A strategic location

On the evening of May 7, Grant sent his men forward once again, by the left flank to the southeast, this time toward Spot-sylvania Court House. Grant understood that the location was key and that reaching it before Lee would provide him with an advantage, given the lay of the land in the region.

Lee also understood the importance of Spotsylvania and sent his cavalry under General Jeb Stuart, and his 1st Corps, commanded by Major General Richard H. Anderson, to move as quickly as possible to occupy the small Virginia community and the nearby crossroads. He and the remainder of his army would catch up as soon as possible. This command by Lee was not as easy to accomplish as it might seem. For one thing, Confederates had to carve a road to Spotsylvania, since there was no direct route otherwise from their field position. Grant's forces, however, did have a good road to follow to Spotsylvania, but there were delays in their advance and some confusion among the divisions.

By the morning of May 8, Lee's cavalry had arrived at Spotsylvania, without a Union man in sight. But Federal cavalry arrived close by, under the command of General Phil Sheridan, before Anderson's men. Southern infantry, however, reached the small town before the Union's infantry arrived, the 5th Corps under Major General Gouverneur K. Warren. Some fighting broke out, but it was scattered and decided nothing. The real battle would have to wait, as troops from both sides arrived throughout the day and into the evening. In the meantime, both armies busied themselves digging into trenches for the fight.

On the morning of May 9, the armies were largely in place. Even before the battle unfolded, a Confederate sniper cut down the Union commander of the 6th Corps, Major General John Sedgwick. The day saw little action, however, as Grant waited until May 10 to launch several attacks against Lee's lines of defense, without managing to break through. Lee had chosen his defense lines well. Using the local terrain to his advantage, Lee had centered his line around a large, round hill that stuck out into Union territory. The hill was known as the Mule Shoe. The position was easy to defend and difficult to crack.

Grant's only partial success that day was an assault on the west side of the hill. Union colonel Emory Upton created a dense formation of 12 handpicked regiments and sent them forward with orders to not even stop and fire their guns, but to storm the enemy and keep running until they managed to breach the Confederate works. They managed to do exactly that, described by historian McPherson as "screaming like madmen and fighting like wild animals," reaching the Southern Army's first line of trenches, fanning out to the left and right to force their newly created break even wider, even as they continued toward the second line of trench works. Through this assault, the Federals managed to take 1,000 of the enemy prisoner.

Colonel Upton's men had advanced a half mile (800 m) ahead of the Union main line. But when the Rebels counterattacked, Upton's men were forced back, due in part to the failure of other Federal forces to move forward and back them up. Those assigned to provide support for Upton attacked only half-heartedly and ran in the face of massed artillery.

Still, Colonel Upton's strategy had worked, a success noted by General Grant, who decided to try the same tactic, but on a much grander scale. (Upton himself received a battlefield promotion.) It required so much planning and reworking of Union units that Grant and his officers spent all of May 11 planning. Rain fell most of that day, and they intended to launch the massive Union assault the next morning.

At the same time, Grant sent Sheridan and his cavalry on a long-distance raid behind Lee's lines, driving to the very outskirts of Richmond. There, Stuart's cavalry finally caught up with the mounted blues, leading to a fight at Yellow Tavern, just 5 miles (8 km) north of the Confederate capital. The fighting might have had no result, except for the death of one Confederate cavalryman—Jeb Stuart—who was cut down by a Union bullet. Sheridan continued to fight outside Richmond until he reached Union infantry under the command of Major General Benjamin Butler, who was positioned at Bermuda Hundred.


When Grant launched his massive and creative assault on the morning of May 12, he caught Lee by surprise. The Confederate commander incorrectly expected that Grant would move by his left flank to the southeast and avoid a direct fight. Instead, the Union general sent General Winfield Scott Hancock's men, the entire 2nd Corps, toward the center of the Mule Shoe in an attack that opened well before dawn. To meet Grant where he expected him to move, Lee had ordered Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's forces to abandon the Mule Shoe. In fact, Ewell's artillery forces of 22 cannons had already been pulled out of the Mule Shoe before Grant's attack. By the time Lee figured out his mistake, 15,000 Federal troops were overrunning the Confederate center, and Ewell's cannons could not be sent back toward the Mule Shoe in time. Instead, Grant's men captured all of these artillery pieces. In addition, Union forces captured a division and its commander, Major General Edward Johnson. Both had earlier served under Stonewall Jackson.

Hancock's 2nd Corps had managed to divide Lee's forces in two. Lee pushed a reserve division to the front of the fight and desperately tried to lead their charge himself. He had been drawn to the same thing six days earlier during the fighting in the Wilderness.

And fight they did. The Confederates launched a counterattack that was furious and successful, in part, due to the earlier advances in the field by Yankee units. The Union advances had left the North's lines broken up and separated groups of Federals from one another. The Northern forces had advanced in rain and had become disorganized. Confederates pushed them back to the toe of the Mule Shoe, and Grant's men fell into the trench lines they had just earlier captured.

Here, Grant ordered Warren's 5th Corps and the 9th Corps, commanded by Major General Ambrose Burnside to push hard against the Confederates along the Mule Shoe by attacking on both the enemy's right and left flanks. As both corps drove forward, Hancock's 6th Corps moved against the Confederates as well. For the next 20 hours, beginning that morning and lasting until midnight, the fight raged, as North and South, according to historian Steven Woodworth, "remained at close range, shooting, bayoneting, clubbing, and grabbling each other hand-to-hand." The action was centered along trench lines that were separated by only a few hundred yards. The fighting was so close, the two armies so overlapped on the field, that, as historian Joseph P. Cullen quotes a member of the Union 6th Corps: "The flags of both armies waved at the same moment over the same breastworks while beneath them Federal and Confederate endeavored to drive home the bayonet through the interstices [small cracks] of the logs."

