‘We Must Strike Them a Blow’ – Lee’s Nearly Perfect Plan

May 24, 1864 (Tuesday)

“If I can get one more pull at him,” said General Lee of General Grant, “I will defeat him.” Through the night, the Army of Northern Virginia had slid into place, Lee hoping that Grant would attack into his trap. The Rebel lines formed a wedge, with the apex of that wedge planted firmly upon the North Anna River. The legs, each extending away from the river, were held with the strongest of breastworks.

Situation at the North Anna - 7A.M.
Situation at the North Anna – 7A.M.

To even begin to assail Lee’s lines, Grant would necessarily have to divide his army into three parts. The troops moving against the apex would have to be kept on the north side of the river. And to attack both the right and left flanks, the men would have to cross, each column miles apart from the other. The advantage to Lee, apart from dividing his enemy’s forces into three parts, was that he could quickly usher reinforcements from one part of the line to the other. Lee’s center was held by Longstreet’s Corps, now helmed by Richard Anderson. The right was Richard Ewell’s, and the left, A.P. Hill’s.

Another hoped-for aspect of Lee’s plan was that Grant would, upon seeing many less Rebels along the river banks, believe Lee to be once more in retreat. This worked perfectly. Upon the dawn, Grant saw for himself and wanted to hit Lee while he was on the road. His army would use three separate crossings. The center, the Ninth Corps, under Ambrose Burnside, would hit Ox Ford, while the left, at the Chesterfield Bridge and the railroad bridge, would be spanned by Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. The Army of the Potomac’s right, which had already crossed the day previous, would advance from Jericho Mills. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps would be followed by Horatio Wright’s Sixth. The Virginia Central Railroad was the objective.

Through the early morning, Warren’s skirmishers slipped across the open spaces and woods to the railroad, reporting that A.P. Hill’s corps had fallen back. It appeared that Lee was indeed in retreat. With this news, Grant wrote Washington at 8am: “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna; we are in pursuit.” Grant now made preparations to catch Lee from behind with Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, holed up at Bermuda Hundred. “I will probably know to-day if the enemy intends standing behind South Anna.”

 digitized item thumbnail Fredericksburg and Richmond RR Bridge over N. Anna. Hancock's troops crossed near here.
digitized item thumbnail
Fredericksburg and Richmond RR Bridge over N. Anna. Hancock’s troops crossed near here.

The South Anna River was, at this point, six miles south of her northern sister. Grant assumed that if the retreating Lee was to stop anywhere before diving behind the defenses of Richmond, it would be along the South Anna.

General Meade, just as certain the Rebels were falling back as Grant, then ordered Hancock to cross at Chesterfield Bridge and below. This they did, but not without opposition. From what all suspected was merely a strong rear guard, the Federals received a hail of iron and lead. The beauty of Lee’s lines was that due to the lay of the land and the woodlots throughout, apart from the apex, they could not be seen from the river.

Hancock’s corps poured across the North Anna, and shortly after 9:30am, all three of his divisions were on her south banks. And now, with two corps crossed on the right, and one corps on the left, it left only Burnside’s Ninth Corps on the north side of the water, his way barred at Ox Ford.

The ford was held, but nobody could say by how many Rebels. General Hancock had detached a brigade to brush away what they must have believed to be only a strong skirmish line or perhaps a couple of regiments. What they found was the apex and upper right of Lee’s new lines. They caught hell in the form of bullets and cannister, and they fled for their lives.

Quarles Mill - near Jericho Mills. Fifth Corps used both crossings.
Quarles Mill – near Jericho Mills. Fifth Corps used both crossings.

While Hancock called upon Burnside for reinforcements, Burnside decided to send a division to a crossing between his own blocked way and that near Jericho Mills, which had been used by Warren’s Fifth Corps. And so upstream he threw a division under Thomas Crittenden, and they crossed at Quarle’s Mill. Additionally, he also sent one to Hancock.

Around noon, General Grant, still convinced that it was only a rear guard, liked the plan and attached another division, this under Samuel Crawford, to the one ready to cross at Quarle’s Mill. So certain that Lee was retreating, Grant began to make plans for the following day. By night, he wanted his entire army across, believing that it would be just that simple. In two columns, they were to stab toward Richmond, catching Lee’s army along the way.

 Situation at the North Anna - 1 P.M.
Situation at the North Anna – 1 P.M.

