The Battle of Spotsylvania: Summary & Significance

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  • 0:07 The Race to Spotsylvania
  • 1:25 Battle: May 9 - 11
  • 3:03 Battle: May 12
  • 3:45 Battle: May 13 - 19
  • 4:54 The Results
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Battle of Spotsylvania, a 12-day battle between the Union army under General Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee.

The Race to Spotsylvania

The date was May 8, 1864. The place was Northern Virginia. The Union army had just lost over 17,000 men at the Battle of the Wilderness two days before. Most generals would have retreated to lick their wounds and regroup, but not Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. He pushed ahead, moving southeast, away from the Wilderness battlefield toward the little town of Spotsylvania Courthouse.

No matter what the cost, Grant was determined to stick to his plan for winning the Civil War. He would keep moving south to eventually capture the Confederate capitol of Richmond, and along the way, he would engage the Confederate army wherever he found them, striking repeatedly and strongly in an effort to wear out the enemy.

Grant ordered his cavalry troops to ride ahead to Spotsylvania and clear the path for the Union infantry. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was also coming from the Wilderness and had the same idea. He, too, sent his cavalrymen toward the little town, and the race was on. The Confederates won. They were waiting for the Union riders when they arrived early in the morning on May 8. The two sides clashed that morning and again late in the afternoon, this time supported by the infantry. At the day's end, Spotsylvania remained in Confederate hands.

The Battle of Spotsylvania

The Battle of Spotsylvania, which began on the morning of May 8, lasted 12 days, only ending on May 19. We'll take a brief look at each day's events in order to capture the overall scope of the battle.

On May 9, a break in the fighting allowed the Confederates to build up their line of defense. They created a series of earthworks in a pointed, inverted U-shape called a salient or 'mule shoe.' Although the mule shoe was vulnerable to attacks from both sides as well as from the front, it was filled with Confederate artillery and fortified with large logs. Overall, it was a strong position for the Southerners.

Over the next two days, May 10-11, Grant's men tried to find weak points in the mule shoe. They attacked here and there without much luck. The defenses were just too strong. One young Union colonel by the name of Emory Upton led a sharp attack of 5,000 soldiers against the west side of the mule shoe. They caught the Confederates off guard and captured 950 prisoners. Unfortunately, the Union suffered 1,000 casualties in the attack.

Upton's actions gave Grant an idea. He would try another attack the next day, only on a much larger scale. Thinking Grant was going to make a dash around the Confederates' right flank, General Lee ordered 22 of the 30 artillery pieces in the mule shoe to be moved out and to the right. This was a major miscalculation. Without realizing it, Lee had made a decision that put his men at risk.

At 4:30 a.m. on May 12, Grant's army slammed directly into the mule shoe from several angles. Again, they caught the Confederates by surprise, and without their artillery pieces, the Southerners lacked a critical means of defense. For 20 hours straight, Union soldiers struck the Confederate line over and over and over again. The mule shoe filled up with dead and wounded soldiers from both sides. The west side took the hardest hit, and as casualties began to pile up, that location became known as the 'Bloody Angle.' The attack ended only after midnight when both armies were too exhausted to continue.

By the morning of May 13, only dead and wounded soldiers were left in the mule shoe. During the night, the Confederates had retreated to a new line of defense behind the mule shoe. Over the next few days, May 13-16, Grant and Lee reorganized their armies, moving them into new battle lines through heavy rain and mud. Skirmishing broke out occasionally, but there were no major attacks. Grant shifted his army to the east, attempting, as always, to skirt around the Confederates' right flank.

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