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Chapter 9

  • Grant crosses the North Anna
  • -- Sheridan Returns from his raid -- meeting between Grant and Burnside -- destroying a Railroad -- the enemy reinforced -- a Female Oddity -- Grant Recrosses the North Anna

Hancock's corps had been fighting and marching almost continuously for over a week, both day and night, and the halt on May 22 was made to give a much-needed rest. It was a curious study to watch the effect which the constant exposure to fire had produced upon the nervous system of the troops. Their nerves had become so sensitive that the men would start at the slightest sound, and dodge at the flight of a bird or the sight of a pebble tossed past them. One of their amusements in camp at that time was to throw stones and chips past one another's heads, and raise a laugh at the active dodging and bending the body low, or “jackknifing,” as the men called it. This did not indicate any loss of courage; it was merely an effect produced by a temporary physical condition which the men could not control, and gave ample evidence of the nervous strain to which they had so long been subjected. Dodging the head under fire is often as purely involuntary as winking. I have known, in my experience, only two men who could remain absolutely immovable under a heavy fire, without even the twitching of a muscle. One [141] was a bugler in the cavalry, and the other was General Grant.

In the evening of the 22d the general-in-chief issued written orders directing the movement of the troops for the next day. The march was to begin at five o'clock in the morning, and the several corps were to send out cavalry and infantry in advance on all the roads to ascertain the position of the enemy. The purpose was to cross the North Anna River west of the Fredericksburg Railroad, and to strike Lee wherever he could be found. To understand the topography of the country, it is necessary to explain that the North Anna and the South Anna run in an easterly direction, at a distance from each other of eight or ten miles in the vicinity of the region in which Grant's operations took place, and unite and form the Pamunkey River about five miles east of the line of the Fredericksburg Railroad. This road crossed the North Anna about two miles north of Hanover Junction, the intersection of the Fredericksburg and the Virginia Central railroads. The Telegraph road crossed the river by a wooden bridge half a mile west of the railroad bridge. Farther up the river there were three fords about a mile and a half apart. Hancock marched to the Telegraph-road bridge, Burnside to Ox Ford, and Warren to Jericho Ford. Wright followed Warren; Burnside's corps used plantation roads which ran between the main roads which had been taken by the corps of Hancock and Warren.

Hancock approached the river at the Telegraph-road bridge about noon. He found the enemy holding an earthwork on the north side, and saw a force posted on the opposite bank. Seeing the importance of gaining possession of the defensive work, he determined to take it by assault, and did so handsomely, some of the enemy being captured, and the rest driven over the bridge, [142] followed closely by our men. The retreating force was thrown into great confusion, and in the rush a number were crowded off the bridge and drowned.

Burnside, on reaching Ox Ford, found it held by the enemy strongly intrenched on the south bank of the river, and no attack was made. Warren reached Jericho Ford soon after noon, seized it, laid a pontoon-bridge, and by 4:30 P. M. had moved his whole corps to the south bank. At six o'clock Hill's corps attacked Warren's line before his troops were all in position, and forced it back some distance; but the enemy was soon repulsed. Wright's corps was moved up to support Warren, but it was not deemed necessary to send it across the river until the next morning.

General Grant rode during this day, May 23, with Hancock's corps. While halting in the afternoon at a house not far from the river, he was told by the people living there that Lee had rested for a few hours at the same house the day before, and that his entire army had crossed the river. On the morning of the 24th Hancock crossed to the south side. Crittenden's division crossed the river and joined Warren's corps. They advanced against the enemy with a view of dislodging him from his position at Ox Ford, but his lines were found so strong that after a brief encounter our forces withdrew. They had not been able to take with them any artillery. That night our whole army, except one division of Burnside's corps, was on the south side of the river and close up to the enemy's lines.

