Returning as they Went – Bloody Spotsylvania

May 18, 1864 (Wednesday)

Following the action at Spotsylvania on the 12th of May, both Lee and Grant’s armies fell into relative silence. While Lee was determined to hold, Grant concluded that frontal assaults were pointless against troops dug in such as the Confederates – by this time, even their skirmishers were embattled.


And so he contemplated the flanks. Should he turn Lee’s left, the Rebels could easily fall back to the North Anna River, and dislodging them from a defense such as that might prove impossible. The Confederate right, however, held promise. An elaborate movement and attack were slated for the 14th, but there came hard rains, and Grant finally called it off. Lee, too, began to think of his left. With interior lines, he shifted divisions to meet Grant’s perceived threat. It never came.

Both armies then began to shift positions in earnest, constructing entrenchments south, even until Lee’s met the Po River at Critchfield. While there was constant skirmishing, each side scraping against the other, neither afforded any assaults. But on the 17th, Horatio Wright, commanding the Union Sixth Corps approached Grant with an idea.

His troops, along with those of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps would assail the Confederate left, while Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps gave assistance on their left, closer to the Rebel center. The Sixth and Second Corps would build their assault upon the Mule Shoe area of the former Confederate works, now mostly abandoned and held only by skirmishers.

At dawn, this might have been quick work, but even though the entrenchments were bare, the abatis and obstacles remained. Their approach was espied by Rebel artillery, which plowed gaping swaths through their tarrying ranks. Finally stumbling their way through the former enemy lines, some of the Federal brigades came close, but it was useless. Their wave was broken and their lines washed back bloody.

“Moments seemed like hours,” wrote Union Major Wesley Brainerd. “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.'”


Grant and Meade watched the assault together, but shortly after it had failed, Grant called off any further struggle. The artillery would still boom away, but that was everything. The two generals parted ways.

General Grant returned to his headquarters, where he learned of Franz Sigel’s defeat at New Market as well as Benjamin Butler’s defeat at Bermuda Hundred. “The general was in no sense depressed by the information,” recalled Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, “and received it in a philosophic spirit….” Accordingly, Grant was to have said:

“Lee will undoubtedly reinforce his army largely by bringing Beauregard’s troops from Richmond, now that Butler has been driven back, and will call in troops from the Valley since Sigel’s defeated forces have retreated to Cedar Creek. Hoke’s troops will be needed no longer in North Carolina, and I am prepared to see Lee’s forces in our front materially strengthened. 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.”


And neither was the Confederate army demoralized. Theodore Lyman of General Meade’s staff contemplated in a letter hope (written on this date) just how the Rebels approached war on this campaign:

“Hastily forming a line of battle, they then collect rails from fences, stones, logs and all other materials, and pile them along the line; bayonets with a few picks and shovels, in the hands of men who work for their lives, soon suffice to cover this frame with earth and sods; and within one hour, there is a shelter against bullets, high enough to cover a man kneeling, and extending often for a mile or two. When our line advances, there is the line of the enemy, nothing showing but the bayonets, and the battle-flags stuck on the top of the work. 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 twenty-four hours.”

All this was too telling on this day, as Lyman noted in his diary that “Most wounds today are from artillery and very bad.”

But Grant soon constructed a new plan. The following day, his army would be so arranged as to allow Hancock’s Second Corps to slip southeast toward the railroad near Guinea Station. They were to take care to be seen by the enemy, who Grant hoped would pursue. Once out in the open, Grant’s other four corps would pounce upon the Rebels.

Though the night, Grant arranged his forces for the next morning’s maneuvers. The true march would step off on the 20th. In the meanwhile, Lee called upon Richmond for reinforcements.1

  1. Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Meade’s Headquarters by Theodore Lyman; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; To the North Anna River by Gordon C. Rhea. []
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  1. Also worth noting on this date: the “Gold Hoax”. Two New York newspapers printed a story that Lincoln had issued a proclamation calling for 400,000 more conscripts. This caused share prices on the New York Exchange to plummet, and the price of gold to spike upwards. However, the Associated Press dispatch that the papers reported on turned out to be a fraud, created deliberately for the purpose of causing the run-up in the price of gold.

    Ironically, such a proclamation would in fact be issued in less than two months.

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