Nowhere was the fighting more intense than at a point in the Confederate trench lines where the lines bent, a spot that would later be called the Bloody Angle. Here, men jumped on small mounds of earth and fired their muskets down on enemy troops, only to launch their empty bayoneted guns down like spears. They then were handed other guns to repeat their actions. The fighting along Bloody Angle was so fierce that, according to

Radium Donkey Blackpool

Union general Ulysses S. Grant, a war hero and veteran of the Mexican-American War, was one of the most brilliant military figures of the Civil War. Although he had made several mistakes when leading Union forces against the Confederacy, Grant's triumphant victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga led to President Abraham Lincoln's refusal to remove Grant from leadership.

Union general Ulysses S. Grant, a war hero and veteran of the Mexican-American War, was one of the most brilliant military figures of the Civil War. Although he had made several mistakes when leading Union forces against the Confederacy, Grant's triumphant victories at Vicksburg and Chattanooga led to President Abraham Lincoln's refusal to remove Grant from leadership.

McPherson, "at one point just behind the southern lines an oak tree nearly two feet thick was cut down by minie balls." (The stump of this alleged tree was put on display more than a decade after the war at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and was then sent to the Smithsonian Institution for preservation.) Throughout the fighting, however, the Confederates held on. Both Union commanders—Burnside and Warren—failed to punch through the enemy line.


By the early hours of May 13, General Lee managed to complete a defensive line that stretched across the base of the Mule Shoe.

He then ordered General Ewell's 2nd Corps to move back to that position. May 12 had proven a terrible day of fighting for both sides. The Union casualties alone were 6,800 men, and the Confederates lost 9,000 of their own. At the Bloody Angle, the ground and the trenches were littered with corpses. According to McPherson, "Union soldiers on a burial detail found 150 dead Southerners piled several deep in one area of trench measuring 200 square feet (18.5 square meters), and buried them by simply pushing in the parapet [a mound of dirt] on top of them."

Grant had already set his course of action for his Virginia campaign against Lee's army. He would not give up the field, nor would he break off his forces to give the enemy any extended relief. He had vowed to never stop, to fight against the Confederates in Virginia if it required him to attack throughout the entire summer of 1864. If the fighting on May 12 had not produced a major breakthrough, perhaps another day would do so.

Having failed to bring about a lasting break in the Confederate lines through a direct frontal assault, Grant set another strategy for May 13. As Lee had predicted before the battle had opened, the Federal Army began to move by its left again, heading southeast, continuing its arc around Richmond. To this end, Grant ordered Major General Gouverneur Warren's 5th Corps, placed on the army's right flank, to pull out of the Union line and march behind the army's front. They were to then position themselves on the left flank. General Horatio Wright's 6th Corps would then be in position as the new right flank of Grant's army. Then, Grant had Wright's forces do the same thing. This allowed the Army of the Potomac to move toward the southeast while always maintaining direct contact with Lee, presenting a constant, strong front.

There was little fighting during the several days following the May 12 Spotsylvania battle, just some minor engagements as the two armies squeezed against one another as the Union Army moved its positions southward. Grant did plan an attack on May 14, which was cancelled by heavy rains. Then, the

Union commander set a new course of attack, this time against Lee's left by the Federal right. Once again, Hancock's 2nd Corps, Wright's 6th, and Burnside's 9th attacked Lee's right in the early hours of May 18. But the Confederates in their path were well entrenched, and repeated assaults failed until Grant ordered a stand down. That evening, Grant returned to his strategy of moving by his left, which left Lee with little to do other than to match the Federals' moves.

On May 19, Lee sent General Ewell forward to examine whether Grant was, indeed, moving to the southeast again. As Ewell examined the Union left flank, a fight took place at Harris's Farm, which dragged on for the remainder of the day. Little was accomplished, but Ewell did determine Grant's intentions of moving by his left. As Union forces drew away from the landscape around Spotsylvania, the battle was finally over. In all the fighting during those days of mid-May, the Army of the Potomac suffered 17,500 casualties and Lee's army had 10,000 casualties.

The battle may have been over, but the fight continued on for several more weeks. There would be an engagement on May 23 to 25 along the North Anna River, south of Spotsylva-nia. Both sides bloodied one another until Grant again moved by his left flank to the southeast, closer to Richmond. On June 3, Grant sent thousands of his men to their doom when he attacked Lee in a direct frontal assault at Cold Harbor. The main attack at 4:30 that afternoon lasted little more than 30 minutes; it ended with 3,500 Union casualties.

Grant knew he had made a mistake at Cold Harbor. After that attack, he simply moved by his left, putting him southeast of Richmond and on a straight line with Petersburg, a vital rail center south of the Confederate capital. Here, the Union Army attacked Rebel forces defending the city on June 15. Even though the Union outnumbered the enemy by five to one, it failed to break through, due in part to the poor leadership of Union general William F. "Baldy" Smith.

For six weeks, Grant had pushed Lee's army, from the Wilderness to Petersburg. He had lost tens of thousands of men, killed and wounded, but he had managed to fight Lee to a standstill. Outside Petersburg, Grant simply laid down a siege, which would keep the Army of Northern Virginia locked up south of Richmond with no way out. The war had always been about fighting the Confederates until the South could no longer produce enough manpower to continue the war effectively. Through Grant's nonstop drive against Lee's forces in Virginia from spring until summer of 1864, the day of Confederate exhaustion had finally arrived.

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