The Battle of North Anna was fought from May 23 to May 26, 1864, as part of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. It was fought in central Virginia as series of small actions in a number of locales, rather than a general engagement between the armies. The individual actions are separately known as: Telegraph Road Bridge and Jericho Mill (for actions on May 23); Ox Ford, Quarles Mill, and Hanover Junction (May 24).
Background[edit | edit source]
After the fighting at Spotsylvania Court House, on the night of May 20, 1864, Grant sent the II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock from Spotsylvania to Milford Station, where he was to take a position on the west bank of the Mattaponi River and attack the Confederates wherever he encountered them. Grant was hoping that Lee would take the bait of an isolated Union corps and attack it, drawing the Confederates out into the open, where they could be attacked.
Union cavalry forces under Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert drove out a small force of Confederate infantry at Milford Station. Confederate cavalry under Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton warned General Lee of this movement. Lee realized that it was merely the beginning of another Union attempt to turn his right flank and get between his army and Richmond. He began to shift his troops to the south bank of the Po River, but when the remaining Union forces— V Corps under Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, IX Corps under Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (who was now assigned to the Army of the Potomac under the direct command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade), and VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright—withdrew from Spotsylvania on May 21, Lee ordered a retreat south to the North Anna River. Grant's original plan to trap Lee was foiled, primarily because Grant grew nervous about leaving Hancock in an isolated position and he moved the remainder of the Army of the Potomac to the southeast to join Hancock before Lee could strike.
Battle[edit | edit source]
Lee's army reached the North Anna on May 22. For the first time in the campaign, he received sizable reinforcements, including Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett's division from the James River defense against the ineffective Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler and Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge's command from the Shenandoah Valley, altogether about 9,000 men. While this was a positive development, it was counterbalanced by bad news for the Army of Northern Virginia. Many of the senior leaders of the army were out of commission: Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, who had become sick with an unidentified illness at the Wilderness returned to duty, but was still sick; Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell was exhausted from his ordeal at Spotsylvania; Lt. Gen. James Longstreet had been wounded during the Battle of the Wilderness, and Lee himself suddenly suffered a debilitating attack of diarrhea. The only corps commander who was ready for duty was Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, in command of the First Corps, but he was recently promoted due to Longstreet's wounding and was inexperienced in corps-level command.
The Confederate position was skillfully laid out behind (south of) the steep bank of the North Anna and well fortified with earthworks. It was a five-mile (8 km) line that formed an inverted "V" shape, sometimes called a "hog snout line", with its apex on the river at Ox Ford, the only defensible river crossing in the area. On the western line of the V, reaching southwest to New Market, was the corps of A.P. Hill; on the east were Anderson and Ewell, the latter as far to the southeast as Hanover Junction.
The Army of the Potomac arrived at the North Anna on May 23. Warren began crossing at the undefended Jericho Mill, northwest of Ox Ford, but at 6 p.m., A.P. Hill attacked in an attempt to drive the V Corps into the river. His attack was clumsy and unsuccessful and Warren was able to cross the river easily, entrenching directly facing Hill's line. Lee was furious with Hill for his piecemeal attacks; if Hill had attacked with his entire corps at the river crossing, Warren might have been defeated. Lee scolded him: "Why did you not do as [Stonewall] Jackson would have done, thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?"
On May 24, Hancock's II Corps attacked at Chesterfield Bridge, east of Ox Ford, crossed the river, and positioned his corps facing Anderson and Ewell. Burnside's IX Corps was in the center. His IX Corps attempted to cross at Quarles Mill, between Ox Ford and Jericho Mill, but resistance was stiff and Burnside abandoned the effort, remaining north of the river, facing the apex of the V.
For the first time, Grant realized that Lee had outmaneuvered him. His army had been moved forward so quickly that it had broken into three widely separated parts, surrounding the V. A unit moving from one flank to reinforce the other would have to cross the North Anna River twice. Lee could attack in either direction and overwhelm either Hancock or Warren, with the other unable to support him in a timely manner. Then, the Confederates could swing back on internal lines and attack the other side. The most likely candidate for an attack was Hancock's II Corps to the east. However, Lee's illness meant that he was on his back in his tent for much of this time and, given his lack of capable subordinates, was unable to arrange an aggressive attack against either Union corps.
Grant briefly probed the Confederate line and contemplated a double envelopment, but realized that the defense was too strong. He decided not to attack and there was only light skirmishing on May 25 and May 26. Grant ordered Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson's cavalry division to cross the river and move west, attempting to deceive Lee into thinking that the Union army intended to envelop the Confederate left flank. The cavalry destroyed stretches of the Virginia Central Railroad during this movement, but had no significant enemy contact. After dark on May 26, Grant withdrew to move 20 miles (32 km) southeast to the important crossroads of Cold Harbor. He was encouraged by his progress against Lee and wrote to his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, in Washington:
Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his Army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of entrenchments cannot be had. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already insured.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
Grant's optimism and his reluctance to assault strong defensive lines would be severely tested in the upcoming Battle of Cold Harbor. In the meantime, North Anna had proved to be a relatively minor affair when compared to other Civil War battles. Union casualties for the four days were 186 killed, 792 wounded, 165 missing or captured, for a total of 1,143. Confederate casualties were not recorded, but due to the bloody fighting between A.P. Hill and Warren, it is probable they suffered around 2,000 casualties.
References[edit | edit source]
- National Park Service battle description
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, Random House, 1974, ISBN 0-394-74913-8.
- Smith, Jean Edward, Grant, Simon and Shuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84927-5.
[edit | edit source]
- Battle of North Anna in Encyclopedia Virginia
- West Point Atlas map of the Overland Campaign and the Battle of North Anna