Grant grinds Lee's army at Spotsylvania

Pressure: 'I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,' the determined Union commander says.


May 21, 1999|By Paul Ruppel | Paul Ruppel,Special to the Sun

When President Abraham Lincoln appointed General Ulysses S. Grant overall commander of federal forces in March 9, 1864, he hoped that Grant would be able to coordinate the Union effort and bring the Confederacy to its knees.

On May 6, just before Grant engaged Gen. Robert E. Lee at the Battle of the Wilderness, he gave a message for Lincoln to a reporter headed back to Washington: "If you see the president, tell him for me that, whatever happens, there will be no turning back."

In 1862, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan stopped just short of Richmond, Va., overestimating the size of the army before him. In 1863, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker sustained major casualties and turned back just beyond the Rapidan River. Grant would not turn back.

After the Wilderness, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia skirmished at Todd's Tavern, Va., on May 7.

On May 8, Maj. Gen. Gouvernour K. Warren and the 5th Corps moved toward Spotsylvania and attacked Confederate positions at Laurel Hill. They were beaten decisively.

Grant realized that Lee had beaten him to Spotsylvania. He brought the remainder of his forces forward on May 9. That morning, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was overseeing the redeployment of his troops when they came under small-arms fire. He said to his men, "I am ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." Sedgwick was then shot in the face from a distance of nearly 500 yards by a Confederate sniper. He was the highest-ranking Union officer to die in the Civil War.

Grant thus lost the very popular and effective leader of his 6th Corps. On May 10, Grant permitted Col. Emory Upton to lead a charge at what he considered the weakest point in Lee's line, a salient on the west side. The attack was at first a success. Upton's men bored their way through two lines of Confederate entrenchments. Civil War re-enactors will present a portrayal of the fighting at Spotsylvania at 6 a.m. June 19 as part of their weekend activities at Brandy Station, Va., commemorating the Wilderness campaign of 1864.

Another attack, this one by Brig. Gen. J. H. Hobart Ward's brigade on Laurel Hill, also briefly broke into Lee's lines. However, both attacks were repelled. Last-minute adjustments of battle plans did not arrive to commanders in the field, and, as a result, no support came to Upton from Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott's 4th Division, and Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's 9th Corps failed to attack on his left.

Rebel line restored

The Confederates restored their mule shoe-shaped salient facing the Union line soon after the Union offensive. That evening, Grant conceded to a reporter that the Army of the Potomac had "not accomplished much" and had lost "a good many men." He continued, "I do not know of any way to put down this Rebellion and restore the authority of the Government except by fighting, and fighting means that men must be killed. If the people of this country expect that the war can be conducted to a successful issue in any other way than by fighting, they must get somebody other than myself to command the army."

Upton's initial success persuaded Grant to try the same approach -- this time with three infantry corps, not just 12 regiments. When he rose next morning, Grant wrote a communique to Lincoln's chief millitary adviser, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck stating, "I . . . propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer." The line was emblazoned across Northern newspapers soon after, and came to symbolize Grant's determination.

In the afternoon, Lee made a rare and costly misinterpretation of Grant's movements as a shift east to Fredricksburg. He ordered much of the 2nd Corps' artillery taken down from the salient in preparation for a pursuit of Grant. Late in the evening, when pickets heard what they assumed could be preparations for a Union assault, Lee reversed the order. Not all of the artillery would return in time.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 12, one of the bloodiest days of the Civil War commenced as Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock's 2nd Corps charged the mule shoe. The Confederates were caught off-guard by the attack, and the damp morning air made much of the gunpowder for the remaining artillery useless. Hand-to-hand combat took place as Union soldiers held their fire until they closed in on the Confederate positions.

Hancock's infantry poured into the trenches, capturing Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson and Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart, 2,000 of their men, and 20 cannon. They ripped a hole a half mile wide in Lee's line, and were threatening to split the Army of Northern Virginia in half. Lee himself rode to the front of Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon's 2nd Corps' reserve as they prepared to counterattack at the breech.

Lee seemed intent on leading the charge. Gordon and his men protested, however, stating that his life was too important to the Confederacy. The soldiers began a chant of "Lee, Lee, Lee to the rear," and Lee obliged.

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