May 8th – May 21st 1864
The battle of Spotsylvania pitted General Robert E. Lee and his Union counter-part, General Ulysses S. Grant against each other. Both did not desire further conflict. The Union and the Confederacy just completed the bloody Battle of the Wilderness and both men, armies, were exhausted.
Yet, as is the case in many wars, circumstances would prevail, and brutality would return. This battle would be the location that tested not just the valor of these two leaders; it would also test the men under their command.
General Lee decided that it would be to his benefit to retreat and dig in. The able-bodied leader of the Confederates found a line of trenches that had previously been utilized by the Yankees, and dug in. General Grant and his army had pursued Lee and discovered the Rebel leader and his army, securely entrenched in the hot mud of Virginia dirt.
The position of both leaders was not to fight initially, yet the Rebel leader never backed down from a fight, even one in which he would end up losing.
The courthouse would serve as the backdrop for the battle. The Rebels, under Lee and his minor-generals, were firmly planted in the trenches; the Union required digging them out. The days started off as many other battles did, isolated skirmishes leading up to a massive, all-out battle. Both sides took heavy losses with whole battalions of men being killed by the numerous bolts of lead flying everywhere.
Spotsylvania Courthouse in 1864
The witnesses would later say that the air was so full of musket fire and cannon shot that even the trees were killed. That was one of the interesting aspects of the Battle of Spotsylvania. The surrounding trees were destroyed. It takes little imagination to realize that this battle was going to have one of the highest death tolls of any that year, and it would come to fruition.
Grant had a goal. Take his Army of the Potomac and march it right into the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond. The only real obstacle in his path was General Lee. On the morning of the 10th, General Grant massed his army and attacked the entrenched rebels; the days that followed would be horrendous for the Union army.
The casualties were estimated at 6,000 for the Federals, 600 for the Rebels. Although the higher loss total is customary for the attacking army, this would exponentially be favoring General Lee and his dug-in Rebels. Grant tried for two-weeks to break the line of the Confederates, to no avail.
After the failed thrust attempts into the very heart of the Rebel lines failed, and miserably at that, Grant decided it would be to his advantage to attack a weaker, less-protected spot. The left flank was chosen and by the 18th of May 1864, the Confederates had retreated back to their second line of defense. They withdrew a total of 17 feet. The cost of securing the Spotsylvania Courthouse was around 30,000 men.
The goal of Grant was intact, march to Richmond and end the Civil War. The losses were heavy but Grant had reserves, men, lives to spare. Lee did not. The war was nearing its end. Now all that was left was to trap the foxy Lee in his own-backyard, Virginia.