What was the Significance of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House?

What was the Significance of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House?

Spotsylvania Courthouse, 1864

Union troops would assault a Confederate salient known as the “Mule Shoe”, with the fiercest fighting of the war, much of it hand-to-hand combat, occurring at “the Bloody Angle” on the northwest.

The American Civil War’s Battle of Spotsylvania Court House occurred from May 8-21, 1864. The second encounter of General Grant’s summer campaign, it amplified a growing war of attrition that would turn that Spring into one of the bloodiest seasons in American history. Instead of one set battle followed by a long period of rest, the Union and Confederate armies were in almost constant contact until the Siege of Petersburg.

In May 1864, unable to break through Confederate defenses at the Battle of the Wilderness, General U.S. Grant maneuvered his army south and east, hoping to get between the Confederates and Richmond. 

But General Robert E. Lee anticipated Grant’s move and rushed his army into Spotsylvania County.
Robert E. Lee, oil on canvas, Edward Calledon Bruce, 1865.

General Lee arrived just in time to block Grant’s advance. On the night of May 8, Lee’s army hastily entrenched behind four miles of breastworks, seemingly thwarting Grant’s plan.

On May 10, attacks by Grant’s forces failed to break the Confederate line. But the near-success of one of the attacks caused Grant to believe that if tried on a larger scale it would succeed.

There was a large salient/bulge near the center of the Confederate line, called by the men “the Mule Shoe” due to its peculiar shape. Because of the way the Mule Shoe jutted out from the rest of the line, Grant saw that it was vulnerable. 

Believing that a large force massed into an assault on that single point could overwhelm it. Moreover, break the Confederate line, Grant ordered that an attack for dawn on the 12th of May.

The Union Army initially attacked at 4:30 a.m. with 15,000 troops crammed into just a half-mile front.

The Confederates would be caught by surprise, and their defenses overwhelmed. 

Within minutes over 3,000 Confederates (including two generals) became Union prisoners. But the initial Union success would give way to a stalemate. 

The fighting would become most intense at a small bend in the line that has gone down in history as “the Bloody Angle.” 

There Confederate and Federal forces fought each other at point blank range, often hand to hand, for almost 20 hours, with the Federals refusing to abandon their assaults and the Confederates refusing to abandon their position. It became the longest, sustained, hand to hand combat (by far) of the Civil War.

Confederate Lt. James Caldwell said:

Confederate Lt. James Caldwell
“Dead men lay on the surface of the ground and in pools of water. The wounded bled or groaned, stretched or huddled in every attitude of pain. The water was crimsoned with blood…. The rain poured heavily and an incessant fire was kept upon us from front and flank…. It was plainly a question of bravery and endurance now.” 

Union General Lewis Grant would describe the affair:

Lewis A. Grant, Union general
“Nothing but the piled up logs of breastworks separated the combatants. Our men would reach over the logs and fire into the faces of the enemy, would stab over with their bayonets; many were shot and stabbed through crevices and holes between logs; men mounted the works and with muskets rapidly handed them kept up a continuous fire until they were shot down, when others would take their places.” 

The fighting’s extreme horror of up close shooting resulted in a 22-inch oak tree being clean chopped down. In fact the stump of the tree is now on display in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

Not until around 3 a.m. on May 13 the work on the new Confederate defenses finished, and the exhausted Confederate survivors regrouped from “the Bloody Angle” into a new line, which proved to be impregnable.

The fighting resulted in around total casualties were about 18,400 dead, wounded or missing for the Union, 12,700 respectively for the Army of Northern Virginia. 

One major takeaway from the intense fighting signaled that General Grant would press the Confederates relentlessly and the Civil War was now a war of attrition, somewhat similar to World War 1.

After the Wilderness fight, Grant continued on a southeast track looking for another way to break Lee’s line.

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, VI Corps

A notable part of the battle centers The Death of General John Sedgwick,(above) who commanded the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps. 

While at his headquarters the General noticed confusion among some of his troops outside the building. However, despite earlier warnings of danger, the General would ignore the warnings and walk over the troops. This was close to the front lines and the idea of letting a General walk around within sight of Confederate troops was asinine at best. 

The moment the General arrived on the scene a Confederate sharpshooter’s bullet almost hit him, as a result of the shot, a young private at his side dropped to the ground in fear. Record has it that General Sedgwick spoke to the private, moreover a legendary line in history:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” 

However the sharpshooter would take another 2 shots and his last one would not miss the General. It would however miss the private. 

Apparently the sound of the bullet hitting the General was quite audible for all around. The general fell to the ground, blood streaming from a hole right below the left eye. 

The General was the highest-ranking Union officer to die in the Civil War. 

Union Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter said of the General:

Horace Porter. Library of Congress description: “Gen. Horace Porter, U.S.A.”
“Sedgwick was essentially a soldier. He had never married; the camp was his home, and the members of his staff were his family. He was always spoken of familiarly as “Uncle John.” And the news of his death fell upon his comrades with a sense of grief akin to the sorrow of a personal bereavement.”

In conclusion, both sides claimed victory. But. strategically, the South suffered losses it could not replace. 

Grant would go on to lose at Cold Harbor before arriving in June at Petersburg.

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What was the Significance of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House?
Eric Foner

What was the Significance of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House?