As dawn came on May 10, both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee believed that they had a chance to strike a telling blow against the other. Believing that Lee was vulnerable on his left flank, Grant ordered Winfield Scott Hancock to mount an offensive across the Po River. Supposedly Warren and Wright would pile in when the moment was right, and the result might do much damage to Richard Anderson’s First Corps. In preparation for the movement, Hancock spent much of May 9 getting into position.
At the same time, Lee prepared to counterattack precisely where Hancock would strike, hoping that if he cut off Hancock by capturing the bridges the Yankees had used to cross the Po, he would gobble up a fourth of Grant’s infantry.
Little went right for the Yankees in the morning. Hancock found it difficult to get into position, while Warren’s attacks against Laurel Hill proved ineffective. Meanwhile Grant received reports that the Confederates were massing reinforcements opposite Hancock, largely by stripping men from the center … a salient that offered a tempting target by itself. Cancelling his original plan, Grant first targeted Laurel Hill, with a supporting assault under Wright, supported by Gersham Mott’s division from Hancock’s corps, earmarked for the salient in the Confederate center.
Hancock managed to extricate his corps in fairly good order, although Frank Barlow’s division found itself fighting a rearguard action against superior forces with its back to a river. Under pressure Barlow made his way back to the river crossings, although several regiments suffered serious losses. In his eagerness to strike a blow, Grant had fumbled away an opportunity, for in directing Hancock to commence moving into place on May 9, he had alerted Lee as to his next move.
Matters did not improve in the next few hours. The attack on Laurel Hill commenced ahead of schedule, due to Warren’s insistence that he was ready to advance: it proved unsuccessful.
Brigade commander Emory Upton had been pondering how to attack fortified positions successfully. He reasoned that attacks lost their momentum when the men stopped to return fire: better, he reasoned, to have his men make a mad dash for the enemy’s line without stopping. Yes, the enemy would get off one round, but to would be challenging under most circumstance to get off a second volley in such a situation. He planned to undertake this task with twelve picked regiments. He aimed to overrun George Doles’s brigade of Georgians.
The idea seemed promising, but it began to unravel before Upton’s men advanced. Originally they were to be supported by Mott’s division, with would attack the center of the salient. However, throughout the day Mott received a series of orders which contradicted each other and left him hamstrung in his efforts to mount an offensive … which in any case got under way before Upton made his move. The attack frittered away, so that when Upton advanced, he would be on his own.
Upton moved out at sundown, which came just after 6:30 PM. The twelve regiments, formed into one column, made their way over obstacles and moved forward under fire, never pausing to return the favor. They punched a hole in Doles’s line, veered left and right to roll up the Confederate defenders, and widened the gap they had created. Unfortunately, there was no one available to pour through that gap: Mott’s men were not on the scene, and Wright failed to provide support. After some intense combat the Confederates sealed off the breach and drove the attackers back. Off to the Union right a second attack on Laurel Hill quickly faltered, while on the Union left Ambrose Burnside was not ordered to do anything until the afternoon and failed to achieve much when ordered to do something to support the other offensives.
It had been a day of opportunities lost, due in large part to Grant’s inability to settle upon a single plan of attack and secure the coordinated cooperation of his subordinates. In his eagerness to strike fast and heard, always adjusting to circumstances, Grant failed to launch a single unified attack. However, he took note of Upton’s success. Perhaps there was a way to break Bobby Lee’s line.