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Southern Soft Spot: Remains of entrenchments snake around the Muleshoe salient, where Union forces tried to break the Rebel line.

Trailside – Grant’s Gamble: Spotsylvania, Virginia

By AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE
JANUARY 2018 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

Though the 1864 showdown here was costly, it let Robert E. Lee know he may have finally met his match

Trailside is produced in partnership with Civil War Trails Inc., which connects visitors to lesser-known sites and allows them to follow in the footsteps of the great campaigns. Civil War Trails has to date 1,552 sites across five states and produces more than a dozen maps. Visit civilwartrails.org and check in at your favorite sign #civilwartrails.

Twelve miles southwest of Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania was little more than a hamlet during the war, but the fighting that occurred there May 8-21, 1864, cast the village and neighboring fields into history. General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign had begun on May 5-7 with a bloody standoff against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at the Wilderness, a thickly forested morass west of Spotsylvania. After the battle, Grant surprised many when he ordered Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac not to pull back but to continue moving on Richmond, although that meant the Federals had to maneuver discreetly around Lee’s right flank and through Spotsylvania. As he had done in similar fashion to many of Grant’s predecessors, Lee got the jump on him and reached the town first.

The two armies dug in, creating an impressive network of earthworks, and clashed over the surrounding fields for the next two weeks. On May 12, Grant unleashed 20,000 troops at a vulnerable half-mile bulge in the Confederate lines, and the enemy forces fought for 22 hours in combat so intense the area earned the sobriquet the Bloody Angle. Total casualties over those two weeks approached 30,000, but the Confederates ultimately held on. That forced Grant to try to steal another march on Lee and move on Richmond from another direction. The two armies left in their wake a landscape littered with the dead. One local recalled returning to his home and having to walk 100 yards over fallen soldiers.

Spotsylvania today is charming, tree-lined, and tranquil, but a handful of historical plaques dot the crossroads in the battle-ravaged courthouse district, reminding visitors of attacks not only in 1864, but in 1862 and 1863. Visitors to the Spotsylvania Battlefield Military Park can follow an auto tour or walk miles of trails lining forests, monuments, and still-visible earthen entrenchments. More than a dozen signs explain the course of the battle, and at the Bloody Angle stop, a mile-long trail takes visitors to key sites. Along the path are monuments to the 15th New Jersey, 49th New York, and 126th Ohio Infantry, erected in 1909. The Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a monument to Samuel McGowan’s South Carlina Brigade in 2009.

Harris Farm Monument

Intersection of North Harris Farm Road and Pond View Lane

A large stone marker tucked away in a residential neighborhood commemorates the last action of the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 19, 1864, where forces clashed on the Harris and Alsop farms. The green 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery lost 398 men during the 4 hours-long clash, and company survivors dedicated a monument on May 9, 1901.

Spotsylvania Jail

8957 Courthouse Road

Built in 1781 at a different site and then reassembled at this address in 1839, the brick structure, now covered in stucco, has walls two feet thick and cells lined with oak planks. Union soldiers captured in the Battle of Chancellorsville were held in the yard nearby. Entry is not permitted.

 

(Photo by Jennifer Vann)

Confederate Cemetery

7104 Aldrich Court

Established on a donated hilltop in 1866, the graveyard contains the remains of more than 600 Confederate soldiers who died on the battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. After lobbying by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ladies Memorial Association, the federal government in 1930 provided headstones of bright white Vermont marble. Soldiers from 10 states in the Confederacy are buried here.

Spotsylvania Courthouse

9101 Courthouse Road

In 1864, Spotsylvania was just a crossroads, home to a courthouse, tavern, jail, and a handful of other buildings. It got swept into the war because of its strategic location on the supply line between Chancellorsville and Richmond—a line Grant intended to cut. The original two-story courthouse was badly damaged in the battle—suffering gashes large enough “to drive a horse through”—and was renovated as a one-story structure in 1900. Confederates held Union soldiers captured in the Battle of Chancellorsville here in 1863. It was also used as a hospital.

Sanford Hotel (Spotswood Inn)

9064 Courthouse Road

Long a tavern on the road between Chancellorsville and Richmond and now an office building, the 1799 structure served as Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s headquarters during the battle. General Robert E. Lee surveyed Federal lines to the north and east from its upper windows, and set up his headquarters on grounds across the road. The Civil War-era proprietor, Joseph Sanford, was involved in hiding a bullet-riddled oak stump from the Bloody Angle here. Union veterans spirited the relic away; it is now displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Stevenson’s Ridge

Not far from the Spotsylvania Historic District, this collection of historic structures—consisting of 10 cabins and cottages—offers accommodations with a period feel, including a grand plantation home from North Carolina and a slave cabin from Greene County, Va. Guests can roam woods where Civil War entrenchments still remain. 6901 Meeting Road, stevensonridge.net.

 

(Courtesy 1781 Brewing Company and Wilderness Run Vineyards)

1781 Brewing Company

One of the first farm breweries in Virginia, which specializes in French-, German-, and Belgian-influenced ales, happens to be located on the acreage of the historic property where Stonewall Jackson’s arm was amputated after he was shot by his own men during the Battle of Chancellorsville on May 3, 1863. General Marquis de Lafayette also camped nearby during the Revolutionary War. Wilderness Run Winery is also part of the establishment. 11109 Plank Road, 1781brewing.com

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