The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse
By Gordon C. Rhea
On the evening of May 3, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac crossed the
Rapidan River, aiming to swing west below the stream and attack General Robert E.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Halting so that the Federal force’s supply trains could catch up, the Potomac army’s commander Major General George G. Meade elected to stay overnight in a dense stand of second-growth known as the Wilderness. Lee seized the opportunity, sidled up to his opponent, and initiated a brutal two-day battle on terrain favorable to the smaller rebel force. By sundown on May 6, Lee had stymied Grant’s offensive. Accompanying Meade was Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of all of the Union’s military forces. Grant saw no point in continuing to butt heads with
Lee in the Wilderness. The better strategy, he decided, was to maneuver Lee onto ground more advantageous to the Federals.
On the morning of May 7, Grant determined to leave the Wilderness and march toward the road junction at Spotsylvania Court House, ten miles south of the Wilderness.
Once he had seized the crossroads, Grant predicted that Lee would have no choice but to follow, giving the Federals the match on open ground that Grant sought.
At his headquarters in Catherine Tapp’s field, Lee tried to gauge Grant’s intentions. Perhaps Grant meant to renew his hammering in the Wilderness; possibly he intended to shift to Fredericksburg and press south along the line of the Richmond,
Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad; or maybe he contemplated marching toward
Spotsylvania Court House. Hedging his bets, the Confederate commander decided to hold most of his troops in the Wilderness until Grant showed his hand. Since the Union army already controlled the main north-south artery – the Brock Road – Lee ordered the construction of a new trail through the woods as an alternative route south.
Soon after dark, the Army of the Potomac threaded out of the Wilderness. Grant rode in front, wearing a regulation army hat, a plain blouse and trousers, and a pair of muddy cavalry boots that looked, according to one observer, “very unmilitary.” The year before, Major General Joseph Hooker had retreated north after a drubbing by Lee only a few miles away at Chancellorsville. Grant, however, turned south on the Brock Road, and his soldiers erupted in cheers. “On to Richmond,” they cried, clapping and pitching their hats into the air. “Afterwards,” an officer reminisced, “in hours of disappointment,
Essential Civil War Curriculum | Copyright 2012 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech
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Essential Civil War Curriculum | Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse | August 2012
anxiety, and doubt, when the country seemed distrustful and success far distant, those nearest the chief were wont to recall this midnight ride in the Wilderness, and the verdict of the Army of the Potomac after Grant.”1
Meanwhile Major General Richard Herron Anderson – successor to Lieutenant
General James Longstreet, who had been seriously wounded in the Wilderness -withdrew the Confederate First Corps from its entrenchments and started south as well, following the narrow trail recently carved through the forest. Someone on the southern end of the Confederate line raised a shout, which was repeated to the line’s far end, five miles away. Another chorus of shouts rippled along the Confederate trenches, and then a third. “It seemed to fill every heart with new life, to inspire every nerve with might never known before,” a Southerner remembered.2
While the Union host jostled south, Anderson’s soldiers pursued back roads and trails, putting as much distance as possible between them and the smoldering Wilderness.
Shortly before daybreak, the Confederates reached the Po River, a