General headquarters were established near Chesterfield Station on May 24. That day Sheridan returned from his memorable cavalry raid, and was warmly greeted by General Grant at headquarters, and heartily congratulated upon his signal success. He related some of the principal incidents in the raid very graphically, [143] but with becoming modesty. In describing a particularly hot fight, he would become highly animated in manner and dramatic in gesture; then he would turn to some ludicrous incident, laugh heartily, and seem to enjoy greatly the recollection of it. It will be remembered that he started out suddenly on May 8, passed round the right of Lee's army, keeping out of reach of his infantry, crossed the North Anna in the night, destroyed ten miles of the Virginia Central Railroad, together with cars, locomotives, and a large amount of army supplies, recaptured three hundred and seventy-five of our prisoners on their way from Spottsylvania to Richmond, crossed the South Anna, struck the Fredericksburg road at Ashland, and destroyed the depot, many miles of road, a train of cars, and a large supply of army stores. Finding that the enemy's cavalry were concentrating, he united his divisions, which had been operating at different points in the work of destruction, and fought a pitched battle at Yellow Tavern, about seven miles north of Richmond, capturing two pieces of artillery, mortally wounding the commander, J. E. B. Stuart, and killing Brigadier-general James B. Gordon. He then entered the advanced lines of intrenchments north of Richmond, crossed the Chickahominy, and reached Haxall's Landing, on the James, where he replenished his supplies from stores sent to him by Butler. After remaining there from the 14th to the 17th of May, he started on his return to the Army of the Potomac. He had lost only four hundred and twenty-five men in killed, wounded, and missing. One important effect of Sheridan's operations was that he compelled all of the enemy's cavalry to be moved against him, which left our large train of four thousand wagons free from their attacks.

General Grant at times had a peculiar manner of [144] teasing officers with whom he was on terms of intimacy, and in this interview he began to joke with his cavalry leader by saying to those who were gathered about him: “Now, Sheridan evidently thinks he has been clear down to the James River, and has been breaking up railroads, and even getting a peep at Richmond; but probably this is all imagination, or else he has been reading something of the kind in the newspapers. I don't suppose he seriously thinks that he made such a march as that in two weeks.”

Sheridan joined in the fun, and replied: “Well, after what General Grant says, I do begin to feel doubtful as to whether I have been absent at all from the Army of the Potomac.” Sheridan had become well bronzed by his exposure to the sun, and looked the picture of health. It was seen at once that the general-in-chief did not intend to give him or his command any rest. He told him of the movements he had in contemplation, and Sheridan saw that all his troopers would be wanted immediately at the front.

That evening, the 24th, General Grant issued an order, which he had been considering for some time, assigning Burnside's corps to the Army of the Potomac, and putting him under the command of Meade. It was found that such a consolidation would be much better for purposes of administration, and give more unity to the movements. It had been heretofore necessary to inform Meade of the instructions given to Burnside, and to let Burnside know of the movements that were to be undertaken by Meade, in order that the commanders might understand fully what was intended to be accomplished, and be in a position to cooperate intelligently. This involved much correspondence and consumed time. The new order was intended to avoid this, and simplify the methods which had been employed. While General [145] Grant was riding past the headquarters of Burnside the next morning, Burnside came out of his tent, and in company with several of his officers came up to General Grant, who had now halted by the roadside, shook hands with him, and said: “I have received the instructions assigning my command to the Army of the Potomac. That order is excellent; it is a military necessity, and I am glad it has been issued.” This conduct of Burnside gave the greatest satisfaction to the general-in-chief, and he commented very favorably upon it afterward. It must be recollected in this connection that Burnside was senior in rank to Meade, and had commanded the Army of the Potomac when Meade was a division commander under him; and the manner in which Burnside acquiesced in his new assignment, and the spirit he manifested in his readiness to set aside all personal aims and ambitions for the public good, were among the many instances of his patriotism and his absolute loyalty to the cause he served.

The general headquarters were moved farther west on May 25, and established on the north side of the North Anna, near Quarles's Ford, at a place known as Quarles's Mills. That day it became evident that Lee was going to make a permanent stand between the North and the South Anna. His position was found to be exceedingly strong, and was somewhat similar to the one taken up at Spottsylvania. The lines were shaped something like the letter U, with the base resting on the river at Ox Ford. It had one face turned toward Hancock, and the other toward Warren. The lines were made exceedingly formidable by means of strong earthworks with heavy obstructions planted in front, and were flanked on the right by an impenetrable swamp, and on the left by Little River. General Grant said, in discussing the situation at this time: “It now looks as if Lee's position [146] were such that it would not be prudent to fight a battle in the narrow space between these two rivers, and I shall withdraw our army from its present position, and make another flank march to the left; but I want, while we are here, to destroy a portion of the Virginia Central Railroad, as that is the road by which Lee is receiving a large part of his supplies and reinforcements.” He ended the conversation by directing me to cross the river and superintend this operation.

