There was to be no respite from battle for the First Corps, now under command of Gen. Richard Anderson. For the first time in the Eastern Theater, the Union Army under Grant would go forward after a major battle and keep the initiative for the rest of the war.
The First Corps was pulled out of the Wilderness line Saturday evening, May 7, 1864, and immediately dispatched south, cross-country, to head off Grant’s army towards Spotsylvania Court House. Hill’s [now commanded by Jubal Early] and Ewell’s corps were to follow them. They marched all night along the southern fringe of the tangled woods, Kershaw’s Division with Humphreys’ Brigade, in the lead.
They crossed the Po River at Corbin’s Bridge and turned east to Block House, crossing the Po again at the Block House Bridge and then pausing for an hour to cook rations and eat. Then they marched back north to the Brock Road where they expected to meet a four-division federal corps leading the Union army down the road to Spotsylvania in a new Yankee race to Richmond.
Gen. Fitz Lee’s cavalry brigade had been dispatched ahead of the First Corps, with instructions to hold the federals, if possible, until Anderson’s troops could arrive. The corps was screened on its flanks and at its head by other elements of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry.
Half of Kershaw’s division split off and marched southeast to the court house, the other half, including Humphreys’ Brigade and the 13th Regiment (whittled down by now to not many more than a hundred men), turned northwest to meet the advancing federals on the morning of May 8. They were just in time.
“Fitz Lee had his dismounted men pile fence rails for a barricade,” Foote wrote, “and get down behind it, there in the dust of the road and the grass of the adjoining fields, for a last-ditch fight while couriers set out to bring Anderson cross-country to join in the defense.”
“Anderson started two brigades (Henagan’s South Carolina brigade and Humphreys’ Mississippi brigade) for the Brock Road at once, to be followed by the rest of the corps,” according to a U.S. Army study.
When Humphreys’ Brigade arrived, according to Foote, a cavalryman shouted at them “‘Run for our rail piles! The Federal infantry will reach them first if you don’t run!’ They did run and barely made it.”
They faced Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps of New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maryland, and regular U.S. Army troops. These Union troops were tired and dusty after marching all night without stopping for food.
Kershaw soon called back the brigades he’d sent to Spotsylvania Court House and, together, all four of his brigades anchored the left of the new Confederate line.
“The attacking Federals, three brigades of the Fifth Corps,” wrote historian Robert K. Krick, “had been told there was nothing but dismounted cavalry behind the rail breastworks. When the attackers got close enough to the works to find out that they were manned by lines of determined infantry, it was too late.”
Their first attack was beaten back with heavy loss.
“A second attempt was made to the strains of inspirational martial music,” Krick continued. “A Northern regimental historian noted that a ‘magnificent brigade brass band of the United States Regulars’ was put carefully under cover and ordered to ‘render most cheerful and inspiring music’ during the advance.”
This time one Union unit, “the 83d Pennsylvania actually got troops on and over the Confederate barricades,” according to the U.S. Army study. “Humphreys was deploying his troops to Henagan’s right when he witnessed the Union penetration, and he later wrote: ‘for the first and last time in my warring, I saw two hostile lines lock bayonets.'”
Nevertheless, the Yankees were beaten back again. Soon, both sides were massing and intrenching, only about 400 yards apart. It was by now 10:30 a.m. The Union would not try another piecemeal assault until 6:30 p.m. and it also would be driven back. There were no more assaults but firing continued all night, keeping everyone awake.
Nothing much occurred on May 9, on the 13th’s portion of the line, except for the death of Union Gen. John Sedgwick by a Confederate sharpshooter. Sedgwick had famously declared just before his death that the Rebs “can’t hit an elephant at that distance.”
And so it went, in a contest of futile and increasingly Yankee attacks against outnumbered but intrenched Confederates that generally resulted in slaughtered Yankees and much sharpshooting from both sides, and it went on for six days.
The 13th Regiment, which apparently took few assaults after the initial one on May 8, lost seven men wounded and captured: four from the Alamutcha Infantry, and one each from the Newton Rifles, the Lauderdale Zouaves, and the Pettus Guards. By now the regiment probably numbered less than one hundred men available for any fighting.
Confederate casualties for the Wilderness were only estimates and there were none at all for Spotsylvania. They “were never formally reported & tabulated,” Gen. E. P. Alexander wrote after the war. “The [Union’s Overland] campaign work was so incessant & pressing from now until the surrender, that but few reports were made, &, meanwhile the officers who should have made very many were killed.”
Union forces, however, did report their casualties from Spotsylvania, which amounted to 18,396.