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Chapter 26:

On the night of May 20, 1864, Hancock led Grant's third southward movement, far to the eastward of Lee's position at Spottsylvania Court House, and followed the road along the line of the Richmond & Fredericksburg railroad toward Richmond, his advance reaching Milford station during the night of the 21st Grant's losses, since he crossed the Rapidan, on May 4th, had been over 37,000; half of these in the Wilderness battles and the other half in those of Spottsylvania Court House. Lee had lost about one-third of that number. Dana states that the Federal losses were ‘a little over 33,000,’ and that when Grant ‘expressed great regret at the loss of so many men,’ Meade remarked: ‘Well, General, we can't do these little tricks without losses.’

Apprised, by his scouts, of Grant's movement, Lee dispatched Ewell, whom he accompanied, at noon of the 21st, from the right of his position at Spottsylvania Court House across the country to Mud tavern and on the Telegraph or old stage road from Washington via Fredericksburg to Richmond as far as Dickinson's mill, where he encamped that night, nearer to Hanover Junction than was Grant's advance at Milford station, although Dana was of the opinion that Grant had slipped away without Lee's knowledge.

On the morning of the 22d, Grant telegraphed, from Guiney's station, the position of his advance, and ordered the transfer of his depot of supplies from near Aquia creek to Port Royal on the Rappahannock. During the forenoon of that day, Lee and Ewell reached Hanover Junction, having crossed the North Anna at the Telegraph road bridge; Anderson, with the First corps, followed at midday, and Hill, with the Third corps, crossed, at the same place, on the morning of the 23d, when Lee's whole army took position on the south bank of the North Anna, covering the roads leading to Richmond and the junction of the Virginia Central and Richmond, Fredericksburg [459] & Potomac railroads, thus controlling two railways to his base of supplies at Richmond and one to his other base at Staunton, and to a connection with Lynchburg. By this timely and well-executed movement, Lee had again, without loss or interruption, anticipated Grant's progressive, but indirect, ‘on to Richmond,’ and placed himself directly across the roads the latter desired to follow to the Confederate capital. Dana says, ‘Now, for the first time, Lee blocked our southward march;’ a remarkable assertion, in view of the bloody stoppage in the Wilderness, which had diverted Grant toward Spottsylvania, far to the eastward, to find a new road to Richmond.

Breckinridge, coming from the valley, after his defeat of Sigel at New Market, and Pickett, from toward Richmond, with 9,000 men, awaited Lee at Hanover Junction. Thus concentrated and reinforced, the army of Northern Virginia was quickly posted in one of the best defensive positions it had ever occupied; with its sturdy First corps in the center, across the Telegraph road; its flanking and fighting Second corps on the right, across the railway to Fredericksburg and extending to the North Anna, where that river runs southward in front of the Cedar farm bridge; and its gallant Third corps on the extreme left, extending to the road that crosses the Ox ford of the North Anna, and covering the eastward approaches to the line of the Virginia Central railroad. Pickett and Breckinridge were held in reserve, in the rear of the center, near Hanover Junction.

The march of the Federal army, on the 23d, was much embarrassed by ignorance of the country and the incorrect and misleading maps used as guides; but by 1 p. m., its Sixth corps, in the advance, reached the vicinity of the North Anna, at the Telegraph bridge, and, later in the afternoon, forced Lee's First corps guard across that bridge, and, without much opposition, secured a foothold on the south bank of the river and soon crossed over a large force, which, later in the day, repulsed a vigorous attack by Anderson. Grant's Second corps soon followed his Fifth and took position on its right, covering the Telegraph bridge and road, and later, his Ninth corps extended this line, on the south bank of the river, to a junction with his Fifth corps, which, with the Sixth, he had detached from his direct line of march, at Harris' shop, [460] and sent to the right, to Jericho ford, a few miles above the crossing of the Telegraph road, where it succeeded, late in the day, in making a crossing and falling upon Lee's left. Forcing back the Third corps for some distance, the Federals advanced and established a line, to the southwest, across the Virginia Central railroad, about a mile northwest from Anderson's station, and, with its right returned, covering the roads leading to the rear. This bold and well-executed, aggressive movement not only cut Lee's line of communication westward and threatened the turning of his left, but gave great confidence to the Federal arms and an eager anticipation of victory. At 6 p. m., Hill sent Wilcox's division to drive the Federals back, but without success; for they had not only seized, but had at once fairly well fortified the line they had secured. The opposing forces spent the night in throwing up lines of defensive works. Early the next morning, Lee rode to his left and sharply rebuked his lieutenant for having allowed Warren to cross the South Anna and secure a position that cut his line of communication with the great storehouse of the Valley, saying to him: ‘Why did you not do as Jackson would have done—thrown your whole force upon these people and driven them back?’

