May 19

This Day in History

Civil War

May 19, 1864:

Battle of Spotsylvania concludes

A dozen days of fighting around Spotsylvania, Virginia, ends with a Confederate attack against the Union forces. The epic campaign between the Army of the Potomac, under the effective direction of Ulysses S. Grant, and Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began at the beginning of May when Union forces crossed the Rapidan River. After a bloody two-day battle in the Wilderness forest, Grant moved his army further south toward Spotsylvania Court House. This move was a departure from the tactics of the previous three years in the eastern theater of the Civil War. Since 1861, the Army of the Potomac had been coming down to Virginia under different commanders only to be defeated by the Army of Northern Virginia, usually under Lee's direction, and had always returned northward.

But Grant was different than the other Union generals. He knew that by this time Lee could not sustain constant combat. The numerical superiority of the Yankees would eventually wear Lee down. When Grant ordered his troops to move south, a surge of enthusiasm swept the Union veterans; they knew that in Grant they had an aggressive leader who would not allow the Confederates time to breathe. Nevertheless, the next stop proved to be more costly than the first.

After the battle in the Wilderness, Grant and Lee waged a footrace for the strategic crossroads at Spotsylvania. Lee won the race, and his men dug in. On May 8, Grant attacked Lee, initiating a battle that raged for 12 awful days. The climax came on May 12, when the two armies struggled for nearly 20 hours over an area that became known as the Bloody Angle.

The fighting continued sporadically for the next week as the Yankees tried to eject the Rebels from their breastworks. Finally, when the Confederates attacked on May 19, Grant prepared to pull out of Spotsylvania. Convinced he could never dislodge the Confederates from their positions, he elected to try to circumvent Lee's army to the south. The Army of the Potomac moved, leaving behind 18,000 casualties at Spotsylvania to the Confederates' 12,000. In less than three weeks Grant had lost 33,000 men, with some of the worst fighting yet to come.

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