Battle of North Anna
After two weeks of inconclusive fighting south of the Rapidan River, Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, accompanied by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, pursued General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to the banks of the North Anna River. Heavy losses in the The Battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, coupled with expiring enlistment's, had diminished Meade's effective strength, while reinforcements had bolstered Lee's sagging numbers. Never again would the armies be so evenly matched.
After 48 hours of hard marching, Lee's weary Confederate soldiers rested south of the river. Lee posted Colonel John Henagan's South Carolina brigade in and around a small earthen fort, or redoubt, on the north side of the river guarding the Telegraph Road bridge. On the evening of May 23, three brigades of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps scattered the South Carolinians and captured the bridge.
While Hancock's men advanced against Henagan to the east, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps effected a crossing four miles upstream at Jericho Mills. Before Warren could complete the crossing, Major General Cadmus Wilcox's division attacked. Advancing in line of battle from Noel's Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, Wilcox's men caught the Federals off guard and drove them back in disorder. The destruction of the Union corps seemed imminent when one of the attacking brigades inexplicably broke ranks and fled, spreading confusion along the rest of the Confederate line. Wilcox's attack subsequently dissolved, and he was forced to fall back. When briefed on the action the next day, an ailing Robert E. Lee rebuked Wilcox's superior, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, for failing to take full advantage of the opportunity. "Why did you not do as Jackson would have done," he asked, "thrown your whole force upon these people and driven them back?"
With the Federals now firmly in place south of the river, Lee changed his tactics. He anchored the center of his line at a strong point on the river known as Ox Ford, then drew back the left and right flanks of his army, giving his new line the shape of an inverted "V". By maintaining his position at Ox Ford, Lee kept the two wings of the Federal army divided. One wing could not support the other without marching six miles and crossing the river twice. Lee, on the other hand, could readily shift troops from one flank to the other, utilizing his interior lines of communication. The Southern commander planned to use this advantage to the fullest. While part of his army held Warren at bay from the safety of its earthworks, the rest would fall upon Hancock and destroy him.
The Federals reacted just as Lee had anticipated. Mistaking refusal of the Confederate right flank as a sign of retreat, Hancock crossed the Telegraph Road bridge on May 24 and headed south in Pursuit. He had stepped into Lee's trap, but Lee failed to spring it. Illness and fatigue had robbed the Confederate commander. Thus, as Hancock pushed south into the jaws of the Confederate army. Lee lay incapacitated on his cot, muttering over and over to himself, "We must strike a blow, we must never let them pass us again, we must strike them a blow."
But the time for striking a blow soon passed. Meade quickly realized the peril of his situation and ordered Hancock to entrench. By the next morning the danger was gone. Firmly dug in, with communications in place, the Union army no longer faced the possibility of annihilation. For two days the armies faced one another across miles of formidable earthworks with neither side venturing to take the offensive. Admitting stalemate on the North Anna, Grant withdrew the Union army across the river on the night of May 26 and sidestepped once more to the southeast.
Each side suffered approximately 2,000 casualties in the four days of fighting, most of which occurred during Wilcox's attack on the 23rd. In the end, the Battle of North Anna River was significant not so much for what happened but for what did not happen. Though he parried Grant's thrust toward Richmond, Lee had lost his last, and perhaps best, chance of defeating the Union army. Grant, for his part, mistook Lee's apathy on the North Anna as a sign of demoralization among the Confederate troops and became convinced that one final blow would shatter the Rebel army. At Cold Harbor, he put this theory to the test with tragic results.
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