On May 8, 1864, Yankee troops arrive at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, to find the Rebels already there. After the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5-6), Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac marched south in the drive to take Richmond. Grant hoped to control the strategic crossroads at Spotsylvania Court House, so he could draw Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into open ground.
Spotsylvania was important for a number of reasons. The crossroads were situated between the Wilderness and Hanover Junction, where the two railroads that supplied Lee’s army met. The area also lay past Lee’s left flank, so if Grant beat him there he would not only have a head start toward Richmond, but also the clearest path. Lee would then be forced to attack Grant or race him to Richmond along poor roads.
Unbeknownst to Grant, Lee had received reports of Union cavalry movements to the south of the Wilderness battle lines. On the evening of May 7, Lee ordered James Longstreet’s corps, which was under the direction of Richard Anderson after Longstreet had been shot the previous day, to march at night to Spotsylvania. Anderson’s men marched the 11 miles entirely in the dark, and won the race to the crossroads, where they took refuge behind hastily constructed breastworks and waited. Now it would be up to Grant to force the Confederates from their position. The stage was set for one of the bloodiest engagements of the war.