The Battle of North Anna

This entry is part 9 of 14 in the series The Overland Campaign

The Battle of

North Anna

After Spotsylvania the Confederates moved south to protect Hanover Junction. This key rail  town was at the junction of the Virginia Central Railroad and the Fredericksburg, Richmond & Potomac Railroad. Lee was determined not to lose it. He therefore made plans to defend the North and South Anna River crossings.

By May 22, 1864 Lee had established his headquarters at Hanover Junction. Grant, meanwhile, had steadily moved south with the Army of the Potomac. Lee ordered Richard Anderson to place his corps on the south side of the North Anna River about 2 miles directly north of Hanover Junction.

Battle of North AnnaThe strain of the campaign was beginning to show on the Confederate commanders and soldiers alike. Men observed that Lee “looked very worn and troubled”. He was overheard chastising Jubal Early who constantly tried to modify his orders.

Grant was concerned that Ben Butler’s Army of the James was not diverting enough Confederate troops from Lee’s forces. The manpower balance was slipping out of his favor. Butler had been sealed off in the Bermuda Hundred peninsula by a relatively small force of Confederates. Grant ordered Butler to detach as many troops as possible under the command of General William F. “Baldy” Smith and send them to the Army of the Potomac.

By May 23, 1864 Lee reported to Jefferson Davis that his troops were all in positions south of the North Anna River. General John Breckinridge’s force from the Shenandoah Valley was positioned around Hanover Court House. In a separate communication Lee urged General P.G.T. Beauregard to bring as many of his troops as possible north to reinforce him.

Winfield Hancock’s Corps came down Telegraph Road and took up positions on the Federal left in the east. Ambrose Burnside moved to Hancock’s right. Governeur Warren’s Corps moved to the west opposite A.P. Hill’s Corps with Horatio Wright’s Corps supporting him.

Jericho Mills

Around 1:00 PM Warren’s forces began to cross the North Anna River at a ford near Jericho Mills. As they expanded their bridgehead, Confederate troops were arriving by train and wagons to reinforce their blocking positions. The Federal troops began to construct fortifications. The engineers were constructing a pontoon bridge so that the artillery could be brought across the river. Warren reinforced the two brigades that were digging in with Samuel Crawford’s Division.

As soon as the pontoon bridge was complete, V Corps artillery chief Charles Wainwright or six batteries with four guns each across. More Federal troops crossed after the cannon filling in the incomplete defensive semi-circle.

At about 6:00 PM the Confederates attacked with the four brigades of Cadmus Wilcox’s division. The Federal right collapsed in confusion. In between the forces a herd of cows wandered across the battlefield, adding to the dust and noise of battle. The Federal brigade scattered in panic. TheNorth Anna River fortifications panic was contagious and spread to two neighboring brigades.  The soldiers retreated precipitously back to the river.

As the Georgians of General Edward Thomas’ brigade raced after the fleeing Union troops they were staggered by gunfire from stubborn defenders.  The Georgians were routed and fled in disarray. Charles Griffin’s Division in the Federal center bent but held. The rest of the Federal line also held firm. All along the line the Confederates were losing steam and without fresh troops were unable to continue the assault.

In the face of the Confederate assault Charles Wainwright’s artillery was the rock upon which the Federal line was built around. The brave Union gunners blasted the Confederates with grape and canister. Wainwright had two additional batteries moved into the forward position to reinforce the batteries that were already there. The Federal gunners took tremendous casualties. Before the Confederates could rush the guns, a Federal counterattack came from the right. The Confederate attack fell apart and they retreated in haste.

The Battle of Jericho Mills by most accounts had lasted about two hours. Southern losses were estimated at between 650 and 700; Federal losses were about 370. There was much finger pointing on the Southern side with much of the blame laid at the feet of Corps Commander A.P. Hill. Lee agreed with the assessment telling Hill the next day, “Why did you not do as Jackson would have done-thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?” The answer was simple: there was only one Stonewall Jackson and he was dead a year. Lee was never able to replace him.

Chesterfield Bridge

On the morning of May 24, 1864, Hancock started to send his corps across the Chesterfield Bridge. After successfully burning the railroad trestle the Confederates were unable to destroy the vehicular span. The crossing was lightly opposed and by midmorning Hancock had several brigades established on the south bank.

Grant was so confident that Lee’s army was retreating that he wired Halleck that the enemy was retreating and that he was in pursuit. He also suspended the transfer of “Baldy” Smith’s Corps to the Army of the Potomac.

During the night Horatio Wright’s Corps had come across the pontoon bridge at Jericho Mills and settled down. Warren’s skirmishers had pushed out to Noel’s Station on the Virginia Central Railroad. When they reached it they began to build earthworks. As they moved southeast down the rail line they ran into Confederate skirmishers who contested the ground stubbornly.

Only Burnside in the center was unable to cross at his selected location, Ox Ford. The Confederates were well-entrenched there so he was ordered to cross above and below the ford. Burnside was puzzled. If the Confederates were in full retreat, why were they holding to the center at Ox Ford?

As Hancock’s forces moved south along Telegraph Road they encountered increasing resistance. Burnside’s men were encountering the same type of resistance from strongly manned fortifications. Captured Confederates when questioned revealed that Hancock’s Corps was facing Ewell’s and Anderson’s Corps. Hancock realized that he was in an isolated position against an enemy that outnumbered him.

Lee had decided to coordinate what he hoped would be a crushing attack against Hancock himself. He felt that none of his three corps commanders was up to the task. At this critical juncture, Robert E. Lee’s body betrayed him. He was taken sick and lay prostrate in his tent. The orders for the attack were never given. The opportunity slipped away.

There were sporadic attacks by Federal forces along the front all day. By the evening Grant realized that Lee was not falling back to the South Anna River. He ordered Hancock to entrench; Burnside was to halt any further crossings of the North Anna River and Warren was to probe his front in the morning.

Grant also decided to end the unwieldy arrangement of the independence of Burnside’s IX Corps. They would now be part of the Army of the Potomac reporting to George Meade.

By midday on May 25th Grant had a complete picture of Lee’s defensive positions. It was shaped like a “U” anchored on the North Anna River at Ox Ford with one upright facing Warren in the west and one facing Hancock in the east. The western facing was about two miles, stretching from the ford to the Little River. The eastern facing was longer and ran southeast from Ox Ford to protect Hanover Junction, then south anchoring on swampy ground about a half mile away.

The Federal army was divided between the two sides of this giant salient and was unable to support each other. Grant decided not to attack in such a confined area and made plans for another flank march to his left. He ordered the wrecking of the railroads to prevent their use by the Confederates. Several miles of the Virginia Central were destroyed by Wright’s men. The rails were pried up, the wooden cross-ties were piled and set afire with the rails on top of the fires.

Lee moved his headquarters about three miles south to Taylorsville sometime during the day. He was still stricken and remained in bed.

After deciding to go to Lee’s left on the evening of the 25th Grant reversed his course and ordered a move to the Lee’s right. He reasoned that the initial plan would have forced his army to cross three rivers while the new plan would require crossing one river near Hanover Town. His army would also be closer to their supplies routes through the river ports.

Again the Federal high command posited that Lee’s army was “really whipped” not realizing the physical condition of the opposing general. By the 26th the disengagement of the Federal army had been accomplished.

The casualties of the Battle of North Anna were 1,973 killed or wounded for the Federals and a total of 1,251 killed, wounded or captured for the Confederates.

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