Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Date May 8–21, 1864
Location Spotsylvania County, Virginia
Victor Inconclusive
United States (Union) Confederate States
Military Leaders
Ulysses S. Grant
George G. Meade
Robert E. Lee
Military Units in Battle
Army of the Potomac
IX Corps (Army of the Ohio)
Army of Northern Virginia
Unit Strength
100,000 52,000
Casualties and Deaths
Total: 18,399 Total: 13,421
2,725 killed
13,416 wounded
2,258 captured/missing
1,467 killed
6,235 wounded
5,719 captured/missing
Part of the American Civil War

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the second major battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s American Civil War Overland Campaign, followed the devastation of the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant and his Union army disengaged from the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee and moved in a southeasterly direction to try and lure the Confederates into a battle that would have a more favorable outcome.

Unfortunately, part of the Confederate army beat the Union fighters to the Spotsylvania Court House crossroads. At this critical point, Lee’s army began entrenching the area and a number of skirmishes occurred between May 8th and May 21st, 1864. In the end, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House turned out to be one of the costliest battles of the American Civil War, with nearly 32,000 casualties suffered on both sides.

On May 8th, Major Generals Warren and Sedgwick led the first attack on Laurel Hill, a position held by the Confederate line that blocked their access to the Spotsylvania Court House. By May 10th, entrenchments created by the Confederate line extended over 4 miles and included a prominent section known as the Mule Shoe. Despite the fact that the Union troops repeatedly failed to break ranks at Laurel Hill, an innovative assault led by Colonel Upton showed a lot of promise.

Grant later used Upton’s innovative assault technique to attack the section of entrenchments that contained the Mule Shoe. 15,000 men, part of Hancock’s Division II corps, launched an attack and it was initially successful. Here, some of the bloodiest and most intense fighting of the American Civil War occurred on May 12th. Almost 24 hours of hand-to-hand fighting on the western edge led to the assault being given the nickname the ‘Bloody Angle’.

On May 18th, Grant repositioned his men and Hancock led the final attack, but made no progress. The next day, one of the last major skirmishes took place at Harris Farm. For both sides, it was a costly and pointless affair and eventually led to the withdrawal of Grant’s troops. On May 21st, the Union army finally disengaged from the Confederates and traveled southwest to where the Battle of North Anna would take place.

The Union Military

The combination of General Grant’s Union Army corps numbered approximately 100,000 men at the start of the battle. Grant’s Union forces were made up of five corps.

Winfield S. Hancock led II Corps, Gouverneur K. Warren led V Corps, Sedgwick led VI Corps until his death on May 9 and Wright led them thereafter, IX Corps operated under Ambrose Burnside and Philip H. Sheridan led the Cavalry Corps for the short time that they were in effect during the battle.

The Union’s forces consisted of the IX Corps and various divisions of the Army of the Pontomac. The Army of the Pontomac reported to Major General George G. Meade and the IX Corps reported directly to Ulysses S. Grant since it was part of the Army of Ohio.

Confederate Military forces

Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces comprised approximately 52,000 men that formed part of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s forces were organized into fewer corps.

The First Corps were led by Major General Richard H. Anderson and included two divisions. The Second Corps were led by Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell and included Jubal A. Early’s troops, Robert E. Rodes and Edward Johnson’s men.

On the first day of the battle, Early temporarily assumed control of the Third Corps while the Lieutenant General in command was ill. Under normal circumstances, A.P. Hill led the Third Corps. The fourth corps that made up the Confederate military force was the Cavalry Corps which operated under the command of Major General J.E.B. Stuart.

May 9th – Fortifications

Overnight, the Confederates erected a series of entrenchments that started at the Po River, encompassed the line at Laurel Hill, crossed Brock road and proceeded to extend south past the intersection at the Spotsylvania Court House. Guarded by artillery and reinforced with timber, these entrenchments were the most important aspect of the Confederates defense system. The only weakness was the exposed area known as the Mule Shoe, a mile away from the main trench.

May 12th – The Bloody Angle

Hancock was scheduled to launch an assault on the Mule Shoe at 4 a.m, but he delayed until the rain stopped and a mist descended around 4:35 a.m. Their initial attack crashed straight through the Confederate line and virtually destroyed the Brigade stationed there. The rain had ruined most of the gunpowder so the Confederates and Union troops fought in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the initial success, the Union troops began to waver because no-one had really considered what to do in order to get the most out of the breakthrough.

Reinforcements were sent by Grant around 6:30 a.m and he ordered all of the infantrymen at Mule Shoe to surge forwards. Along the western edge of the Mule Shoe, near the turning point to the south is where the heaviest fighting occurred and it quickly became known as the ‘Bloody Angle’.

Throughout the afternoon, engineers were busy creating a new defense line at the base of the Mule Shoe while fighting occurred at the Bloody Angle. Neither the Union troops nor the Confederate troops achieved the advantage and by May 13th, the Confederates had withdrawn all their troops to the new line of defense.

May 18th – Harris Farm

After fighting for several days in continuous rain, Grant’s troops were too exhausted to undertake another assault against the Confederate lines guarding the Spotsylvania Court House. The last ditch attempt to take the Mule Shoe, on May 17th failed, so the Union troops decided to try and draw the Confederate forces by moving towards the south instead.

Lee had other ideas, however. Lee ordered Ewell to locate the northern part of the Union force and conduct a reconnaissance. A majority of Ewell’s troops travelled with him towards Harris farm where they encountered several heavy artillery soldiers that were undertaking infantry duty. Fighting lasted for several hours until Lee recalled his men. The advance of Union forces to the south was delayed by the skirmish at Harris farm, so Grant’s intended plan of drawing Lee’s troops to more favorable ground was not placed into action until the evening of May 20th.


The Spotsylvania Court House battle is one of the top five battles that occurred during the American Civil War. Over 18,000 of Grant’s men were severely injured, killed, or missing/captured. About 13,000 Confederate soldiers suffered casualties.

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