May 8, 1864 – After two terrible days in the Wilderness, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant led the Federal Army of the Potomac into a new battle that promised to become even more terrible.
The Battle of the Wilderness resulted in nearly 18,000 Federal casualties, leading Grant and Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, to conclude that the Confederate positions were too strong to assault again. This left them with just two options: retreat as all their predecessors had done, or push forward and try getting around the Confederate right. Grant chose the latter, directing Meade at 6:30 a.m. on the 7th: “Make all preparations during the day for a night march to take position at Spotsylvania Court House with one corps–”
The Federals would continue moving southeast. This would force General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, to follow to keep his army between them and Richmond. Grant’s decision to advance turned a tactical defeat into a strategic victory. It also raised the morale of the troops, who had been accustomed to retreating after battles. When word spread that they would be moving forward instead of back, the men cheered until Grant ordered them to stop; he did not want the Confederates learning his intentions.
But Lee already guessed his intentions. Confederates from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps probed forward and found that the Federals had disappeared from their front. Since this was on the northern flank, Lee figured that the Federals had either moved east toward Fredericksburg or southeast along the Brock Road. Lee began preparing to move to Spotsylvania, where he could block the Federals should they come from either direction.
Both Grant and Lee recognized that Spotsylvania was important because the crossroads there led to Wilderness Tavern, Hanover Junction, and Fredericksburg. It was also the point where two major railroads–the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac and the Virginia Central–intersected, both of which supplied the Confederate army. And it was 12 miles closer to Richmond than the Wilderness. Whoever won the race to Spotsylvania would have a distinct advantage in the struggle between the two armies.
Major General Richard H. Anderson, replacing the wounded Lieutenant General James Longstreet in command of First Corps, received orders from Lee to start moving after dark to get to Spotsylvania first. Meade directed Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps to lead the march down the Brock Road, followed by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. VI and IX corps under Major Generals John Sedgwick and Ambrose E. Burnside respectively would move east along the Orange Turnpike.
Meade ordered Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps to clear the Brock Road for Warren and Hancock. However, Sheridan’s troopers clashed with elements of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry at Todd’s Tavern. This prevented Sheridan from clearing the road before Anderson’s Confederates passed by during the night. Stuart’s men felled trees which, along with traffic jams among the troops and wagons, delayed the Federal advance.
As the Federals struggled southward early on the 8th, they came upon Confederate cavalry blocking their path on a ridge called Laurel Hill, just north of Spotsylvania Court House. Anderson’s infantry arrived behind the cavalry just as the Federals came within 100 yards. The Confederates had won the race to Spotsylvania, with Lee himself arriving around 3 p.m.
Warren, thinking that only cavalry blocked his way, ordered an attack. However, the Confederates repelled several thrusts and inflicted heavy casualties. Warren notified Meade at 12:30 p.m., “I have done my best, but with the force I now have I cannot attack again.” Frustrated, Meade fumed that Warren “lost his nerve.” Meade ordered him to renew the attack as soon as Sedgwick came up on his left (east), but Warren objected. The commanders discussed the situation at Meade’s headquarters and, as Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff recalled:
“In fact the sudden transition from a long winter’s rest to hard marching, sleepless nights, and protracted fighting, with no prospect of cessation, produced a powerful effect on the nervous system of the whole army. And never, perhaps, were officers and men more jaded and prostrated than on this very Sunday.”
Meanwhile, Hancock guarded the Federal rear at Todd’s Tavern and sent a division forward to probe for Confederates. The Federals encountered Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, led by Brigadier General William Mahone’s division. After some fighting, the Federals pulled back and the Confederates resumed their march toward Spotsylvania.
Back in front of Laurel Hill, the Federals finally got into attack positions around 6 p.m., but by that time Ewell’s corps was coming up on Anderson’s right (east). Hill’s corps (led by Major General Jubal Early because Hill was sick) would soon arrive on Ewell’s right. The Federals attacked around 7 p.m. but were repulsed with heavy losses.
The action on the 8th greatly frustrated Meade. In addition to being angry with Warren, he accused Sheridan of not properly clearing the Brock Road, and he called Sedgwick “constitutionally slow.” As the fighting stopped that night, both sides began digging trenches and building earthworks for the fight that was sure to resume the next day.
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