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1864 May 21: The Ongoing Battle of Spotsylvania Court House and the Battle of Yellow Tavern

May 22, 2014

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House—or Spottsylvania as it was usually spelled in the 19th century—was the second major battle in Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.  Following the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Grant’s Army of the Potomac disengaged from Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and moved to the southeast, attempting to lure Lee into battle under more favorable conditions.  Parts of Lee’s army arrived at the critical crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House before the Union army and began entrenching (or intrenching).  Fighting occurred on and off from May 8 through May 21, 1864, as Grant tried various schemes to break the Confederate line.

On May 12 Grant ordered General Winfield S. Hancock’s corps of 15,000 men to assault the Mule Shoe, a prominent salient that the Union had tried to take on May 10th.  Hancock was initially successful, but the Confederate leadership rallied and repulsed his incursion.  Attacks by General Horatio G. Wright on the western edge of the Mule Shoe, which became known as the “Bloody Angle,” involved almost 24 hours of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, some of the most intense of the Civil War.  Supporting attacks by General Gouverneur K. Warren and by General Ambrose E. Burnside were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, on May 9, Union cavalry under General Philip H. Sheridan was detached from the Army of the Potomac to conduct a raid to disrupt the Confederate supply lines by destroying railroad tracks and supplies; threaten the Confederate capital in Richmond; and try to defeat Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart.  The Union force destroyed what the Confederates had left at Beaver Dam Station and rescued almost 400 Union soldiers captured at the Battle of the Wilderness.  On May 11 at the Battle of Yellow Tavern, Stuart’s Confederate force was outnumbered and outgunned by Sheridan’s men and Stuart was mortally wounded during the battle.
Calendar May 12, 1864
The following is from The Polk County Press of May 21, 1864.


Great Battle on Thursday—A Glorious Victory—Hancock “Splendid” as Usual—His Dispatch—The First Accounts.

 [“World’s” Special]HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, Battle Field near Spotsylvania, May 12, 8 A. M.The army this morning was entirely engaged in the fiercest of its battles and pressing on to victory.The army during yesterday was comparatively quiet.  A feeble demonstration against our right wing was repulsed.  This morning a reconnoisance [sic] was made on our right to feel the enemy’s left.  It was intended to assault the enemy’s right in force.

A column consisting of a portion of Birney’s division [David B. Birney] of Hancock’s corps first intended to undertake this work, which was afterwards abandoned.

In the forenoon two companies on the left of the 6th corps, commenced driving some sharpshooters from their position in a house commanding a partial view of our lines, killing and capturing several of their number.

In the afternoon rain fell to some extent, continuing until after dark, laying the dust, cooling the atmosphere and raising the spirits of our troops.  Fresh bread and other food was supplied, the bands began playing in the forest along the lines, and undisturbed by the enemy’s shells, our soldiers ate heartily and rested well.

The enemy had no ammunition to waste.  Meanwhile the news arrived towards evening that Sheridan had penetrated to the vicinity of Beaver Dam ou [sic] Orange Court House, tore up about ten miles of railroad track, captured a rebel supply train, and recaptured above 300 of our men taken prisoners in the old wilderness battles.  This news so inspirited the men wherever it was known that a general jubilee of cheers succeeded the announcement and during the night arrangements were pushed for an attack on our side.
This morning the enemy has been seen pushing troops towards our right and ostentatiously occupying the abattis in from of Hancock’s troops.  It was shrewdly and rightly suspected that this was only a blind to the real intention of the enemy.  It was therefore anticipated.

After midnight the second corps, Hancock’s, was pushed to the left of the 6th corps, Gen. Wright’s between that and Burnside’s command an on the left of the Spotsylvania road.

At 4:30 this morning Hancock attacked the enemy fronting him, and a force opened a withering cannonading, and making resistless charges against the very heart of his position.  The cannonading was replied to with vigor, and the charges of our men were as vigorously resisted, but the determination of the onset overwhelmed everything.

The troops rushed in on the rifle pits of the enemy, bayoneting them in their works, cutting their lines and capturing on the first charge over 3,000 prisoners and several guns, including the greater portion of the Stonewall brigade including the division commanded by Gen. Ned Johnston [sic]¹ and forming part of Ewell’s corps [Richard S. Ewell].  Gen. Johnston [sic] himself was taken prisoner.  The assault continued till nearly the whole division of the corps was captured, and other troops, amounting to 10,000 men.


11 o’clock.—Dispatch arrived this moment announcing the capture of 7,000 prisoners and 30 guns.  Battle still progressing—6th corps in left of second has moved into battle, and are pushing the enemy.  Warren’s 5th corps moved up to its support on right.  Battle becoming general, nearly all our artillery engaged, and clanger of guns, whistle of grape and solid shot—our musketry and explosion of enemy’s shells filled the forest with awful tumult.  Shells burst around me while I write.


It is just now reported that Hancock has turned the right flank of the enemy below Spotsylvania Court House, and that Grant is pressing battle everywhere.  The tide so far is overwhelmingly in our favor.

Terrific firing has been announced on the left near Grant’s headquarters.  The battle is going on with terrible energy, and our success is said to be certain.  Prisoners are constantly coming in.

1.  Usually the newspapers forget the “t” in Albert Sidney Johnston’s and Joseph E. Johnston’s names, but this time they added a “t” to Edward Johnson’s name. Edward Johnson (1816-1873), known as Allegheny Johnson, graduated from West Point in 1838 and was a career military officer, serving in the Seminole Wars, the Mexican War, and in the West before the Civil War. He received a commission as colonel of the 12th Georgia Infantry and fought with Robert E. Lee at the battles of Rich Mountain, Cheat Mountain, and Greenbrier River. In December 1861 he was promoted to brigadier general and commanded six regiments in a battle on Allegheny Mountain, where he received his nickname. Johnson was made a divisional commander under Richard S. Ewell. On the first evening of the Battle of Gettysburg, Ewell missed his opportunity to attack Cemetery Hill, and Johnson opted against attacking Culp’s Hill, although he attempted this on the second and third days. Ewell and Johnson are blamed by many for the loss of this decisive battle. In the Overland Campaign of 1864, Johnson fought well at the Battle of the Wilderness. During the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, on May 12, 1864, at the “Bloody Angle” section of the Confederate “Mule Shoe” defensive line, Johnson was captured along with most of his division. After being exchanged in August 1864, Johnson was captured again at the Battle of Nashville on December 16, 1864.

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