Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield Hike

Location: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Spotsylvania County VA
Length: 5.5 Miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Trail Map
Battle Maps: May 10th Battle Map and May 12th Battle Map

Overview: This is my favorite trail from the four battlefields that make up the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield saw some of the most viscous fighting during the Overland Campaign of 1864. The open fields throughout the park allow hikers to see how the land shaped the battle and imagine the carnage that occurred here.

After the deadlock at the Battle of the Wilderness, Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant tried to move around Gen. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and reach the hamlet of Spotsylvania Court House. Both Grant and Lee knew that whoever controlled Spotsylvania Court House controlled the roads leading to Richmond. Gen. Lee’s troops reached the area first beginning the two-week Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.

Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield Hike: I like to start the hike at the exhibit shelter located on Grant Drive. The shelter provides information, battle maps and is usually manned by a park ranger during the summer months. First walk back towards Brock Road and visit the Sedgwick Monument.  At this location on May 9th, Union Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was directing the placement of his artillery and sharpshooters at the tree line ahead were wreaking havoc on the Union line. Gen. Sedgwick boasted that the Confederate sharpshooters “couldn't hit an elephant at this distance” as men ducked every time a piece of lead whistled by.  Just seconds later, a bullet entered behind Sedgwick's left eye and he fell dead into a staff officer’s arms. Gen. John Sedgwick was the highest-ranking Union general to be killed during the war.

Follow the hiking trail across Brock Road towards Laurel Hill. This area saw the first fighting on May 8th. It was in these fields that the Maryland Brigade dashed towards the Confederate defenses that were located at the tree line in front of you. Continue on the trail until you reach the Spindle House site. Here, the fighting raged on the 8th and to deter the Federals from using the house for cover, Confederate artillery fired explosive shells and set the house on fire, forcing the Spindle family to flee for their lives.

Continue ahead until you reach the Maryland Brigade Monument. Here is the high water point that the 7th Maryland, led by Union Col. Charles E. Phelps, reached on May 8th. The trail now bends back towards where you started. Stay on this trail until you come to a new path on your right, cross Brock Road, and follow the new trail to Lee’s Final Line.

After you reach Anderson Drive, the trail follows a part of Lee’s Final Line. After the Federals captured the “Mule Shoe” salient, Lee constructed earthworks here. There is a wooden reproduction of the earthworks at the end of Anderson Drive next to the original dirt earthworks.

On May 18th, Union Lt. Gen. Grant believed that this section of earthworks had been abandon by the Confederates. Grant had shifted part of his forces to the east and expected that the Confederates holding this line had move to cover the new threat. He sent Maj. Gen. Hancock and Maj. Gen. Wright’s Corps on a surprise attack and was met by 29 Confederate cannons and Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Infantry. The attacked was a complete failure and cost the Federal’s 1,200 men.

Continue on this trail until you come to an open field where the Harrison House once stood. The house was Lt. Gen. Ewell’s headquarters and Gen. Lee pitched his tent in the yard. Rock piles from the foundation are all that is left of the house. It was in this field on May 12th that Gen. Lee rode in front of Brig. Gen. John Gordon’s men on his beloved horse, Traveler, to counter attack the Federals that had broken through the “Mule Shoe” salient. Lee recognized the precarious situation of his army and was prepared to lead the Gordon’s men into battle but was stopped by Gordon. Gordon grabbed Traveler’s bridle and said, “General Lee, this is no place for you! Do go to the rear. These are Virginians and Georgians, sir, men who have never failed and they will not fail now. Will you boys?” The troops responded with, “No! No! General Lee to the rear! General Lee to the rear!” and Lee’s horse was led back towards the Harrison House.

Follow the trail across Gordon Drive to the McCoull House site. This house was in the center of the “Mule Shoe” salient.  The U shaped salient extended beyond the rest of the confederate line and this house sat in the middle of the U. Confederate Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson used the McCoull house for his headquarters and the house was engulfed by the battle after the Federal breakthrough at the “Mule Shoe” salient. The foundation of the McCoull House can be easily seen and 1,492 Union soldiers were buried on the farm after the battle and were later moved to Fredericksburg National Cemetery.

Across the field to the left is the Ramseur’s Brigade Monument. On May 12th, this brigade counter attacked the Union Maj. Gen. David Birney’s troops after it had captured a line of earthworks near the monument. Ramseur’s Brigade forced the Federals to fall back and regained the earthworks.

