Grant and President Abraham Lincoln devised a coordinated strategy that would strike at the heart of the Confederacy from multiple directions.
Grant's campaign objective was not the Confederate capital of Richmond, but the destruction of Lee's army. Lincoln had long advocated this strategy for his generals, recognizing that the city would certainly fall after the loss of its principal defensive army. Grant ordered, "Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also."
Location - Wilderness of Spotsylvania
On May 5, 1864 although Lee was outnumbered, about 60,000 to 100,000, his men fought fiercely and the dense foliage provided a terrain advantage. After two days of fighting and almost 29,000 casualties, the results were inconclusive and neither army was able to obtain an advantage. Grant ordered to seize the important crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House to the southeast, hoping that by interposing his army between Lee and Richmond, he could lure the Confederates into another battle on a more favorable field.
May 7, 1864: The race to Spotsylvania
Grant's orders to Meade were to march the night of May 7–8 over two routes, reaching Spotsylvania Court House.
Lee ordered his artillery chief, Brig. Gen. William N. Pendleton (Confederate), to begin constructing a road through the woods from the Confederate position at the Wilderness due south to the Catharpin Road.
May 8, 1864: Laurel Hill and cavalry troubles
At dawn on May 8, Union cavalrymen attacked Confederate barricades, but they were repulsed.
Generals Meade (Union) and Sheridan (Union) had quarreled about the cavalry's performance throughout the campaign and this incident with Wilson, compounding the frustration of the uncleared Brock Road, brought Meade's notorious temper to a boil. After a heated exchange laced with expletives on both sides, Sheridan told Meade that he could "whip Stuart" if Meade let him. Meade reported the conversation to Grant, who replied, "Well, he generally knows what he is talking about. Let him start right out and do it."
May 9, 1864 Fortifications, Sedgwick, and Hancock
Over the night of May 8–9, the Confederates were busy erecting a series of earthworks, more than four miles long.
There was only one potential weakness in Lee's line—the exposed salient known as the "Mule Shoe" extending more than a mile (1.6 km) in front of the main trench line.
The Union soldiers were also busy building their own entrenchments.
May 10, 1864: Grant attacks
Warren (Union leader) requested Meade (Union leader) to allow him to attack Laurel Hill immediately, uncoordinated with the rest of Grant's attack, scheduled for 5 p.m. Warren was embarrassed by his performance the previous day and wanted to restore his reputation for aggressiveness. For reasons unexplained, Meade acceded to the request. The attack occurred at 4 p.m., with elements from the II Corps and V Corps participating. Once again, the Laurel Hill line repulsed the Union troops with heavy losses.
Grant was forced to postpone his 5 p.m. coordinated assault until Warren could get his troops reformed. As soon as his men reached the open field, Confederate artillery ripped them to shreds and they retreated around 6 pm.
The plan was for Upton's (Union) men to rush across the open field without pausing to fire and reload, reaching the earthworks before the Confederates could fire more than a couple of shots. The plan worked well initially, the works were broken. The Confederates suffered heavy casualties. An historian later wrote: Upton's charge was "one of the classic infantry attacks of military history." Grant promoted Upton to brigadier general for his performance.
May 11, 1864: Planning for the grand assault
Despite his reverses on May 10, Grant had reason for optimism. The one bright spot in the day had been the partial success of Emory Upton's innovative assault. Grant reasoned that using the same tactics with an entire corps might be successful.
Confederates - On the Confederate side, Lee received some intelligence reports that made him believe Grant was planning to withdraw toward Fredericksburg.
May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle
Hancock's (Union) assault was scheduled to commence at 4 a.m., but it was still pitch black and he delayed until 4:35, when the rain stopped and was replaced by a thick mist. The attack was initially successful, crashing right through the Confederate works.
The recent rain had ruined much of the Confederates' gunpowder, but they fought fiercely hand to hand.
Despite the initial success at obliterating much of the Mule Shoe salient, there was a flaw in the Union plan—no one had considered how to capitalize on the initial breakthrough. The 15,000 infantrymen of Hancock's II Corps had crowded into a narrow front about a half mile wide and soon lost all unit cohesion, becoming little more than an armed mob.
This sector of the line, where the heaviest fighting of the day would occur, became known as the "Bloody Angle." As Union brigade after brigade slammed into the line.
At 4 a.m. on May 13, the exhausted Confederate infantrymen were notified that the new line was ready and they withdrew from the original earthworks unit by unit. The combat they had endured for almost 24 hours was characterized by an intensity of firepower never previously seen in Civil War battles, as the entire landscape was flattened, all the foliage destroyed.
The contending troops were periodically reduced to hand-to-hand combat reminiscent of battles fought during ancient times.
Surviving participants attempted to describe in letters, diaries, and memoirs the hellish intensity of that day, many noting that it was beyond words. Or, as one put it: "Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee." May 12 was the most intensive day of fighting during the battle, with Union casualties of about 9,000, Confederate 8,000; the Confederate loss includes about 3,000 prisoners captured in the Mule Shoe.
May 13-16: Reorienting the lines
Despite the significant casualties of May 12, Grant was undeterred.
On the night of May 13–14, the corps began a difficult march in heavy rain over treacherously muddy roads.
Grant notified Washington that, having endured five days of almost continuous rain, his army could not resume offensive operations until they had 24 hours of dry weather.
May 17-18: Final Union attacks
The weather finally cleared on May 17.
Grant (Union) ordered an attack at sunrise on May 18.
As Union men advanced, they were caught up in abatis (sharpened tree limbed intertwined to work like barbed wire) and subjected to artillery fire so devastating that infantry rifle fire was not necessary to repulse the attack.
May 19: Harris Farm
Grant reacted to this final repulse by deciding to abandon this general area as a battlefield.
Confederate reconnaissance encountered several units of Union heavy artillery soldiers who had recently been converted to infantry duty. Fighting commenced against these relatively green troops, who were soon reinforced.
The Confederates had lost over 900 men on a pointless skirmish that could have been assigned to a small cavalry detachment.
Rather than abruptly ending this battle troops shifted to engagements at the Battle of North Anna (May 23-26) and the Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31 – June 12) just to the west. This was despite just coming off the Battle of the Wilderness before this battle.
Other Battle of Spotsylvania Court House sections: