The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, sometimes simply referred to as the Battle of Spotsylvania, was the second battle in Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign of the American Civil War. It was fought in the Rapidan-Rappahannock river area of central Virginia, a region where more than 100,000 men on both sides fell between 1862 and 1864.
The battle was fought May 8–21, 1864, along a trench line some four miles (6.5 km) long, with the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee making its second attempt to halt the spring offensive of the Union Army of the Potomac under the command of Lt. Gen. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. Taking place less than a week after the bloody, inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, it pitted 52,000 Confederate soldiers against a Union army numbering 100,000.
On May 11, Grant began the planning for a new major assault aimed at the Mule Shoe salient, with the intent of employing Upton's tactics on the level of an entire corps. Lee took Grant's inactivity as a sign that the Federal Army was getting ready to pull back, either for a retreat, or for another sidle to the East, and as a result, he weakened the critical sector of the Mule Shoe by withdrawing its artillery support. Grant's pre-dawn assault on the Mule Shoe on May 12 was initially a complete success. The well-fought II Corps of 20,000 men, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, led the attack against the Mule Shoe in the same manner that Upton had attacked on May 10. This time, the breach in the Confederate line was complete, thanks in part to the absence of Confederate artillery support, but also because many of the Confederates suffered from wet powder in their rifled muskets due to rainfall the night before, and thus found that their guns would not fire. Hancock's II Corps took close to 4,000 prisoners, destroying Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's division of the Confederate Second Corps. Both the divisional commander and one of his brigadier generals were captured. Then the fighting bogged down, in part because Grant had not properly prepared a second wave to take advantage of the success. Anxious to sustain momentum, Grant ordered supporting attacks from Wright's VI Corps, and from the IX Corps of (Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside), but the attacks were not well coordinated, and failed to recapture the momentum of the attack. Lee was also able to shift thousands of his men to seal the breach, most notably launching a counterattack with Brig. Gen. John Brown Gordon's division, and also securing much help from the able leadership of Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur.
Because of the severity of the crisis, Lee felt compelled to personally lead soldiers in the counterattack. His men realized the danger this would pose to him, however, and refused to advance until Lee removed himself to a safer position in the rear. The several "Lee to the rear" episodes later became famous, and were a intense example of the personal bond that Lee's soldiers felt for him. The battle in the Mule Shoe lasted for an entire day and night, as the Confederates slowly won back most of the ground they had lost, inflicting heavy losses on the II Corps and on the reinforcing VI Corps in the process. The fighting was characterized by an intensity of firepower never previously seen in Civil War battles, as the entire landscape was flattened, all the foliage destroyed. Both sides, fighting from back and forth over the same corpse-strewn trenches, engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, and there were many descriptions of the field as a morass of corpses, piled so high that wounded men buried underneath them were pressed down into the mud, where they drowned. The angle between the Union II and VI Corps became known as the "Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania", where perhaps some of the most savage fighting of the whole Civil War took place.
By 3 a.m. on May 13, the ruined remnants of Lee's Second Corps had finished construction on a fallback line at the base of the Mule Shoe salient, and Lee had his battered men retire behind it. More than 10,000 men fell in the Mule Shoe, which passed to the Union forces without a fight. On May 18, Grant sent two of his corps to attack the new line, but they were met with a bloody repulse. That convinced Grant, who had vowed to "fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," that Lee's men could not be dislodged from their Spotsylvania line.
Grant, checked by Lee for a second time, responded as he had two weeks earlier. He shifted the weight of his army to the right flank and again moved to the southeast along roads Lee was unable to block. By May 20–21, the two armies were on their way to take positions along the North Anna River, another dozen miles closer to Richmond.
Estimates vary as to the casualties at Spotsylvania Court House. The following table summarizes estimates from a variety of popular sources:
|National Park Service||18,000||12,000|
|Bonekemper, Victor, Not a Butcher||2,725||13,416||2,258||18,399||1,467||6,235||5,719||13,421|
|Eicher, Longest Night||17,500||10,000|
|Esposito, West Point Atlas||17–18,000||9–10,000|
|Fox, Regimental Losses||2,725||13,416||2,258||18,399|
Portions of the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield are now preserved as part of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.