May 10, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac launched an all-out assault on Confederates defending Spotsylvania Court House, with particular emphasis on a salient in the defense line. More horrific casualties resulted.
The constant marching and fighting between Major General George G. Meade’s Federal army (under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s overall command) and General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia entered its fifth day. Both armies temporarily halted the general fighting to build lines of defense.
By the morning of the 9th, the Confederates had built strong defenses just north of Spotsylvania Court House, blocking the Federals from any further southward advance. The line ran from the Po River on the left (west), across Laurel Hill and the Brock Road in the center, and then southward to the court house. A salient in the northeastern sector of the line jutted outward and resembled what became known as the “Mule Shoe.”
These were the strongest fieldworks of the war up to this time, featuring two lines of trenches, breastworks, abatis, artillery, and traverses. Major General Jubal Early’s (formerly A.P. Hill’s) Third Corps held the left, Major General Richard H. Anderson’s (formerly James Longstreet’s) First Corps held the center, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the right. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis at 3 a.m.:
“We have succeeded so far in keeping on the front flank of that army, and impeding its progress, without a general engagement, which I will not bring on unless a favorable opportunity offers, or as a last resort. Every attack made upon us has been repelled and considerable damage done to the enemy. With the blessing of God, I trust we shall be able to prevent General Grant from reaching Richmond.”
Davis responded, “Your dispatches have cheered us in the anxiety of a critical position… I will volunteer to say that I am very glad at what has happened; but there is a great deal still to be done.”
The Federals’ line consisted of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps on the right (west), Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps in the center, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps on the left (east). Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was on its way from Aldrich, northeast of the Federal line. The Federal army numbered about 100,000 men, while Lee had approximately 60,000.
As the men of VI Corps dug rifle pits, random fire from Confederate sharpshooters scattered them. Standing nearby, Sedgwick exclaimed, “What! What! Men dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” More fire erupted, and this time Sedgwick fell dead with a bullet through his face.
News of the beloved commander’s death shocked and demoralized the army. Sedgwick’s surgeon George Stevens wrote, “Never had such a gloom rested upon the whole army on account of the death of one man as came over it when the heaving tidings passed along the lines that General Sedgwick was killed.” Grant equated Sedgwick’s loss with that of a whole division. Sedgwick’s body was placed upon a funeral bier of evergreen boughs, and command of VI Corps passed to Brigadier General Horatio G. Wright.
When Hancock reported that Early’s Confederates were pulling back, Grant saw an opportunity to attack Lee’s left. Hancock’s Federals advanced but had to cross the Po River twice. By the time they reached their attack point, Brigadier General William Mahone’s division stood in their way behind strong defenses. Hancock opted to wait until next morning to attack, and the narrow opportunity that Grant had seen was lost.
By the morning of the 10th, Lee had shifted Major General Henry Heth’s division to join Mahone in opposing Hancock. This led Grant to believe that Lee had weakened his line on the center and right. Abandoning his plan to attack the Confederate left, Grant directed Hancock to leave a division to oppose the Confederates in that sector and move his remaining force alongside Warren for a coordinated attack on Laurel Hill at 5 p.m.
That morning, Grant telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck at Washington, “Enemy hold our front in very strong force and evince strong determination to interpose between us and Richmond to the last. I shall take no backward step…”
As Hancock shifted, Heth’s Confederates attacked his lone division, pushing the Federals north of the Po River before disengaging. Meanwhile, Warren asked Meade to consent to an immediate attack without waiting for Hancock or the 5 p.m. scheduled time; Warren wanted to prove his aggressiveness after Meade accused him of losing his nerve two days ago. Meade consented.
Warren’s Federals advanced through unforgiving forest and brush before meeting fire from Anderson’s Confederates. Warren was forced to order a withdrawal, and Meade rescheduled the Warren-Hancock attack for 6 p.m.
During this time, Colonel Emory Upton of VI Corps received permission to lead 12 regiments (about 5,000 men) in attacking the left side of the “Mule Shoe” salient. Upton had developed a theory that entrenched defenders could be defeated by tightly compacted attackers. His plan was to charge the Confederate works with bayonets, and once they were taken, Federal reinforcements would pour in and spread along the line. He was to be supported by a division in his rear, and Burnside’s IX Corps attacking the Confederate right.
The Federals charged across 200 yards of open field and penetrated the line just as Upton expected. He later wrote, “Like a resistless wave, the column poured over the works, putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered.”
But the supporting division was driven off by Confederate artillery, leaving Upton’s men isolated in the enemy trenches. Lee personally shifted troops from his right to counterattack; when the men shouted for him to return to safety, Lee said he would only if they drove the Federals out. The Confederates did, closing the gap and securing the line once more.
Burnside, unaware he faced just a single division, stopped and dug trenches after coming under fire (Grant later blamed himself for not knowing Burnside’s situation and ordering him to advance). Upton lost a quarter of his men, but he took about 1,000 prisoners. Grant promoted him to brigadier general and remarked, “A brigade today–we’ll try a corps tomorrow.”
Lee reported that night, “Thanks to a merciful Providence, our casualties have been small.” President Davis had been anxiously awaiting news from both this front and the one to the south, where Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal Army of the James was threatening both the capital and Petersburg. Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal Cavalry Corps had also been detached to threaten Richmond. Davis pledged to try sending reinforcements to Lee, but “we have been sorely pressed by enemy on south side. Are now threatened by the cavalry…”
Combat was suspended the next day due to rain. As Lee and his subordinates assessed their situation, Lee took exception to an aide accusing Grant of butchery: “I think General Grant has managed his affairs remarkably well up to the present time.” Receiving intelligence that Federal wagons were moving to the rear, Lee guessed that Grant was pulling back toward Fredericksburg. As such, he pulled 22 guns out of the “Mule Shoe” salient, unaware that this was the exact point that Grant planned to attack the next day.
Lee then issued orders: “I wish you to have everything in readiness to pull out at a moment’s notice… We must attack those people if they retreat.” When A.P. Hill suggested staying put and letting the Federals continue their futile attacks on the Confederate defenses, Lee replied, “The army cannot stand a siege, we must end this business on the battlefield, not in a fortified place.”
On the morning of the 11th, Grant had breakfast with his political benefactor, Congressman Elihu Washburne of Illinois. Before returning to Washington, Washburne told Grant that President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton “would be deeply gratified if I could carry a message from you giving what encouragement you can as to the situation.” Grant wrote:
“We have now ended our sixth day of very hard fighting. The result up to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy, as well as those of the enemy. We have lost to this time 11 general officers, killed, wounded, and missing, and probably 20,000 men. I think the loss of the enemy must be greater, we having taken over 4,000 prisoners in battle, while he has taken but few, except stragglers. I am satisfied the enemy are very shaky, and are only kept up to the mark by the greatest exertions on the part of their officers and by keeping them intrenched in every position they take. I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
This message caused a sensation both in Washington and across the North. When Lincoln read it, he told his secretary John Hay, “It is the dogged pertinacity of Grant that wins.”
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