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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

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 trouble.

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 division—Barlow's—remained 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.


(click on image for a PDF version)
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 around—but most of the division managed to escape. The last troops—soldiers from Brigadier General Nelson A. Miles's brigade—scurried 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 him."

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