Great violence happened here in bucolic Spotsylvania County

Mainers visiting the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield will find no monuments dedicated to Pine Tree State regiments. A few Union monuments stand here; the first encountered by visitors is the John Sedgwick monument at the intersection of Brock Road and Grant Drive. The low-key monument marks the spot where the Sixth Corps commander offered himself one time too many times as a target to Confederate sharpshooters.

Located at the intersection of Brock Road and Grant Drive in Spotsylvania County, Va. is the Spotsylvania Battlefield Exhibit Shelter. Maintained by the National Park Service and occasionally staffed by a park ranger, the shelter contains maps and information detailing the May 8-21, 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Many Maine soldiers fought in this two-week bloodbath. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Located at the intersection of Brock Road and Grant Drive in Spotsylvania County, Va. is the Spotsylvania Battlefield Exhibit Shelter. Maintained by the National Park Service and occasionally staffed by a park ranger, the shelter contains maps and information detailing the May 8-21, 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Many Maine soldiers fought in this two-week bloodbath. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The greatest concentration of monuments, both North and South, exists at the Bloody Angle, a charnel house historically submerged by the lesser slaughter at Antietam’s Sunken Lane in September 1862. That bloody encounter was over in a few hours; the personalized murder at the Bloody Angle dragged on for 22 hours.

So if no Maine monuments stand at Spotsylvania Court House, then no Maine soldiers fought here, visitors might assume.

They would be incorrect. Great violence occurred across this bucolic landscape southwest of Fredericksburg – and Maine boys were in the thick of it.

Union Gen. John Sedgwick commanded the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the opening days of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. On May 9, 1864, as his men fought from behind their entrenchments facing Confederate-held Laurel Hill, Sedgwick moved along the lines and encouraged his soldiers. A Confederate sniper shot Sedgwick dead; in May 1887 the survivors of the Sixth Corps erected this monument in honor of their beloved commander. The Sedgwick Monument is the first monument encountered by modern visitors to the battlefield. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Union Gen. John Sedgwick commanded the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac during the opening days of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. On May 9, 1864, as his men fought from behind their entrenchments facing Confederate-held Laurel Hill, Sedgwick moved along the lines and encouraged his soldiers. A Confederate sniper shot Sedgwick dead; in May 1887 the survivors of the Sixth Corps erected this monument in honor of their beloved commander. The Sedgwick Monument is the first monument encountered by modern visitors to the battlefield. (Brian Swartz Photo)

A national park preserves the key features of Spotsylvania Court House: Laurel Hill, the Mule Shoe, and the Confederate trenches extending east to modern Route 208. Most visitors overlook Laurel Hill, which lies across from Grant Drive on a dangerous-for-pedestrians curve of the well-traveled Brock Road. Until the field grass reaches an adequate height each spring, the mown trails are not clearly marked.

Visitors may not understand that the main component of the preserved battlefield is the Mule Shoe, the heavily fortified salient that Robert E. Lee ordered built during the battle’s early stages. Grant Drive “enters” the Mule Shoe near the Bloody Angle; Gordon Drive (named for Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon) “exits” the salient at its “East Face.” There are several places where visitors can park their cars and walk along the trenches; do stay on the marked trails — or at least do not walk on the surviving Confederate trenches.

Soldiers from the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, crouch behind their entrenchments while dueling with Confederates holding nearby Laurel Hill during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Combat artist Alfred Waud identified this particular section of earthworks as the site where Gen. John Sedgwick was killed on May 9, 1864. (Library of Congress)

Soldiers from the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, crouch behind their entrenchments while dueling with Confederates holding nearby Laurel Hill during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Combat artist Alfred Waud identified this particular section of earthworks as the site where Gen. John Sedgwick was killed on May 9, 1864. (Library of Congress)

The name “Bloody Angle” does inadequate justice for the heroes in blue and gray who slaughtered each other May 12-13, 1864. The term applies to one section of the Mule Shoe; signs point visitors to the site. To experience the entire Bloody Angle, take time to hike the well-marked Bloody Angle Trail.

Visitors can exit the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield by two-way Grant Drive or one-way Burnside Drive, which intersects busy Courthouse Road (Route 208). To better understand the entire battle, take Burnside Drive and stop at Heth’s Salient, site of additional fighting. A few more monuments are scattered along the paved road.

Viewed from a car, Spotsylvania Court House appears to be a geographically small battlefield, unlike Gettysburg some 150 miles to the north. Viewed on foot, this bucolic landscape assumes a larger dimension — and that’s how Maine boys experienced the horrific fighting 150 years ago.

Despite the lack of Maine monuments — there are none to be found from Fredericksburg west to Culpeper — Maine regiments did fight here at Spotsylvania Court House. Visitors cannot walk at least one specific trail without crossing paths (albeit 150 years later) with Maine regiments inbound for the Confederate trenches and a blue-and-gray blood-letting.

Maine boys performed great deeds here where great violence occurred. During the next few weeks we will plunge into the boiling Spotsylvania cauldron with the heroes from the Pine Tree State. They, like their counterparts from other loyal states, tried to accomplish the impossible as ordered by generals who seldom bothered to scout the battlefield and see what their men were up against.

And on one particular May evening, Maine boys did accomplish the impossible at Spotsylvania Court House.

Next week: Marching to the sound of the guns

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net.