NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: The Wilderness/Spotsylvania Court House

Heading west for our first entry on American soil. Also, yes it’s actually two battles, but they took place close to each other and followed on from the other and had the same general strategic and tactical make-up and it’s my blog and I can do what I like damn it!

Name: The Battle of the Wilderness/Spotsylvania Court House
The War: The American Civil War
When: May 5 – 21 1864.
Where: Spotsylvania County, Virginia, south of Washington D.C.
Type: Land
Forces/Commanders: Over 100’000 Union troops under Ulysses S. Grant against over 60’000 Confederates under Robert E. Lee.


“Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee.”
-Veteran, quoted from Gordon Rhea, The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House

“Our spirits rose,” recalled one veteran who remembered this moment as a turning point in the war. Despite the terrors of the past three days and those to come, “we marched free. The men began to sing.” For the first time in a Virginia campaign the Army of the Potomac stayed on the offensive after its initial battle.”
-James McPherson, Battle Cry Of Freedom

What Happened:

The American Civil War began in April 1861, a schism between north and south due to the question of abolition of slavery, economic factors and the issue of states’ rights. The early years of the war had largely gone well for the newly formed Confederate States of America (CSA), who achieved huge victories over their northern foe at Bull Run (twice) Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

They were able to achieve this, despite being numerically inferior, due to the expertise of their generals and their willingness to take the offensive. Men like Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, James Longstreet and, of course, Robert E. Lee were easily able to overcome the overly cautious and slow-moving generals of the North like George McLennan, Hooker and Burnside.

The North achieved more success in the western theatre of the war with victories at Shiloh, New Orleans and Vicksburg, but were unable to find the “knock-out” blow to defeat the CSA.

In July of 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, their main fighting force under the command of Lee, suffered a critical defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg, following three days of bloody struggle against George Meade’s Army of the Potomac.  As a result of the losses, the Confederate forces in the east were unable to ever again take the offensive. As was typical of many of the early battles, an extended period of inactivity took place afterward with both sides resupplying their armies.

President Abraham Lincoln, frustrated with a long series of ineffectual generals, gave overall command of the armies to Ulysses S. Grant, the victor of Shiloh and Vicksburg, who had gained a reputation as a dogged and aggressive fighter in the west. In Grant, Lincoln found a general who was willing to do what was necessary to defeat the south, no matter what the cost in life.

Grant made his headquarters with the Army of the Potomac, which remained under the command of Meade. Grant recognized that the major step to defeating the Confederacy was not to capture the southern capital of Richmond but to defeat Lee and his army, which had gained an almost supernatural reputation.

In order to achieve this, he made preparations for an intricate assault on the CSA, the first major combined offensive the Union undertook involving armies in  several theatres. Grant, with Meade and General Benjamin Butler, would attempt to draw Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia out by threatening Richmond and Petersburg, thereby gaining an opportunity to destroy it. General Franz Sigel would invade the Shenandoah Valley, a vital economic area, the breadbasket of the south. William Tecumseh Sherman, advancing from the west, would defeat General Joseph E. Johnston and capture the railway hub of Atlanta. And General Banks, from New Orleans, would strike at Mobile, Alabama threatning the cotton trade.

 Grant hoped that by hitting the south in so many places at once, that it would collapse under the sheer weight of Union numbers. Previously, both sides operated under the assumption of the decisive battle: of meeting and destroying the enemy in a single large engagement (That being a contemporary doctrine of what a decisive battle was, bearing little relation to the modern way of thinking, or the definition of “decisive” that this post series uses. It just meant wars should be decided by one gigantic battle bewteen the two sides. The defeciancies in this thoery is why Gettysburg is not included in my list of battles).

However, the sheer size of opposing armies made this impossible. Instead, Grant now focused on a war of attrition, of using his vastly superior numbers to bleed Lee’s armies dry in a series of successive engagements.

Grant moved out his forces from Washington D.C. on the 4th May 1864, crossing the Rapidan River and converging near an area of land known as “the Wilderness”, a 70 square mile expanse of rough terrain and scrub growth. Part of the Battle of Chancellorsville, a Union disaster the previous year, had been fought there and Grant had no desire to repeat the experience. He based his army to the west of the scrubland. His aim was to draw Lee out and flank him, or failing that, to get round him and threaten Richmond, forcing Lee to come out into ground of Grant’s choosing.

Lee however, refused to do things Grant’s way. Realising that the only way to offset the Union’s superior numbers of men and artillery was terrain, he positioned his army in the Wilderness area, which the Union had failed to clear. Since Grant was focused on engaging Lee, having expressly told Meade that wherever Lee went, he should go, he too moved into the area approaching from the North east.

Having set up his HQ at a local farmhouse, Lee set about preparing as best he could. With James Longstreet’s First Corps still to arrive, he sent his Second and Third Corps, commanded by Generals Richard Ewell and AP Hill respectively, to attack the Union flanks.

