Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
The Overland Campaign — Grant Pursues Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s offensive focused on defeating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia instead of capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Union forces persistently engaged the Rebel army.
Into the Wilderness
On May 4, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of federal forces during a previous Union defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). Grant planned to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before.
Because Meade’s forces greatly outnumbered Lee’s army (101,000 to 61,000 men), Lee took up a defensive position in the Wilderness where he could negate Grant’s numerical superiority. Lee ordered two corps, under the command of Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell and A. P. Hill, into the Wilderness to engage the Federals. Lee also ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps to move to the Wilderness as quickly as possible.
Battle of the Wilderness
From May 5 to May 7, the two armies fought to a standoff at the Battle of the Wilderness, one of the more gruesome engagements of the war. Fought in thick undergrowth, many of the wounded soldiers burned to death during the conflict. When the battle ended, the Federals had suffered the same fate as previous Union forces that had fought in the vicinity. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army while suffering approximately 11,000 losses. Grant, however, unlike his predecessors, did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to disengage, march his army around Lee’s forces, and move deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Race to Spotsylvania Court House
Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade’s army between Lee’s army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania Court House. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels arrived first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions.
May 8–21, 1864 — Clash at Spotsylvania Court House
From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania Court House that again resulted in high casualties.
The Bloody Angle
On May 12–13, a Union attack at a place known as the Bloody Angle nearly split Lee’s army in half and culminated in the capture of an entire Confederate division, but the Confederates regrouped and repulsed the Federals in a fight that continued for nearly twenty hours.
Rainfall prevented any other major confrontations until May 18, when Grant ordered an unsuccessful assault against Confederate forces at Harrison House. On May 19, Confederate forces assaulted the Union right flank at the Harris Farm, but Union soldiers repulsed the attack. Unable to break Lee’s lines, Grant disengaged once more and ordered Meade to move his army southeast on May 21.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was a tactical victory for the Confederates. The Southerners remained in possession of the battlefield at the engagement’s end. Also, the Confederacy suffered roughly 12,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, or missing), while the Union lost about 18,000 men. Despite their accomplishments, the Confederates did not halt the federal advance into Virginia. Faced with adversity, Grant did not retreat as other Union generals had; instead, he drove farther into Southern territory striving to defeat Lee and end the war.