Why the Civil War Battle of North Anna River Was so Terrible

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February 29, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Civil WarUnionConfederacyNorth Anna RiverRichmond

Why the Civil War Battle of North Anna River Was so Terrible

It proved the war would not end anytime soon. 

Dripping wet Union soldiers stepped out of the North Anna River’s Jericho Ford on May 22, 1864, setting foot in Hanover County, Virginia. Concerned with building fires to boil their coffee, they were unaware that Confederate General Robert E. Lee observed them through a spyglass from a high vantage point. The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was evaluating the degree to which they threatened his left flank.

Too sick to mount a horse, Lee took a carriage from his headquarters to the location. Racked with an intensifying intestinal ailment and a high temperature, he dismissed the distant Yankees from his worries. Lee believed the Army of the Potomac’s main force intended to cross the river somewhere downstream. “This is nothing but a feint,” Lee said as he dictated orders to Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, commander of the Confederate III Corps, instructing him to remain in camp.

Hill’s troops had just completed a 30-mile march from Spotsylvania and were bivouacked at Anderson’s Station. Although Hill was responsible for covering Jericho Ford, he had failed to do so. But Lee’s intuition was dulled by his illness. On the heels of the little vanguard that crossed the North Anna were four divisions of Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps.

After the enormous Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, Union General Ulysses S. Grant could well have halted for a few weeks’ recovery from the ceaseless carnage and heavy casualties they had endured. Instead, Grant shifted to his left and sought new battlegrounds. Heartened by Grant’s determination, and on the move against Lee once again, more than one Yankee sang “Ain’t I glad I’m out of the Wilderness” as he marched.

No one from either side would regret leaving the dark and tangled woods of the Wilderness. Nor would anyone object to departing from the trampled and muddy grounds of the Mule Shoe salient near Spotsylvania Courthouse. Ten days of grinding battle from May 5 to May 15 had cost the Union 36,872 casualties. Newspaper headlines amplified the appalling losses across the North. The enlistment terms of thousands of Grant’s men would end within a few months. A great many soldiers looked forward only to escaping from the blood-soaked battlefields of Virginia and getting home. Winning a significant victory now would bolster Northern morale and ensure reenlistments as well as more new recruits.

Confederate losses at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were fewer than Grant’s losses; however, Grant could replenish his army from the North’s greater population. The North had a steady flow of immigrants. Additionally, former slaves and freemen joined the growing Union ranks of the United States Colored Troops.

Another loss weighed very heavily on the Rebels. Maj. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan clashed on May 12 with Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart’s cavalry at Yellow Tavern. Sheridan drove the Confederate cavalry from the field, and Stuart was mortally wounded during the battle. Stuart’s loss was a stunning blow to Southern morale, similar to the loss of Stonewall Jackson almost one year before.

Leading the way for Grant was Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps. These troops broke camp near Spotsylvania on the night of May 20. Cavalry under Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert rendezvoused with them to screen their march. Warren’s V Corps and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps moved out the next day. Wright’s VI Corps remained behind a few more hours to divert Confederate attention from the Union shift.

Lee learned of movement on Grant’s left on May 21. With the keen eye of a military engineer, Lee saw the next good line of defense was the North Anna River, less than 25 miles north of Richmond. Named for England’s Queen Anne, the North Anna was a small nonnavigable river. Because it cut deeply through steep banks, it made an excellent defensive barrier. Each of Lee’s three army corps left Spotsylvania and marched toward the North Anna.

Of Lee’s three principal officers, Lt. Gens. Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill, commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia’s II and III Corps, respectively, were worn down by poor health. His I Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson, was in good health, but he was brand new to this high level of military responsibility. Anderson replaced Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who had been severely wounded on May 6 in the Wilderness.