I went with a portion of Russell's division of Wright's corps, which began the work of destruction at a point on the railroad about eight hundred yards from the enemy's extreme left. A brigade was extended along one side of the road in single rank, and at a given signal the men took hold of the rails, lifted up the road, and turned it upside down. Then, breaking the rails loose, they used them as levers in prying off the cross-ties, which they piled up at different points, laid the rails across them, and set fire to the ties. As soon as the rails became sufficiently hot they bent in the middle by their own weight; efforts were then made to twist them so as to render them still more unserviceable. Several miles of railway were thus destroyed.

The reinforcements which General Grant had predicted would be sent to Lee's army had reached him. Between 12,000 and 15,000 men arrived from the 22d to the 25th of May. Breckinridge had come from the valley of Virginia with nearly all of his forces; Pickett brought a division from the vicinity of Richmond; and Hoke's brigade of Early's division had also been sent to Lee from the Confederate capital. On the 22d, as soon as Grant had learned the extent of the disaster to Butler's army on the James, he said that Butler was not detaining 10,000 men in Richmond, and not even keeping the roads south of that city broken, and he considered [147] it advisable to have the greater part of Butler's troops join in the campaign of the Army of the Potomac. On May 25 he telegraphed orders to Halleck, saying: “Send Butler's forces to White House, to land on the north side, and march up to join this army. The James River should be held to City Point, but leave nothing more than is absolutely necessary to hold it, acting purely on the defensive. The enemy will not undertake any offensive operations there, but will concentrate everything here.” At the same time he said: “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 the possibility of repair for weeks.” These instructions were given in consequence of the withdrawal of Breckinridge's command, which left the valley of Virginia undefended.

When I recrossed the river and returned to headquarters in the evening, I found General Grant sitting in front of his tent smoking a cigar and anxious to hear the report as to the extent of the damage to the railroad. About the time I finished relating to him what had been accomplished, an old woman who occupied a small house near by strolled over to headquarters, apparently bent upon having a friendly chat with the commander of the Yankee armies. The number of questions she asked showed that she was not lacking in the quality of curiosity which is supposed to be common to her sex. She wore an old-fashioned calico dress about six inches too short, with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. She had a nose so sharp that it looked as if it had been caught in the crack of a door, and small gray eyes that twinkled and snapped as she spoke. She began by nodding a familiar “How do you do?” to the general, and saying in a voice which squeaked like the high notes [148] of an E-flat clarinet with a soft reed: “I believe you command all these h'yah Yankees that are comin‘ down h'yah and cavortin‘ round over this whole section of country.” The general bowed an assent, and she continued: “I'm powerful glad General Lee has been lickin‘ you-all from the Rapidan cl'ah down h'yah, and that now lie's got you jes wh'ah he wants you.”

Then she drew up a camp-chair alongside the general, seated herself on it, and finding that her remarks seemed to be received good-naturedly, grew still more familiar, and went on to say: “Yes, and afo‘ long Lee'll be a-chasin‘ you-all up through Pennsylvany ag'in. Was you up thah in Pennsylvany when he got aftall you-all last summer?” The general had great difficulty in keeping his face straight as he replied: “Well, no; I was n't there myself. I had some business in another direction.” He did not explain to her that Vicksburg was at that time commanding something of his attention. Said she: “I notice our boys got away with lots of 'em Conestoga hosses up thah, and they brought lots of 'em back with 'em. We've got a pretty good show of 'em round this section of country, and they're jes the best draft-hosses you ever see. Hope the boys'll get up thah ag'in soon, and bring back some more of 'em.”

The general kept on smoking his cigar, and was greatly amused by the conversation. After a little while the woman went back to her house, but returned later, and said: “See h'yah; I'm all alone in my house, and I'm kinder skeerd. I expect them Yankee soldiers of yourn'll steal everything I have, and murder me afo‘ morning, if you don't give me some protection.” “Oh,” replied the general, “we will see that you are not hurt” ; and turning to Lieutenant Dunn of the staff, he said: “Dunn, you had better go and stay in the old lady's house to-night. You can probably make yourself more [149] comfortable there than in camp, anyhow; and I don't want her to be frightened.”