General Crawford’s division had crossed with the rest of the Fifth Corps and had only to advance along the river bank to Quarle’s Mill. Crittenden’s division, however, had to cross. By 3pm, this had begun. The first of Crittenden’s brigades across and ready was that of James Ledlie. This single brigade advanced down the river toward Ox Ford and the Rebel apex that they believed to be only a rear guard. With the dreams of outflanking it and prying the enemy from Ox Ford, they advanced through a tangle of woods. Before long, and certainly before the left the woods, Ledlie found the Rebel lines, across an open field and entrenched along a stiff ridge, enveloped by the strongest embrasures they had ever seen.

As the storm of fire rained upon them, they could hardly fire. And when they managed to get a round off, the chances of hitting a Rebel who exposed himself over the logs topping the works were slim. And so Ledlie, by all accounts drunk, called for reinforcements. His idea was to storm the works. But not all of Crittenden’s division was yet across and he could spare no regiments to their cause. Then Crittenden pleaded that they not attack unless perfectly certain of victory.

The messenger returned, but it was too late. It was 6:30. A thunderstorm had blackened the sky, kicking up wind and throwing lightening and Ledlie would wait no longer. His brigade advanced, hurling its mass toward the embattlements. Across the open field, the men were fastly falling by shot and shell. The slaughter was great and Ledlie’s attack was dismantled. The left side of the Confederate apex would hold.

Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna River.
Party of the 50th New York Engineers building a road on the south bank of the North Anna River.

Lee now had what he wanted – Grant’s army was divided into three parts. He had only to launch his men at one of them to destroy no less than a quarter of the Federal forces against him. To all around Lee’s headquarters, Hancock’s Second Corps appeared to be the best target. But General Lee had grown seriously ill. The day previous, he had taken to riding only in a carriage, and on this day, he was bed ridden, wracked with painful dysentery, which allowed him to do little more than tend to his bodily functions.

Through this, it is said that Lee was determined to attack. “We must strike them a blow,” he was to have gritted through his pain. “We must never let them pass us again. We must strike them a blow.” But today, even if Lee had actually wanted it, it could not happen. Whatever trust Lee had in his corps commanders was not enough to convince him that they might be victorious. A.P. Hill, on the left had disappointed him the previous evening in allowing Warren’s Fifth Corps to cross the river. Richard Anderson, holding the center with Longstreet’s Corps, was new to command and only a temporary surrogate. And on the right, Richard Ewell was feeling only slightly better than General Lee, afflicted with the same illness.

 Federal troops occupying line of breastworks on the north bank of the North Anna.
Federal troops occupying line of breastworks on the north bank of the North Anna.

General Hancock attacked, but it wasn’t with all he had. He sent a division, which soon thrown back at the Confederate defenses. And just as quickly, the Rebels counterattacked. It was, of course, completely separate from whatever Lee’s hoped-for assault might have been, but it drove home the point to Hancock that the Rebels were absolutely not in retreat. His men continued to dig trenches.

To Meade and then Grant this information flowed. Shortly after dark, at 8:20pm, Grant confessed his mistake to Ambrose Burnside. “The situation of the enemy appearing so different from what I expected,” wrote Grant, “I do not deem it advisable for you to move your wagon train to the south side of the river to-night.” Grant thought it best that Burnside hold the northern banks at Ox Ford, as the enemy was clearly not letting go of the southern. Still, Grant wanted him to continue with the plan of dividing his corps, sending two divisions to Hancock and one to Quarle’s Mill. Of course, Burnside had already accomplished that, keeping one division for himself at Ox Ford. This way, Grant’s army was more or less separated into two columns with a division linking them.

As for Lee, if there ever actually was an opportunity to attack Grant, it had fled. The northern lines had curled as echoes around his own, and while his defenses were strong and unassailable, so too were the Federals’.

Grant: “Our lines covered his front, with the six miles separating the two wings guarded by but a single division. To get from one wing to the other the river would have to be crossed twice. Lee could reinforce any part of his line from all points of it in a very short march; or could concentrate the whole of it wherever he might choose to assault. We were, for the time, practically two armies besieging.”1

Situation at the North Anna - 9 A.M., May 25 (the next day).
Situation at the North Anna – 9 A.M., May 25 (the next day).

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 3, p145; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Robert E. Lee by John Esten Cooke; 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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‘We Must Strike Them a Blow’ – Lee’s Nearly Perfect Plan by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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