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.”
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He would love to hear from Civil War buffs interested in Maine’s involvement in the war.