Following the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s army moved to the southeast, attempting to lure Confederate General Robert E. Lee into a battle that would have a more favorable outcome. You’ll be glad you read this!
The battle began with the Union army advancing on Laurel Hill, a key position known as the “mule shoe” salient.
Amid the rural woods of Spotsylvania County, you’ll find a variety of historic structures within the Court House Historic District including a ca. 1800 tavern, two antebellum churches, and a farmhouse. The battlefield’s former Confederate cemetery is nearby.
After an inconclusive battle in the dense Virginia woods known as the Wilderness, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s army marched southward, meeting Confederate forces at the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House on May 8.
Over the next 12 days, the fighting at this key strategic crossing between the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers was intense but inconclusive. Amid huge casualties on both sides, the Union Army failed to smash or outflank the well-constructed Confederate defenses — particularly at the muddy Mule Shoe Salient where heavy fighting raged on May 12 and 14.
After an indecisive battle in the dense Virginia woods called the Wilderness, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac raced south toward Spotsylvania Court House, a vital crossroads town that controlled a route to Richmond. Confederate forces dug in behind stout earth-and-log defenses, and Union attacks on May 5 and 6 failed to penetrate the bulging line known as the Mule Shoe salient.
On May 10, Col. Emory Upton designed an innovative assault that partially broke open the Confederate works and destroyed a division. Walk along the trail to see the spot where Upton’s troops attacked the salient.
Stop 1 on the Spotsylvania Battlefield Driving Tour is the Exhibit Shelter, a three-sided shelter containing outdoor interpretive panels that summarize the opening attacks at Laurel Hill where Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was killed. The parking lot here is limited, so look for a space on the side of the road or a space at the Brock Road/Plank Road intersection. Here is another spot to visit.
The battles in the woods of Spotsylvania and the adjacent town of Chancellorsville were some of the bloodiest fighting in American history. In the two weeks of stalemate and slaughter that followed, Union soldiers suffered losses that would eclipse any previous week of war, and Robert E Lee’s army suffered immense casualties as well.
The inconclusive fighting of May 8-21 ushered in a new kind of war for both armies. Increasingly entrenched, the two sides spent more time constructing and defending defensive breastworks and trenches. The result was a more protracted battle than either side had become used to and fighting that eventually devolved into bitter hand-to-hand combat.
The driving tour begins at the Exhibit Shelter beside Laurel Hill where the battle opened and ends at the climactic Bloody Angle. To see a set of reconstructed earthworks, deviate from the driving route just before you reach stop 4 and park in the pull-out. A 7.5-mile trail weaves throughout the battlefield passing most of the tour stops.
After the bloody but inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness, Union General Ulysses S. Grant began pushing his army southeast toward Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the capital at Richmond. His goal was to break through Lee’s defenses and finish the war.
But in May 1864 the Confederate army held firm at Spotsylvania Court House, a key intersection on the Fredericksburg to Richmond road. Here, defenders constructed a series of entrenchments across the ridge known as Laurel Hill.
The Laurel Hill Trail begins near the exhibit shelter and traces grassy hills, quiet roadways within the battlefield, and slender tracks winding through woods and evergreens. Pause at the various monuments and historical markers along the way to learn about the battle.
At the crest of Laurel Hill, hikers can follow the line of earthworks that became Lee’s final defensive position at Spotsylvania. From here, the trail leads to the ruins of the home of Neil McCoull, whose family cowered in the basement during the fighting. Browse the next article.
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