10 Things You Should Know About The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

“Father, what was the battle? And who won it?” I asked as stood inside, looking out at the sea.

“Which battle? And are you talking about the recent war or a different one?”

“I can’t say it, but I can spell it. The battle at S-p-o-t-s-y-l-v-a-n-i-a Court House. It was in 1864.”

“That must’ve been one of Grant’s battles. I think it was a Union victory. What has you so interested in the war, daughter?” (Excerpt from Lighthouse Loyalty, Chapter 3)

This historical novel is set in 1867 and has ties to the Civil War throughout important points in the plot. In Chapter 3, young Susan Rose Arnold has been reading articles in old newspapers and sees an account of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House; realizing that she knows little about the recent war, she decides to ask her Father about it, opening the discussion by mentioning the reported battle.

If you’ve been curious for details, here are 10 things you should know about about the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House:

  1. May 8-21, 1864

It’s always important to know when a battle was fought. This one is a particularly long fight, with attacks, re-positions, new attacks, and more attacks shift across the army lines as the days went by, like mini-battles within the larger battle.

Overland Campaign Map (no known restrictions)

2. Part of the 1864 Overland Campaign

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (say “Spotsylvania” exactly as you’d sound it out) was part of the 1864 Overland Campaign. What’s that? General Ulysses S. Grant had come east and coordinated a movement through eastern Virginia toward the Confederate capital; the Rebels, understandably, weren’t giving up their capital without a fight – a very long fight.

The Overland Campaign opened on the battlefield with the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6) and eventually culminated when the Union armies reach Petersburg and began a siege of that town which is located south of Richmond, the Confederate capital. The campaigns became a series of large, horrifying battles with Grant and Union army always maneuvering to the Confederate right flank and the Confederates moving to another defensive position. (See the map.)

Grant (L), Lee (R)

3. Grant vs. Lee

The Overland Campaign and thus the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House pitted the two most famous generals of the American Civil War against each other. It was Lee versus Grant during this bloody spring, and the campaign was:

  • The first time Grant fought Lee
  • The first time Lee fought Grant
  • The first major time the Union armies in the east didn’t scuttle to safety or a winter camp after a failed battle.
  • The first time Confederate armies in the east were put on the defensive with no opportunity to launch their own large-scale offensive (speaking in overall campaign terms here, since Battle of the Wilderness’s fighting – for example – technically began with a Confederate attack.)

4. Confederates Defense, Union Offense

Consistently throughout the campaign and the battle, the Confederates acted on the defensive, digging earthworks (basic trenches), felling trees, and creating other aspects of defensive lines. This defensive strategy was partly from necessity since manpower and increasing lack of supplies caused issues for the Rebels.

With the Confederates holding defensive positions and Grant not fond sitting and looking at the earthworks at this point in the conflict, Union troops routinely attacked during the campaign and the Spotsylvania battle. It was still an era of warfare where troops made disastrous charges across open fields, trying to reach the enemy’s lines and break into the defenses. Some of the “grandest” and largest Union charges of the war occurred at the Spotsylvania Battle.

5. Rain, Rain, Rain

During the battle days around Spotsylvania Court House, the weather battled both armies. Constant rain on some days made everyone miserable and increased the battlefield disaster as casualties drown in mud puddles or standing water.

And then there was was heavy fog or mist – a dense eeriness – that hid a Union attack on the Confederate position called “the Mule Shoe.”

Civil War era illustration of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House

6. The Mule Shoe – Bloody Angle

This was an portion of the Confederate lines that stuck out like a sore-thumb, or rounded out of the line like a mule shoe. Positions like this – called salients – were not the easiest to defend, and the Confederates’ artillery in the position was removed, making the position even less defensible.

As attacks and counter-attacks, attacks and counter-attacks hit this area, it became known as “The Bloody Angle.”

Battle Map showing the Mule Shoe and attacks (public domain)

7. Into The Confederate Lines

On May 12, a grand Union assault broke through the Confederate lines at the Mule Shoe and drove the Confederates back. However, the Southerners brought up reinforcements and both side sent more troops into the fight at the Bloody Angle. One soldier described it as: “Nothing can describe the confusion, the savage, blood-curdling yells, the murderous faces, the awful curses, and the grisly horror of the melee.”

8. “General Lee To The Rear”

As the Union attack broke into the Confederate lines, one of the “human interest accounts” of the battle occurred. Confederate General Robert E. Lee tried to approach the fighting to see the situation and direct troops. His soldiers fiercely protested and would not allow him to get close, shouting, “General Lee to the rear,” until he relented and withdrew to a safer distance.

9. Horrifying Casualty Numbers

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House ended with inconclusively with over 30,000 casualties. Both sides reeled from the losses, but neither would abandon the fight at this point.

10. Far From The End

The Civil War lasted eleven months and thousands of casualties beyond Spotsylvania Court House. When this battle was fought, the conflict was still far from over. Still, the in-conclusion and massive casualties left the army and civilians reeling from the news that spread through battle reports, along telegraph wires, and printed in newspapers.

In the years following the war, the Overland Campaign and Spotsylvania Court House was remembered as some of the worst fighting of the war.

Why Choose Spotsylvania?

I could’ve chosen just about any battle to mention in the Lighthouse Loyalty in this scene. There were several reasons I decided on Spotsylvania Court House.

  • I’d recently visited the battlefield when I was writing the novel.
  • It’s a lesser-known battle in some respects, often overshadowed by Gettysburg and Antietam in general public knowledge.
  • The horrific fighting and heartbreaking accounts that come to mind if the reader is at all familiar with the battle contrast starkly with the rest of the scene. Unlike Gettysburg, there is no grand “crowning” victory moment for the Union and now “Spotsylvania Address,” making this battle especially dark.
  • And finally, to the end on a slightly brighter note, when I was a kid trying to understand the Civil War and memorizing dates and battles on a timeline, I thought Spotsylvania was just the most fun thing to say. I can remember rattling off “The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House” repeatedly because it astonished people. They’d say “What?” and I got to say it again. In the story, Susan has a sense of the tragedy of the field of battle, and faithful to her character quirky of loving to spell words, she spells the long location name instead of saying it repeated.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. This list doesn’t contain everything you should know about the battle, just a few highlights. If you’re looking for a short, information-packed book about the battle, I’d recommend: A Season of Slaughter by Chris Mackowski and Kristopher D. White.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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