After an all-night march, Union soldiers of Maj. Gen. Gouvernor Warren’s 5th Corps arrived not far from Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia on May 8th, 1864. The men were exhausted and bloodied, having trudged through the night and having for the previous two days taken part in the bloodletting known as the Battle of the Wilderness. Waiting for them down the Brock Road were infantrymen of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia who had beaten them to the field. Those who hoped the 8th of May would bring a reprieve from fighting were to be severely disappointed.
The battle fought that day, known as the Battle of Laurel Hill, was the opening round of the more protracted and obstinate battle for control of Spotsylvania Courthouse that would rage until the 21st of May. If the battle of Gettysburg fought the previous year was some sort of cathartic turning point for the fortunes of the Army of the Potomac, it certainly did not seem as such to the exhausted, worn, and bleeding Union troops. These men had seen flames engulf their crippled comrades at the Wilderness, and would, in a few short days, fight a battle in the pouring rain so ferocious that the storm of bullets would literally fell trees.
Our colleagues at Fredericksburg – Spotsylvania National Military Park have spent the last week, and will spend the next couple days, commemorating the first two battles of the Overland Campaign of 1864. Today at 10:00 they presented a program focusing on the death of Major General John Sedgwick, commander of the 6th Corps, Army of the Potomac, who was killed there on May 9, 1864. Sedgwick was the highest ranking Union officer to die during the Overland Campaign, and one of literally dozens of officers who had served during the Gettysburg Campaign, and would succumb in one fashion or another to the violence that marked the battlefields of 1864.
Silent testimonies to this are the monuments that mark the Gettysburg battlefield. On most regimental monuments the place names “Wilderness” and “Spotsylvania” can be found etched in granite or bronze, alongside descriptions of their service at Gettysburg. On those honoring individuals the words, “Killed at the Wilderness,” or “Mortally Wounded at Spotsylvania” comprise an all too common epitaph.
John Sedgwick’s equestrian statue at Gettysburg briefly relates his war time service, and acknowledges his demise at Spotsylvania. Sedgwick had previously suffered a debilitating wound at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. His recovery was so prolonged and painful that he made the remark that, “If I am ever hit again, I hope it will settle me at once. I want no more wounds.” The Confederate bullet that struck him 150 years ago today did just that.
Brigadier General John C. Robinson, who survived his division’s fight on Oak Ridge at Gettysburg, was severely wounded on May 8, 1864 at the Battle of Laurel Hill, a bullet striking the joint of his left knee. Robinson was later seen by General John Gibbon, lying on a litter by the roadside with a broken leg. Robinson would survive his wound, and the war, though it would cost him most of his left leg. For his courage at Laurel Hill he would later be awarded the Medal of Honor. His monument stands along Oak Ridge on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Brigadier General Alexander Hays, known for his explosive temper and love of battle, commanded many of the Union men that defended Cemetery Ridge on July 3rd, 1863. He survived Gettysburg, but not the fighting in the Wilderness of Virginia the following year. When U. S. Grant learned his old friend Hays had been killed, he responded, “I am not surprised that he met his death at the head of his troops; it was just like him. He was a man who would never follow, but always lead in battle.”
Alexander Webb, the young general who led the Philadelphia Brigade during the repulse of Pickett’s Charge was horrifically wounded on May 12th, at Spotsylvania. While leading his men forward on horseback he was struck in the corner of the right eye by a rebel bullet. The round exited behind his ear, exposed the bone along his temple, but miraculously did not cause his death or affect his mental abilities.
Lt. Gen. James “Old Pete” Longstreet’s equestrian statue can be found along West Confederate Avenue at the edge of Pitzer’s Woods. He overlooks the scene of tremendous fighting on July 2nd, 1863, fighting that would claim thousands of men but leave Longstreet unscathed. Longstreet’s luck ran out in the Wilderness on May 6th, 1864. In a scenario eerily similar to that which claimed the life of Stonewall Jackson, Longstreet was accidentally shot by his own men. The bullet had entered his body near the throat and traveled into his right shoulder. A nearby surgeon was able to contain the massive hemorrhaging, and Longstreet managed to survive the wound, though it would cost him much of the use of his right arm.
Many other officers who survived Gettysburg would not make it through the Overland Campaign. Men like Henry Abbott and James Rice who fought on Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top would be killed at the Wilderness and Laurel Hill. Abner Perrin, Jesse Williams, and J.E.B. Stuart, men who had seen the horrors of Culp’s Hill and Seminary Ridge, would breathe their last at the Mule Shoe and Yellow Tavern. Alongside them, thousands of common soldiers, most of them veterans of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg would not live to see peace, as the war in the spring and summer of 1864 devolved to a level of unrelenting brutality previously unseen in the war.
Christopher Gwinn – Acting Supervisory Historian