What Day 3 Of Spotsylvania Tells Us

on May 10, 2014 in American Civil War, Battles, Strategy and Tactics

Day Three, Spotsylvania Court House

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the third day of the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, and I have always thought that this day provided an excellent illustration of what worked with the Army of the Potomac, what didn’t work, and the problems that posed for U.S. Grant.

The Day’s Events
Grant began the day by deducing from Rebel movements that Lee was about to strike at his left flank, held by II Corps. Based on that, he knew that Lee must have withdrawn troops from somewhere to reinforce the Rebel right for that attack, and guessed wrongly that the troops came from Laurel Hill in the center. He therefore planned on pulling back his threatened left while launching a general assault on the Rebel army, with the intent of breaking through the weakened center.

The first phase of Grant’s plan began in the morning, with II Corps, under Hancock, pulling back. The bulk of his corps went to support the attack in the center, leaving Barlow’s Division to cover the withdrawal. In the early¬† afternoon, Jubal Early sent Heth’s Divison to pounce on the isolated Barlow and very nearly caught and mauled him, but the Billies got away to security, north of the Po River.

Next came the Union’s late afternoon assault. With Hancock gone to extricate his men from Early’s attack, the senior officer present was G.K. Warren, commander of the V Corps. Sensitive to criticism that he wasn’t aggressive enough, Warren asked battlefield commander George Meade for permission to attack an hour earlier than scheduled. Meade rather stupidly agreed. As it happened, the rest of the general attack wasn’t in motion until 6 o’clock, whereas Warren went in with more than half the available strength at 4 o’clock. As a result, the one success of the day — Emory Upton’s celebrated penetration of the Mule Shoe — was left unsupported and inevitable repulsed.

Meanwhile Burnside’s IX Corps on the Union left did what one might have come to expect from an operation under Ambrose Burnside: nothing. As it turned out, the part of his line Lee had stripped to reinforce the Rebel right was his left, not the center, so only Wilcox’s Division was in front of Burnside’s gigantic army corps. Burnside stopped and dug in as soon as he encountered the slightest resistance.

A General Is Only As Good As His Army
Much has been made of Grant’s failures against Lee, and I think part of the blame for that lies with the human material he had to work with. While most of the troops of the Army of the Potomac were brave, hard working, doughty fighters, the officer corps was still very much what George McClellan had made them: sometimes slow, sometimes timid, sometimes uncoordinated.

I can’t find much fault in Grant’s choices on May 10, even though he guessed wrongly about where Lee had diverted troops from. The facts are he knew Lee’s army was smaller and knew Lee had diverted troops. His plan was such that if the line was weak anywhere, even where he didn’t expect it, a vigorous, competent attack should have succeeded somewhere.

The Battle of the Po is also often criticized, but this ignores the dictum that withdrawal in the face of the enemy is one of the most difficult maneuvers in warfare. That Hancock got II Corps back before Early could seriously come to grips says a lot about how good the Army of the Potomac was about backing out of sticky situations. That was something they did very, very well.

Meade’s concession to Warren shows the Army of the Potomac at its worst. I honestly can’t imagine what was going through Meade’s head that afternoon, because he was experienced enough to know that his change of plan would necessarily cause a disjointed, uncoordinated assault. Under the best of circumstances, getting word around to two whole army corps and 2/3s of a third corps that the timetable was moved up an hour would still have been a nightmare, and its not like the battlefield situation in any way justified doing so.

Finally, Burnside’s timidity cost him an opportunity to do what Early tried and failed to do to Barlow. The difference is that Wilcox needed to stand his ground, because pulling back the Rebel right would have turned the flank of the Laurel Hill/Mule Shoe position in the center, making it untenable. If Burnside had driven Wilcox back, Lee would have faced two choices: counter-attack Burnside or abandon the field. Counter-attacking Burnside would have taken time to organize, and consequently Upton would have likely been able to hang on to his penetration in the Mule Shoe.

If Warren hadn’t asked to move up the attack for no practical reason or if Meade hadn’t foolishly agreed to Warren’s request or if Burnside had merely attempted to do his job, Lee might very well have been forced to abandon his position at Spotsylvania. Grant’s plan wasn’t a bad one, but it was poorly carried out. Compared to Grant’s own army, the Army of the Tennessee, the Army of the Potomac was a powerful, but clumsy tool. Despite his own considerable gifts for war, he would always find himself at pains to land a heavy blow against Lee’s slicker and more vicious Army of Northern Virginia.

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