Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Hike at Spotsylvania

On Friday Emily and I decided to skip the craziness of holiday shopping. Instead, we took a drive over to the Fredericksburg area to take advantage of the beautiful, if chilly, weather. We wanted to avoid the shopping traffic on Route 3 as much as possible, so we stuck to the 1864 campaign. After a very brief driving tour of the Wilderness, with stops at Saunders Field, the Widow Tapp clearing, and the Brock Road intersection, we followed the Army of the Potomac's march down the Brock Road and left our car at the Spotsylvania Exhibit shelter.

Armed with a great set of maps from Blue & Gray magazine, we set off on the Spotsylvania History Trail. For me, hiking is the only way to tour a battlefield properly, and Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park has established some great trails at all of its battle sites. The trail at Spotsylvania consists of several connected loops, allowing a battlefield tourist the option of choosing a short hike, sampling a portion of the trail, or setting out to hike the entire seven miles. We chose to spend several hours and hike most of the trail, which begins and ends at the Exhibit shelter.

Setting out to follow in the footsteps of the 5th Corps across the open fields of the Spindle Farm.

We first traversed ground rarely seen by the average visitor touring the field in a car - Laurel Hill. The term "hill" is actually a misnomer, the terrain is undulating here. In these open fields stood the farmhouse of Sarah Spindle. On May 8th, as Confederate cavalry fell back down the Brock Road, disputing the advance of G.K. Warren's 5th Corps, Confederate infantry arrived in the nick of time to take position on a slight rise of ground behind hastily-made barricades. Warren launched several uncoordinated assaults against the Confederate position on Laurel Hill, trying to break through and into Spotsylvania Courthouse, but each failed. By the end of the day, the Army of Northern Virginia strengthened its position firmly astride the Army of the Potomac's route of advance. On May 10th and again on May 12th, the federals attempted to take Laurel Hill by frontal assault. However, the open fields and the convex shape of the Confederate works in this location subjected Union troops to a terrible crossfire during each attempt, and they met bloody repulses. Hiking across this terrain gives you a good sense of the disadvantages Union soldiers faced. You can also see a small monument to the Maryland Brigade, placed at the point of the furthest advance made by Union forces on May 8th.

Toward the Confederate position at Laurel Hill.

The Laurel Hill loop of the trail returned us to the Exhibit Shelter, and we set out on part two of our hike, which follows along the remnants of earthworks that belonged to the Army of the Potomac's 6th Corps until it reaches Upton's Road. On the evening of May 10th, Colonel Emory Upton led 5,000 hand-picked federal troops in a lightning-fast charge upon Doles' Salient, a mere 200 yards distant. The federals guided upon this narrow farm lane. Upton utilized a compact formation and ordered his men not to fire until they had reached the Confederate works. He broke the Confederate line at the salient, but receiving no support, his men were forced back eventually.

Upton's Road
Looking toward Doles' Salient.
Having followed the route of Upton's assault, the hiking trail then traverses the signature feature of the Confederate defensive line at Spotsylvania, the "Mule Shoe." Several monuments line this portion of the trail, as do multiple interpretive markers that tell the story of the famed assault on May 12th, 1864, and the fighting at the Bloody Angle. At 4 a.m. on that morning, some 20,000 federal soldiers under Winfield Scott Hancock overwhelmed Confederate forces at the Mule Shoe. Robert E. Lee fed Confederate reinforcements into the fight, hoping to buy time to allow his engineers to build a new line at the base of the Mule Shoe. For twenty hours the battle raged at close quarters, often hand-to-hand. The intensity and duration of the fighting that took place here has no other parallel during the war.

The Mule Shoe.
A side excursion of the hiking trail leads out to the Landram House ruins, which Hancock's 20,000 men swarmed past on their way to the Mule Shoe. We chose instead to continue following along the Confederate earthworks to the East Angle. From here the trail then visits two other homes unfortunately located in the path of war, the McCoull House site and the Harrison House. Both of these farms were located in the rear of the Confederate Mule Shoe position. They became the staging areas for the Confederate counterattacks that swept into the maelstrom at the Mule Shoe.

From the Harrison House, the hiking trail weaves its way through a wooded landscape along what became Lee's final line at Spotsylvania, the works constructed during the day on May 12th while the fighting raged at the Mule Shoe. Early on the morning of May 13th, the Confederates pulled back from the Mule Shoe and took position here. I had never visited this area of the battlefield before, and these earthworks are in an incredible state of preservation. The were among the strongest field fortifications that had been constructed up to that point in the war. The Army of the Potomac found this out several days later in its ill-fated assault on May 18th.

We hiked along these amazing earthworks, still imposing features on the landscape some 150 years later, until we reached the Brock Road, where we turned north and looped back to the Exhibit Shelter to complete our hike. In all, we logged somewhere close to five miles. It was a great way to spend Black Friday. If you enjoy hiking on Civil War battlefields, put the Spotsylvania History Trail on your list.

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