Spotsylvania Exhibit Shelter
— South Wall —
A Different Kind of War
With the 1864 Overland Campaign, the war in Virginia changed. The old pattern of fight, retreat, and rest yielded to Ulysses S. Grant's relentless maneuvering and fighting. Attacked in superior force by an incessant foe, Southern troops protected themselves behind stout earth-and-log defenses. Union efforts to drive them from those works led to some of the most desperate combat in American history.
The Race to Spotsylvania
The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, and engaged Lee's army in the region known as the Wilderness. When two days of fighting failed to produce victory, Grant ordered a night march to Spotsylvania Court House. "My object in moving to Spotsylvania...,"he wrote, was "to get between [Lee's] army and Richmond if possible, and, if not to draw him into the open field.
Lee, however, anticipated Grant's move. Starting late on May 7, General Richard H. Anderson rushed his corps to Spotsylvania by a parallel route, arriving just minutes ahead of the Union column. The armies clashed on a low ridge known as Laurel Hill (about 600 yards southwest of you). Stalemate gave time for the rest of Lee's army to arrive. That night, both sides started digging. Two weeks of trench warfare followed.
General Robert E. Lee's fame had reached almost mythic properties by 1864. For two years he had successfully defended Virginia against a series of Union commanders, despite chronic shortages of men and supplies. Growing odds had not dimmed the Southern soldiers' confidence in their leader. "No one can excite their enthusiasm as he does," wrote one man.<br.
Respect came harder for Lee's opponent, General Ulysses S. Grant. Despite success in the West, many soldiers in the Army of the Potomac doubted that he could match Lee. The Battle of the Wilderness erased those concerns. As Grant led the army south to Spotsylvania, cheering soldiers lined the route. One week later, a man wrote: "Grant has done nobly..., and everybody talks in the highest praise of him."
A War of Attrition
At Spotsylvania Court House, the art and horror of trench warfare reached new levels. Faced with Grant's superior numbers, the Confederates constructed a line of earthworks six miles long - from the Po River on the left to a point beyond Spotsylvania Court House on the right. The Federals dug in too, their line paralleling the Confederates', about 400 yards away.
"I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer."
General Ulysses S. Grant, USA
By the time the armies left Spotsylvania, they had been fighting, digging, and maneuvering for more than two weeks - sometimes in stifling heat, at other times in knee-high mud. They were hungry, dirty, and above all exhausted. Many men fell out of the ranks from fatigue; others plodded on, nearly senseless from lack of sleep.
Tired of killing, tired of marching, tired of simply being tired, soldiers on both sides could only wonder, "...will this wail of woe that rises from the bloody battlefields never cease?"