MAY 10: HETH ATTACKS HANCOCK BELOW THE PO
On the morning of May 10, Hancock's corps lay stretched along Shady
Grove Church Road from Block House Bridge to Waite's Shop. The situation
was hardly encouraging. Mahone held the far bank and Heth was
approaching from below. Hancock's expedition was running into serious
By 10:00 A.M., Grant realized that he had misapprehended Lee's
dispositions. The Confederates were not shifting east as he had thought.
It was apparent, however, that Lee had shifted troops to attack Hancock,
and Grant's best guess was that they had come from Laurel Hill. Acting
on that assumption, Grant formulated a new plan. Hancock was to withdraw
from the Po and leave a single division behind to distract Lee. The rest
of the army was to attack across Lee's formation at 5:00 P.M. As Grant
saw it, a coordinated assault was bound to find Lee's weak point.
HENRY HETH'S STUBBORN DEFENSE ALONG THE PLANK ROAD ON MAY 5 AND HIS MAY
10 ASSAULT AT THE PO RIVER MARKED HIM AS A FIGHTER. (BL)|
Hancock withdrew from the Po and began forming on Warren's right
flank. A single Union divisionBarlow'sremained below the Po
to mislead Lee into believing that Grant still meant to attack there.
Around two in the afternoon, Heth's lead elements broke into the fields
around Waite's Shop. Jubal Early had come along and was in a fighting
mood. While Barlow's men hunkered behind makeshift entrenchments along
Shady Grove Church Road, Heth's men shifted into a battle line and
charged with high-pitched screams. "The combat now became close and
bloody," Hancock observed. "The rebs came up yelling as if they'd got a
special license to thresh us," a Federal soldier recounted.
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GRANT SEEKS AN OPENING: MAY 10|
Lee sends Heth's and Mahone's
divisions of Early's corps to attack Hancock, south of the Po River,
leaving Early with just one division to hold Spotsylvania Court House
against Burnside's Ninth Corps. Warren continues his fruitless assaults
at Laurel Hilt, at the cost of hundreds of Union lives, while Upton and
Mott attack Ewell's position at the Muleshoe Salient.
Barlow resisted bravely but found himself in an impossible situation
as Rebel artillery from across the Po lobbed shells into his men and the
surrounding woods caught fire. "Many of the gallant wounded perished in
the flames," Hancock explained. Step by step. Barlow's survivors
funneled through a mile-long clearing back to the Po. It was a deadly
gauntlet"flames were crackling and roaring," a soldier recounted,
and shells exploded all aroundbut most of the division managed to
escape. The last troopssoldiers from Brigadier General Nelson A.
Miles's brigadescurried over the remaining pontoon bridge. Union
engineers cut the ropes holding the span and watched it drift to the
Po's northern bank.
The Battle of the Po, as Barlow's and Heth's fight came to be called,
was a bloody little affair. Early congratulated Heth and later claimed
that the operation "relieved us from a very threatening danger, as the
position the enemy had attained would have enabled him to completely
enfilade [Anderson's] position and get possession of the line of our
communications to the rear." Hancock congratulated Barlow for
extricating his soldiers from a difficult situation. "Not a regiment
gave way for a moment in the critical movement," he wrote. "The
Confederates did not hasten the pace by anything they did; our troops
retired just when and as they were directed."
Grant's handling of the Po operation was severely criticized. By
starting the maneuver late in the day, he denied Hancock opportunity to
complete the ruse before the Confederates had time to respond. A rebel
artillery commander later remarked that "it was a great, an immense
piece of luck for us that Hancock had made his move across the Po late
in the afternoon, giving us the night to make preparations to meet