lasted for an entire day and night, as the Confederates slowly won back all the ground they had lost, inflcting heavy losses on the II Corps and the reinforcing VI Corps in the process.

By 3 a.m. on May 13, just as the Confederates had completed expelling the II Corps from the Mule Shoe, the new line was ready, and Lee had his battered men retire behind it. More than 10,000 men fell in the Mule Shoe, which now passed to the Union forces without a fight. On May 18, Grant sent two of his corps to attack the new line, but were met with a bloody repulse. That convinced Grant, who had vowed to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," that Lee's men could not be dislodged from their Spotsylvania line.

Grant, checked by Lee for a second time, responded as he had two weeks earlier. He shifted the weight of his army to the right flank and again moved to the southeast along roads Lee was unable to block. By May 20-21, the two armies were on their way to take positions along the North Anna River, another dozen miles closer to Richmond.

Once again, Lee's tactics inflicted severe casualties on Grant's army. This time, the toll was 18,399 men, of which close to 3,000 were killed. In two weeks of fighting, Grant had lost 35,000 men, and another 20,000 went home when their enlistments ended. In fact, Grant at one point on the North Anna had less than 65,000 effectives. But Lee wasn't coming out of these battles unscathed, either. At Spotsylvania, he lost another 10,000 men, and the Confederates were having to pull men away from other fronts to reinforce him. Making matters worse, the army was taking heavy losses among its veteran units and its best officers. This may have saved Grant from a disaster on the North Anna, when his decimated army was positioned badly and was ripe to be attacked. Lee never did, because the Army of Northern Virginia was unable to do so. In fact, Lee's army would never regain the initiative it lost in those two weeks of May 1864.

Portions of the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, administered by the National Park Service.