His left having been forced back, Lee shortened his line by retiring his center, until it was nearly in the form of a right-angled triangle, with the right angle opposite Quarles' mill, or the Ox ford. The left, under Hill, was extended northeast and southwest, from the North Anna, across the Virginia Central railroad to Little river, facing the Fifth and Sixth Federal corps. The First and Second corps were extended southeast to near Hanover Junction, and thence eastward and southward in a salient.

Lee's new disposition of his army cut Grant's army into two parts. Finding himself in this predicament, after several unsuccessful attempts to break Lee's lines, Grant dispatched to Halleck, from Quarles' mills, on May 26th:

To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas, is impossible, on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by his left, leaves Little river, New Found river and South Anna river, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of an army, to be crossed. I have determined, therefore, to turn the enemy's right, by crossing at or near Hanovertown, thus crossing all these streams at once, and leave us still where we can draw supplies.


He then stated, that during the preceding night he had withdrawn the teams and artillery from his right, across the river, and moved them down in the rear of his left, and would commence ‘a forced march for Hanovertown to seize and hold the crossing.’ So he withdrew from Lee's front, on the night of the 26th, and sought another road to Richmond, farther to the southeast. General Lee, having been taken seriously ill, was unable to fall upon Grant on the north side of the North Anna, as he fully intended to do.

Grant had utterly failed to accomplish his purpose, after crossing the North Anna, as was confessed by his lame statement as to the position of Lee's army, and by his withdrawal during the night of the 26th. The remarkable conclusion of his dispatch, of that day northward, is:

Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we have show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy and attack with confidence. I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already insured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements have contributed to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men and to break down that of the enemy. We are destroying all the rails we can on the Central and Fredericksburg roads. I want to leave a gap in the roads north of Richmond so big that to get a single track they will have to import rails from elsewhere.

Not quite sure of the future, after having broken so many promises as to a direct march on Richmond, Grant added a postscript: ‘Even if a crossing is not effected at Hanovertown, it will probably be necessary for us to move down the Pamunkey until a crossing is effected;’ and advised that his base of supplies should be changed to the White House, the very place where McClellan had his, when Lee met him in front of Richmond about a year before this time.

It is interesting to recur to Grant's previous dispatches from the North Anna. On the morning of the 24th of May, after Lee had shortened his lines and well punctu-ated them all along with artillery, Grant wrote: ‘The enemy have fallen back from North Anna; we are in pursuit. Negroes who have come in state that Lee is falling back to Richmond. If this is the case, Butler's forces will all be wanted where they are.’ At noon of the next day he wrote: ‘The enemy are evidently making a determined stand between the two Annas. It would [462] probably take us two days to get in position for a general attack or to turn their position, as may prove best. Send Butler's forces to White House, to land on north side and march up to join this army. . . . If Hunter can possibly get to Charlottesville and Lynchburg, he should do so, living on the country. The railroads and canals should be destroyed, beyond possibility of repair for weeks. Completing this, he should find his way back to his original base, or from about Gordonsville, join this army.’ At the same hour Dana wrote: ‘If a promising chance offers, General Grant will fight, of course; otherwise, he will maneuver without attacking. Our forces are strongly intrenched and perfectly safe, even if Lee should attempt to push his whole army upon either division of ours.’ He concluded a dispatch of the morning of the 26th, after telling of Grant's new movement, in these words: ‘One of the most important results of the campaign, so far, is the entire change which has taken place in the feeling of the armies. Rebels have lost all confidence and are already morally defeated. This army has learned to believe that it is sure of victory. Even our officers have ceased to regard Lee as an invincible military genius. On the part of the rebels this change is evinced, not only by their not attacking, even when circumstances seemed to invite it, but by the unanimous statement of prisoners taken from them. Rely upon it, the end is near, as well as sure;’ this, after confessing, the day before to disasters from Confederate attacks. [463]

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