Po River I & II
The campaign fought around Spotsylvania Court House began on May 8, 1864, as the two armies maneuvered into position after departing the Wilderness, much of that battlefield now burning out of control. Over the next two weeks there occurred a series of sharp battles including the fight at Laurel Hill, Colonel Emery Upton’s attack on the salient May 10th, the gruesome ordeal at the Bloody Angle on May 12th, operations near the Ni River, and an effort by the Union Second Corps south of the Po River. The Central Virginia Battlefields Trust has purchased two parcels preserving 40 acres of the battle ground at the Po River.
On May 8, 1864, Confederate forces entrenched at Laurel Hill, across the Federal line of advance. Initial Union attacks proved unsuccessful and the Union commander, Lieutenant General U.S. Grant sought ways to gain a tactical advantage. To threaten the Confederate left flank Grant ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to cross the Po River with his Second Corps. The Po, however, bends back upon itself in this sector, which required Hancock to cross this stream twice before he would be in position to attack. A crossing called the Block House Bridge became a key feature during subsequent events.
On May 9th, Hancock’s engineers constructed a pontoon bridge west of Laurel Hill and the infantry began to cross in the late afternoon. Learning of the Federal movement, General Robert E. Lee redeployed troops from the Fredericksburg Road (on his right flank) during the night. On May 10th, Brigadier General William Mahone had a force in position at the Block House Bridge while Major General Henry Heth maneuvered his division to try to attack Hancock from the south.
Later that day Grant determined he would attack the Confederate center, believing his opponents had weakened their lines to threaten his troops south of the Po. He wanted to give these assaults as much weight as possible and ordered Hancock to withdraw two of his three divisions, leaving only Brigadier General Francis Barlow’s division south of the Po River (Hancock’s fourth division was then reinforcing the Union Sixth Corps and had never crossed the Po). While the Federal units moved back, Heth’s Confederates began probing Barlow’s now isolated position.
Barlow had established his line along the Shady Grove Church Road, from Block House Bridge to Waite’s Shop. As noted before, Mahone’s Confederates blocked the Union advance at the bridge. From a hilltop east of the bridge, Confederate artillery was able to enfilade the Federal line. When Hancock learned his remaining units below the Po River were being attacked, he decided to extricate Barlow’s force. Two brigades pulled back to a new position north of the road and entrenched while another brigade moved back to the pontoon bridge and also dug protective earthworks. Heth pushed his Confederate brigades forward and assaulted the newly dug Federal works. General Nelson Miles’ brigade meanwhile held Mahone at the Block House Bridge.
During this combat artillery fire caught the woods on fire, adding a hellish dimension to the battleground. Union troops retreated through the burning trees, but as in the Wilderness, flames consumed many of the wounded soldiers who could not move themselves to safety. When all of Barlow’s other units had pulled back, Miles relinquished his position near the Block House Bridge and moved quickly toward the pontoon crossing. Entrenched artillery provided effective covering fire and Miles was able to hustle his force to the north side of the Po River.
During its retreat, one of the division’s batteries lost a cannon when the piece became wedged between two trees. Union gunners were unable to cut it free before the advancing Confederate infantry closed in. The artillerymen reluctantly spiked the gun and left it to the enemy. Mahone’s Virginia troops moved into the area and entrenched, but the battle action was over. The Confederates held this position until the morning of May 12 when they were recalled to more active areas of the field.
The CVBT's 40-acre acquisition of two parcels on the south bank of the Po provides an opportunity to interpret this long neglected portion of the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield.