A Tempest of Iron and Lead: Spotsylvania Court House, May 8-21, 1864

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Chris Mackowski
Pub Date:
Fall 2024
24 images; 16 maps; 320 pp.

eBook coming soon!

About the book

May 1864. The Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia spent three days in brutal close-quarter combat in the Wilderness that left the tangled thickets aflame. No one could imagine a more infernal battlefield. Then they marched down the road to Spotsylvania Court House.

Even the march itself was unprecedented. For three years, the armies had fought and disengaged. That changed on the night of May 7. Instead of leaving the Wilderness to regroup, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant led the Federal army southward, skirmishing with Confederates all the way. “There will be no turning back,” he had declared. He lived up to his word. By dawn on May 8, the armies had tangled their way ten miles down the road and opened another large-scale fight that would last until May 21. “One thing is certain of this campaign thus far,” explained Dr. Daniel Holt of the 121st New York: “more blood has been shed, more lives lost, and more human suffering undergone than ever before in a season.”

The fighting launched a score of new place names and events that would sear themselves into the American consciousness, including Laurel Hill, Upton’s assault, the Mule Shoe, the Bloody Angle, and Harris Farm. The casualties exacted at Spotsylvania would exceed those of the Wilderness by thousands. The fighting would severely test the offensive capabilities of Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army, just as the defensive posture his men embraced would, in turn, test the limits of Federal endurance.

In A Tempest of Iron and Lead: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, author Chris Mackowski has crafted a meticulous and comprehensible study of this endlessly fascinating campaign. Mackowski, long-familiar with the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, is a former historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Chris continues to give tours of the battlefield as the historian in residence at Stevenson Ridge, a historic property on the battlefield’s eastern front.

His intimate knowledge of the landscape and nearly two decades of insight, together with primary source materials, outstanding maps, and helpful images, combine to create a readable and satisfying single-volume account the campaign has so richly deserved.


“The complexities of the monumental, 13-day battle of Spotsylvania Court House often baffle the closest students of the war—and even the soldiers who were there. This book is the one-stop antidote to befuddlement. Chris Mackowski combines deep knowledge of the ground, careful consideration of historic sources, and his considerable literary chops to give us a vivid, fast-paced, sure-footed narrative of the defining days of Grant and Lee’s 1864 Overland Campaign.” - John Hennessy, retired chief historian, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and author of Return to Bull Run: The Campaign and Battle of Second Manassas

“Chris Mackowski combines an engaging writing style with an intimate knowledge of his subject to produce the first comprehensive account of the Spotsylvania Campaign in more than a generation. Deeply researched—unusually so for a relatively brief volume— A Tempest of Iron and Lead provides an outstanding summary of the second major engagement of the Overland Campaign and is sure to please readers new to the topic as well as more seasoned students of the Civil War. A fine piece of scholarship and literature. Highly recommended!”
- A. Wilson Greene, former staff historian, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, and author of A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg

“The battle of Spotsylvania Court House brought the most sustained and some of the bloodiest fighting of the American Civil War. With outstanding descriptions of terrain, well-chosen quotations from officers and enlisted men, and a keen eye for revealing detail, Chris Mackowski presents a fast-paced narrative of a titanic clash between two great armies. A Tempest of Iron and Lead offers a critical analysis of the commanders and their subordinates, a perceptive assessment of tactics, and considerable attention to the common soldier experience of combat. Readers will learn a great deal from this sobering account of a battle that at times beggared description.” - George C. Rable, University of Alabama Emeritus, and author of Conflict of Command: George McClellan, Abraham Lincoln, and the Politics of War and Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!

“Chris Mackowski offers a compelling overview of operations around Spotsylvania Court House in May 1864. From the opening clash on May 8, through the unspeakable horrors of the fight for the Mule Shoe on the 12th, to the final spasm of combat at the Harris Farm on the 19th, he assesses tactical movements and leadership on both sides and evokes the experience of soldiers in the ranks. His well-paced narrative will appeal to a wide audience.” - Gary W. Gallagher, John L. Nau III Professor of History Emeritus, University of Virginia 


Chris Mackowski is a co-founder of Emerging Civil War (www.emergingcivilwar.com). He has written, co-written, and edited more than thirty books and dozens of articles about the American Civil War.