Historic America Reviews

The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern


In The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the maneuvers and battles from May 7, 1864, when Union General Ulysses S. Grant broke convention and flanked Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia after the Battle of the Wilderness, through May 12, when his attempt to break Lee’s entrenched army by frontal assault reached a chilling climax at what is now called the Bloody Angle.

Drawing on previously untapped materials, Rhea challenges conventional wisdom to construct a detailed and thorough account of Grant and Lee at Spotsylvania, including the rise of Union cavalry commander Philip Sheridan and death of the legendary J.E.B. Stuart. This is the second of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

In the aftermath of the Wilderness, General Grant learned from his mistakes, but familiar problems still shadowed his army. At Spotsylvania, Ambrose Burnside continued to conduct the IX Corps at a glacial pace. His failings “… were so flagrant that the army talked about them openly.” While Sheridan’s ride south in pursuit of J.E.B. Stewart earned him fame and resulted in Stewart’s death, it also deprived Grant of the eyes and ears of his army at a critical time. The result was eight days of brutal combat, with little to show for it. Once again, Grant’s divided command was a hindrance.

The Battle of Spotsylvania showed Grant’s stubborn determination and persistence, but Rhea puts the blame squarely on Grant for his failure to decisively defeat Lee. Grant’s impulsiveness and impatience undermined what was otherwise a sound strategy. He imposed unrealistic timetables and gave little time for preparation, so plans that looked good on paper failed miserably in execution. As the battle progressed, Grant took an increasingly active role and sidelined Maj. Gen. Meade. Meade was unable or unwilling to temper Grant’s more aggressive tendencies.

Rhea did not let General Lee off the hook, generally praising his conduct but arguing he made two critical mistakes. First, he failed to recognize the importance of Spotsylvania Courthouse. It was only quick thinking by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson that saved his army from disaster.

Second, he ordered the withdrawal of artillery from a salient in his lines (known as the Muleshoe), leaving it essentially indefensible. Confederate artillery chief Porter Alexander believed they could have used artillery to devastating effect against the Northern assault, perhaps stopping it altogether. Lee himself admitted this was a fatal mistake.

Gordon C. Rhea (born March 10, 1945) is a military historian specializing in the Overland Campaign in Virginia during the American Civil War. He is a graduate of Indiana University, Stanford Law School, and Harvard University and is a practicing attorney in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. His other books include To the North Anna River (2000), The Battle of the Wilderness (1994), and Cold Harbor (2002).

The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea was published by Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in 2005. The 504-page paperback edition retails for $27.95. The Kindle edition sells for $15.37.

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