Did a Confederate sharpshooter seal the fates of some 200 Maine soldiers — and another 800 other Union boys — during the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House?
Dawn on Monday, May 9, 1864 found Col. Clark S. Edwards and his 5th Maine Infantry Regiment camped behind the rapidly lengthening Union earthworks northwest of Spotsylvania, a rural Virginia crossroads hamlet suddenly the center of contention between Union and Confederate armies. The 5th Maine belonged to the Sixth Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, known by his soldiers as “Uncle John.”
A day earlier, savage fighting had occurred at Laurel Hill — located almost due south from the 5th Maine’s camp — as Southern troops blocked the Union march on Spotsylvania. Working feverishly overnight, Confederate soldiers had constructed extensive fortifications northeast across Brock Road, then gradually curved those lines southeast across Fredericksburg Road (today’s Route 208) to end at Massaponax Church Road.
At the northern apex of the Confederate lines, near the house belonging to Edgar Harrison, a salient jutted north about a mile. Nicknamed the “Mule Shoe” for its shape, the salient gave its Confederate defenders the ability to enfilade Union attacks to the southeast or the southwest.
An approximately half-mile gap (and, in places, a forest) separated the Mule Shoe from the Sixth Corps’ earthworks. Sedgwick toured the lines that morning. About 9 a.m., while siting some artillery north of Laurel Hill, Sedgwick ignored warnings about the accuracy of Confederate snipers shooting from perhaps 1,000 yards distant.
“Why are you dodging like this?” Sedgwick asked as his men ducked amidst the flying lead. “They couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance!”
The next bullet struck Sedgwick beneath his left eye; he was dead before he hit the ground. Brig. Gen. Horatio Wright, who commanded the 1st Division, took over the Sixth Corps.
Did Sedgwick’s death adversely affect what happened 33 hours later? Too many 5th Maine boys, plus their comrades from the 6th Maine Infantry Regiment, would never know.
With Wright’s promotion, Brig. Gen. David Russell took over the 1st Division, to which the 5th Maine was attached as part of the 2nd Brigade commanded by Col. Emory Upton. His regiments were the the woefully under strength 5th Maine, the 121st New York Infantry, and the 95th and 96th Pennsylvania infantry regiments; the untested 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery Regiment would not join the brigade until later in May.
According to Upton, the 2nd Brigade “moved to the left of the Spotsylvania (sic) road” later on Monday, “took up position and fortified.” Except for the scattered “pop-pop-pop” of skirmish-line shooting, the day remained relatively quiet in the Sixth Corps’ sector.
Tuesday brought sunshine and warm temperatures — and to the combat veterans in blue and gray, audible evidence that a fight was broiling. “Active skirmishing commenced along different portions of the line early in the morning,” and “the rattle of the skirmishers’ rifles grew into the reverberating roll of thunder,” said Dr. George Stevens of the 77th New York Infantry, which was assigned to the 2nd Division of the Sixth Corps.
Ulysses Simpson Grant wanted the enemy fortifications broken somewhere that Tuesday. Thick pine woods spread between the Sixth Corps and the Mule Shoe; Wright theorized that by sneaking through the forest, Union troops could launch a surprise attack that might achieve Grant’s goal.
Wright ran his idea up the chain of command, and senior officers approved a massive assault timed to strike the Mule Shoe’s western and northern flanks at 5 p.m. Upton would lead the western attack; Brig. Gen. Gershom Mott of the Second Corps would lead the northern attack.
Upton proposed that rather than attack in long regimental lines, as Robert E. Lee had done on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, his assigned regiments would charge in column, thus concentrating more firepower on a narrower front. He would utilize 12 infantry regiments drawn from the Sixth Corps.
