May 10, 1864: Upton’s Charge at Spotsylvania

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Something for the weekend.  Marching on to Richmond sung by Bobby Horton who has waged a one man crusade to bring Civil War music to modern audiences.  The song was written by E. W. Locke in 1862 and was always a favorite of Union troops during the War, and Union veterans at Grand Army of the Republic meetings after the War.

Richmond must have seemed very far away indeed to the Union troops at Spotsylvania 150 years ago.

 

 

 

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_10

Grant knew he needed to try something different if he was going to shift the Confederates out of their extensive fortified lines at Spotsylvania and 24 year old Colonel Emory Upton, a very intense West Point graduate commanding the 121st New York, supplied the new idea.  It was Upton’s plan that a column of men with unloaded guns could take a fortified position if they advanced very rapidly, not stopping to fire, and overwhelm the Confederate troops on a narrow front.  This was in complete contrast to conventional tactics at the time which said that assaulting troops had to be deployed in broad lines to maximize fire power.   Upton was given 12 regiments to try out his theory, as part of a coordinated Union assault on the Confederate lines on May 10.  Upton would attack the left side of what Union troops were calling the Mule Shoe, a huge Confederate salient.  After Upton made his breach in the line, supporting troops from the remainder of the Union VI corps would follow through and take the Mule Shoe.

The attack began and worked perfectly initially.  Here is how Grant describes the attack in his memoir:

To the left our success was decided, but the advantage was lost by the feeble action of Mott. Upton with his assaulting party pushed forward and crossed the enemy’s intrenchments. Turning to the right and left he captured several guns and some hundreds of prisoners. Mott was ordered to his assistance but failed utterly. So much time was lost in trying to get up the troops which were in the right position to reinforce, that I ordered Upton to withdraw; but the officers and men of his command were so averse to giving up the advantage they had gained that I withdrew the order. To relieve them, I ordered a renewal of the assault. By this time Hancock, who had gone with Birney’s division to relieve Barlow, had returned, bringing the division with him. His corps was now joined with Warren’s and Wright’s in this last assault. It was gallantly made, many men getting up to, and over, the works of the enemy; but they were not able to hold them. At night they were withdrawn. Upton brought his prisoners with him, but the guns he had captured he was obliged to abandon. Upton had gained an important advantage, but a lack in others of the spirit and dash possessed by him lost it to us. Before leaving Washington I had been authorized to promote officers on the field for special acts of gallantry. By this authority I conferred the rank of brigadier-general upon Upton on the spot, and this act was confirmed by the President. Upton had been badly wounded in this fight.

By the end of the war the 25 year old Upton would be a Major General of Volunteers.

Emory Uptoj

Here is a report by Grant to General Halleck on May 11 which gives Grant’s overview of his campaign after six days of heavy fighting.

NEAR SPOTTSYLVANIA C. H.,    May 11, 1864—8.3O A.M. 

MAJOR-GENERAL HALLECK, Chief of Staff of the Army,     Washington, D. C.  We have now ended the 6th day of very hard fighting. The result up to this time is much in our favor. But our losses have been heavy as well as those of the enemy. We have lost to this time eleven general officers killed, wounded and missing, and probably twenty thousand men. I think the loss of the enemy must be greater—we having taken over four thousand prisoners in battle, whilst he has taken from us but few except a few stragglers. I am now sending back to Belle Plain all my wagons for a fresh supply of provisions and ammunition, and purpose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.   The arrival of reinforcements here will be very encouraging to the men, and I hope they will be sent as fast as possible, and in as great numbers. My object in having them sent to Belle Plain was to use them as an escort to our supply trains. If it is more convenient to send them out by train to march from the railroad to Belle Plain or Fredericksburg, send them so.   I am satisfied the enemy are very shaky, and are only kept up to the mark by the greatest exertions on the part of their officers, and by keeping them intrenched in every position they take.   Up to this time there is no indication of any portion of Lee’s army being detached for the defence of Richmond.

U. S. GRANT,    Lieut.-General.

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One Comment

  1. Did the Confederate soldiers think that they would win defending the principle of slavery? Without the foundation of truth, enslavement of another person is the most discouraging thought on the face of the earth.

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