Ewell clashed with Generals Warren and Sedgewick on the right while Hill clashed with General Hancock (probably the best Corps General the Union had). The two sides fought each other to a standstill all day. Hill’s corps in particular was hit extremely hard by the aggressive Hancock but held his ground.

The fighting in the scrubland was chaotic. The woods soon filled with smoke making it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. Many individual units got lost and co-ordination became next to impossible. It should be noted that the maps reprinted here, which show clearly defined lines, units and Corps do not represent the reality of the situation. A defined front line was impossible to discern and friendly fire was a constant danger. Units from the same army crashed into each other frequently, and smaller groups were constantly left behind following a retreat.

The next day, the Confederates were stunned by a sudden massive assault by Hancock’s men. Heavy reinforcements on the other flank prevented the possibility of relief. Hill was driven back nearly two miles and the Confederate army was threatened with disaster.

At this point Longstreet arrived with his First Corps. After six hours of vicious fighting Hancock’s men were tired and Longstreet was able to turn them away and begin advancing himself. Lee attempted to lead the Texas Brigade in a charge personally but was stunned when they refused to move out until the commander moved to the rear.

Longstreet was able to roll Hancock’s forces past their initial starting point. At a crucial moment, Longstreet’s sent forces along an unfinished railroad to attack Hancock’s men from the rear. Rather than being the critical strike Longstreet hoped it would be, it only increased the confusion of the situation as divisions on the same side crashed into each other in the smoke, while others were left far behind enemy lines.

The fighting petered out as both sides realised they did not have the ability to gain victory. At this time, Longstreet, less than four miles away from where Stonewall Jackson had suffered the same fate, was wounded by friendly fire. He survived but did not return to the front lines for some time. The final major operation of the battle was a flanking manoeuvre by General John B. Gordan which took nearly a thousand Union prisoners. However with night falling, they were unable to press the advantage.

That night, the Wilderness offered up one last horror: a brushfire broke out between the lines of the opposing armies, roasting alive thousands of injured troops left on the battlefield, unable to crawl to safety in time.

The following morning Grant withdrew from the Wilderness, but unlike all of the commanders who came before him, McLennan, Burnside and Hooker, he did not retreat to Washington. Instead, he wheeled left and continued south. The effect that this had on the Union soldiers cannot be underestimated. They were so used to withdrawing after defeats or stalemates that this new strategy, of hitting the confederates again and again regardless of individual battle outcomes, had an immediate impact.  The esprit de corps of the Potomac army would not remain at such high levels, but it was a change from the previous mood of the army.

A race now began between the two sides as to who would gain the favourable position for the next engagement. This took place south, at Spotsylvania Court House, over a bloody two-week period.

The south won the race, gaining superior ground. On the 9th of May both sides were preparing positions in the new territory. At this point Union General John Sedgewick was killed by an enemy sharpshooter famously stating beforehand that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

The line was nearly four miles long, with the Confederates stretched dangerously thin. In order to make up for this, Lee strategically placed his artillery to allow enfilade fire on any possible Union advance. The most critical part of the defensive structure was “the mule shoe”, which extended beyond the main line for nearly a mile.

The weakness in this point was well demonstrated on the 10th when a Union attack under Colonel Emery Upton was able to breakthrough following an intensive artillery bombardment. They were eventually driven back after hard fighting by the Confederate Second Corps. Attacks on the left flank by Warren and others were similarly ineffective.

Impressed by Upton’s attack the previous day, Grant ordered a larger attack along similar lines. On the 12th of May, 20’000 men under Hancock’s command breached the Confederate line again, largely due to the fact that Lee had withdrawn his artillery from the area, thinking Grant was about to retreat again. Furthermore, rain the previous night had left many southern rifles unable to fire.

The attack was initially a huge success, and again, the Confederate army was threatened with destruction from Hancock’s assault. But Grant had failed to organise another wave to take advantage of the success and attacks on other flanks by General Burnside failed to restore the initiative. Lee threw any available troops he had into the Mule Shoe, and the fighting became bogged down again. Again, Lee attempted to lead attacks personally, and again his troops refused to move out until he had left the front line.

The fighting became chaotic in the area, as the Confederates held the Union back. The opposing armies were forced to engage in hand to hand combat, witnesses remember piles of dead and wounded, while the surrounding area was completely destroyed in the maelstrom. In particular, the point where the Union Second and Sixth Corps met became known as “bloody angle” due to the ferocity of fighting that took place there. It was possibly the most vicious, bloody piece of fighting in the entire war.

Early on the morning of the 13th, Lee’s bartered army withdrew to a hurriedly constructed defensive line at the base of the salient. Over 10’000 men had fallen in the Mule Shoe.  After allowing his men to rest for a few days, Grant attempted another attack on the new Confederate line but was repulsed.

