- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2003

Many historians believe that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest opportunity to defeat Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 came at the North Anna River. A closer look, however, reveals that neither general was aware of the true tactical situation, and they did not manage the subsequent battle with their typical savvy.

May 23, 1864, central Virginia: Lee was beginning to feel the effects of dysentery. Grant was casually smoking a cigar at his headquarters, far behind his army, composing dispatches to Washington about Lee’s imminent retreat. Neither had any idea that a small, moody river flowing between them was about to become the stage for possibly the most critical battle of the war.

Both sides had just slogged through a two-week bloodletting in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Courthouse. In the entire Overland Campaign, which included North Anna, Grant lost 55,000 men in exchange for tactical results that were largely inconclusive. Lee, by contrast, had won the race to Spotsylvania Courthouse but was finding it increasingly difficult to prevent Grant from inching closer to Richmond and could afford even less the 35,000 men he lost in the spring of 1864. Both leaders sensed a pivotal situation looming, though neither understood that it was already upon them at the North Anna.

Falling back to camps below the river, Lee pondered whether Grant was leapfrogging east again or simply allowing his army to rest and recuperate. He posted one undersize brigade under Col. John Henegan on the Telegraph Road north of the river, along with some scattered cavalry units. Lee was in the midst of a growing stomach ailment and was forced to tour his army by carriage. When he was apprised of approaching Union soldiers, he thought it likely nothing more than a feint.

Grant and his army were equally misinformed. Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s 5th Corps led the “chase” to Jericho Mills, where his men immediately began wading across the North Anna, hoisting their shoes, socks or packs up on their bayonets to keep them dry. Behind them, pioneers brought up pontoons to construct a bridge for wagons and artillery. There was no sign of resistance, and a growing rumor circulated that Lee and his army were in full retreat to Richmond. Many of Warren’s men stopped to prepare dinner and delighted in a herd of swine flushed from a nearby wood.

To the east, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s 2nd Corps marched down the Telegraph Road toward the Chesterfield Ford. His men heard train whistles as they crossed a narrow waterway that they assumed was the North Anna but was, in fact, just a small tributary. Destroying the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac and the Virginia Central railroads was high on Grant’s list of priorities, and the two critical lines crossed a few miles below the North Anna River. When Union officers realized that the North Anna was still in front of them, the leading units resumed their march southward and ran straight into the lone Confederate brigade north of the river.

Henegan’s South Carolina soldiers had made good use of their time, preparing an earthen fort and other covered positions. “Henegan’s Redoubt” was well-situated on high ground above the river and effectively blocked the Telegraph Road and the Chesterfield Bridge behind it. Hancock, however, knew the Confederates were greatly outnumbered and sent a confident message back to headquarters: “The earthworks can be taken.”

A third Union column advanced between Warren and Hancock to Ox Ford, approximately one mile upriver from Henegan’s Redoubt and the Telegraph Road. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, commanding the 9th Corps, reached the edge of the river and found the Confederates strongly entrenched on the opposite bank. For the moment, he decided that an attack would be unwise.

Warren’s entire 5th Corps, however, was already across the river to the west of Burnside, and Hancock’s men to the east soon overwhelmed Henegan’s brigade, capturing almost 200 of them. For the moment, it began to appear that Federal forces might envelop the entire North Anna line, washing around it in waves on either end. The Army of Northern Virginia might be completely surrounded, and the road to Richmond open and defenseless. Nothing had occurred to dissuade the Union leadership in their belief that Lee’s army was retreating.

The Confederates, though, quickly awoke to the danger. Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, when apprised of the situation in the west, ordered an immediate attack on Warren’s exposed men that quickly threatened to push the entire 5th Corps back into the river. Timely Union artillery fire and Confederate mismanagement eventually turned the initial success into a stalemate as nightfall approached. At the Chesterfield Bridge, Confederates on the southern bank fired Hotchkiss shells, referred to as the “great demoralizers” because of their hissing, whirling sound, and managed to keep Hancock’s men from securing the Chesterfield Bridge. By dark, the entire front had stabilized.

Lee found himself in a quandary. Tired and increasingly ill, he called a war council to debate what to do. If he retreated to the South Anna River, he could use positions prepared the previous winter but would have his back to the wall, dangerously close to Richmond. If he remained in his current positions along the North Anna, Union forces might surround him and open the road to Richmond anyway. Retreat also would mean forfeiting the critical railroad crossing at Hanover Junction.

