In May 1864, central Virginia was the setting of two horrific battles in the American Civil War. Starting in the first week of May, the Battle of the Wilderness was the very first clash between Generals Grant (Union) and Lee (Confederacy). After that first battle ended undecided, both armies moved south to the small town of Spotsylvania Court House. There, they clashed again in what was one of the bloodiest and most intense battles in American history. The Wilderness Battlefield and Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield are a part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County National Military Park, a unit in the National Park Service system.
I’ve described the Battle of Fredericksburg, as well as how you can visit the Fredericksburg Battlefield, in a previous blog post. Now, I’ll continue with these two other Civil War battlefields.
In the Wilderness, a vast area of woods, thickets of brush, undergrowth and second-growth trees, the Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee met for the very first time. Grant, who had command of all Union armies, had attached himself to the Army of the Potomac and declared that he would follow Lee wherever he went, engaging his army into combat until it was completely annihilated. (The Union had overwhelmingly superior manpower and could replenish any losses while the Confederates weren’t able to replace fallen soldiers.)
The Wilderness Battlefield, now located on Route 20 in Virginia, was unlike any battle site in the Civil War. There, in the dense woods and nearly impenetrable bush, both armies fought essentially an invisible enemy—as opposed to generally open-field battles. For two days, May 5 and 6, they fought a war of attrition and suffered heavy losses. Forest fires, resulting from rifle and cannon fire, added a whole new danger to the battle. Many (wounded) soldiers perished in those fires.
Both the Federalists and the Confederates came close to victory in the Wilderness, but ultimately it was the Wilderness itself that won. The Battle of the Wilderness ended without victor, but with heavy losses for both sides.
Grant moved his army south toward Spotsylvania Court House, a small, strategically important village on the way to Richmond, the Confederate capital. Lee and his army followed suit.
Nowadays, the Wilderness Battlefield is a fascinating place. Consisting of the woods and the fields were the battle was fought, the site offers a wealth of information to visitors. There are interpretive walking trails, an exhibition shelter, and former farm sites. Ellwood Manor, a historic mansion that served as the headquarters of Union Generals Burnside and Gouverneur Warren, is beautifully preserved and is part of the Wilderness Battlefield as well.
Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield
The battle continued merely two days later at the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. From May 8 to May 21, this was the site of arguably the most intense and horrifying combat in the entire Civil War. Lee’s army, having managed to arrive there first, had dug itself in and hastily thrown up wooden defenses.
Because of their lack of time building their defenses, the Confederate army line consisted of a weak bulge, known as the “Muleshoe Line.” Essentially sticking out from the rest of the line, this was an exceptionally vulnerable point. Grant continuously tested the strength of this protruding line and finally broke through on May 12. Lee immediately ordered a counterattack and both armies became engulfed in no fewer than 22 hours of persistent hand-to-hand combat. It was the most brutal close combat in the entire Civil War. In just one day, thousands died on the “Muleshoe Line.” It got to the point when bodies of dead soldiers were literally piled on top of each other just behind the line. The most desperate fighting took place on a section of the “Muleshoe Line” called the “Bloody Angle.”
General Lee’s counterattack bought him just enough time to construct a new defensive line about a mile south from the “Muleshoe Line”, significantly strengthening his overall line. Once again, the battle ended undecided, but with exceptional losses. Even though the Union lost more soldiers in total, the Confederacy was hit the hardest because of their lack of reinforcements. The relentless hammering of the Confederate army by General Grant was finally starting to take its toll on the diminishing resources of the Southern army.
On May 21, Grant again left the battlefield, moving south toward Richmond and, eventually, toward victory at Appomattox Court House. Both armies would clash several more times, however, before the war was over.
The Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield is one of the best preserved battlefields in the entire United States. A visit begins at the exhibition shelter and continuous past the “Bloody Angle” and couple of house sites and the East Face of Salient. It’s a remarkably great drive (or hike), offering a deep insight in the horrors and events related to the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.
The Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County National Military Park consists of four Civil War battlefields. I’ve discussed the Fredericksburg Battlefield, the Wilderness Battlefield and the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield already. In a next post, I will provide an overview of the Chancellorsville Battlefield.