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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania



Once again, Grant had made a determined effort to break Lee's line and failed. And once again, he refused to consider his setback a defeat. He remained true to his strategic goal of applying unrelenting pressure against the Army of Northern Virginia until it snapped. While his soldiers gathered spoils from the battlefield on May 13, Grant laid the groundwork for a major shift, planning to move the Fifth and Sixth Corps behind the Second and past Burnside's left flank. His goal was to mass his forces near the eastern approaches to Spotsylvania and renew battle there.

Weary Northerners slogged all night through a drenching downpour. "The mud was deep over a large part of the route," an aide observed. "The darkness was intense, so that literally you could not see your hand held before your face." Early the next morning, elements from Ayres's brigade occupied Myers' Hill west of the Fredericksburg Road and below the Ni. The position overlooked much of the Rebel line and anchored Grant's flank. Upton reached the hill shortly, and hot little skirmishes flared around the elevation all day. Hindered by miserable roads and his soldiers' exhausted condition, Meade could not organize an assault against Spotsylvania. The army, an aide remarked, was "broken and scattered and it was not practicable to get the command in condition for offensive operations that day."

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In the wake of the Bloody Angle fighting, Lee withdraws Ewell's corps to a new line below the Harrison House. On the night of May 13, Grant begins sidling the army to the left, across the Fredericksburg Road, resulting in a fight for Myers Hill. When Lee counters by shifting Anderson's corps to the right, Grant orders Hancock and Wright to attack the Confederate line below the Harrison House, hoping to catch Lee out of position. Hancock and Wright find the Confederates firmly in place, however, and their May 18 attacks are easily repulsed.

In point of fact, Grant had again missed a golden opportunity. Lee had been slow to apprehend Grant's shift and had left the courthouse hamlet lightly guarded. Toward day's end, however, he realized Grant's intentions and shifted part of the First Corps to Spotsylvania Court House. By May 15, Grant's line ran roughly north to south, from the Landrum house to a point past Myers' Hill. Lee's army stretched from behind the former salient across the Fredericksburg Road and on to Snell's Bridge below Spotsylvania Court House.

"We have had five days' almost constant rain without any prospect yet of its clearing up," Grant explained to Washington. "All offensive operations necessarily cease until we can have twenty-four hours of dry weather." A Confederate informed his family that "you can hardly imagine how uncomfortable we are lying in the mud." He added that "for nearly two weeks our men have been in line of battle—exposed to all the inclemency of weather—first the insufferable heat and now the drenching rains—and yet they stand and fight." He closed with a heartfelt plea. "I am worn out and wearied in mind, with continued anxiety. Oh if it could all end, and this terrible turmoil cease!"

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