Of all the events during the Overland Campaign of 1864 those of May 12 at Spotsylvania stand out. Perhaps the only true rivals for the title of the most significant event of the campaign are Grant’s decision not to turn back from the Wilderness and his bloody repulse at Cold Harbor on June 3.
The events of that have been discussed ever since. First by the participants themselves, primarily on the Confederate side, later by historians as well as enthusiasts. Most people accept the premise that it was the weakness of the defense near the apex of the Salient that morning which gave the Federals the opportunity. A weakness primarily because the artillery, present until just the evening before, had been withdrawn on Lee’s instructions. (1) General Lee himself took the blame on himself for making that decision. Post war many Confederates officers publicly echoed that opinion. Many claimed that if the artillery had been in place the Federals would have suffered a bloody repulse that morning. Thomas Carter, who had overseen the battalions which were withdrawn, offered perhaps the strongest view of what he felt would have happened. Writing to Major John W. Daniel on October 11, 1904 he stated “I never saw a long line of artillery with open ground in front as much as 400 yards, for double canister to have its full sway, and put in its perfect work, carried by front attack. No matter how many lines of battle came against it: and my belief is that it would be as impregnable against front attack as the Rock of Gibraltar with a pocket pistol”. (2)
What is seldom mentioned is that there was artillery in the area that morning. However, it was not positioned to successfully contest the assault. How they came to be there and the decisions that were made regarding them is one that needs to be told.
On the morning of May 10, 1864, a rotation of artillery units along the fronts of Rodes and Johnson’s divisions was performed. Braxton’s and Page’s battalions had marched with the infantry from the Wilderness. The remaining three battalions had been withdrawn to a staging area at Verdiersville the night before the army marched. They then moved by a separate route before rejoining the infantry outside Spotsylvania Courthouse. Braxtons battalion was withdrawn from the line and placed in reserve. Hardaway’s battalion, or 3 batteries of it, took positions along the line of Rodes’s division. Pages battalion moved from Rodes line into position along the right of Johnson’s division. Nelson’s battalion upon its arrival near Johnson’s center or along the left of the apex of the salient. Cutshaw’s battalion began arriving near the Courthouse.