May 23, 1864 (Monday)
This army is now lying south of the North Anna,” wrote General Lee to Jefferson Davis. He was not yet ready to return to the defensive, and believed that Grant’s Army of the Potomac was not about to settle in for a frontal attack across the river. Rather, thought Lee, Grant would continue moving south. “Whatever route he pursues,” Lee concluded, “I am in a position to move against him, and shall endeavor to engage him while in motion.”
But that was not Grant’s mind. While he would have loved to rest, gathering reinforcements all the while, Grant instead ordered his nearly-concentrated army to array themselves along a wide front. From the intersection at Mt. Carmel Church, Grant sent both Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps and Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps south along Telegraph Road, which paralleled the railroad. Westerly, he sent both Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps and Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps. On this day, they were to cross the North Anna and attack Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
This day would be long in the making, as the Union troops filed into position. Their mornings were early, and they were on the march by dawn. All through the afternoon, they passed Mt. Carmel Church, some moving south, others to the west. Orders from either Generals Grant or Meade were vague and the two corps commanders from each wing relied upon common sense and fortune to find their way to the North Anna. Lack of accurate maps played the roll of keeping things frustrating.
The left column, led by Hancock’s Second Corps, was to cross at Chesterfield Ford. There was, however, no Chesterfield Ford – only Chesterfield Bridge, which might have been what Grant meant, or it perhaps not. With army headquarters several miles back, there was no time to confer, and they decided that the bridge would have to do.
Leading the right column, General Warren’s confusion was even greater, being told by Grant only to cross upriver from Hancock at Jericho Bridge. But again, no Jericho Bridge existed. There was, however, a ford not too far away from Jericho Mills. Finding it was another matter. Warren’s only guide was an aged black man who last visited the ford fifty years before. Behind their respective fronts, both Burnside and Wright followed with much less trouble.
General Lee was not expecting Grant to cross the North Anna in his front, and had done nothing at all to build anything more for the defense than a picket line. Grant had, Lee wrote to this wife, “become tired of forcing his passage through us.” From the looks of things through the morning, he was right. No sign was there of the Yankees, and his men received a much-needed rest.
His army was dispersed in separate encampments from Ewell’s Corps at Hanover Junction on the right to Hill’s Corps four miles to the west at Anderson’s Tavern. Hill had previously occupied a plot across from Jericho Mills, but Lee moved the corps closer to Hanover Junction believing that he would be able to launch a strike against Grant, who he deemed was about to appear to the east. Hill left a small regiment at the old campsite.
To the front, and the only organized force north of the river, was the cavalry. And before noon, they were tumbling back, followed closely by the Federals. They battled at the river, but it was clear that at least a part of Grant’s army was close at hand. Lee believed that, if anything, this was Grant’s extreme right flank. In reality, it was his left.
The first Federal troops to cross the river were Warren’s. “I do not believe the enemy intends holding the North Anna,” he concluded after facing not opposition at all. Meade ordered Warren to cross and entrench. Warren’s crossing was uncontested, but not unnoticed. The scant Rebel force remaining concluded that it was only Federal cavalry.
In the meanwhile, Hancock was nearing the Chesterfield Bridge, and Burnside was ordered to fall in on his right flank to Ox Ford, becoming he Federal center. Wright’s Sixth Corps was to move even farther up the river to Warren’s right. This would bring three of Grant’s four corps in on Lee’s unsuspecting left flank.
Three South Carolina regiments held a small redoubt north of the river at the Chesterfield Bridge. Hancock, unknowing of their true number, was doubting that the position could be taken. After a bit of probing, he was certain. “No crossing of the river can be forced here at present,” he reported, “as all accounts agree that the enemy are in force, and there is a creek between us and the river, with obstacles.” Regardless, he sent forward a brigade, arrayed the rest of his corps, and opened his artillery.
From his headquarters, General Lee watched Hancock’s troops along Telegraph Road crossing the North Anna along the Chesterfield Bridge. They unlimbered their guns, and Federal shells streamed across the sky. Word then came that enemy troops had crossed at Jericho Mills. Lee, feeling unwell, climbed into a carriage and was driven near the crossing to see for himself. After viewing it with his own eyes, he explained the situation to Jubal Early. “This is nothing but a feint,” he was to have said, “the enemy is crossing below.”
And by “below,” he meant Hancock’s men. The Second Corps troops soon attacked, carrying the bridge much more easily than they imagined they might. “The bridge was carried quickly,” recalled Grant, “the enemy retreating over it so hastily that many were shoved into the river, and some of them were drowned.”
Taking Lee at his word, Early sent a division under Cadmus Wilcox – far too few men to challenge a corps. But when reports that the Federals at Jericho Mills were encamping and cooking rations reached him, Wilcox was determined to throw them back, however many there were. It was 6pm.
From the start, Wilcox was met with success. His artillery dismantled near a division of infantry, while his own infantry took care of another. Still another Union division was broken just as they formed. But in the end, there were too many. The Federal artillery replied and Wilcox could do nothing more. A counterattack launched by a single Union brigade upon Wilcox’s right flank began the end. The Rebels retreated, uncovering another flank. With no other choice remaining, Wilcox called for a general retreat.
At last, General Lee could see the true danger he faced. “The General [Lee] send for all his staff and there was a consultation of Gens. Lee, Ewell, Anderson, and others, under a large oak,” wrote topography Jed Hotchkiss in the journal. With both A.P. Hill and Jubal Early apparently absent, Lee, following the advice of advice of an engineer, decided to set a trap for Grant.
Hanover Junction was too important to abandon without a fight. He would form a salient, a line shaped like a large V, with the apex resting at Ox Ford on the North Anna. This seemed like an incredibly bad idea on the surface, but the genius was in the making. As he pulled troops back to form the legs of the V, Grant, hoped Lee, would assume that the entire Rebel army was in retreat.
Lee predicted that Grant would cross at three points, thus dividing his army into three separate columns. They could not all attack at once, and here Lee had the advantage. With the interior lines inherent in a salient position, Lee could shift his troops where needed and destroy Grant’s piecemeal attacks as they were hurled. Through the night, the lines would be constructed, and in the morning, it was hoped, Grant would attack.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. [↩]