Like at the Wilderness, Grant had had enough. Despite the fact that he had previously vowed “to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer”, he withdrew his men from the battlefield, and again swung left, forcing Lee to follow him.

 It was another inconclusive fight with similar results. The south had inflicted more casualties and had prevented a Union breakthrough from succeeding. Strategically however, Lee’s casualties were worse than Grant’s when one looks at the size of the armies as a whole. He was also now being forced to fight a defensive war. The Confederates had lost the initiative.

Why It’s Decisive – Effect On That War

It seemed like little at the time, but in reality, huge. The Wilderness and Spotsylvania had taken a huge toll on both sides. Studying varying sources, Union casualties for the two battles are roughly 36’000, 5’000 of them dead. The Confederates suffered roughly 22’000, 3’000 dead. Comparing with the strength of their two armies at the start of the battle, Lee had suffered most, losing nearly a third of his army.

Grant continued to engage Lee, repeatedly wheeling left, attempting to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. In total, the Overland Campaign would encompass 12 battles. They included the bloody Union defeat at Cold Harbour where 7’000 Union troops were killed in a matter of minutes.

Most of the other parts of Grant’s great strategy fizzled out. Sigel was defeated in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman could not get Johnston to fight a decisive engagement, Butler hesitated in attacking Petersburg directly and other operations were unable to make any great progress.

The Overland campaign came to an end with Lee’s army besieged in Petersburg by Grant, a situation that would remain unchanged for nine months. Eventually, with Sherman defeating Johnston and capturing Atlanta, and the Confederacy stretched to the breaking point on all fronts, Grant was able to breakthrough, capture Richmond and chase Lee to Appomattox, where he and his army were finally surrounded and forced to surrender on April 9 1865, effectively ending the Civil War as a military contest.

Those two bloody engagements on Virginia in May of 1864, while displaying no obvious advantages at the time, were the beginning of the end for the CSA. They couldn’t replace the men they had lost, couldn’t break free from the objective of defending Richmond. Faced with a man like Grant, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, could not gain anything resembling the victories of the early war.

Battered again and again, starved out of it at Petersburg, on the retreat continuously, they could not hope to gain the lasting victory they wanted.

Tactical/Technological Innovations

Grant’s whole grand strategy was one of first examples of operational art in practice, of a wide scale movement by several armies being coordinated by one man. The two battles were also examples of wars of attrition. Grant recognised that if he simply throw his troops at Lee over and over again, Lee would run out of men first. Grant recognised the numerical superiority of the North and, unlike previous commanders, was willing to sacrifice men to utlilize it.

Spotsylvania demonstrated an early example of trench warfare and its perils. The brutal fighting there (and the subsequent entrenchment around Petersburg) was an early precursor of the battles of World War One. The south gained valuable experience in defensive fortifications and the north experimented with primitive trench breaking tactics, notably through the attack of Colonel Upton. They were not utilised to the full, but similar tactics would be copied in the later years of the First World War.

Macro-Historical Importance

The American Civil War is one of the focal points of Macro-Historical study. Seriously, Harry Turtledove made a career out of it. Confederate victories at the Wilderness or at Spotsylvania, in the same vein as Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, would have been devastating to the Union cause. Grant’s strategy would have been dead in the water, the Union would be back on the defensive and Lincoln’s political prospects in the upcoming election would have been awful.

Southern military victory in the war was never a serious possibility, but a different President in late November, especially in the face of constant Confederate victory, may have been more willing to recognize the CSAs independence.

On the other hand, a more comprehensive victory by the Union, where Grant achieved his objective of neutralising Lee, would have ended the war before the election. As Appomatox showed, once the Army of Northern Virginia was defeated (and by extension, Richmond captured) the Confederates were done.

As it was, the two battles ensured that the South could not win the war. They didn’t have the men, or the means, following the Overland campaign. The one faint hope, of a change in the political leadership of the Union, ended shortly after. With that, slavery was ended as a practice and the North established itself as the strongest, most dominant part of the USA, having a larger impact in its development in the following years.

In National Consciousness

Everyone loves the American Civil War as a subject and the USA commemorates and memoralises just about every damn aspect of the conflict. However, Gettysburg tends to occupy the position as the most crucial battle and southern remembrance likes to look at the earlier victories.

The Wilderness and Spotsylvania are remembered as bloodbaths that marked the beginning of the end of the war, but are not embedded in the national conciousness as much as other battles. Probably the best known fact about the battle is the death of Sedgewick.

Today, both battlefields are protected land, though attempts to build nearby convienence stores continue to create controversy. Re-enactments are held frequently.

Ending on a personal note, I have a special affection for these two battles, as an oral presentation on them and their relevance to modern strategic study netted me my first “first” in my MA degree. So, thanks to Grant and Lee.

Credit to the Thomas Legion for the maps.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.

This entry was posted in History, NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: The Wilderness/Spotsylvania Court House

  1. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s