This book, by the late William D. Matter, was the first book-length study of the Battle of Spotsylvania, and except for Gordon Rhea’s volume remains the go-to source for that battle. This book is packed with detail. No one knew the Spotsylvania battle and battlefield like Bill Matter knew it.
He sets the stage at the Wilderness, which was Ulysses S. Grant’s first time going up against Robert E. Lee. At the conclusion of that battle, Lee was faced with a command problem. His most dependable subordinate, James Longstreet, was out of action, wounded after being shot by his own men not far from where Stonewall Jackson was shot by his own men a year before. Lee had to find a replacement to command the I Corps. “Lee appeared to favor Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early of Ewell’s Corps. [G. Moxley] Sorrel [Longstreet’s chief of staff], however, had reservations about Early and suggested instead Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, who was presently commanding a division in Hill’s Third Corps but who earlier in the war had served in the First under Longstreet. Later in the day Colonel Sorrel and the remainder of Longstreet’s troops were gratified to learn that Anderson had been selected for the command. Brig. Gen. William Mahone was chosen to command Anderson’s division, and Col. David A. Weisiger assumed command of Mahone’s brigade.” [p. 14] Once he realized the Army of the Potomac was on the move, Lee had to decide where to go to cut them off. He decided on Spotsylvania Court House. “Much has been written about this remarkable intuition. It was intuition bolstered by clear, logical calculation. If Grant neither continued to attack in the Wilderness nor recrossed the Rapidan, the only remaining directions for him to take were (1) to move east to Fredericksburg, from where he could do a number of things, including marching south along the Telegraph Road and railroad toward Richmond, or (2) to move southeast along the Brock Road through Todd’s Tavern to Spotsylvania Court House and then toward the Confederate capital city. In either case Spotsylvania Court House would be an excellent location for the Army of Northern Virginia.” [p. 15]
Regarding the Army of the Potomac, Matter tells us “The movement would be conducted in two stages: (1) to the area from Todd’s Tavern to Spotyslvania Court House on the eighth [of May] and (2) to the line of the North Anna on the ninth, assuming tactical deployment there to await Lee’s arrival on the tenth or later.” [p. 22] Wherever he can, Matter gives us the order of march for the two armies. The Federals had a problem, though, with regard to their maps. Grant issued an order for movement of the army. “In general terms the order directed the army corps with their assigned artillery batteries to relocate as follows: Fifth Corps (Warren) at Spotsylvania Court House, Second Corps (Hancock) at Todd’s Tavern, Sixth Corps (Sedgwick) at an intersection to be discussed shortly, and Ninth Corps (Burnside) at Piney Branch Church. Corps commanders and the members of Grant’s and Meade’s staffs were provided with copies of the map which Grant used to formulate his preliminary order for the movement. The quality of this map is well described by Maj. Nathaniel Michler, Corps of Engineers. In his report of the summer campaign, Michler wrote: ‘the experience gained in the memorable campaign of the Army of the Potomac during the months of May and June of 1864 showed very conclusively that however well the only accessible maps might have served the purposes of general knowledge, still they furnish but little of that detailed information so necessary in selecting and ordering the different routes of marching columns, and were too decidedly deficient in accuracy and detail to enable a general to maneuver with certainty his troops in the face of a brave and everwatchful enemy.’ Useful information concerning primary roads and topography had been obtained during the Mine Run campaign the previous November. These data, however, were limited primarily to the area between the Rapidan River and the Orange Turnpike west of Chancellorsville, the Orange Plank Road west from Dowdall’s Tavern, and the Catharpin Road from Todd’s Tavern to Shady Grove Church and west from there. Documentation of the area south of the Orange Plank Road was based primarily on guesswork. Grant’s order specified that Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps should stop ‘near the intersection of Piney Branch and Spotsylvania road with the road from Alsop’s to Old Court-House..’ Neither of these roads existed except upon that map. The intention appears to have been to position the Sixth Corps within supporting distance of the Fifth, which would have been possible had the map been accurate, because the fictitious intersection was approximately 1-1/2 miles north of the courthouse. Burnside at Piney Branch Church could, if necessary, have supported Hancock at Tood’s Tavern or Sedgwick and Warren to the south.” [pp. 23-24]
