May 26, 1864 (Thursday)
General Lee had already lost 25,500 men since the Federal Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock River earlier this month. It was nearly 40% of his force, now numbering, with reinforcements, 64,000. General Grant had lost more. 40,000 had been killed or wounded since his crossing. Still, they numbered 111,000, having received almost enough reinforcements to recoup his losses.
Three times had his army been beaten by Lee’s, and yet twice he had not retreated. Instead, he moved south – always south toward Richmond, around Lee’s right flank. But this, the third such time, would be different. He had called a council of war the night previous to discuss their next move. It was held as given that a front assault upon Lee’s lines would be suicide. While General Meade, commander of the army, wanted to yet again move along Lee’s right, Grant and others called for a shift to the enemy’s left. This would, they submitted, catch the Rebels off guard and cut off any supplies coming from the Shenandoah Valley. The next day, they would move.
Almost as soon as they decided to move on the Confederate left, General Lee was aware of their machinations. “From present indication,” wrote Lee, “he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank. And in turn, Grant, almost as swiftly changed his mind.
“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify,” wrote Grant to Washington on this date. “To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”
And now, the two armies were stalemated along the North Anna River, twenty-five miles north of Richmond. Still, Grant’s army was in a precarious position, divided now into two large wings, each unable to aid the other without twice crossing the North Anna River. As a remedy, Grant ordered his army whole again, pulling the right wing to the northern banks.
The rains were ceaseless all through this day. The rivers rose and the roads were churned to paste. As an echo to his previous plan, Grant sent cavalry towards Lee’s left, feigning as if to clear the way for infantry.
Still suffering from the pangs of dysentery, Lee delved into varying reports received from his own scouts and cavalry. There was most definitely activity on the Federal right, but what it meant, he could not deduce. And so on his right, Lee ordered skirmishers forward, to at least uncover something of the Federal intentions. When the Northerners pushed back, however, Lee began to consider that they might be massing their forces on his right for an attack.
As the day wore on, the Confederates grew more certain that an assault was about to be thrust upon them from the Union left – specifically from the Second Corps, commanded by Winfield Scott Hancock. But as the afternoon failed, and the rumble of wagons from behind the Federal lines continued, a movement seemed more likely. As the Union cavalry still maneuvered on his left, Lee continued with the suspicion that Grant was about to slip west, rather than his more typical east.
Grant was, of course, moving east, around Lee’s right. While some of his cavalry played upon Lee’s left, still more rode from behind Union lines, twenty miles down the North Anna river toward Hanovertown. Both the North and South Anna Rivers formed the Pamunkey southeast of Lee’s lines. The Hanovertown crossing would bring them nearly between Lee’s own army and Richmond.
That night, Grant’s lines along the North Anna were evacuated and the troops began to follow the cavaliers. By dawn the next morning, they were empty, and General Lee received word of the crossing at Hanovertown. By then, he would know Grant’s intentions to turn his eastern flank, but knew nothing of the overall Federal plans.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 3, p834; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; To the North Anna River by Gordon C. Rhea; Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andrew Trudeau. [↩]