May, 1864: Battle of Spotsylvania Court House Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Following the Battle of the Wilderness (May, 1864), Ulysses S. Grant tried to slip around Robert E. Lee’s right and seize Spotsylvania Court House. However, vigilant Confederates beat the Union forces to this crucial crossroads early on May 8. Lee’s men erected field fortifications and fierce fighting developed as the armies converged. On May 10, a compact mass of Union soldiers pierced the Mule Shoe salient in the center of Lee’s line but could not exploit the penetration.

Following the Battle of the Wilderness (May, 1864), Ulysses S. Grant tried to slip around Robert E. Lee’s right and seize Spotsylvania Court House. However, vigilant Confederates beat the Union forces to this crucial crossroads early on May 8. Lee’s men erected field fortifications and fierce fighting developed as the armies converged. On May 10, a compact mass of Union soldiers pierced the Mule Shoe salient in the center of Lee’s line but could not exploit the penetration.

Convinced that a tactically similar, though massive assault against the salient could achieve a decisive breakthrough, Grant ordered an entire corps to attack on May 12. At 4:30 a.m., Union troops attacked, captured Confederate trenches, prisoners, and artillery, and drove down the Mule Shoe. Disaster threatened, but desperate Confederate counterattacks pushed the Union forces back to the original lines. Some of the most savage fighting of the war ensued as soldiers fought long into the night—often at arm’s length—while Lee constructed a new defensive line.

General Ulysses S. Grant (at left) studying a map over the shoulder of General George G. Meade (seated), shortly after the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. (National Archives)

Grant attacked again on May 18 but was easily repulsed as was a Confederate reconnaissance in force the following day. The battles around Spotsylvania ended in a draw but cost the North 18,000 casualties and the South at least 12,000. Almost two weeks of combat around Spotsylvania Court House provided further evidence of Grant’s relentless determination. Despite appalling casualties, he would not retreat, but rather pressed on toward Richmond.

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