Spotsylvania Court House, Part I : The rear guard marches to the sound of the guns

After disengaging the badly battered Army of the Potomac from The Wilderness, Ulysses Grant sent it pushing southeast toward Spotsylvania Court House, a central Virginia hamlet. As Gouverneur K. Warren and his Fifth Corps advanced along the Brock Road (visible at far right), Confederate cavalry scrambled to occupy the slight topographical rise known as Laurel Hill. This view extends northwest across the hill's northern slope toward Federal lines. (Brian Swartz Photo)

After disengaging the badly battered Army of the Potomac from The Wilderness, Ulysses Grant pushed it southeast toward Spotsylvania Court House, a central Virginia hamlet. As Gouverneur K. Warren and his Fifth Corps advanced along the Brock Road (visible at far right), Confederate cavalry scrambled to occupy the slight topographical rise known as Laurel Hill. This view extends northwest across the hill’s northern slope toward Federal lines. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Union soldiers expected that after the savage fighting they had endured in The Wilderness in early May 1864, Ulysses Simpson Grant would withdraw the Army of the Potomac across the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers and let his mauled divisions encamp to lick their wounds. Other generals — particularly Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker — had done so after similar shellackings in central Virginia.

But after losing 17,000 or so men to learn that he could not “bull” through Confederate lines in the densely forested Wilderness, Grant slipped his army southeast toward Spotsylvania Court House (often condensed to “Courthouse“). By seizing the hamlet, Union soldiers could force Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia to retreat toward Richmond or fight on Federal terms.

Grant had tried this same maneuver at The Wilderness and failed. His latest flanking effort would plunge the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment into a maelstrom sweeping across a Virginia slope bearing the peaceful name of Laurel Hill.

Throughout Saturday, May 7, Union troops maneuvered southeast along country roads. Ordered to form a rear guard for the Fifth Corps, Col. Charles Herring of the 118th Pennsylvania Infantry pulled together his outfit, a few companies from two Massachusetts regiments, the 16th Michigan Infantry, and the 20th Maine.

Herring’s ad hoc brigade deployed opposite Confederate positions along the Orange Turnpike. In the night, Federal pickets sensed that enemy troops were withdrawing; about 1 a.m. on Sunday, May 8, Herring received orders to march his exhausted men southeast along the Germanna Plank Road (the modern Route 3) to Spotsylvania Court House. His brigade would later turn right onto the Brock Road, which led to the then unprepossessing hamlet.

“It was with sad hearts that we turned from the field, where for three days had rolled the tides of war,” commented Pvt. Theodore Gerrish of Co. H, 20th Maine. With a heavy heart he recalled “the brave fellows who had crossed the Rapidan and entered the Wilderness but a few days before, so full of life and activity, now cold and lifeless — mustered out forever.”

Weary soldiers moved like automatons that dark night. “The road was rough, and our advance was necessarily slow,” Gerrish realized. Soldiers “moved on in silence, but few words were spoken” as men occasionally fell asleep as they marched.

“The steel shanks of the bayonets rattled against the canteens, and occasionally a horse’s iron-shod hoof would clang against a rock,” Gerrish described the silence enveloping the column. “Aside from this, nothing was heard but the irregular and ceaseless tramp of the men, as the weary column pressed on.”

On May 9, 1864, combat artist Alfred Waud sketched the fighting between Union troops (foreground) attempting to reach Spotsylvania Court House and the Confederate troops dug in among the piney woods near a rural farm. The white smoke indicates the high volume of shooting being done by the defenders. (Library of Congress)

On May 9, 1864, combat artist Alfred Waud sketched the fighting between Union troops (foreground) attempting to reach Spotsylvania Court House and the Confederate troops dug in among the piney woods near a rural farm. The white smoke indicates the high volume of shooting being done by the defenders. (Library of Congress)

Several miles to the southeast, Gen. Gouverneur Warren shoved his Fifth Corps along the Brock Road to reach Spotsylvania Court House before hard-marching Confederate troops did. After sunrise, a delaying action waged at the Alsop Farm by Confederate cavalrymen gave their commander, Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, sufficient time to occupy Laurel Hill, about a mile to the south.

Today traffic south-bound on the Brock Road (Route 613) curves to the right past the intersection with Grant Drive (the main entrance to the National Park Service-protected Spotsylvania battlefield) and gradually climbs Laurel Hill. Modern park visitors, except for the combat veterans among them, likely cannot appreciate the topographical value of Laurel Hill; at least across its northern slope and along the Brock Road, the hill resembles more a speed bump than an actual hill in Maine.

The undulating terrain along the north slope of Laurel Hill belies the hill's military significance during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Union infantry charged from right to left and suffered high casualties while attempting to dislodge Confederate troops dug in along the distant treeline. (Brian Swartz Photo)

The undulating terrain along the north slope of Laurel Hill belies the hill’s military significance during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. Union infantry charged from right to left and suffered high casualties while attempting to dislodge Confederate troops dug in along the distant treeline. (Brian Swartz Photo)

But by dawn’s early light on Sunday, May 8, the slight elevation gain provided by Laurel Hill would benefit whomever held its summit. Confederate cavalry got there first; Warren tried driving them off with his worn-out infantry, and reinforcing Confederate infantry plowed into his men.

Gerrish listened intuitively as “the stillness of that morning at Spottsylvania (an alternative 19th-century spelling) was broken by the thunders of the [Confederate] artillery … as they opened a deadly fire upon the advanced brigades of General Warren.”

Herring’s brigade marched toward the sound of the guns; “our regiment arrived at the scene of conflict” at 10 a.m., the 20th Maine boys having “heard for hours the roar of battle, and knew that our comrades had encountered the enemy,” Gerrish noted.

His comment was a tremendous understatement, as Gerrish and his comrades would learn that night.

Next week: Spotsylvania Court House, Part II: “They were brutes”

Brian Swartz can be reached at visionsofmaine@tds.net. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.

 

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.