The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse was an almost two week action that took place between General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac and General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia between May 8 and May 21, 1864.
After the inconclusive but bloody Battle of the Wilderness, Grant tried to get around Lee’s flank by marching southeast toward Richmond, the Confederate capitol. In this way he hoped to force Lee’s much smaller army to battle on more favorable ground. However, Lee was quick enough to occupy the important crossroads of Spotsylvania Courthouse and block Grant’s advance.
The resulting battle was as inconclusive, with attacks and counter attacks that created nothing but casualties. The National Park Service describes the battle thus:
“This two-week battle was a series of combats along the Spotsylvania front. The Union attack against the Bloody Angle at dawn, May 12-13, captured nearly a division of Lee’s army and came near to cutting the Confederate army in half. Confederate counterattacks plugged the gap, and fighting continued unabated for nearly 20 hours in what may well have been the most ferociously sustained combat of the Civil War. On May 19, a Confederate attempt to turn the Union right flank at Harris Farm was beaten back with severe casualties. Union generals Sedgwick (VI Corps commander) and Rice were killed. Confederate generals Johnson and Steuart were captured, Daniel and Perrin mortally wounded. On May 21, Grant disengaged and continued his advance on Richmond.”
Both Grant and Lee had problems where it came to fighting the other that made both the Wilderness and Spotsylvania as inconclusive as they were.
Grant had the most powerful and numerous army, numbering over 100,000 men. He had all the accouterments needed to wage war in the middle of the 19th Century. But his army was also ponderous and slow, relatively speaking, and his enemy had the advantage in the age of artillery, smokeless powder, and long range rifled muskets of being on the defensive.
Lee had the most experience army and commanders and, since it was smaller, the Army of Northern Virginia was quicker and more nimble. But it was also weaker and more brittle. Three years of war had bled the Confederacy. Lee could ill afford to take too many casualties. He did not have a recruiting pool to replace them. Grant, on the other hand, had an almost infinite number of recruits he could use to replace his casualties. While his reputation as a butcher was somewhat unfair, Grant knew that he could lose as many or even somewhat more men than Lee and he would still ground his enemy into dust eventually.
At the end of the battle, Grant disengaged and continued to the south east, with Lee shadowing him in a parallel march.