For sheer, unmitigated hellishness, the fighting around Spotsylvania outstripped all other Civil War battles.
By Cowan Brew
The two weeks of horrific fighting around the tiny crossroads hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, in May 1864 represented a watershed of sorts for Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the armies they commanded. Even for veterans of Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and the other great battles in the East, the brutal hand-to-hand combat at Spotsylvania, often conducted in choking heat or driving rain, raised the war to a new level of savagery. The Spotsylvania campaign gave the world its first extended taste of trench warfare, foreshadowing not only the 10-month siege of Petersburg but also the murderous stalemate of World War I. When it was over, soldiers on both sides seconded Pennsylvania Private Joseph Graham’s observation: “We never knew what war was till this spring.”
Coming hard on the heels of the two-day Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania was the next stop on Grant’s so-called Overland campaign, a relentless drive to turn Lee’s flank, destroy the Army of Northern Virginia and capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. In each of these specific undertakings Grant was largely unsuccessful, but his short-term failures led within a year to his ultimate success in forcing Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and bringing the Civil War to an end in total Union victory.
As the eight related essays in The Spotsylvania Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998, $29.95) make clear, the cost of that initial drive toward victory was dear, indeed, for the common soldiers on both sides of the battlements. More than 30,000 men were killed, wounded or captured at Spotsylvania in nearly continuous fighting, which one hard-bitten New York Times newspaper correspondent called, all too accurately, “a perfect Golgotha.” The Times’ William Swinton wrote, “The one exclamation of every man who looks on the spectacle is, ‘God forbid that I should ever gaze upon such a sight again.'” And a Union survivor of the battle said, years after the war, “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania, because I should be loath to believe it myself, were the case reversed.”
Author Carol Reardon, in the book’s centerpiece essay, details the various factors that, taken together, combined to make the Spotsylvania battles uniquely awful even by Civil War standards. These included “the seemingly endless quality of its fighting…its constant reminders of the nearness and randomness of death…and its relentless physical and emotional stress.” As Reardon points out, most Civil War battles lasted only a day or two. But when the Union Army of the Potomac entered the forbidding countryside around the Wilderness in northeastern Virginia, it initiated a monthlong round of battles that stretched seamlessly into one another, leading Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren (a hero at Gettysburg) to exclaim, “For thirty days now, it [has] been one funeral procession, past me; and it is too much!”
Under the unimaginable stress of constant fighting, lack of sleep, starvation rations and adverse weather conditions, experienced soldiers on both sides broke down. Rank did not matter; generals as well as privates reeled from the strain. Besides Warren, who came close to a nervous breakdown during the Spotsylvania campaign, Confederate corps commanders Lt. Gens. A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell exhibited erratic behavior. Hill possibly suffered from psychosomatic illness, while Ewell displayed uncontrollable anger. Robert E. Lee himself, observing Ewell cursing at his men and striking skulkers with the flat of his sword, felt the need to remonstrate: “General Ewell, you must restrain yourself; how can you expect to control these men if you have lost control of yourself? If you cannot repress your excitement, you had better retire.” Union Maj. Gens. George Meade and Phil Sheridan came close to blows after a lunchtime argument over the proper use of Sheridan’s cavalry escalated into a shouting match, forcing Grant to intercede. Given the circumstances, it is a wonder that more soldiers did not break under the strain.
Besides the never-ending fighting, other factors combined to limit the armies’ military effectiveness. On the Union side, the imminent departure of a number of veteran troops whose three-year terms of enlistment had run out caused persistent grumbling among the men, who quite understandably did not want to be killed so close to their leaving the service. Combined with an influx of untested troops–many of whom contributed to the bulging knapsacks of veterans who thought nothing of stealing food from their unwary new comrades–the overall unit cohesion of the Federal army at Spotsylvania was low. This, in turn, contributed to faulty maneuvering and support in battle and low morale during the infrequent pauses between fighting. In contrast, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia retained a generally high morale, but its chronic shortages of food, clothing and ammunition hindered its combat readiness. Changes in command structure, caused by the wounding of I Corps commander James Longstreet and the recurrent illness of III Corps leader A.P. Hill, further disrupted Lee’s army during the monthlong ordeal in the Wilderness.
Still, such organizational problems were slight when compared with the sheer horror of the fighting itself. During the central battle of the Spotsylvania campaign, at the “Mule Shoe” salient in the Confederate lines, the two sides fought hand to hand for 20 straight hours. Rifle butts, bayonets, rocks, sticks and bare hands smashed into soldiers’ faces, while the storm of bullets was so great that a 22-inch-diameter tree was cut completely in two by gunfire. Artillery rounds crashed without interruption into the Southern lines, and one New Jersey brigade morbidly made bets on whether an arm, a foot or head would be thrown into the air with each round. Pouring rain made the slopes of the Confederate works slippery, while the defenders were forced to fight in knee-deep water that quickly turned red with blood. One South Carolinian remembered: “I was splashed over with brains and blood. In stooping down or squatting to load, the mud, blood and brains mingled, would reach up to my waist, and my head and face were covered or spotted with the horrid paint.” Afterward, both sides would call the battleground “Bloody Angle.” A Southern survivor would note, with no hyperbole whatsoever, “If a man wants to see hell upon earth, let him come and look into this black, bloody, horrid corruption of rotting corpses, that fill the air with this intolerable stench.”
The Spotsylvania Campaign, ably edited by historian Gary Gallagher, is a vivid over-view of that hell on earth, a place where battlefield conditions reached their nadir, and human courage and endurance reached their apex. After reading it, few will be inclined to disagree with Ulysses S. Grant’s assessment, written in the heat of combat, that “the world has never seen so bloody or so protracted a battle as the one being fought and I hope never will again.”