For a shorter hike, you can continue straight on the trail to the “Bloody Angle”. Our hike will turn right towards the east face of the “Mule Shoe” salient.

Follow the trail to the east face of the salient. During a rainstorm on May 12th, Union Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock’s men lead by Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow, swept over the earthworks that are to your left and capture more than 3,000 Confederate soldiers. Hancock’s spearhead attack was somewhat successful during a smaller scale attack on May 10th by Union Col. Emory Upton’s Brigade. Gen. Lee knew that his defensive line had been breached and needed to begin construction of a new line (Lee’s Final Line) and sent troops to slow down the Federal attack. Among the Confederate prisoners were Maj. General Edward Johnson and Brig. Gen. George H. Steuart.

Continue of the trail until you reach the east angle. It was here during the predawn darkness that the Federals troops struck first. This part of the earth works was captured easily because Gen. Lee had ordered the artillery away the night before believing that Grant was again going to try to move around Lee’s army. Also, many Confederates had to use their rifles as clubs due to their powder failing to ignite. The rain and the damp morning air seeped into their rifles without their knowing until they tried to fire and heard a click. The trail turns right and begins the “Bloody Angle” trail. In front of you is the route the Hancock’s Second Corps took to attack the east face of the "Mule Shoe" salient.

Follow the trail down to the two chimneys; this is all that is left of the Landrum House. The Landrum House was used as a field hospital during the battle and was Maj. Gen. Hancock’s headquarters. The house survived the battle but burned down in 1905. This is my brother and I favorite spot to sit down and imagine the fighting that took place here.

Retrace your steps and continue straight towards the “Bloody Angle”. This is the ground used by Maj. Gen. Wright’s Corps as they attacked the west face of the "Mule Shoe" salient. The first monument you will encounter is the 124th Ohio Volunteer Infantry. It was here that the regiment reached and fought until their ammunition was exhausted. Here you can see how the land provided shelter for the Federal troops and funneled them towards the “Bloody Angle” that can be seen to the left of the bridge.

Continue to the next two monuments. Here is where the 49th New York and the 15th New Jersey regiment’s assaulted the “Bloody Angle”. Left of the bridge is where the earthworks made a slight bend and the fighting was so brutal that the area forever became known as the “Bloody Angle”.

Take a moment to try to fathom the butchery that occurred here for 20 hours on May 12th. Only a log breastwork separated the Union and Confederate troops and men reached over the logs and try to stab each other with bayonets. Others fired point blank at each other through the slits of the log breastwork. Men were jammed into the small area and had to fight hand to hand. As men fell, they would be trampled or drowned in the flooded earth works.  After the battle, men were found five deep at the bottom of the “Bloody Angle” and the living emerged unrecognizable because they were covered in mud and gunpowder.

Nearby is a plaque where a 22-inch tree was cut down by the incredible amount of small arms fire. Continue on the trail to the McGowan’s Brigade Monument. Confederate Brig. Gen. Samuel McGowan’s Brigade defended the earthworks at the “Bloody Angle”.

Cross Grant Drive and continue on the trail towards Doles' Salient. Here you can still see the earthworks that Brig. Gen. George Doles' Brigade defended.  The trail turns right here through the fields and towards the woods in front of you. It was this area that Col. Upton Emory’s Brigade burst out of the woods and overtook these earthworks on May 10th. The two cannons show the location of Smith’s battery that was silenced during the attack. To escape capture, Gen. Dole fell to the ground and played dead until a Confederate counterattack came and drove the Federals back into the woods. Col. Upton Emory was forced to withdraw because of lack of support, but Hancock’s Corps used his compacted spearhead attack again on May 12th.

Follow the trail down to the Upton’s Charge Monument at the edge of the woods. This is where Upton’s Brigade rushed out of the woods to take the earthworks. Continue on the trail, which is known as Upton’s Road. This crude road is the same road that Upton’s troops followed during the attack. Even though the brilliant charge failed, young Col. Emory Upton was promoted to Brigadier General.

The trail now follows Grant Drive back to the Exhibit Shelter and your car. This concludes the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield Hike.


  1. Very nice site! Love the concept of blogging about hiking the battlefields!

    I am hoping to get to Gettysburg this spring.

    I will be checking back regularly, keep up the good work.

    webmaster at

  2. I had a relative who fought here with the 2nd corps of the Army of the Potomic under the command of Winfield Hancock, but was wounded at Cold Harbor.