In addition to the map problem, Matter also describes the problem of disengaging and moving an army. “Throughout the war the extraction of an army from its position facing an enemy force was always a ticklish endeavor. The withdrawing troops were always vulnerable to attack when moving from their line to their marshaling point for the beginning of the march proper. As they pulled back they depended on their pickets to detect and report any advance of enemy forces opposite to their positions. The pickets often sacrificed their lives or freedom when sounding the alarm. If the movement was executed during the hours of darkness, the likelihood of enemy detection was diminished, but the mental strain upon the pickets was increased. Although each man knew that he could usually rely completely upon his fellow pickets, he was also aware that the army was pulling out from behind him and that he would be virtually on his own until he was called in and once again was marching in the ranks. Moreover, physical fatigue was a burden for night pickets, who usually enjoyed little or no rest during the day before their night duty.” [p. 44] The pickets in front of the V Corps that night, May 7, 1864, were from the 20th Maine, the 16th Michigan, and the 118th Pennsylvania, and they were exhausted. “At 6:00 P.M. six companies of the Twenty-second Massachusetts and one company from the Ninth Massachusetts, all from Sweitzer’s brigade, were sent forward to augment the others, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Herring, corps officer of pickets. As darkness settled over this small contingent of troops on their lonely vigil west of the Lacy house, their comrades of the Fifth Corps were taking up the march toward Spotsylvania Court House.” [p. 44]
Matter provides great detail about the march, including the vignette of veteran 3rd Pennsylvania Cavalry coming upon the green 22nd New York Cavalry. “Suddenly the Pennsylvanians leaped from their saddles, pulled the New Yorkers from their comparatively fresh horses and new saddles, mounted, and rode off into the darkness. There were a few fist fights on the ground, but before long the victorious veterans were out of sight, and the disgruntled recruits were rounding up the mounts left behind.” [p. 49]
Matter tells us what happened in one of the first encounters cavalry from the Army of Northern Virginia had with black troops. “On 7 May, the Ninth Virginia Cavalry Regiment of the brigade of Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss, Jr. from Rooney Lee’s division scouted from the town of Culpeper in the direction of Stevensburg. The troopers examined the abandoned winter camps of the Army of the Potomac and were amazed at the quantity of military stores the Yankees had left there. After camping for the night they resumed their march at daylight along the road leading to the Germanna Ford from the north. This roadway had been used by the Union Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth corps on the fourth, fifth, and sixth of May. The Virginia horsemen found many Federal stragglers limping along or lying on the road, all of whom surrendered without resistance. Most of these troops belonged to the Ninth Corps, which, at the beginning of the month, had been guarding various points along the Orange and Alexandria Railroad as far east as Manassas Junction. On 4 May they had been ordered to join the Army of the Potomac by forced marches. Ferrero’s Fourth Division of Colored Troops, having been stationed at Manassas Junction, had the longest distance to travel and contributed its share of stragglers. These Negro soldiers were the first the Ninth Virginia had seen. (Indeed, the opening of this campaign had marked the first use of organized black units against the Army of Northern Virginia in the war.) They were gathered together along the side of the road and shot, their bodies left to lie where they fell. The Confederate cavalrymen then continued with approximately two hundred white prisoners to the ford, which they crossed at approximately 10:00 A.M., rejoining the army near Spotsylvania Court House on the morning of 9 May.” [p. 80]
