The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864

By Furgurson, Ernest B. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864


Furgurson, Ernest B., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. By GORDON C. RHEA. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. xii, 483 pp. $34.95.

WITH a steady focus that suggests U. S. Grant's drive from the Rapidan toward Richmond, Gordon C. Rhea continues marching south in his multivolume study of the unprecedentedly bloody Virginia campaign of 1864. As Grant did then, Rhea has laid extensive groundwork: His earlier book, The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 (Baton Rouge and London, 1994), was as complete and authoritative as any book on that opening battle of the campaign. And like Grant's logistical backup, Rhea's material base is formidable: In this work on Spotsylvania Court House, 327 pages of text are supported by 133 pages of appendices, notes, and sources, plus thirty detailed maps.

Unlike Grant, however, from this distance the author can analyze clearly the flaws that promptly earned the new Union general in chief a reputation as "butcher" of his own troops (p. 6). In the sustained fighting that began in early May at the Wilderness and ran through Cold Harbor in early June, Grant lost close to 50,000 men-almost as many as R. E. Lee had in his whole army to begin the campaign. But that was not because of some innate bloodthirstiness; Grant in fact hated the sight of blood. The most serious contributing factor in his losses that spring and summer may have been his faulty chain of command, a weakness that Rhea points out at the beginning and end of this exemplary work.

Arriving from the West to take command of all Union armies, Grant had decided to make his headquarters not in Washington, but in the field. Thus from the moment the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and headed into the Wilderness, he was looking over the shoulder of its nominal commander, George G. Meade, which soon made Meade "cross as a bear" (p. 221). The result was confusion of responsibility, sluggish execution of orders, failure of reconnaissance, oversimplification of commands as they made their way down to the front lines-and, repeatedly, horrendous casualties. …

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