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Civil War Series

The Battles of Wilderness & Spotsylvania

   

MAY 8: GRANT AND LEE MEET AT LAUREL HILL

Fitzhugh Lee's cavalrymen used the night of May 7-8 to strengthen their log barricades across Brock Road. At morning's first light, Brigadier General Wesley Merritt's Union cavalry division attacked the makeshift blockades with little success. Warren's Fifth Corps meanwhile advanced to the front. Around 7:00 A.M., when it became clear that Merritt was stymied, Meade ordered Warren to punch through with infantry.

LIKE HIS MENTOR, JEB STUART, FITZ LEE WAS A SPIRITED AND CAPABLE CAVALRYMAN. HIS STUBBORN FIGHTING ON THE BROCK ROAD ON MAY 7-8 ENABLED CONFEDERATE FORCES TO REACH SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE AHEAD OF THE UNION INFANTRY. (BL)

The Union Fifth Corps started down Brock Road, Brigadier General John C. Robinson's division leading, followed by Griffin's. Fitzhugh Lee's exhausted horsemen retired before superior numbers. About a mile south, at the Alsop place, Brock Road split into two branches that bowed apart, then joined again on the Spindle farm's northern edge. James Breathed, who was commanding Fitzhugh Lee's horse artillery, made a stirring stand at the Alsop place until one of his guns became mired in the freshly plowed field. "Surrender that gun, you rebel scoundrel!" Northerners hollered as they approached the piece. Breathed freed the gun from its injured team, mounted the wheel horse, and brought the piece to safety through a hail of bullets, all the while brazenly thumbing his nose at the Yankees.


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ANDERSON WINS THE RACE TO SPOTSYLVANIA: MAY 8
Successful delaying tactics by Fitzhugh Lee enable Anderson's men to reach Laurel Hill just minutes ahead of the Union army. Warren repeatedly attacks Anderson's position on the ridge, but his uncoordinated assaults fail to dent the Confederate line. Toward evening Sedgwick pushes past Warren's left in an effort to turn Anderson out of his position, only to be thwarted by the arrival of Ewell's corps.

In a final attempt to stem the blue-clad tide cresting down Brock Road, Fitzhugh Lee formed his division along a shallow ridge below the Spindle clearing. Jeb Stuart arrived and helped Lee stake out his formation along the rise, which Union officers dubbed Laurel Hill. The Rebel cavalry chief, a soldier reminisced, was "just as cool as a piece of ice, though all the time laughing."

While Fitzhugh Lee waged his determined delaying action, Anderson's First Corps moved south on parallel roads. Near sunrise, Anderson's men bivouacked near Block House Bridge on the Po. They were but a short distance from Laurel Hill and breakfasted to the rattle of musketry from Lee's and Warren's bitter action. Suddenly messengers from Lee pounded up with pleas for Anderson's help. He hurried his foremost units—the brigades of Colonel John W. Henagan and of Brigadier General Benjamin G. Humphreys, along with Major John C. Haskell's artillery battalion—toward Laurel Hill. As Anderson's men reached the back side of the ridge, Stuart waved them into place. According to witnesses, Warren's Federals were no more than a hundred yards away. Lee had been saved by a last-minute rescue that modern Hollywood could scarcely rival.

RICHARD H. ANDERSON HAD ONLY BEEN IN COMMAND OF THE FIRST CORPS FOR ONE DAY WHEN LEE ORDERED HIM TO MARCH TO SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE. (LC)

Warren assumed that only cavalry occupied the far ridge and ordered his troops ahead. "Never mind cannon! Never mind bullets! Press on and clear this road," he reportedly shouted, then added in a more practical vein: "It's the only way to get to your rations."

The Union charge dissolved into a rout. Troops advancing east of Brock Road dropped into a depression and found themselves pinned against the steep side of Laurel Hill by Confederate musketry whizzing overhead. Units west of the roadway were slammed by blistering fire as they reached a high spot in the field near the Spindle house. Some of Griffin's soldiers managed to reach the Confederate works but lacked the support necessary to achieve a breakthrough. As his remaining divisions arrived—Crawford's Pennsylvania Reserves and Cutler's division, formerly under Wadsworth—Warren pushed them into the melee. The result was tremendous Union casualties.

AS HIS TROOPS CAME TUMBLING BACK IN CONFUSION FROM LAUREL HILL, GOUVERNEUR WARREN RALLIED THEM AROUND THE FLAG OF THE THIRTEENTH MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEERS. (LC)

By noon, Warren had abandoned any pretext of taking Laurel Hill by storm and began concentrating instead on massing his corps behind earthworks along the Spindle clearing's northern edge. Soldiers complained that the affair had been poorly managed and their numerical advantage "dissipated by dribbling into the attack regiment after regiment, each succeeding one too late to be of any service to the one that had gone before." Another mumbled, "There appeared to have been a miscalculation somewhere."

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