May 18, 1864: Final Attacks at Spotsylvania

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Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_17

 

You see him standing,

Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.

You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer

But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.

Ulysses is all right. 

He can finish the job.”

And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review

And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Spotsylvania was drawing to a close.  Since the attack at the Bloody Angle on May 12, Grant had been shifting towards his left and he assumed that Lee would be weakening Ewell’s lines as a result to move forces over to his right.  Grant had Hancock’s corps move back into position to attack Ewell during the evening of May 17, with the attack to go in at dawn.  Lee had not weakened Ewell’s position however, and Ewell’s artillery alone was sufficient to break up Hancock’s attack before it got past the abatis  in front of his lines.  Grant’s reaction was to decide that no further attacks could succeed at Spotsylvania, and to continue to move to the southeast to drive Lee back towards Richmond.  Casualties at Spotsylvania were 18,000 for the Union and 12,000 for the Confederacy.  Adding in the Wilderness casualties, in less than two weeks the Union had lost 35,000 casualities and the Confederacy 23,000.  Northern public opinion was appalled at the shocking casualty lists in such a short period, but the Union could easily replace every man lost, while Lee was losing the veterans that his outnumbered army needed to maintain an essential combat edge.

Grant in his Personal Memoirs recalled this time as one of the low points for the Union of the Campaign of 1864:

But that night Hancock and Wright were to make a night march back to their old positions, and to make an assault at four o’clock in the morning. Lee got troops back in time to protect his old line, so the assault was unsuccessful. On this day (18th) the news was almost as discouraging to us as it had been two days before in the rebel capital. As stated above, Hancock’s and Wright’s corps had made an unsuccessful assault. News came that Sigel had been defeated at New Market, badly, and was retreating down the valley. Not two hours before, I had sent the inquiry to Halleck whether Sigel could not get to Staunton to stop supplies coming from there to Lee. I asked at once that Sigel might be relieved, and some one else put in his place. Hunter’s name was suggested, and I heartily approved. Further news from Butler reported him driven from Drury’s Bluff, but still in possession of the Petersburg road. Banks had been defeated in Louisiana, relieved, and Canby put in his place. This change of commander was not on my suggestion. All this news was very discouraging. All of it must have been known by the enemy before it was by me. In fact, the good news (for the enemy) must have been known to him at the moment I thought he was in despair, and his anguish had been already relieved when we were enjoying his supposed discomfiture, But this was no time for repining. I immediately gave orders for a movement by the left flank, on towards Richmond, to commence on the night of the 19th. I also asked Halleck to secure the co-operation of the navy in changing our base of supplies from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock.

This passage sums up why Grant was indispensable for ultimate Union victory.  In the midst of huge casualties, defeats and set backs, he had not the slightest thought of retreat, but rather was setting in motion a continuation of his grinding drive against Richmond and Lee’s army.  Grant could be beaten, he could not be stopped.

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2 Comments

  1. i had the honor to walk the bloody angle on a 100 degree day a few year ago… i understood men had been crushed under one another in the press of battle at that point and Lee himself attempted to take the leadership in the field , but was pressed back by his own men. what an awful , honorable place is spotsylvania.

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