Martin Smith, a Northerner by birth and chief engineer, pointed Lee toward an unexpected and ingenious solution. It required giving up the Chesterfield Bridge and the nearby railroad bridge, appearing to retreat southward. This was, of course, exactly what Grant thought was happening already.

In reality, the Confederate army, boosted by new reinforcements from Richmond, would form an inverted “V” with the point at Ox Ford and the two arms stretching down to the New River and a swamp near Hanover Junction. Lee’s plan was to draw Warren and Hancock into a trap, beyond the support of other portions of the army, and then concentrate on one of them and destroy the entire corps. It was a sterling opportunity, the likes of which had not presented itself to Lee since Chancellorsville.

At Grant’s headquarters, the mood was relaxed and optimistic. Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac, carried out Grant’s wish to continue the pursuit. Rumors were circulating that the Confederates were abandoning Ox Ford and the Chesterfield Bridge, and if the Union army chased Lee to the South Anna line, it would be closer to Richmond than it had been in almost two years. The order was to move forward aggressively on all fronts.

The next morning, the 24th, Grant wrote to Washington: “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna. We are in pursuit.”

During the night, however, Confederate soldiers had been busy adjusting their lines, digging trenches and positioning artillery. The new lines were, according to historian J. Michael Miller, “the strongest field fortifications [Grant] had ever faced.” The inverted “V,” or Lee’s “hog snout line,” is still studied by military students. It presented Lee with a rare opportunity to turn on his foe and destroy a major portion of the Union army. In fact, only one division connected the six-mile gap between the wings of the Union army, and an unpredictable river had to be crossed twice to move any units from one side to the other.

Historian Gordon C. Rhea says Lee was positioned “to deliver the masterstroke of the campaign.”

Matters began well for Lee’s army on the 24th. Near Jericho Mills, Warren’s 5th Corps and Gen. Horatio G. Wright’s 6th Corps discovered an unpleasant surprise: The enemy was not retreating, and in fact, it occupied high ground in strength. Near Ox Ford, a Union division led into a hopeless attack by a drunken commander lost nearly 500 men. “Come to Richmond!” the Confederates mocked. Farther east, Hancock’s men were sharply retarded at the Doswell House yet still believed Lee was retreating. Grant had taken the bait, and the moment for the crushing counterattack was ripe.

Lee, however, was confined to his tent, growing more ill by the moment. Incapacitated by violent stomachaches, he seemed to vacillate between not trusting anyone else to organize the attack and admitting he was physically unable to do it himself. “We must strike them a blow. We must never let them pass us again,” he said. No one organized the powerful blow to crush Hancock’s vulnerable corps, however.

As the hours wore on, the Union brain trust began to awaken to reality. After bloody repulses all along the line, the Union wounded lined the banks of the swelling river in scattered rows. A lightning strike killed several horses and men and melted a saber. Men drowned in the river trying to evacuate wounded comrades. By nightfall, Union soldiers were entrenching all along the line. Grant realized the peril he was in, and he ordered his scattered wings to re-connect.

Lee knew he had missed an enormous opportunity — an opportunity that would not come again. Uncharacteristically, he lost his composure, upbraiding Hill for failing to drive Warren into the river May 23 (“Why did you not do as [“Stonewall”] Jackson would have done?”) and lashing out angrily at his aides. “He is not fit to command this army,” one chastised officer said as he left Lee’s company.

“Lee should have assumed an offensive,” Maj. Gen. (and historian) J.F.C. Fuller wrote later. “The North was growing weary.”

On May 25, Union investigations revealed the full extent of the Confederate positions. There was no further question of attack, and Grant contented himself with ripping up sections of both railroads and planning his next move. After meeting with Meade and the rest of his staff, he determined on another leapfrog, east to the Pamunkey River.

A frustrated Lee, still not well, could organize only another weary race to cut Grant off. No other opportunity as golden as that at the North Anna would come again. “Lee would have won a stunning victory,” Mr. Rhea wrote. “Backed up against a river controlled by rebel artillery, Hancock would have sustained severe casualties.”

Mr. Rhea also noted, however, that Grant “likely would have treated defeat at the North Anna as a tactical reverse and gone on with his campaign.”

A healthy Robert E. Lee would have begged to differ.

The North Anna Battlefield is in Hanover County, Va., just off Route 1. A portion of it is maintained as a park and is accessible to the public. Jack Trammell works not far away at Randolph-Macon College and writes nonfiction and fiction.

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