Spotsylvania: Federals Attack Again

May 18, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed his Federals to launch another attack in hopes of turning the flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Since the horrible battle on the 12th, both armies had shifted positions and skirmished without provoking a major confrontation. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to slide Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac to the left, or southeast, to try turning Lee’s right flank.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps had begun moving from its spot on the far right of the Federal line to the left, beside Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, on a line running roughly north to south. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps had followed Warren and took positions on Warren’s left, securing the high ground on Myers Hill after an all-day skirmish on the 14th.

Both Burnside’s corps and II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock held their positions in front of what was once the Mule Shoe salient of the Confederate line. Hancock now held the extreme Federal right. Heavy rain fell for several days, suspending any plans Grant had to renew his large-scale attacks.

The Federals had inflicted heavy damage on Lee’s army, but they had not scored any major advantages. The Confederates still held Spotsylvania Court House, including the vital intersection of the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads. This enabled supplies to continue reaching the Confederate troops without interruption. Nevertheless, President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to better protect himself from enemy fire because “The country could not bear the loss of you…”

Lee did not immediately react to the new Federal threat to his right. As Wright’s corps got into position on the 14th, Lee left Spotsylvania Court House undefended. But the Federals were too exhausted to capitalize, and Lee finally directed Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps to shift from the Confederate left to the right. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps now faced Hancock, with the men from Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps and Anderson’s corps facing Burnside, Warren, and Wright.

On the 17th, Grant learned from Confederate prisoners that Lee was shifting men from his left to his right flank to counter the Federal movement. Guessing that this made Lee’s left vulnerable, Grant ordered Wright’s Federals to countermarch from their position on the Federal left to the position they had held four days ago, on the right of Hancock’s troops.

Actions of May 17-18 | Image Credit:

Ewell’s Confederates held strong defensive positions, covered by artillery. And they would not be surprised like they had been on the 12th. The men under Wright and Hancock advanced slowly on the morning of the 18th, seizing the “Bloody Angle” of what had been the Mule Shoe salient. Around 8 a.m., Ewell ordered his 29 guns to open fire, and after sustaining about 2,000 casualties in two hours, the Federals fell back. A Federal officer recalled:

“Moments seemed like hours. Then the cheering ceased and dark masses of our men were seen through the openings in the uprising smoke returning as they went but with awfully suggestive gaps in their ranks. The assault had failed. Soon the smoke cleared away and disclosed the ground for long distances thickly strewn with our dead and dying men. It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled ‘Bloody Spotsylvania.’”

Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff noticed a pattern emerging in this campaign:

“It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good riflepit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first 24 hours.”

Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy opened his batteries at sunrise on a portion of Ewell’s line, attempted an assault, but failed. He was easily repulsed.” Meade wrote his wife after the engagement, “We found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall. We shall now try to maneuver again so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold.” Lee reported the situation to Davis:

“(Grant’s) position is strongly entrenched, and we cannot attack it with any prospect of success without great loss of men which I wish to avoid if possible. The enemy’s artillery is superior in weight of metal and range to our own, and my object has been to engage him when in motion and under circumstances that will not cause us to suffer from this disadvantage. I think by this means he has suffered considerably in the several past combats, and that his progress has thus far been arrested. I shall continue to strike him wherever opportunity presents itself, but nothing at present indicates any purpose on his part to advance. Neither the strength of our army nor the condition of our animals will admit of any extensive movement with a view to drawing the enemy from his position. I think he is now waiting for reenforcements… The importance of this campaign to the administration of Mr. Lincoln and to General Grant leaves no doubt that every effort and every sacrifice will be made to secure its success.”

Later, Lee repeated his request for Davis to send him the troops currently guarding Richmond, adding, “The question is whether we shall fight the battle here or around Richmond. If the troops are obliged to be retained at Richmond I may be forced back.”

After this sharp Federal defeat, Grant returned to headquarters, where he received more bad news: the armies of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Benjamin F. Butler had also been defeated. Grant tried remaining optimistic, but he conceded:

“I thought the other day that they must feel pretty blue in Richmond over the reports of our victories; but as they are in direct telegraphic communication with the points at which the fighting took place, they were no doubt at the same time aware of our defeats, of which we have not learned till to-day; so probably they did not feel as badly as we imagined.”

Early on the 19th, Lee directed Ewell to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine the location of the Federal right flank. Ewell dispatched two divisions that came up against Wright’s corps around the Harris farm, and vicious fighting ensued. Lee recalled the Confederates before they were caught in a full-scale battle while isolated from the rest of the army, but they did not disengage until 9 p.m., and many were captured after getting lost in the dark. The Confederates lost 900 killed, wounded, or missing.

This ended active operations around Spotsylvania Court House. Two weeks of constant marching and fighting, combined with enlistment expirations, had cut the Army of the Potomac nearly in half since the campaign began. Lee, having lost nearly 18,000 men in that same span, now had just about 40,000 troops left. He had also lost top lieutenants James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and A.P. Hill. Lee soon learned that Grant was maneuvering around his right flank once more, prompting him to shift his Confederates south toward the North Anna River.



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