The battle of the North Anna took place on May 23-24, 1864, and was the third battle of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. This is one of Robert E. Lee’s last great opportunities to strike a blow against the Army of the Potomac.
Located in Caroline and Hannover County, Virginia, the North Anna battlefield is today preserved by the Richmond National Battlefield Park, the American Battlefield Trust, and the Hannover County Parks. Notable sites are Lee’s Inverted V earthwork defense and the Mount Carmel Church used as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters.
One of the lesser-known battles of the American Civil War and the third battle of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. This is one of Robert E. Lee’s last great opportunities to strike a blow against the Army of the Potomac.
After a two-week bloody stalemate at Spotsylvania Court House, on May 21, 1864, Gen. Grant will start to withdraw to the southwest in the hopes of luring Gen. Lee out into the open.
Gen. Lee will win the race to the next natural defensive barrier to the south, on the south bank of the North Anna River.
At this point, both armies were totally exhausted from constant marching and fighting since May 5, 1864. Gen. Grant’s war of attrition began to take a serious toll on Gen. Lee’s health who will be ill and must ride in the back of the carriage.
After serious Union casualties at Spotsylvania Court House and the last major Confederate reinforcements from Richmond to arrive just prior to battle, both armies will be the most evenly matched they will ever be with 67,000 Union versus 53,000 Confederates. This will prove to be one of Gen. Lee’s last great opportunities to strike a blow against the Union Army.
While Gen. Lee sat on the porch of the Fox House enjoying a glass of buttermilk, the sound of artillery announced the arrival of Gen. Grant which would open the third battle of the Overland Campaign. Gen. Grant will attempt to cross the North Anna River and strike the rebels at two different locations.
On May 23, 1864, Gen. Grant’s left wing under Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock will charge an ensconced Confederate brigade at Henagan’s Redoubt and capture the Chesterfield Bridge intact along the vital Telegraph Road. The Federals will hold their positions as it gets dark.
Meanwhile, on the same day, Gen. Grant’s right wing under Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren was nervously crossing his corps at Jericho Mills. One of A.P. Hill’s Confederate Divisions brought on a bold and aggressive attack that sent the Federals reeling back. U.S. artillery arrived in time, unlimbered, and repelled the charging rebels before they could push the Federals back into the river.
That evening, Gen. Lee’s Chief Engineer Martin Luther Smith, the architect of the Vicksburg defenses, came up with an innovative defense to set a trap for the Federals. Using natural geography and taking advantage of a series of dominating ridges, a series of earthworks would form an inverted-v shape.
As the Federals pressed forward, the inverted-v would divide the Union army. A portion of Lee’s army could then spring the trap and destroy a Union Corps before it could be supported.
On May 24, 1864, the Federals moved forward and started to engage with the rebels in their fortified earthworks. As Gen. Lee lay in his tent ill hearing the guns, he would say, “We must strike them a blow, we must strike them a blow!”
The opportunity to spring the trap slipped between the rebels’ fingers as Gen. Grant caught onto Gen. Lee’s plans and withdrew his forces to safety. Without a competent rebel commander to spring the trap, Gen. Lee emerged as the most indispensable man in the Confederacy.
Both sides would entrench, and another stalemate would ensue. Gen. Grant would once again withdraw and move to the southeast using the Pamunkey River to screen his army as he got closer to the gates of Richmond.
After this stalemate, Union casualties would total 2,600 while the Confederates had 1,600 casualties.
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