Unsolved Mystery of the Galleries: Sixth Corps Trenches at Spotsylvania Court House

By Lindsay Waller

Tucked in the woods, off modern-day Grant Drive, are Union Sixth Corps fortifications that are known to historians as the “Galleries.” Few people have ever seen these earthworks, let alone even know they exist. Even Eric Mink, the Cultural Resource Manager of Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (FRSP), has a difficult time finding their exact location. When he showed me the trenches this summer, we were wandering around in the woods for thirty minutes before we stumbled across them. But I didn’t mind because trudging through the woods was worth it. While the now dense forest poses challenges for visiting the fortifications, it has also kept these works incredibly well preserved, so much so that I grew giddy as we slowly moved down the line of lunettes. Bushwhacking through the woods was like being transported back in time. It felt like these works were abandoned mere hours before we got there, and not over 150 years ago. As we made it to the main line of trenches, I was struck with even greater awe, but also with confusion, as these stair-stepping trenches look unlike any other Civil War trenches I have ever encountered. Amongst park historians, they have a reputation of being a unique spot to take diehard visitors, but beyond that, not much is known about these unusual works. Every time I asked a Park Ranger what they knew about them, the answer was pretty much the same: “They are terraced trenches built by the Union Sixth Corps.” This summer at my internship at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, I did research to uncover the mysteries of the Galleries.

In 1864, Ulysses S. Grant, recently promoted to Commanding General of the United States Army, and George Meade, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, focused their efforts on attacking Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The plan was simple: Push the Confederates south, take Richmond, and end the war. By the summer of 1864, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia had seen three years of battle and the end appeared to be nowhere in sight. However, none of the fighting up until that point would even compare to the carnage and bloodshed that was soon to come in the Overland Campaign. The campaign opened on May 5th, 1864 in the Wilderness, a relatively small area bordering Orange and Spotsylvania Counties. The hard-fought battle in the Wilderness would only last three days, but it would leave some 28,000 men dead, wounded, or missing. Immediately after the battle, Grant ordered his army to disengage from the Wilderness and march south toward Spotsylvania Court House, a critical crossroads.  On the night of the 7th, the Union army stepped off, and on the evening of the 8th, the head of the Union column, led by the Fifth Corps, eventually found themselves engaged with the Confederate army once again, and the Battle of Spotsylvania began. On May 9th, both armies settled into their positions and immediately started digging in. The Sixth Corps was positioned in the middle of the Union line, between the Brock Road and Scott Shelton’s House. It was the area in the middle of the Sixth Corps line, held by the 2nd Division, where the trenches in question are located.

The 2nd Division was made up of Brigadier General Frank Wheaton’s Brigade, Colonel Lewis A. Grant’s Brigade (also known as the “Vermont Brigade”), Colonel Daniel D. Bidwell’s Brigade, and Brigadier General Henry L. Eustis’s Brigade. These were the first men to occupy and fortify the area in question. In the regimental history of the 77th New York, George T. Stevens, a surgeon for 77th, recalls arriving on the 9th and the terrain that his men held. He writes:

There was little hard fighting on Monday the 9th, though skirmishing was briskly kept on the whole line throughout the day. Our line of battle was now extended from northwest with Hancock’s Second corps on the right, Warren’s Fifth corps on the right center, Sedgwick’s Sixth corps on the left center, and Burnside’s Ninth corps on the extreme left. Our Second division was formed in a clearing on the side of a hill which sloped gradually until it reached a swamp, which, however, turned and passed through our line at our left. About three hundred yards in front of us was a strip of woods one-fourth of a mile wide, and beyond the woods an open field where the rebel force were posted behind formidable earthworks. Just in our rear and on the crest of the hill, our batteries were posted so as to fire over our heads. On our right was a dense forest where the Fifth corps were posted, and on our left Burnside’s troops occupied a more open country.[1]

Stevens’s account provides a valuable window into what the Union line looked like on the 9th, but more importantly, it presents a vivid description of what the ground looked like that reveals who the likely architects of the Galleries were. The 2nd Division was on “a hill which sloped gradually until it reached a swamp.”[2] This description matches perfectly with the exact terrain of where the Galleries are. Therefore, the 2nd Division (or at least a Brigade in that Division) were the men who built and occupied the Galleries. Based upon descriptions from soldiers, like Stevens, it is most likely that either Bidwell’s or Wheaton’s Brigade was responsible for their creation. However, we cannot be certain about this without doing some archaeological research.  

