Battle of Spotsylvania
Chapter 17 of Netflix original show House of Cards coincided nicely with our preparations for the upcoming Governor’s Island exhibit, as anti-hero Frank Underwood visited Spotsylvania, Virginia, to commemorate a battle of the Civil War campaign.
The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House was the second major battle of the Overland Campaign and was fought by the Union Army of the Potomac under the command of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. Though General Sherman is perhaps the most notorious amongst the Civil War generals, for his infamous March to the Sea, General Grant gained a brutal reputation in his own right, in large part due to the Overland Campaign.
The Overland Campaign began as Grant crossed into Virginia and placed himself between General Robert E. Lee’s forces and Richmond, the capital of Virginia. Lee met Grant in the Battle of the Wilderness, resulting in heavy casualties but no decisive advantage gained by either side. This proved to be a recurrent theme in the campaign, as Grant and Lee struggled for control without any real shift in momentum. One particularly gruesome moment in the conflict was highlighted by the House of Cards episode, as Union and Confederate forces converged on a Southern defensive position nicknamed the Mule Shoe. Over a 24 hour period, the Mule Shoe witnessed over 15,000 casualties confined within a mile and a half stretch of forest, as Confederate forces fought desperately to repel the Union attack. Earlier downpours had ruined stores of gunpowder for both sides, meaning much of the conflict was intense hand to hand combat. Once again, the battle was indecisive.
Ultimately, the Overland Campaign concluded with the Battle of Cold Harbor and the Siege of Petersburg, both of which served the purpose of draining Confederate supply lines and personnel. Union forces suffered particularly horrendous casualties, as Grant was willing to send his troops against well-fortified defensive positions in the hopes of wearing down Confederate manpower. The Overland Campaign proved to be the last major Civil War campaign, with Lee surrendering not long after its conclusion.
History remembers Grant as a brutal general who was willing to expend so many of his own troops that he was nicknamed “the Butcher”. Whatever that may reflect on his character, one cannot fault the effectiveness of his methods. The Union advantage lay in its massive industrial base and overwhelming numerical superiority. As the war ground on, the Confederacy found itself incapable of sustaining the casualties that Grant was forcing upon them. Many would argue that Southern generalship was far superior to that of the Union; the Confederate roster boasted names such as Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, James Longstreet, and the famous Robert E. Lee. But no matter the brilliance of their maneuvers or inspiring presence amongst their own men, they simply could not defeat the manpower advantage that Grant brought to bear. In a larger sense, this raises the question of whether the deaths of soldiers and civilians can be justified as a necessary cost of ending war. Though the Civil War is long ended, upon its anniversary, perhaps these are questions that should be applied to events in the world today.