May 10, 1864 (Tuesday)
“General Sedgwick is shot through the head,” exclaimed a staff officer of the Sixth Corps, as he rode upon Meade’s headquarters the day previous. “And my God! I’m afraid he is killed!”
When General George Meade, commanding the Union Army of the Potomac learned the news that one of his three corps commanders had been slain, there was little he could do but place a subordinate, Horatio Wright, in his stead. The rest of the day was spent engaged in little battle, but rather in the positioning of troops and the digging of entrenchments.
Since coming out of the Virginia Wilderness, both the Confederate and Union armies had bent their courses south to Spotsylvania, a race which was boldly won by General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia on the 8th. By the dawn of this date, the lines were more or less settled.
Lee’s forces had formed an interior line resembling a large “L.” Where the two sides joined was necessarily a salient, soon known as “the Mule Shoe.” The Federal lines, composed by both Meade and General Grant, were not mere echoes of their Southern counterparts. Instead, they massed with three corps upon the Confederate left, and with another, under Ambrose Burnside, upon the far right.
Though General Lee had claimed the crossroads of Spotsylvania as his own, establishing his lines north and east of the town, it was Grant and Meade who held the initiative. Lee’s Army, nearly half the size of Grant’s, could only react. But that did not, of course, mean that they could only battle on the defensive.
This fact was not lost upon Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the Second Corps on the Union right. He had moved his three divisions across the Po River. The night previous, Grant called upon Hancock to make a turning movement, believing that the Rebel lines were nonexistent west of Laurel Hill. And for a time that had been true. But now, after noon, Lee was found to have shifted two divisions to Hancock’s front.
Reconsidering, Grant abandoned the idea of flanking Lee. Since the Southern general pulled troops to his left, his center, held Grant, must be weakened. Hancock was then ordered to recross the Po River with two divisions to join with Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps for an assault scheduled for 5pm. The remaining division, under Francis Barlow, was to remain behind, screening their movements.
As Hancock’s two divisions were retracing their steps across the Po River, Henry Heth’s Rebel division attacked Barlow’s lone command. They assailed the Federals, pushing Barlow’s troops north to the river. Seeing that General Lee was no man to be neglected, Meade ordered Hancock to return to Barlow’s side to direct the retreat. Barlow paid dearly, but his division effected an organized withdrawal, leaving the field to the Rebels.
By General Grant’s plan, Warren and Hancock were to assault Laurel Hill at 5pm. But soon after he received the orders, Warren pleaded with Meade to launch the attack immediately, even though Hancock’s troops were far from ready. But Meade consented, and Warren’s Fifth Corps strode forward against the hill which he believed to be the weakest point of the Rebel line. There was much speculation that Lee was about to retreat, and that he had already sent one corps under Richard Ewell south to Richmond. But it was not so.
As a great mass they came, and a less mass returned, with the difference lying bloody and dying on the slope of Laurel Hill. The ground over which they attacked was a tangle of underbrush, disordering and dissolving formation before and as the Confederate iron exploded about them. It had been held in strength by the men of James Longstreet’s Corps, now helmed by Richard Anderson.
It would take over an hour for Warren’s troops to pry themselves from the Confederate fire and return to their lines. Grant’s plan to attack at 5pm, even though it was ill-conceived and seemed to care little of Lee’s true position and strength, was rescheduled by Meade for 6pm. This would, he trusted, give Warren time to reorganize his men.
Grant’s plan was not to simply throw the Second and Fifth Corps at Laurel Hill. Each part depended upon another for success. While the Second and Fifth Corps attacked the Confederate left at Laurel Hill, a division’s worth of regiments hand-picked by Col. Emory Upton was to pin-point their strike upon the salient at the Mule Shoe. Another division, commanded by General Gersham Mott, was then to follow, striking near Upton’s breakthrough to hold the line. All the while, Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps would move upon the Confederate right near Spotsylvania.
Absolutely nothing went right. Already, with Warren’s premature and failed assault, success was thrown into question. The delay paid it small favors. Word of the delay had spread throughout the army, but it somehow escaped the notice of General Mott, whose division launched their assault upon the Mule Shoe at the preordained 5pm. Mott, as with Grant and Meade, knew almost nothing of the Rebel lines. But soon he discovered them, tightly held by Southern artillery, which let fly a hail of grape and canister upon his men. They turned, and they ran, driven from the field with slaughter.
Just as Mott was not informed of the delay, neither was Upton informed of Mott’s bloody repulse. And so at 6pm, Upton prepared his ranks for the strike. Three full batteries of Federal artillery opened upon the Confederate position. This served, one hoped, to soften the enemy lines, but it also served as notice that soon there would come an attack. Time was now essential. But as Upton was about to let loose his fury, a messenger arrived from Meade. Hancock was not yet in position. The attack must be again delayed at half hour.
By this time, Richard Ewell, whose corps held the Confederate right and the Mule Shoe became suspicious of the Federal artillery, and bolstered his lines.
Though Grant’s plan called for a concert of action, Meade knew that the strike could not be delayed longer. Without support, he ordered Upton to begin his charge. In a strange formation of four lines of three regiments each, Upton screamed across the gulf. This troops were ordered not to fire until within the enemy’s ranks. As they came, two volleys were rained upon them, tearing red into their lines. But still they came unceasing, driving deep into the scattering enemy ranks. “Like a resistless wave,” wrote Upton after the assault, “the column poured over the works, putting hors de combat those who resisted, and sending to the rear those who surrendered.”
Ewell’s Rebels fled their entrenchments, leaving Upton’s Federals the salient. All had worked perfectly, and Upton looked to his left, certain that the path was now clear for General Mott. But Mott’s command had attacked early and failed – a truth Upton was now only guessing.
Instead of comrades to sustain his advance, there came Confederates to hasten his stay. Ewell was seen in every line, directing the counterattacks and emboldening his troops. “Don’t run boys,” he bellowed to a North Carolina regiment, “I will have enough men here in five minutes to eat up every damned one of them!” And General Lee watched as brigade upon brigade flooded toward the salient, driving the steadfast Yankees from their entrenchments. Those who returned to the Union lines were ensanguined and utterly beaten.
There was still General Burnside’s Ninth Corps, which had crept up on the Confederate right, even about to outflank it. Burnside opened his artillery upon them, but without word from Grant did nothing more. When word from Grant finally came, it was that of concern. Now that Lee’s entire army was free, he very well might lash out against Burnside. And so Grant ordered Burnside to withdraw and to come closer to the center. After the war, Grant accepted the blame for Burnside’s misstep.
“Thanks to a merciful Providence,” wrote General Lee to Richmond that night, “our casualties have been small.” But he was troubled. So far, his little army had done well. There was, however, Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, which had landed at Bermuda Hundred, outside of Richmond. Should they encroach farther, he might have to deplete his own ranks to oust them. Additionally, Lee was worried about supplies. Union cavalry under Philip Sheridan had destroyed tons of provisions and rations. Though Jeb Stuart was now after him, the army might soon be faced with the burden of foraging while trying to fight an unbelievably immense foe. But Lee trusted in Stuart.
Sheridan’s riders were now across the South Anna River, but Stuart was in pursuit, moving along the railroad south of Hanover Junction. He would, if possible, cut off the Yankee cavaliers at Yellow Tavern.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 2, p982; Meade’s Army by Lt. Col. 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. [↩]