May 8, 1864 (Sunday)
“My object in moving to Spottsylvania was two-fold: first, I did not want Lee to get back to Richmond in time to attempt to crush Butler before I could get there; second, I wanted to get between his army and Richmond if possible; and, if not, to draw him into the open field. But Lee, by accident, beat us to Spottsylvania.” – General Ulysses S. Grant
The Rebels had expected the Union Army of the Potomac to slide north, recrossing the Rapidan River, believing that they had closed the door to Richmond once again. At the forefront of Lee’s mind was how to replace James Longstreet, his Old Warhorse, who had been wounded in the neck and shoulder on the 6th. He ultimately settled upon Richard Anderson, after considering Jubal Early and “Allegheny” Johnson. Anderson had been a division commander in Longstreet’s Corps before the reorganization following the death of Stonewall Jackson.
For all, May 7 was filled with mystery, each side in a near panic to discover the mind of the other. Was Lee still entrenched to their front? Was Grant really about to retreat? General Meade, the Army’s commander, ordered probes along the line while following Grant’s orders to start the wagons and artillery south toward Spotsylvania.
Lee’s first indication came from the corps of Richard Ewell, who sneaked a fine peak at Germanna Ford. What they found was nothing, and Lee was convinced that if Grant was retreating, he would not be moving north. He must then be moving east, toward Fredericksburg, or south. Either way, due to the lay of the roads, Spotsylvania Court House would be instrumental. He sent word to the cavalier Jeb Stuart, ordering him to watch the crossroads “should we desire to move on his flank in that direction.”
Holding Spotsylvania would bar Grant from moving farther south, if indeed he was moving south at all, and it would also force him to use but one road to Fredericksburg, if he was moving east. In truth, Lee had no idea where Grant was headed, and though he figured that Spotsylvania was an important point, he had no desire at all to commit his entire army to the cause. But Grant was, as he ordered Meade, moving south. Two corps, Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth and Winfield Hancock’s Second, were to take Brock Road, leading to Spotsylvania, while the other two, John Sedgwick’s Sixth, and Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth backed east along the Orange Turnpike.
To prepare the way, Meade ordered his cavalry, under the helm of Philip Sheridan, to clear the southeast-running Brock Road. This they did for several miles until reaching the area around Todd’s Tavern, which they found barred by elements of Stuart’s Cavalry, who were too much of a match for the Federals. Darkness fell before they could be removed, and from this Sheridan derived a victory, giving Meade the “all clear.”
As Sheridan’s troopers bedded down, through the darkness, they could hear the sounds of a host of troops moving not far away. Thousands of men just beyond the limits of sight. These were Longstreet’s men, now led by Richard Anderson, marching south through woods until reaching Catharpin Road, and turning away from Todd’s Tavern. It soon became clear that they too were marching on Spotsylvania.
For the Federals, the night was one of traffic jams and confusion, with both Grant and Meade lost in the Wilderness and trying to escape. Finally, they backed the troops to Brock Road – the correct one – and marched with the Fifth Corps. Along a parallel road to the south, Richard Anderson’s Confederates turned and both columns drew for Spotsylvania. Lee had ordered Anderson to start at 3am, but Anderson, perhaps wanting to make a good impression, or perhaps wishing to get away from the stench of the battlefield, stepped off early. And so it was by accident that Warren and Anderson were racing each other to the crossroads.
The pre-dawn of this date found Generals Meade and Warren first sleeping at Todd’s Tavern, and then waking for breakfast. Meanwhile, the Fifth Corps was halted, waiting for Sheridan’s cavalry to begin clearing Brock Road. But through the night, Stuart’s Cavalry had constructed barricades and established obstructions, and the work was slow. The Rebels were doing a fine job, but had been at it for five hours, and were now backed up upon Laurel Hill, a few miles before Spotsylvania.
Meanwhile, Warren, seeing the Rebels atop Laurel Hill, deployed most of his corps to charge them and drive them finally from the field. His attack began steadily, line upon line all converging on Stuart’s embattled position. But Stuart was calm, knowing that over his shoulder marched the first two brigades of Anderson’s Division. While they filed into line, Warren’s attack came, but faltered. Brigades and divisions regrouped and attacked, but as Anderson’s Confederates streamed upon Laurel Hill and to the north, it was over. “I have done my best,” came Warren’s 12:30pm message to Meade, “but with the force I now have I cannot attack again.”
“I was anxious to crush Anderson before Lee could get a force to his support,” wrote Grant after the war. “To this end Sedgwick who was at Piney Branch Church, was ordered to Warren’s support. Hancock, who was at Todd’s Tavern, was notified of Warren’s engagement, and was directed to be in readiness to come up. Burnside, who was with the wagon trains at Aldrich’s on our extreme left, received the same instructions.”
Meade ordered Warren to attack once more when Sedgwick’s troops were up. They arrived, but slowly, each brigade extending the lines northeast of Laurel Hill. As was now to be expected, drama rose anew. Warren, who knew the ground, refused Meade’s request to co-operate with Sedgwick, who was senior. “I’ll be damned if I’ll co-operate with Sedgwick or anyone else,” he was to have said, demanding that Meade simply place one or the other in charge.
The afternoon was slipping away as Meade conferred with Warren, Sedgwick, and a growing array of other officers. “Was struck by their worn and troubled aspect,” jotted Meade’s staffer, Lt. Col. Theodore Lyman in his journal. “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.”
It wasn’t until 6pm that they were ready to make their assault. And it was then that Richard Ewell’s Corps began to arrive. A half-hour later, Meade ordered the Fifth and Sixth Corps to advance, and on they came, but to no good end. With Ewell and Anderson before them, they melted, leaving behind wounded, dead, and a large contingent of soldiers simply trapped between the fire.
Through the night, both armies extended and strengthened their lines. The following day, this would continue until miles upon miles of breastworks lined the Virginia countryside.1
- Sources: Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; The Battle for Spotsylvania by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; The Wilderness Campaign by Edward Steere; And Keep Moving On by Mark Grimsley; Damage Them All You Can by George Walsh. [↩]