On May 22, Hancock’s column turned onto the Telegraph Road, which led southeast to cross the North Anna at Chesterfield Bridge (also known as the County Bridge), about half a mile upstream from the bridge of the Richmond, Fredericksburg, & Potomac Railroad. Their southbound march would take them to Hanover Junction, which was where the RF&P intersected with the Virginia Central Railroad. Their march would put them one and a half miles beyond the North Anna River and 25 miles north of Richmond

Grant halted at a plantation near the Mattaponi River that afternoon. He and some staff officers conversed with two stiffly polite secessionist ladies who lived in the house. Burnside, who was leading his IX Corps south for a rendezvous with Lee’s army, rode into the yard and joined the party on the porch. Burnside addressed one of the women, unaware that she had stayed for some time in Richmond at a house with a view of the prisoner of war camp at Belle Isle. When Burnside asked, “I don’t suppose, madame, that you ever saw so many Yankee soldiers before?” Grant and the staff officers burst out laughing when she replied, “Not at liberty, sir.”

Lee had grasped Grant’s intentions quickly enough that both Ewell’s and Anderson’s troops began filing into Hanover Junction on May 22, comfortably ahead of Hancock. Lee set up headquarters at the Miller House, just northwest of the rail junction. His soldiers entrenched to await the arrival of Grant’s army.

The 43rd North Carolina of Brig. Gen. Bryan Grimes’s brigade shambled into Hanover Junction early the next morning after an all-night march. The Tarheels had little time to rest before being put to work on a line of earthworks northwest of the junction, facing the river between the Chesterfield Bridge and the railroad bridge.

Grant approached the North Anna on May 23. Warren’s V Corps on the Union right headed toward an intended crossing at Jericho Ford. Wright’s VI Corps followed behind.

On their left, Hancock’s II Corps marched down the Telegraph Road, which crossed the North Anna at Chesterfield Bridge about a half mile west of the railroad bridge. Between Warren and Hancock, Burnside’s IX Corps marched toward Ox Ford.

Hancock’s front paralleled the stretch of the North Anna looming ahead of them. Union Army maps omitted Long Creek, a stream flowing roughly parallel with the river before turning south to empty into the North Anna between the bridges. For a time, Hancock mistakenly thought he had reached the North Anna, but he found the real river soon enough. Both bridges were intact when he arrived.

Lee did not expect a Union advance toward the Chesterfield Bridge. Only a single Confederate brigade, Colonel John W. Henagan’s South Carolinians, was north of the river. A former sheriff of Marlboro County, South Carolina, Henagan had been reelected to the state legislature the previous fall.

Henagan and the 2nd South Carolina held a small redoubt. A post-battle Union map shows it laid out like a partial pentagon, with its point aimed slightly northwest, in a line parallel with the road. The rear side was open. Built the year before to protect the North Anna bridges, the work was perched on high ground just before the terrain drops down toward the river. Its earthen walls were protected in front by deep ditches. The rest of Henagan’s brigade held lines of rifle pits on either side of the little dirt bastion. Henagan knew of Hancock’s advance, so he sent couriers requesting reinforcements or orders, but no one replied.

As the II Corps approached, Maj. Gen. David Birney’s 3,000-man division moved toward Henagan’s redoubt. The South Carolinians poured heavy fire into Birney’s division as they rushed across the open ground and then cascaded into the ditch fronting the walls of “Henagan’s Redoubt.” With the ditch about five feet deep, they faced a climb of 10 feet to scramble up the steep face of the redoubt.

Without scaling ladders, Birney’s men had to improvise. Sergeant William T. Lobb of the 141st Pennsylvania called out to a fellow noncommissioned officer, “Mount my shoulders!” As Lobb leaned his head and hands against the earthen walls, Sergeant John T.R. Seagraves climbed on his shoulders up to the parapet. Lobb later could not remember how many of his comrades followed Seagraves up that human ladder, but Lobb did see Seagraves holding the regimental colors atop the works.

Near Lobb, Sergeant James Anderson bore the colors of the 72nd New York (also known as the Third Excelsior Regiment) into the ditch. Several of his comrades made steps by sticking their bayonets into the bank and holding up their muskets. Anderson clambered up the makeshift stairway and waved the Union colors over the works.