He gives the account of Sheridan’s argument with Meade, leading to Sheridan’s raid which culminated in the Battle of Yellow Tavern and the death of J.E.B. Stuart. He also lets us know the cost of that raid on the Union Army. Grant formulated an attack plan for May 9. “When Grant was informed at 10:00 A.M. that Willcox had sighted Confederate cavalry and perhaps infantry four (actually less than two) miles east of Spotsylvania in the direction of Fredericksburg, he must have been somewhat surprised. He soon received Hancock’s initial reports that the Confederate force opposite his position at Todd’s Tavern had moved away. From these indications Grant began to suspect that Lee was shifting his army from west to east with the intention of positioning it between the Federal force and Fredericksburg. … At 12:45 P.M. Burnside forwarded to Grant Willcox’s message of 11:45 A.M. stating that he was heavily engaged by superior numbers. Grant reacted immediately with instructions. … He ordered Burnside to direct Willcox to hold his position to the last extremity and to expect the enemy force moving against him to be attacked from the west by the Army of the Potomac. At the same time Meade was advised that if the suspected Confederate move was actually occurring, his army must follow and attack vigorously. Thus evolved a Federal plan based upon erroneous suppositions. One reason for some of these errors was the Federals’ failure to use cavalry for reconnaissance. Wilson and his Third Division troopers, who were familiar with the Fredericksburg Road, were riding south with Sheridan at this time. The three cavalry regiments that were retained with the Army of the Potomac were working out of Chancellorsville that morning, picketing the roads north to the Rapidan River. These regiments, the Second Ohio, Third New Jersey, and Fifth New York, were formed into a provisional brigade, commanded by Colonel Hammond, and were assigned for duty with the Fourth Division of the Ninth Corps under Ferrero. Burnside had the Thirteenth Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment assigned to him, but he apparently did not use it for reconnaissance at this time.” [pp. 110-113] Without cavalry to reconnoiter, the Federals were forced to use their infantry to gather information, a procedure that led Lee to ruin at Gettysburg and would vex the Federals at Spotsylvania.
Matter’s descriptions of the fighting around Spotsylvania Court House, including Upton’s attack, the Second Corps’ assault, and the grim, prolonged fighting at the Bloody Angle, are compelling as well as rich in detail. The sacrifices made by soldiers on both sides is well evident. Both sides faced difficult challenges. On the Federal side, there was little coordination among Meade’s subordinates. “The Federal attacks late in the afternoon by the Fifth Corps and portions of Gibbon’s and Birney’s divisions of the Second against the Laurel Hill position were disjointed affairs that produced nothing but more casualties. What coordination there was between Warren and Hancock is not known. If Meade had been on hand to direct the operation personally (instead of designating Hancock, who knew little of Warren’s troop positions or the enemy front), something beneficial might well have been accomplished, because the Confederates under Anderson had little or no reserve force available to counter a breakthrough. Upton’s attack achieved a temporary success but was not supported by any other troops. Once again, the absence of an overall directing hand was obvious. Wright, in his first full day in command of the Sixth Corps, apparently oversaw Mott’s and Upton’s operations with no assistance from higher headquarters. … In a postwar letter, Hancock stated that the major obstruction to success after the establishment of the Federal position on the outside of the captured works was that no single officer was in command of that portion of the front. If Meade or even Grant had come up and directed operations, much more might have been accomplished.” [pp. 344-345] On the confederate side, Lee was faced with a crisis in command. “With Longstreet absent indefinitely, A. P. Hill too ill to exercise command, and Ewell proving to be less and less reliable under pressure, the weakness of Lee’s corps command was critical. And Stuart was gone. The stress and responsibility of Lee’s position were staggering. His army had survived a near disaster, however, and was still intact, if somewhat reduced in numbers. His valiant troops still faced the enemy from a solid line.” [p. 347] That’s because his soldiers had fought hard for hours because they promised him they would do so, and they backed that promise up with their lives and their blood.
If you’re looking for a highly detailed account of the battle of Spotsylvania, this is one. Gordon Rhea’s account is another. In the tradition of Bruce Catton, Matter has mined numerous soldier accounts in addition to the Official Records and combined them into a narrative that comes as close to telling the full story of the battle as we’re likely to get. The account is well illustrated with maps and the chapters are well organized with the dates of the action on top of each even-numbered page. I highly recommend this book as a worthy companion to Rhea’s book. I recommend reading both.