The unique earthworks straddle a ravine located on a hillside that ascends 12 feet over 30 yards.[3] The Galleries themselves are composed of three sets of trenches. The main line of trenches is made up of 11 steps with a traverse trench running along the side. The traverse trench connects all of the steps leading to the top of the hill. Lining the top of the hill are 12 single-gun emplacements that were used to help support the Union attack on the Bloody Angle on May 12th. The other sets of trenches, just to the west of the main line, are constructed in the same fashion, but are significantly smaller than those along the mainline. Needless to say, this design is unusual and unlike any other fortifications in the Civil War. The below GIS map made by David Lowe, a National Park historian and Civil War trench enthusiast, provides a nice visual overview of the layout of the Galleries.

Sixth Corps “Galleries” as represented on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map provided by NPS Historian David Lowe, August 5, 2020.

I spent my summer poring over countless primary source documents written by the men of the Sixth Corps to try and discover any information I could about their unusual design. Unfortunately, nothing that I came across specifically talked about their construction. Due to the silences in the written records, we are thus forced to interpret the landscape through context. In an email correspondence with David Lowe, David explained that, in his interpretation, the unique layout of the Galleries is due to the terrain. Because of the way the soldiers who built them were situated on the hillside, building stair-stepping trenches was most pragmatic way to defend their position.[4] Lowe also thinks that their design would not only be effective in protecting the troops  from fire, but also in helping to concentrate the men’s fire back onto the Confederate position.[5] There would have been around 700 men in these fortifications. Approximately  200 men (a small regiment) occupied the main trench and the trenches to the north-west, and about 300 men occupied the trenches parallel to the main one.[6]

Unlike some other speculations, Lowe seems to think that the ravine was used more as a natural covered way. In other words, the men used the ravine to protect them as they moved between, and communicated with comrades from the different set of trenches. He explained that the traverse trench was constructed primarily to protect against any flank attacks. This theory also makes sense because both armies would have been wary of any flanking maneuvers, especially after the previously devastating flank attacks they endured at the Wilderness.  As for the effectiveness of the Galleries as a fortification, Lowe explains, “Yes, I think it was an effective defense for the salient angle. I wonder how effective it would have been without the wooded area to the front; if the Confederate artillery could have drawn a direct bead on those massed regiments, it might have gotten ugly.”[7]

Constructing earthworks was like second nature to these men, meaning that the Galleries were probably constructed out of instinct and in direct response to their unfolding combat situation rather than some carefully orchestrated plan. Most of the soldiers would have aided in these earthworks’ construction. However, by 1864, there was usuall a specific group of men who were usually responsible for the construction of earthworks. These “pioneers” were detailed to each brigade in the Union Army and carried the spades, shovels, and axes necessary for fortification. In, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee, historian Earl J. Hess explains the duty and training of the pioneers:

In addition to the regular and volunteer engineer troops, Meade’s army had a detail of pioneers attached to each brigade. These were the men detached from the ranks, but they were never trained as engineer troops. Their job was to facilitate the movement of infantry by repairing roads and bridges, bury the dead, help construct trenches and latrines, and do any other job of manual labor needed by their brigades.[8]

The pioneers thus were tasked with doing all the manual labor that would usually be assigned to the engineers. One might even conjecture that perhaps they had even more influence on the ground than traditional engineers ever did. There is a strong possibility that the pioneers were the ones that constructed the Galleries, or at least significantly helped with their construction. However, there is no real evidence to confirm this. Unfortunately, little has been written about the pioneers at Spotsylvania. However, they are recorded at the Wilderness as building works and assisting other soldiers in the construction of fortifications there.

