May 24, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee positioned his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to invite a Federal attack and waited for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to take the bait.
Lee’s army formed an inverted “V” with its apex pointing north, anchored at Ox Ford on the North Anna River. The left side of the V ran southwest, and the right side ran southeast, guarding the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction.
Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Grant in overall command, held a line running from northwest to southeast of Ox Ford. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on the southern bank of the river at Jericho Mills to the northwest. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps crossed behind Warren on the morning of the 24th, and both corps marched to the Virginia Central Railroad around 11 a.m.
To the southeast, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps faced Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederates guarding Ox Ford. To Burnside’s left, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps threatened the river crossings at Chesterfield Bridge and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad bridge farther downstream.
The bulk of Hancock’s corps pushed its way across the Chesterfield Bridge at 8 a.m. Major General John Gibbon’s division under Hancock approached the railroad bridge but discovered that Confederates had destroyed it. The Federals improvised by felling a tree and using it to span the river.
Grant saw that the Federals were crossing with ease, unaware that this was part of Lee’s trap. He telegraphed Washington, “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna. We are in pursuit.” Assuming that Lee would retreat to at least the South Anna River, six miles farther south, Grant wrote, “I will probably know to-day if the enemy intends standing behind South Anna.”
The Confederates opposed the Federal crossing at Ox Ford, and as Lee hoped, the Federals believed this was just a rear guard action. Burnside directed one of his divisions to move upriver and cross at Quarles Mill. Once across, they were to march back downriver to Ox Ford and attack the Confederate line from the northwest.
The Federals crossed as ordered, with Brigadier General James Ledlie’s brigade in the lead. Ledlie ordered an attack, despite signs of strong Confederate opposition ahead. Confederate infantry and artillery easily repelled the assault, during which Ledlie was drunk. A storm broke as the Federals fell back to Quarles Mill, where Ledlie actually received praise (and later a promotion) for his brigade’s gallantry under fire, despite his noticeable drunkenness.
Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps moved south from the Chesterfield and railroad bridges. The Federals were stopped by the Confederate defenders under Major General Richard H. Anderson and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. The fighting was suspended due to the thunderstorm, but when the rain slackened, the Federals still could not penetrate the strong enemy lines.
Lee now had the Federals right where he wanted them. They were divided into three segments (Warren/Wright, Burnside, and Hancock) with each one vulnerable to an overwhelming attack. But Lee could not coordinate such an assault due to exhaustion and debilitating diarrhea. Bedridden, Lee said, “We must strike them a blow–we must never let them pass again–we must strike them a blow.”
But Lee had no subordinate on which he could depend to lead the way. James Longstreet was gone with a serious wound, Jeb Stuart was dead, Richard Ewell was suffering from exhaustion, A.P. Hill was battling illness, and Richard H. Anderson was unproven as a corps commander. The Confederates stayed on the defensive.
Hancock informed Meade at 6:30 p.m. that the Confederates were dug in too strongly to be dislodged. Grant ordered a halt to all advances. He directed Burnside to use two of his divisions to connect with Hancock while keeping one at Ox Ford and one at Quarles Mill. Grant and Lee now held lines similar to each other’s, both of which were virtually impregnable. As Grant later wrote:
“Lee now had his entire army south of the North Anna. 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.”
The next morning, Warren probed Hill’s defenses and reported they were too strong to attack. Wright tried moving around Hill’s left flank but found that it was protected by Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. Burnside and Hancock held their lines but did not try advancing any further. Skirmishing broke out at various points as Federal troops wrecked about five miles of the Virginia Central Railroad, which the Confederates relied upon for supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.
The armies remained stationary on the 26th, ending major operations on the North Anna River. In the four days of fighting from the 23rd through the 26th, the Federals sustained 2,623 casualties, while the Confederates lost between 1,500 and 2,000. Lee did not consider this a Confederate success because he could not draw Grant into an open battle, but his army remained between the Federals and Richmond, and Lee retained his supply line.
Grant’s forward progress had been stopped a third time by Lee, and while Grant had skirted around Lee’s right the first two times, he was now deep in enemy territory and running out of ground to continue that maneuver.
Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 483; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7210, 7222; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 432; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-37; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507-09; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428