Northern Virginia: Race to the North Anna

May 20, 1864 – Major fighting between the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stopped as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant prepared to make another move.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Since Grant led the Federal army across the Rapidan River on the 4th, he had lost 36,065 killed, wounded, or missing in the Wilderness and around Spotsylvania Court House. Almost another 20,000 left the army due to illness, desertion, or enlistment expiration. Thus, the 122,000-man army that had begun this campaign was reduced to about 66,000 in less than three weeks.

For the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee had lost over 20,000 men in the same timeframe from combat and illness. Though this was far less than Grant, Lee could ill afford such losses considering his army only numbered about 65,000 men when the campaign began. He now had closer to 40,000 troops, and even worse, his cavalry commander (Jeb Stuart) was killed, his top corps commander (James Longstreet) was put out of action, and his other two corps commanders (Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill) were gravely ill.

The Confederates had scored tactical victories in every engagement of the campaign thus far, but the Federals had secured the strategic advantage by gradually moving southeast after each contest and getting closer to Richmond. And if this became a war of attrition, the Federals would surely win.

After 12 days of the most intense fighting of the war at Spotsylvania, the 20th was relatively quiet, with the men on both sides remaining behind their fortifications for the most part. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy has continued quiet to-day; he is taking ground toward our right and intrenching, but whether for attack or defense is not apparent.”

President Jefferson Davis wrote a long letter to Lee about the action on other fronts. Davis described how P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates drove Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James away from Richmond and bottled him up at Bermuda Hundred. He also relayed news of John C. Breckinridge’s remarkable Confederate victory at New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. In response to Lee’s request for reinforcements, Davis replied that he could now have most of Breckinridge’s force, as well as 6,000 troops from Beauregard under Major Generals George Pickett and Robert F. Hoke.

Davis shared Beauregard’s idea that Lee “should fall back to the line of the Chickahominy, and that he (Beauregard) should move up with 15,000 men to unite with Breckinridge and fall upon the flank of Grant’s army, which it is presumed will be following yours, and after the success to be obtained there, he (Beauregard) should hasten back, reinforced by you, to attack Butler’s forces, after an absence of three, and not to exceed four, days.”

This was a very daring and (characteristically) elaborate plan by Beauregard. Davis was skeptical, not only because of the risk involved, but because it would involve Lee’s army retreating to the Chickahominy River. Davis wrote, “How far the morale of your army would be affected by a retrograde movement, no one can judge as well as yourself. It would certainly encourage the enemy.” Rather than reject the plan, Davis asked for Lee’s opinion:

“You are better informed than any other can be of the necessities of your position, at least as well informed as any other of the wants and dangers of the country in your rear, including the railroad and other lines of communication, and I cannot do better than to leave your judgment to reach its own conclusions.”

Davis then updated Lee on events in Georgia, including Joseph E. Johnston’s many retreats:

“I cannot judge of the circumstances which caused Genl Johnston to retire from Dalton to Calhoun. He may have been willing to allow the enemy to pass the (Rocky Face) Ridge and may prefer to fight him on the Etowah River. I hope the future will prove the wisdom of his course, and that we shall hereafter reap advantages that will compensate for the present disappointment.”

Meanwhile, Lee knew that Grant would not stay quiet for long. He called on Breckinridge to send every available man to Hanover Junction, an important railroad intersection just south of the North Anna River, which Lee guessed that Grant would target. Sure enough, Grant issued orders for another southeastern movement, around Lee’s right flank toward Hanover Junction.

Some Confederates began expressing frustration with the constant marching and fighting, having never before faced such a relentless enemy commander. One Confederate wrote, “We have met a man, this time, who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole Army.”

Some Federals began expressing frustration as well. While they had initially been emboldened by Grant’s refusal to retreat, they now began noting that after every major confrontation, they were the ones to disengage and move to different ground, despite their superiority in manpower, armament, and supplies.

Hoping to force Lee into the open, Grant directed just one corps–Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s–to make the move. If Lee attacked this isolated force, Grant could then hit Lee’s vulnerable left flank at Spotsylvania with his remaining three corps. If Lee did not attack, Grant could still gain an advantage by Hancock reaching the North Anna ahead of the Confederates.

Lee learned of Hancock’s movement at 1 a.m. on the 21st and, unwilling to leave Spotsylvania yet, extended Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps to block the Telegraph Road, thinking that Hancock would be using this thoroughfare to push south. Ewell’s Confederates began moving toward the road at 4 a.m. At 9:30, Grant directed another corps–Major General Gouverneur Warren’s–to follow Hancock on a parallel route down the Telegraph Road, unaware that it was blocked.

When Grant learned of Ewell’s presence, he directed Warren to change direction and follow the same route that Hancock took. Hancock’s Federals moved through Guinea Station and reached Bowling Green at dawn. They then continued to Milford Station, where they encountered newly arrived Confederates under Pickett. Hancock, now aware that Lee’s army was being reinforced, halted until he could gauge the enemy’s strength.

With Confederates now at Milford Station, the Telegraph Road, and Spotsylvania, the Federal army was dangerously strung out in enemy territory. Grant therefore ordered his remaining two corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and Ambrose E. Burnside to leave their trenches at Spotsylvania and join the rest of the army. Burnside’s Federals moved out first, heading down the Telegraph Road and then changing direction just as Warren did and moving toward Guinea Station instead. Wright followed Burnside.

Scouts informed Lee that the Federal trenches at Spotsylvania were empty, so Lee directed his remaining corps under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Jubal Early to move south to the North Anna River. The Confederates had the advantage of moving along interior roads and thus arrived there before the Federals. Not only did Grant fail to coax Lee into attacking Hancock, but he failed to be the first to reach the North Anna as well.


References; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20305-12, 20404; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5129-39, 5591-601, 5658-78; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-43; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7142-53; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-30; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551 | 709

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