May 23-26, 1864: Missed Opportunity at the North Anna?


We can lie about him,
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy’s mouth,
Say “Here Lee must have thought,” and “There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt—this pang or that—” but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body



Ultimately the North Anna portion of the Overland Campaign produced little in the way of fighting.  Four skirmishes fought over four days with total casualties of 2600 for the Union and 1500 for the Confederacy, high enough for the men killed and wounded  and their families but as nothing compared to the casualties amassed at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania.  However, one tantalizing question emerges from this section of the campaign:  did the Confederates miss a golden opportunity to defeat Grant on May 24 due to the illness of General Lee.  The armies now were closer in size than they would be at any time before or later during the campaign:  68,ooo in the Army of the Potomac and 53,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee having received reinforcements, consisting of Breckinridge’s Valley force, fresh from their victory at New Market and three out of four brigades from Pickett’s James River defense force, Butler and his Army of the James now being safely bottled up.  If the Confederates were to go over on the offensive, this was their window of opportunity from a numerical standpoint.

After skirmishing on the 23rd, Lee confronted an interesting strategic situation.  Warren had his corps ready to cross the North Anna on his left at Jericho Mills.   Wright, Burnside and Hancock’s corps were still north of the North Anna confronting his center and right.  In the face of this Lee fortified his line in an inverted V with its apex on Ox Ford.  Lee hoped that Grant would assume that he was retreating and cross, allowing Lee to use his inverted V fortifications to divide Grant’s force and allow him to attack the Union troops crossing on his right while his left held off the Union troops crossing the North Anna on the left side of the inverted V.

On the 24th it looked like Lee had his opportunity.  Wright and Warren crossed the North Anna on Lee’s left.  Hancock crossed on Lee’s right.  Grant was fooled completely, cabling Washington that Lee was in full retreat.  Burnside was still across the North Anna.  A crushing attack on Hancock’s corps beckoned.

No attack was made.  Lt. Col. Charles S. Venable, an aide of Lee, explained what  happened.  Lee suddenly fell sick with a severe bout of dysentery and took to his bed.  According to Venable, Lee said from his bed, “We must strike them a blow.”  Lee lacked the command structure after the death of Jackson, and the absence of Longstreet after his wounding in The Wilderness, for such an attack to be launched without him.

Historians are divided as to whether an attack was actually in the offing.  No preparatory orders had been given and the Confederate troop movements on the 23rd and 24th were purely defensive.  I lean to the interpretation that Lee did plan an attack if the circumstance he wished for arose.  Lee was one of the most aggressive of American commanders and he realized he had to take large risks if his nation was to live.  His  chance came and Lee was simply too ill to avail himself of it.

Skirmishing occurred on the 25th and the 26th, Grant unwilling to risk a direct attack on Lee’s fortifications.  On the 27th he began another move to his right, towards a cross roads that would soon have a sinister reputation in Civil War annals:  Cold Harbor.

Oh, he could bear the shifts
Of time and play the bitter loser’s game,
The slow, unflinching chess of fortitude,
But while he had an opening for attack
He would attack with every ounce of strength.
His heart was not a stone but trumpet-shaped
And a long challenge blew an anger through it
That was more dread for being musical
First, last, and to the end.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

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