The two-day Battle of the Wilderness ended in a tactical draw. The Army of the Potomac expected that Grant would order their retreat as his predecessors had done repeatedly when repelled by Lee. Grant wasn’t like the other generals, though. He told them to press on toward Richmond. Lee, however, knew that Grant was unlike his previous counterparts as well and anticipated his next move, so when Union soldiers arrived at the crossroads town of Spotsylvania Court House on the morning of May 8, the rebels were already waiting.
Mere hours apart, the Battle of the Wilderness bled right into the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. The Confederates dug themselves into a system of entrenchments shaped like an inverted U, and the fierce standoff climaxed at dawn on May 12 when Grant commanded 20,000 men under Winfield Scott Hancock to pierce the rebels’ curved battle line. For 20 hours in a driving rainstorm, shooting and hand-to-hand combat raged at “Bloody Angle.” “Rank after rank was riddled with shot and shell and bayonet thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of torn and mutilated corpses,” Porter wrote. The dead were piled four deep, and beneath some corpses were the twitching bodies of some of the wounded, still alive.
READ MORE: How the Battle of Gettysburg Turned the Tide of the Civil War
The protracted battled continued for nearly two weeks as forces attacked and counterattacked. When Grant became convinced that he would not be able to dislodge the rebels, he disengaged his army on May 21 and, still confident that he could win a war of attrition even after losing another 18,000 men at Spotsylvania, ordered them to march southeast toward Richmond. After the armies of Grant and Lee engaged again at North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek, they squared off at Cold Harbor, 10 miles northeast of Richmond. Grant’s decision to order a massive assault on June 3 resulted in the killing and wounding of as many as 7,000 Union soldiers in less than an hour, and the Confederate victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor would be one the war’s most lopsided engagements.
On June 12, Grant’s forces crossed the James River to Petersburg, where a nine-month siege ensued. The six-week Overland Campaign had ended, leaving behind numbing losses: the dead, missing, and wounded totaled 55,000 for the Union and 33,000 for the Confederacy. According to the Civil War Trust, Spotsylvania Court House (30,000 combined casualties) and the Wilderness (29,8000 combined casualties) were the third- and fourth-bloodiest battles of the Civil War, trailing only Gettysburg and Chickamauga.
Through the carnage, Lincoln never lost faith in his new commander. As the Union forces dug in at Petersburg, Grant received a telegram from the commander-in-chief: “I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all. A. LINCOLN.”
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