The Unexpected Race to the North Anna

May 21, 1864 (Saturday)

Massaponax Church, photographed on May 21, 1864
Massaponax Church, photographed on May 21, 1864

They may not have known it, but they were bait. Shortly before midnight, the 20,000 men of Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps were on the march. They had been moved away from the main Federal lines at Spotsylvania, and held at the ready by General Grant. The day previous, it was decided that Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could not be whipped in their present embattled positions. They would have to be convinced to leave the entrenchments so that Grant’s army could hit them in the open.

This was where the bait came in. The Second Corps was to march southeast to Guinea Station and then south along the railroad to Bowling Green, taking care that their going should be well known to the enemy. Lee would, if Grant correctly predicted, start out after him, and the remaining three corps of the Federal army could then be let loose upon the Rebels.

On their path to Guinea Station, the Second Corps crossed the south-running Telegraph Road. It was this road that Grant planned to use to move against what he believed would be Lee’s left flank as the Rebels gave chase to Hancock.

It was hoped that with dawn, and not before, the Confederates would spot Hancock and make their move. But that was not how it happened. General Lee received word of Hancock’s column around 1am. At this time, the Federal march had reached Massaponax Church and were halted in wait of their cavalry. Lee immediately ordered Richard Ewell’s Corps to hold Telegraph Road, believing that this was the route Grant would take directly south. By 4am, Ewell was in motion, but not in pursuit of Hancock’s Corps.

Also at 4am, Hancock’s men were marching past Guinea Station, turning south toward Bowling Green. The Fifth Corps, helmed by Gouverneur K. Warren, was to march at dawn, directly south down Telegraph Road. Even before dawn, Confederate cavalry at a signal station near a wooden bridge spanning the Mattaponi River, caught sight of Hancock’s march. This bridge, and another nearby, were to link Hancock and Warren’s Corps when the time was right.

Bridge across the Mattaponi River. Drawn on May 22, 1864
Bridge across the Mattaponi River. Drawn on May 22, 1864

Ewell’s move was detected early, but General George Meade, still commander of he Army of the Potomac, did nothing about it until dawn, when he sent scouts (not skirmishers) to investigate the Confederate front. General Warren was certain – the Rebels still manned their trenches, they were not in motion. All appeared to be as Grant foresaw.

But there was one thing that had always troubled Grant. There was a chance that Lee would not only go after the bait, but consume it whole before the rest of the Federal army could hit the Rebel flank. With the early reports of Ewell’s movement, Grant was pensive for a spell, but soon more at ease upon hearing word from Warren that the Rebels were unmoved. Word from Hancock, telling of entrenched Rebel cavalry at the Mattaponi River bridge made Grant believe that Lee was indeed taking the bait. Now was the time for Warren. At 9:30am, he was ordered south along Telegraph Road, with instructions to hold the intersection at Mud Tavern, just west of Guinea Station.


But now was also the time for Ewell, who had already reached Mud Tavern. Grant learned of this just as Warren’s Corps was about to step off. He now had two choices. Lee, perhaps accidentally, had out-generaled him. He could either send Warren to battle Ewell or shift him along the route taken by Hancock. Grant chose the latter, declining battle, but essentially outflanked Lee. Hancock had, by this time, bypassed the Mattaponi bridge and reached Bowling Green.

Both Grant and Meade followed until reaching Massaponax Church, where they established their headquarters, held a council of war, and ignored photographer Timothy O’Sullivan.

To Lee, Hancock’s Corps was just the vanguard. He reasoned that Grant’s entire army was on the move, safely marching with several rivers between the two forces. Interception was nearly impossible, and remaining any longer at Spotsylvania would leave Richmond uncovered. But neither could he move, as two Federal corps still remained in their trenches. Yet, if he did nothing, Hancock’s Corps would clear the path all the way to Hanover Junction.

Grant and staff, with Meade, captured on this date by Timothy O'Sullivan.
Grant and staff, with Meade, captured on this date by Timothy O’Sullivan.

This is where John Breckinridge came into the picture. After his victory at New Market in the Shenandoah Valley, he moved his force to Lee’s far rear – at Hanover Junction. Just north of the Junction was the North Anna River, which was held by not only Breckinridge’s men, but a brigade or two of Fitz Lee’s Cavalry.

Hancock marched on, leaving Bowling Green for Milford Station, where they filed into line along the western side of the Mattaponi River. There, he encountered not Breckinridge’s men, but two brigades from George Pickett’s Division. The Federals began to dig in, while the Rebels, now including cavalry, probed their position.

General Meade wished for Hancock to continue on, but Hancock was unsure. Before him was a gathering Rebel division, and he had no clear idea of the location of the rest of Lee’s army. But most of Lee’s army was still in their trenches at Spotsylvania. Only Ewell’s Corps plunged south along Telegraph Road.

General Grant would explain after the war, “Lee now had a superb opportunity to take the initiative either by attacking [Horatio] Wright and [Ambrose] Burnside [commanding the two Federal corps remaining at Spotsylvania] alone, or by following the Telegraph Road and striking Hancock’s and Warren’s corps, or even Hancock’s alone, before reinforcements could come up.”

With this in mind, late in the afternoon, Grant ordered his army to concentrate. He was, for the time being, going on the defensive. He issued orders for Hancock and Warren to remain where they were, and for Burnside and Wright to move south along Telegraph Road.

Grant and Meade looking over a map.
Grant and Meade looking over a map.

Lee, too, now thought of concentration, but first needed to know if the Federals remained behind their entrenchments. He launched a line of skirmishers who, when they hit the Yankee works, discovered them only lightly defended. Grant was gone.

Burnside and Wright’s march was slow and cautious, marching first south along Telegraph Road and then turning back after meeting some Rebel resistance. This about-face caused chaos as the two corps brushed by each other. It would take the better part of the evening to sort it out.

By nightfall, Grant’s army was in disarray. In the end, Burnside would follow Hancock’s and Warren’s route. This bought more than enough time for Lee’s army to leave Spotsylvania and stream south toward the North Anna River. Both Grant and Lee had missed opportunities on this day, but for Grant more such opportunities would come. Lee was running out of land above Richmond.1

  1. Sources: Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Meade’s Headquarters by Theodore Lyman; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau; To the North Anna River by Gordon C. Rhea. []
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The Unexpected Race to the North Anna by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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