Open main menu

A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America/Battles of Spotsylvania Court House-Operations of Hill's Corps

< A Memoir of the Last Year of the War for Independence in the Confederate States of America

BATTLES AROUND SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE.

OPERATIONS OF HILL'S CORPS.

Hill's Corps was composed of Heth's, Wilcox's, and Mahone's (formerly Anderson's) divisions of infantry, and three battalions of artillery under Colonel Walker. When I took command of it, the infantry numbered about 13,000 muskets for duty.

General Lee's orders to me, were to move by Todd's tavern along the Brock Road to Spotsylvania Court House, as soon as our front was clear of the enemy. In order to get into that road, it was necessary to reopen an old one leading from Hill's right, by which I was enabled to take a cross road leading into the road from Shady Grove to Todd's tavern. The wagon trains and all the artillery, except one battalion, was sent around by Shady Grove. About a mile from the road from Shady Grove to Todd's tavern, the enemy's cavalry videttes were encountered, and Mahone's division was thrown forward to develope the enemy's force and position. Mahone encountered a force of infantry, which had moved up from Todd's tavern towards Shady Grove, and had quite a brisk engagement with it, causing it to fall back rapidly towards the former place. At the same time, General Hampton, who had communicated with me, after I left the Plank Road, moved with his cavalry on my right and struck the enemy on the flank and rear; but on account of want of knowledge of the country on our part, and the approach of darkness, the enemy was enabled to make his escape. This affair developed the fact that the enemy was in possession of Todd's tavern and the Brock Road, and a continuation of my march would have led through his entire army. We bivouacked for the night, at the place from which Mahone had driven the enemy, and a force was thrown out towards Todd's tavern, which was about a mile distant.

Very early next morning, (the 9th,) I received an order from General Lee, through Hampton, to move on the Shady Grove road towards Spotsylvania Court House, which I did, crossing a small river called the Po, twice. After reaching the rear of the position occupied by the other two corps, I was ordered to Spotsylvania Court House, to take position on the right, and cover the road from that place to Fredericksburg. No enemy appeared in my front on this day, except at a distance on the Fredericksburg Road.

Early on the morning of the 10th, I was ordered to move one of my divisions back, to cover the crossing of the Po on the Shady Grove road; and to move with another division, to the rear and left, by the way of Spotsylvania Old Court House, and drive back a column of the enemy which had crossed the Po and taken possession of the Shady Grove road, thus threatening our rear and endangering our trains, which were on the road leading by the Old Court House to Louisa Court House.

Our line was then north of the Po, with its left, Field's division of Longstreet's corps, resting on that stream, just above the crossing of the Shady Grove road. The whole of the enemy's force was also north of the Po, prior to this movement of his. Mahone's division was sent to occupy the banks of the Po on Field's left, while, with Heth's division and a battalion of artillery, I moved to the rear, crossing the Po on the Louisa Court House Road, and then following that road until we reached one coming in from Waite's Shop on the Shady Grove Road. After moving about a mile on this road, we met Hampton gradually falling back before the enemy, who had pushed out a column of infantry considerably to the rear of our line. This column, was, in turn, forced back to the position on the Shady Grove Road, which was occupied by what was reported to be Hancock's corps. Following up and crossing a small stream just below a mill pond, we succeeded in reaching Waite's Shop, from whence an attack was made on the enemy, and the entire force which had crossed the Po was driven back with a loss of one piece of artillery, which fell into our hands, and a considerable number in killed and wounded. This relieved us from a very threatening danger, as the position the enemy had attained would have enabled him to completely enfilade Field's position, and get possession of the line of our communications to the rear, within a very short distance of which he was, when met by the force which drove him back. In this affair, Heth's division behaved very handsomely, all of the brigades, (Cook's, Davis', Kirkland's, and Walker's,) being engaged in the attack. General H. H. Walker had the misfortune to receive a severe wound in the foot, which rendered amputation necessary, but, otherwise, our loss was slight. As soon as the road was cleared, Mahone's division crossed the Po, but it was not practicable to pursue the affair further, as the north bank of the stream at this point was covered by a heavily entrenched line, with a number of batteries, and night was approaching.

On the morning of the 11th, Heth was moved back to Spotsylvania Court House, and Mahone was left to occupy the position on the Shady Grove Road, from which the enemy had been driven.[1]

My line on the right had been connected with Ewell's right, and covered the Fredericksburg road, as also the road leading from Spotsylvania Court House across the Ny into the road from Fredericksburg to Hanover Junction. Wilcox was on my left uniting with Ewell, and Heth joined him. The enemy had extended his lines across the Frederieksburg Road, but there was no fighting on this front on the 10th or 11th, except some artillery firing.

On the afternoon of the 11th, the enemy was demonstrating to our left, up the To, as if to get possession of Shady Grove and the road from thence to Louisa Court House. General Hampton reported a column of infantry moving up the Po, and I was ordered by General Lee to take possession of Shady Grove, by light next morning, and hold it against the enemy. To aid in that purpose, two brigades of Wilcox's division, (Thomas' and Scales') were moved from the right, and Mahone was ordered to move before light to Shady Grove; but during the night it was discovered that the movement to our left was a feint, and that there was a real movement of the enemy towards our right.