At the end of the day, no matter who built them, the Galleries are a unique set of fortifications. Unfortunately, many questions still remain about these trenches. While we can speculate that Bidwell’s or Wheaton’s Brigade constructed and occupied the Galleries, archaeology must be conducted in order to know, definitively, who was there. In such an excavation, archeologist would likely search for uniform buttons, or any kind of artifact that would identify an exact regiment as having occupied that position. While such archaeological investigation is not current priority for FRSP, it is certainly something the park would like to undertake in the future. Ultimately, the long-term goal is to construct a trail, erect waysides, and this fascinating site for the public.  But for now, the mystery of the Galleries still remain tucked away in the woods of the Spotsylvania battlefield.

Works Cited

I. Primary Sources:

Abbott, Lemuel Abijah. Personal Recollections and Civil War Diary 1864. Burlington: Free Press Printing Co., 1908.

Barnhart, Lorenzo. The War of Rebellion. http://web.archive.org/web/20031203111927/http://www.bright.net/~lrrp/ldb.html.

Bowen, James. “In the Wilderness: Movement of Both Armies from the Opening Fight to the Close of Spotsylvania.” Philadelphia Weekly Times, June 27, 1885. Bound Volume 141. Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (Hereafter cited as “FRSP”).

Galloway, Norton G. “Annals of the War: Chapters of Unwritten History, Battle of the Wilderness.” Philadelphia Weekly Times, February, 16, 1884. Bound Volume 141. FRSP.

Lewis, George. The History of Battery E, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery, In the War of 1861 and 1865, to preserve the Union. Providence: Snow & Farnham Printers, 1892.

Moody, William. Letter to the Pittsburg Evening Chronicle, May 29, 1864. Bound Volume 115. FRSP.

“Our Army Correspondence.” Pittsburg Evening Chronicle, June 1, 1864. Bound Volume 361. FRSP.

Seiser, August. “Rochester in the Civil War.” Edited by Blake McKelvey. Rochester, The Rochester Historical Society Publications. Bound Volume 117. FRSP.

Schoyer, Samuel. The Road to Cold Harbor: Field Diary, January 1 – June 12, 1864 of Samuel C. Schoyer. Edited by William T. Schoyer. Apollo: Closson Press, 1986. Bound Volume 116. FRSP.

Stevens, George. Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac, From 1862 to the Close of the Rebellion, April, 1865. Albany: S.R. Gray Publisher, 1866.

Willsey, Berea. The Civil War Diary of Berea M, Willsey: The Intimate Daily Observations of AMassachusetts Volunteer in the Union Army, 1862-1864. Edited by Jessica H. DeMay. Bowie: Heritage Books, 1995. Bound Volume 352. FRSP.

II. Secondary Sources:

Hess, Earl. Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Lowe, David. Email conversation with author, July 31, 2020 – August 3, 2020.

“NPS Battle of Spotsylvania Troop Movement Maps.” Frank O’Reilly assisted by Elizabeth Getz, Kelly O’Grandy, illustrated and produced by Steve Stanley. 2000. 21

Rhea, Gordon. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and The Road to Yellow Tavern. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.

     [1] George T. Stevens, Three Years in the Sixth Corps: A Concise Narrative of Events in the Army of the Potomac,

From 1862 to the Close of the Rebellion, April 1865 (Albany: S.R. Gray Publisher, 1866), 326.

     [2] Ibid.

     [3] Earl J. Hess, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Chapel

Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 236-237.

     [4] David Lowe, email correspondence with the author, July 31, 2020.

     [5] Ibid.

     [6] Ibid.

     [7] Ibid.

     [8] Earl J. Hess, Trench Warfare Under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 11.