There were indications in the forenoon of Saturday, the 7th, that Lee was withdrawing his army. A reconnoissance in force made it more apparent. Orders were issued for the removal of the wounded to Fredericksburg. At two o'clock in the afternoon the Ninth Corps was on the march to Spottsylvania. The first step towards Richmond had been successfully taken. If Grant had not gained what he desired, a position between Lee and Richmond, Lee on the other hand had utterly failed in his attempt to crush Grant by a sudden blow upon his flank. He had not been able, in the language of the President, even to "jostle him from his chosen line of march."
At sunrise on the 8th, the Fifth Corps was at Todd's Tavern, four miles from Spottsylvania, where Gregg had just defeated Fitz Hugh Lee, in a hard-fought contest on Saturday. The Sixth and Second Corps arrived during the day. The Ninth moved with the teams through Chancellorsville farther to the east.
The natural defences of Spottsylvania are two small streams,--the Po and the Ny, affluents of the Mattapony. The advance of the Fifth Corps was checked, three miles west of the Court-House, by Longstreet's and Ewell's corps, which had left Wilderness on the night of the 6th. The Sixth came up at five o'clock and joined in the conflict, driving the enemy from the position he had taken on the north bank of the Ny.
On Monday morning, the 9th, it was apparent that Lee, having failed on Grant's flank, had now placed himself squarely in front, with his entire army.
One of the great battles of the campaign was fought on Tuesday, the corps occupying positions as in the diagram:--
The line of battle was formed with the Second Corps on the right, the Fifth on the right-centre, the Sixth on the left-centre, with the Ninth nine miles distant, approaching by the Fredericksburg road. There was a severe engagement in the afternoon, brought on by the advance of the Second Corps, which pushed across an affluent of the Po, west of the Court-House. On the left, the Rebels made an attack upon Wilcox's division of the Ninth, but were repulsed.
The battle was fought in the forest,--in the marshes along the Ny,--in ravines,--in pine-thickets, densely shaded with the dark evergreens that shut out the rays of the noonday sun,--in open fields, where Rebel batteries had full sweep and play with shell and grape and canister from intrenched positions on the hills.
It began in the morning. There was an hour of calm at noon, but at one o'clock artillery and infantry became engaged all along the line. Grant was the attacking party. There was no cessation or diminution of effort during the afternoon. The Rebel outer line of works in the centre was carried by Upton's brigade of the first division, and Russell's brigade of the third division of the Sixth Corps. The men of these brigades, (and among them were the stalwart sons of Vermont,) without firing a shot, moved steadily to the charge with fixed bayonets; they were cut through by solid shot, their ranks torn by shells, thinned by constant volleys of musketry, but, with matchless ardor and unconquerable will, they went up to the line of earthworks, leaped over them, and gathered a thousand prisoners; they held the ground, but their valor had carried them so far beyond their supports that it was deemed prudent to withdraw them.
There was some fighting on the 11th. General Lee sent in a flag of truce for a cessation of hostilities to bury the dead; but the request was not acceded to by General Grant.
The early dawn of Thursday, the 12th, beholds the Second Corps in motion,--not to flank the enemy, but moving, with fixed bayonets, straight on towards his intrenchments. Barlow's and Birney's divisions in columns of battalions, doubled on the centre, to give strength and firmness, lead in the assault. They move silently through the forest,--through the ravine in front of them,--up to their own skirmish-line,--past it,--no longer marching, but running now, dashing on with life and energy and enthusiasm thrilling every nerve. They sweep away the Rebel picket-line as if it were a cobweb. On,--into the intrenchments with a hurrah which startles the soldiers of both armies from their morning slumbers. Major-General Johnson and Brigadier-General Stewart and three thousand men of Ewell's division are taken prisoners, eighteen cannon and twenty-two standards captured.
It is the work of five minutes,--as sudden as the swoop of an eagle. The uproar of the day began. The second line of the enemy's works was assaulted; but, exasperated by their losses, the Rebels fought with great stubbornness. The Ninth Corps was moved up from the left to support the Second. Longstreet, on the other hand, was brought over to help Ewell. The Fifth and Sixth became partially engaged. There were charges and counter-charges. Positions were gained and lost. From morning till night the contest raged on the right, in the centre, and on the left, swaying to and fro over the undulations and through the ravines. It was a battle of fourteen hours' duration,--in severity, in unflinching determination, in obstinacy and persistency, not exceeded by any during the war. Between forty and fifty pieces of artillery were at one time in the hands of General Hancock; but, owing to the difficulties of removal, and the efforts of the enemy, he could secure only eighteen. During the day, Grant advanced his lines a mile towards the Court-House, and repulsed Lee in all his counter-attacks.