Before daybreak on the morning of the 12th, Wilcox's brigades were returned to him, and at dawn, Mahone's division was moved to the right, leaving Wright's brigade of that division to cover the crossing of the Po on Field's left. On this morning, the enemy made a very heavy attack on Ewell's front, and broke the line where it was occupied by Johnson's division. A portion of the attacking force swept along Johnson's line to Wilcox's left, and was checked by a prompt movement on the part of Brigadier-General Lane, who was on that flank. As soon as the tiring was heard, General Wilcox sent Thomas' and Scales' brigades to Lane's assistance, and they arrived just as Lane's brigade had repulsed this body of the enemy, and they pursued it for a short distance. As soon as Mahone's division arrived from the left, Perrin's and Harris' brigades of that division, and subsequently, McGowan's brigade of Wilcox's division, were sent to General Ewell's assistance, and were carried into action under his orders. Brigadier-General Perrin was killed, and Brigadier-General McGowan severely wounded, while gallantly leading their respective brigades into action; and all the brigades sent to Ewell's assistance suffered severely.

Subsequently, on the same day, under orders from General Lee, Lane's brigade of Wilcox's division, and Mahone's own brigade (under Colonel Weisiger), were thrown to the front, for the purpose of moving to the left, and attacking the flank of the column of the enemy which had broken Ewell's line, to relieve the pressure on him, and, if possible, recover the part of the line which, had been lost. Lane's brigade commenced the movement and had not proceeded far, when it encountered and attacked, in a piece of woods in front of my line, the 9th corps, under Burnside, moving up to attack a salient on my front. Lane captured over three hundred prisoners, and three battle flags, and his attack on the enemy's flank, taking him by surprise, no doubt, contributed materially to his repulse. Mahone's brigade did not become seriously engaged. The attacking column which Lane encountered, got up to within a very short distance of a salient defended by Walker's brigade of Heth's division, under Colonel Mayo, before it was discovered, as there was a pine thicket in front, under cover of which the advance was made. A heavy fire of musketry from Walker's brigade and Thomas' which was on its left, and a fire of artillery from a considerable number of guns on Heth's line, were opened with tremendous effect upon the attacking column, and it was driven back with heavy loss, leaving instead in front of our works. This affair took place under the eye of General Lee himself. In the afternoon, another attempt was made to carry out the contemplated Hank movement, with Mahone's brigade, and Cook's brigade of Heth's division, to be followed up by the other troops under my command: but it was discovered that the enemy had one or more intrenched lines in our front, to the tire from which our flanking column would have been exposed. Moreover, the ground between the lines; was very rough, being full of rugged ravines and covered with thick pines and other growth: and it was thought advisable to desist from the attempt. The two brigades; which were to have commenced the movement, went then thrown to the front on both sides of the Fredericksburg road, and, passing over two lines of breastworks, defended by a strong force of skirmishers, developed the existence of a third and much stronger line in rear, which would have afforded an almost insuperable obstacle to the proposed flank movement. This closed the operations of the corps under my command on the memorable 12th of May.

Between that day and the 19th, there was no serious attack on my front, but much manœuvring by the enemy, General Mahone made two or three reconnoissances to the front, which disclosed the fact that the enemy was gradually moving to our right. In making one of them, he encountered a body of the enemy which had got possession of Gayle's house, on the left of the road leading from our right towards the Fredericksburg and Hanover Junction road, at which a portion of our cavalry, under Brigadier General Chambliss, had been previously posted, and drove it back across the Ny.[2] Another reconnoissance, handsomely made by Brigadier-General Wright, who had been brought from the left, ascertained that a heavy force of the enemy was between the Ny and the Po, in front of my right, which was held by Mahone, and was along the road towards Hanover Junction. To meet this movement of the enemy, Field's division was brought from the left and placed on my right.

On the 19th, General Ewell made a movement against the enemy's right, and to create a diversion in his favour, Thomas' brigade was thrown forward, and drove the enemy into his works in front of the salient, against which Burnside's attack had been made on the 12th, while the whole corps was held in readiness to co-operate with Ewell, should his attack prove successful; but, as he was compelled to retire, Thomas was withdrawn.

Subsequently, the enemy retired from Heth's and Wilcox's fronts; and, on the afternoon of the 21st, Wilcox was sent out on the road leading from Mahone's front across the Ny, with two of his brigades to feel the enemy, and found him still in force behind entrenched lines, and had a brisk engagement with that force.

While Wilcox was absent, an order was received by me, from General Lee, to turn over to General Hill the command of his corps, as he had reported for duty. I did so at once, and thus terminated my connection with this corps, which I had commanded during all the trying scenes around Spotsylvania Court House. The officers and men of the corps had all behaved well, and contributed, in no little degree, to the result by which Grant was compelled to wait six days for reinforcements from Washington, before he could resume the offensive, or make another of his flank movements to get between General Lees army and Richmond.

 



  1. It will be seen that, after this affair. I held for a time, both of General Lee's flanks, which was rather an anomaly, but it could not be avoided, as we had no reserves and the two other corps, being immediately in front of the enemy, in line of battle, and almost constantly engaged, could not be moved without profit risk. It was absolutely necessary to occupy the position held on the left by Malioue, to avoid a renewal of the danger from which we had escaped.
  2. The Mattapony River, which, by its junction with the Paimunkey, forms York River, is formed by the confluence of four streams, called respectively, the "Mat," "Ta," "Po," and "Ny." The Ny is north and east of Spotsylvania Court House, and behind it the enemy did most of his manoeuvring in my front. It unites with the Po, a few miles to the east and south of Spotsylvania Court House, and both streams are difficult to cross, except where there are bridges.