From May 4, 1864 to May 7, 1864, Union General Ulysses Grant fought a battle referred to as Wilderness, but ended up having to withdraw. Instead of returning to his base camp, Grant decided to take his Army of the Potomac and press on with his campaign to attack the Confederate capital of Richmond. The numbers vary from source to source, but it seems Army of the Potomac numbered somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 troops.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to stop Grant from reaching Richmond with the Army of Northern Virginia with somewhere around 50,000 troops, give or take a few thousand.
Grant’s army was north of Richmond and first set their sight on an important crossroad about 60 miles north of Richmond, called Spotsylvania. Part of Grant’s plan included trying to draw Lee’s forces out into the open where Grant’s overwhelming forces hoped to defeat Lee’s army once and for all.
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From the Wilderness, Grant’s army used Brock Road to start marching towards Spotsylvania. Lee positioned his troops atop Laurel Hill, a rise on the route to Spotsylvania. He knew that he needed to prevent Grant from reaching the crossroads.
On May 8, 1864, Union General Gouveneur Warren advanced on Laurel Hill only to find the Confederate General Richard Anderson and a corps of troops positioned to defend the hill. Anderson was able to rebuff Warren’s first attempt to take the hill. Both sides suffered heavy losses including Major General John Sedgwick who was shot and killed. Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union officer killed during the Civil War.
On May 9, 1864, Union General Winfield Hancock was sent to find Lee’s left flank, thinking it might be a vulnerable area. However, two Confederate divisions stopped Hancock.
On May 10, 1864, Union Colonel Emory Upton led a column of troops in a fast assault, creating a breach in the Confederate line, but was quickly turned back with the Confederates moved troops to counter the breach.
On May 12, 1864, Grant took 20,000 troops and positioned them opposite the tip of a Confederate defensive line known as the Muleshoe Salient. Lee saw the Union movement and thought Grant was withdrawing from the battle, so he moved some of his artillery to reposition them elsewhere. Leading Grant’s forces was Hancock, who turned his men and attacked the part of the Muleshoe Salient where the artillery had been removed. Hancock’s troops managed to break through the Confederate line, but Lee shifted troops to counter the attack. The battle was fierce and close, often turning to hand to hand combat. It lasted for over 20 hours before the fighting ended.
Lee established a new line of defense which finally halted Hancock’s advanced. Grant didn’t withdraw, but turned his troops to the left and temporarily regrouped.
On May 18, 1864, Grant again launched an assault, but they were stopped by the heavily fortified Confederate line and artillery.
On this day, May 19, 1864, Grant realized that the Confederate defenses were too strong and gave up any hopes of capturing the crossroads at Spotsylvania. Instead, he again turned his men to the left to circumvent Lee’s forces, and head south towards Guinea Station.
The location of the 20-hour battle at the Muleshoe Salient became known as Bloody Angle. Grant’s Army of the Potomac suffered nearly 3,000 dead, more than 13,000 wounded and over 2,000 missing or captured. Lee’s Army of Virginia also suffered heavy casualties with nearly 1,500 dead, over 6,000 wounded and nearly 8,000 missing or captured.
Most historians say that the Battle of the Spotsylvania Court House ended in a stalemate with neither side totally claiming victory, but the losses were costly to both sides.
Sources for the above includes: Spotsylvania Court House; Spotsylvania Court House; Battle of Spotsylvania Concludes; The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House; Battle of Spotsylvania, 8-21 May 1864; Spotsylvania Court House, Ni River, Harris Farm, Civil War Virginia; American Civil War: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.