Preliminary preparations went well along the Union lines opposite Upton’s intended target, the fortifications defended by Gen. George P. Doles and his infantry brigade: the 4th Georgia, 12th Georgia, 44th Georgia, and Co. E of the 21st Georgia. Anchoring the brigade’s left (southern) flank were four cannons (two 3-inch rifles and two 12-pounder Napoleons) drawn from the Richmond Howitzers and commanded by Capt. Benjamin Smith.
Defending that artillery battery and the lines south of Doles’s brigade was a North Carolina infantry brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Junius Daniel. Holding the lines on Doles’s right (northern) flank was the Stonewall Brigade, led by Brig. Gen. James Walker.
Throughout the afternoon, pesky and pushy skirmishers from the 65th New York Infantry “drove in” the Confederate skirmishers deployed outside Doles’s defenses. An open field ran west from those fortifications approximately 200 yards to the pine forest, beyond which lay the main Federal lines. Although the entrenched Confederates kept watch on the tree line, they did not expect a Union attack.
Inside the pine forest, Capt. Raynald McKenzie (an Army engineer) took Upton along “a wood road [running southeast from the Scott or Shelton Farm that] led from our position directly to the point of attack,” Upton said. Concealed by the luxuriant spring foliage, the officers studied the Confederate defenses.
“The intrenchments (sic) were of a formidable character with abatis in front and surmounted by heavy logs underneath which were loop holes for musketry,” Upton noted. He also saw “a battery with traverses between the guns,” and “there were also traverses at intervals along the entire work.
“About a hundred yards to the rear was another line of works partly completed and occupied by a second line of battle,” Upton observed.
He decided to attack in four lines, with three regiments in each line. Aligned from left to right (northeast to southwest),
• The 5th Maine, 96th Pennsylvania, and 121st New York made up the first line;
• The 5th Wisconsin, 6th Maine, and 49th Pennsylvania formed the second line;
• The 119th Pennsylvania, 77th New York, and 43rd New York comprised the second line;
• The 6th Vermont, 5th Vermont, and 2nd Vermont formed the fourth line.
Bringing the regimental commanders into the woods, Upton indicated where each regiment would form for the attack. He placed the right-flank regiment of each line south of the woods road and the other two regiments in each line to its north. Keeping to their respective sides of the road, the 12 regiments would attack from northwest to southeast.
At 5 p.m. the assigned soldiers shed their knapsacks and all unnecessary gear. Maneuvering along the woods road, each regiment moved into position, and soldiers lay down so that sharp Confederate eyes could not spot movement among the pines. Officers spoke in hushed tones; if they spoke at all, the men shared only whispered conversations.
Upton would command 5,000 to 5,500 men; no regiment brought its full authorized strength to bear. Sickness and heavy fighting in The Wilderness had whittled away many men; Clark Edwards counted perhaps 200 soldiers in the 5th Maine’s appallingly thin ranks, the 49th Pennsylvania fielded 474 men that evening, and the 6th Maine brought 195 men to the fight.
The attack’s success depended on the first line moving fast and puncturing the Confederate defenses. The lead regiments had specific assignments, according to Upton; “the Fifth Maine was to change front to the left [after busting through Doles’s line] and open an enfilading fire to the left (north) upon the enemy (primarily the Stonewall Brigade).”
The accompanying 96th Pennsylvania and 121st New York “were instructed as soon as the works were carried to turn to the right (south) and charge the battery,” Upton wrote afterwards. “The second line was to halt at the works and open fire to the front if necessary.
“The third line was to lie down behind the second and await orders. The fourth line was to advance to the edge of the woods[,] lie down and await the issue of the charge,” he noted.
The colonel commanding the fourth line “was instructed that he might have to form line obliquely to the left and open fire to cover the left flank of the column,” Upton recalled.
Officers told their men to load their rifles, only the soldiers in the three lead regiments could affix the percussion caps necessary for firing their weapons. Soldiers in the three trailing lines did not cap their rifles, but every man fixed his bayonet.
Next week: Spotsylvania Part V: Sloppy staff works dooms a successful charge
Brian Swartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.