Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8 - 21, 1864)

Updated: September 28, 2016

Fought between May 2 and 21, 1864, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the second major engagement of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.

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. 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. 

Throughout the month of May, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia slugged it out in a series of battles including the Wilderness (May 5-7), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21), North Anna (May 23-26), and Totopotomoy Creek (May 29-30). Although the Rebels inflicted high casualties on the Federals during those battles, Grant continued his strategy of moving south and east to Lee's right, and then re-engaging. Grant's moves forced Lee to reposition his lines continually to defend Richmond.

At the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8-21), the second major engagement of Grant's Overland Campaign occurred. Following the Battle of the Wilderness, a victory for the Confederates, who suffered just 7,800 casualties to the Northerners 18,000 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing, unlike earlier Union commanders, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards 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. 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. 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.

Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House included:

Infantry units:

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

Artillery units:

Battery H, 1st Ohio Light Artillery

Cavalry units:

2nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

6th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Cavalry

The Battle of Spotsylvania 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; Grant advanced to bring the war to a conclusion.

Cite this Entry

MLA Style

"Battle of Spotsylvania Court House," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 24 Mar 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=465>

APA Style

"Battle of Spotsylvania Court House." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved March 24, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=465

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