May 8–21, 1864
Fought between May 8 and 21, 1864, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the second major engagement of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.
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 previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked their own timidity, Grant was tenacious.
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 focused on defeating Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, rather than 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 was destined to lose a war of attrition, as long he was persistently engaged.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany the army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations.
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, to march his army around Lee’s forces, and to 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 reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions. 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 that again resulted in high casualties.
The Bloody Angle
On May 12 and 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.
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was a technical victory for the Confederates. Southerners remained in possession of the battlefield at the engagement’s end. Confederates also suffered just 12,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing, while the Northerners sustained 18,000 casualties. Despite these accomplishments, the Confederates did not stop Grant’s and his army’s continued advance further south. Grant did not retreat as most earlier Union generals had done; instead, he Grant plunged farther into Southern territory striving to defeat Lee and bring the war to a speedy conclusion.
Ohio units that fought at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House included:
4th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
8th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
60th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
110th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
122nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
126th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery
2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry
6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry