Lee's army entrenched itself before Spotsylvania Court House and ensuing Union attacks were for naught. Then, on May 10, Col. Emory Upton - you find his likeness on the Gettysburg monument to the 121st New York regiment - led 12 regiments in a assault that would be a preview for WWI assault tactics. His men charged on the fly without shooting a shot, achieving by shock tactics a breakthrough a portion of the Confederate lines known as the Angle. His success was not reinforced - their breakthrough caught the Federals by surprise as much as the Rebels, it seemed. But it gave Grant an idea. If such tactics could be successful with a smaller unit, why not with a couple of corps? On May 12, the entire II corps of Maj.Gen. Winfield Hancock and the VI corps of Horatio Wright - almost 20000 men - attacked the Rebel salient. In 20 hours of hand-to-hand fighting - made worse by torrential rainfall - the Confederates withdrew to new positions below the salient from which they were able to hold off continued Federal attacks. On May 21, Grant ordered his army east and south again, forcing Lee to match his moves. The battle of North Anna would be the next stop, two days later.
There is a trail that walks around the apex of the Mule Shoe Salient - the Bloody Angle - with several stops along the way to fill in information on the fighting here. A couple of monuments can be found to Federal units involved in the assault - most notably the monument to the 15th New Jersey (there is another 15th New Jersey Monument nearby the Salem Church east of Fredericksburg, as well), which lost 116 men here at the Bloody Angle. The 15th New Jersey suffered the highest casualties of any New Jersey regiment during the War and is 12th overall out of more than 2000 union regiments. Try and catch one of the NPS ranger talks given twice a day during the summer and on the weekend out here at the Angle to really better understand the horrors that occurred.
Coming onto the scene of fighting at Spotsylvania on the second day - May 8 - Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, the senior corps commander in the Army of the Potomac (VI corps), lightheartedly chided some of his soldiers who were dodging sharpshooter bullets. 'why they couldn't hit an elephant from this range!' Sedgwick exclaimed. Just then, from 800 yards, a rebel sharpshooter found Sedgwick just below his eye. His command evolved to Horatio Wright. Sedgwick's forced march of the VI Corps is considered by many to be a turning point at Gettysburg. Besides this monument here at Spotsylvania, there is an equestrian monument at Gettysburg, one at West Point, one at the State Capitol in Hartford - he was from Connecticut - and one across from his grave in Cornwall Hollow, also in Connecticut.
As at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania does not rate a Visitor Center. A grouping of informational panels will have to suffice. The fighting here at Spotsylvania went on for two weeks and like at the Wilderness (which was only a two day affair) resulted in 17000 Federal casualties and 10000 Confederates with a number of commanders who Lee would never be able replace, thus reducing the efficiency of the Army of Northern Virginia on a permanent basis. Here, trench warfare really became in vogue, mirroring what would be much more horrific 50 years later in Europe. To get here from the Wilderness, you go the same path taken by much of the Union army - Brock Road - passing through the secondary battlefield of Todd's Tavern where Federal cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan were able to clear most of the way to Spotsylvania Court House. The Confederates just beat out the Union efforts and were able to erect breastworks to defend behind.
From the Exhibit Shelter - Park Historian on hand during the Summer and some weekends off-season - you can take the Spotsylvania History Trail a walking path that covers much of the battlefield from Laurel Hill - where Maj. Gen. Warren Governeur's V corps was initially stopped on its road to Spotsylvania - to the major sites where first Col Emory Upton launched his preliminary assault, to the Bloody Angle, itself, site of some of the most gruesome fighting in the entire War - 20 hours of hand-to-hand fighting in the muck and rain.
There are very few monuments at the Wilderness, but here at the intersection of Orange Plank and Brock Roads, the Old Vermont Brigade literally bled itself dry, holding this ground from A.P.Hill's and then Longstreet's attack. The brigade fought most of the War, at Chancellorsville - one year prior - they had taken part in heavy action - losing 431 casualties - east of Salem Church. But here the brigade made its greatest sacrifice, in the thickets and brambles of the Wilderness. The Old Vermont started the Overland Campaign with 2850 men but suffered 1269 casualties in just 12 hours of fighting. Hundreds more were lost in but a few minutes of horror at Cold Harbor early in June. In a month of fighting the brigade was down to under 1200 men. For the War, the Old Vermont Brigade suffered the highest death rate due to battle casualties, losing 1172 killed in action.
In 2005, the newest Civil War monument was unveiled off the intersection in the woods. Weighing some 17 tons, the 12 foot long monument - Vermont granite - is capped with a reproduction of Vermont's Camel's Hump Mountain. A much more fitting monument than the other monument that the Old Vermont on the field of Antietam. That monument is just north of Bloody Lane where they had been ordered up as support, not seeing much action that bloody day.
At Gettysburg, you find a monument to the Second Vermont Brigade, who had enlisted for only nine months. They saw only one battle, but that was Gettysburg and they were fortunate enough to be on the right flank of Pickett's Charge. Their one battle was pure glory, while the Old Vermont suffered on much larger scale with little glory. It is said that those Federal units who did not put up a monument at Gettysburg put up one at Antietam and that was the case for the Old Vermont Brigade before this one. Now, this new monument and short trail gives you a better appreciation for not only the sacrifices made by this fine brigade, but for the desperate fighting both sides put up here in the Wilderness.
With James Longstreet's timely arrival on the southern Wilderness battlefield, A.P.Hill's perilous position was stabilized. With more troops coming onto the scene, Longstreet utilized an unfinished railroad track to get around the Union left flank and deliver a punishing counter blow. Union general James Wadsworth was one of the Federals who fell as a result. His monument is hidden along the Orange Plank Road on the north side in the trees as you drive back east from the Widow Tapp Farm. The turnout listed as Longstreet's Attack has information panels that describe his attack, very similar in nature to that of Stonewall Jackson one year earlier at Chancellorsville. The similarities don't end there. Longstreet was out on a reconnaissance when his own troops shot him down - just as what had happened to Jackson. Longstreet did not die, but was effectively put out of action and his attack sputtered to a halt.
From the intersection of the Ewell-Hill Drive and VA 621 - the Orange Plank Road - turn right and drive about a half mile to the west. You will pass a couple of monuments that are better seen on foot from the parking lot ahead - there is no shoulder parking here and the traffic comes fast and hard along the Orange Plank Road, so be warned. From the parking lot near where Widow Tapp used to have her farm, you can go out over a short trail that takes you over fields that were involved in the crux of the fighting here on the southern Wilderness battlefield. The Rebel corps of A.P. Hill met up with Federals of John Sedgwick and Winfield Hancock on May 5. Early in the morning of May 6, Hill's forces were being overwhelmed almost to the point of collapse. Robert Lee was on the scene and noticed new troops coming up from the west side of the fields and rushed up asking, 'What brigade is this?" "The Texas Brigade!" the soldiers replied, meaning that also, James Longstreet's corps was coming onto the scene to help save the day for the Confederates when it seemed bleakest. "Hurrah for Texas!" Lee cried and he made as if to lead the new soldiers into battle. Recognizing Lee's importance to their cause, they told Lee that if he would not retreat himself, that they would not go forward, "Lee to the Rear!" they cried! Lee did as they implored and they went forward to stop the Union advance - at the cost of 50% casualties. Walking across the pastures, realize that the thin line of Rebel cannons on the west side was about all that were keeping the Federals at bay. The trench lines came about after Longstreet's men stopped the Federal advance. The monument was erected to the Texas Brigade, who with the gave their lives trying to stop the Federal charge.
Just past the Wilderness Exhibit Shelter, turn left onto the Hill-Ewell Drive. Just as you start on this road, visit the old entrenchments used by Ewell's Confederates - right along the edge of the forest - as they looked off at the Federal positions to the east. The road was not there during the battle, but it allows visitors to easily see both of the fields that made up this fight. Driving along you can get a bit of an idea of the very difficult terrain that separated the fighters. When you come to the end of the drive on the Orange Plank Road - VA 621 - you have a firsthand idea of why battlefield preservation is important. If it is not done, then history is lost in the name of a golf course resort.
Grant's army came across the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864. He hoped to get beyond the thickets and brambles of the Wilderness area before coming into contact with Lee's army, but the vast supply trains of the Federals slowed them down. The Confederate army had spent the winter closer to Orange Court House to the west. When Lee noted Grant's army coming across, he ordered a concentration of his forces to intercept. The two armies came together on May 5 along the Orange Turnpike - here, today's VA 20 - and three miles to the south on the Orange Plank Road - VA 621. What happened next was two separate battles, separated by the jungles of the Wilderness.
Here, Federals of Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren's V corps battled Confederate defenders of Richard Ewell's corps through May 5 and 6. From the exhibit shelter you can take off on the two mile Gordon Flank trail which gives you and idea of the terrain these men fought within. The trail goes past several areas of earthworks that were thrown up by each side during the fight. Your path begins by wandering through Saunders Field where soldiers of the 140th New York were taken by surprise by Confederates hidden in the woods. Fighting went back and forth through the two days before a surprise attack led by John Gordon blasted the Union right capturing two Federal generals and 800 others. Darkness halted the fighting. The Federals left their trenches the next evening en route to continued fighting at Spotsylvania Court House - some ten miles to the southeast.
The two battlefields of the Overland Campaign of 1864 each have shelters where you can find out more information on these two gruesome battles. About five miles west of the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, you drive out west on VA 3 and turn left where VA 20 heads west towards Orange. Just after turning left, look on the left side for the small road that leads off to the Ellwood House. Union headquarters for Grant and Meade were in this vicinity on VA 20. Another mile, you will find the Shelter on the north side of the road. Plenty of informational panels to purvey. There is now restrooms nor water here here. During the summer and on weekends you can find Park historians at the Shelter to help answer your questions.
There were other battles that occurred in and around the Fredericksburg region besides the big four battlefields. Information on several of these fights and campaigns are written up in small brochures that can be picked up from the information desk at the NPS Visitor Center - either at Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. Included in the information is a little about the action and the significance, plus detailed instructions on how to go about finding the battlefields - most of which are not protected in any existing park. One such campaign written up is the Mine Run Campaign. Following Lee's retreat from Gettysburg, both armies found their ways back to their old stomping grounds - following a sharp Confederate repulse at Rappahanock Station. Union commander George Meade was looking at one last try at Lee before shutting down operations for the winter and coming across the Rapidan River on November 26, 1863 - via Germanna, Jacobs' and Culpeper Mine Fords (Germanna would be used again the Spring Wilderness battles). Meade hoped to surprise Lee, but the Rebels had been alerted to the Federal move. Bad weather slowed the Union advance as the two armies came together in a couple of separated clashes on November 27th. Meade sent Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren and his V corps on a flanking march several miles to the south on November 29th, but the march took so long that there was no daylight to attempt to attack and turn Lee's right that day. Overnight, Lee reinforced the position with men and entrenchments. Meade had ordered Warren to attack on the 30th but Warren informed Meade of the changed situation and advised not to attack. Meade, somewhat grumpily agreed and with lack of options, pulled the army back to the north of the Rapidan and winter quarters.
To see the old actions, you really need to pick up the NPS flier and follow the instructions closely. If nothing else, you get a nice drive through the Virginian countryside:-]
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