Grant stays on the offensive: Delaware at Spotsylvania
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant demonstrated after the fierce combat in The Wilderness in early May 1864 that he was not intimidated by Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces. He chose to move forward, rather than retreat as other Union commanders had done in the past.
Indicative of his mindset, Grant informed Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington, as seen in Volume 36 of the Official Records, “I propose to fight it out on this line, if it takes all summer.”
The 2nd Delaware’s regimental history notes that Grant’s plan was to move “by the left, trying to outflank the Army of Northern Virginia.” Grant explained in his published memoirs that the objective was to reach Spotsylvania Court House, a tiny crossroads village in Virginia southeast of The Wilderness, “to get between [Lee’s] army and Richmond if possible; if not, to draw him into the open field [and attack him].”
The wily Lee, however, “anticipated the maneuver and advanced to intercept the threat.” Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division of Lee’s army won the race and repulsed the lead elements of the Union army. The two powerful forces fought and attempted to gain the upper hand over the next two weeks.
The 1st Delaware Regiment was heavily engaged in this struggle. On May 9, as part of the Third Brigade, Second Division, Second Corps, Army of the Potomac, it charged and captured rifle-pits of the enemy.
According to the 1st’s regimental history, when the fighting on the 10th ceased and the units settled into their positions, the opponents were close enough to display their humanity. They conversed with each other and “sang their favorite songs for each other’s entertainment.”
By the 12th, however, in “the gray dawn we … charged the rebel works … passed over their entrenchments, turning upon them their own guns.” The surprise attack netted the capture of two rebel generals, Edward Johnson and G.H. Stewart. In addition, the 1st Delaware reportedly captured an entire enemy regiment and an artillery battery.
The severely wounded Capt. Matthew W. Macklem, a company commander in the 1st Regiment, received praise for bravery and efficiency during the Spotsylvania battles. Brigade commander Col. Samuel S. Carroll also sustained a serious wound and was replaced by Col. Thomas A. Smyth, the well-respected former 1st Delaware chieftain from Wilmington.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Delaware, a regiment in the Fourth Brigade, found itself in dire straits when its division became isolated across the Po River from the rest of the Union army. As experienced skirmishers, the 2nd Delaware, in unison with the other units in the command, “fought their way back across the Po River in a bloody affair that was marked by gallantry.” Casualties included Capt. John Evans of Company A listed as killed in action.
By May 12, the fighting at Spotsylvania reached a climax, when Second Corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ordered an attack against the Confederate position. The 2nd Delaware was in the first line, and the 1st Delaware a part of the second line as the Union forces advanced. As directed, the men did not load their weapons and fixed bayonets for the assault.
Its regimental history related: “The 2nd Delaware was quickly into the [enemy] entrenchments, using clubbed muskets and the bayonet to quickly subdue the defenders. The 2nd Delaware, and the others in the van of the division, rushed, yelling loudly, the half-mile to the next line of Confederate works before they were finally stopped.”
Fire from the rebels cut down 2nd Delaware’s Lt. Col. David L. Stricker, who had been placed in charge of the 53rd Pennsylvania Regiment. In his report of the battle, brigade commander Maj. Gen. John R. Brooke lamented the death of Stricker and said he deserves “all honor and respect.”
The toll during this campaign for the 2nd Delaware included two officers and four enlisted men killed, one officer and 23 men wounded, and 11 captured or missing. The 1st Delaware sustained a number of casualties, as well.
With the opposing armies stalemated at Spotsylvania, Grant decided to lure Lee into attacking a single Union corps. Hancock received orders to move “southeast with all his force … to get as far toward Richmond [as possible].” If attacked, the rest of the army would come to Hancock’s rescue.
The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia were once again on a collision course that would culminate just 10 miles north of Richmond. A horrific confrontation would take place at the eerily-named town of Cold Harbor.
Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at email@example.com.