Dunn followed the old woman rather reluctantly to her house, and played guardian angel to her till the next morning.

General Grant had now presented to him for solution a very formidable military problem. Lee's position, from the strength and location of his intrenchments and the defensive character of the country, was impregnable, or at least it could not be carried by assault without involving great loss of life. The general had therefore decided to withdraw, and make another movement by the left flank, in the hope of so manoeuvering as to afford another opportunity of getting a chance to strike Lee outside his earthworks. However, a withdrawal in the face of a vigilant foe, and the crossing of a difficult river within sight of the enemy, constitute one of the most hazardous movements in warfare. There was the possibility, also, that Lee might mass his artillery on his left flank, and try to hold it by this means and with a minimum of his infantry, and with the bulk of his army move out on his right in an attempt to crush Hancock's corps. This is exactly what Grant himself would have done under similar circumstances; but he had by this time become familiar with Lee's methods, and had very little apprehension that he would take the offensive. Nevertheless, Hancock was ordered to take every precaution against a possible assault. The withdrawal of the army was conducted with consummate skill, and furnishes an instructive lesson in warfare. In the first place, the enemy had to be deceived and thrown off his guard to make the movement at all safe. For this purpose Wilson's division of cavalry was transferred to the right of the army on May 25, and ordered to cross the North Anna and proceed to Little River on Lee's [150] extreme left, and make a vigorous demonstration, to convey the impression that there was a movement of the army in that direction with a view to turning Lee's left. This was done so effectually that Lee telegraphed to Richmond the next morning: “From present indications the enemy seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” During the night of the 25th the trains and all of the artillery, which was in position on our right wing, were quietly moved to the north bank of the river. Russell's division of the Sixth Corps was also withdrawn and moved in the rear of Burnside, and at daylight the next morning halted in a place where its movements could not he seen by the enemy during the day. Its position in front of the enemy had been skilfully filled with men from the other parts of the command, and its absence was not discovered. Early in the morning of May 26 instructions were issued for the withdrawal of the entire army that night. After these orders had been despatched, the general seated himself in front of his tent for a quiet smoke. In a few minutes the old woman who had had the familiar chat with him the evening before rushed over to his tent in a high state of excitement. Swinging her arms like the fans of a windmill, and screaming at the top of her shrill voice, she cried out: “See h'yah; these Yankees oa yourn got into my bahn last night, and stole the only boss I had, and I want you to send some of your folks out to find him and bring him back.” The general listened to her story, and when she had finished remarked quietly: “Madam, perhaps it is one of those Conestoga horses you spoke of that belong up in Pennsylvania, and some of our men have made up their minds to take him back home.” The old lady at this remark was rather crestfallen, and said with a grin: “Well, I reckon you've got me on that; but you Yankees have no business down h'yah [151] anyhow, and I think you might get me back that hoss.” The general replied: “I'm very sorry indeed that this has occurred, and if the army were in camp I would send you around with a guard to see whether the horse could be recognized by you and recovered; but the troops are moving constantly, and it would be utterly impossible to find the animal.” She finally went off, shaking her fist and muttering: “I'm sart'in of one thing, anyhow: General Lee'll just dust you-all out of this place afo‘ you kin say scat.”

The operations of the last two days had made the duties of staff-officers particularly arduous, and a great many of us were feeling the effects of the last week's hard work and exposure, the loss of sleep, and the breathing of a malarious atmosphere. In connection with the renewal of the work of destroying the railroad, I was sent across the river again on the 26th, and on returning that afternoon to headquarters found myself suffering severely from fever and sick-headache. About dark General Grant wished me to make another trip to the extreme right, to assist in the work of withdrawing the troops, as I was particularly familiar with that part of the lines. Sickness is no excuse in the field, so I started across the river again without making my condition known to the general. To make matters worse, a thunder-storm came up, accompanied by vivid lightning, and between the flashes the darkness was so impenetrable that it was slow work finding the roads. Babcock, seeing my condition, volunteered to accompany me, so that if I gave out, the orders I was carrying might still reach their destination. We remained in the saddle the greater part of the night. On my return to headquarters a surgeon supplied me liberally with round-shot in the form of quinine pills, which were used so effectively that my fever was soon forced to beat a retreat. [152]

As soon as it was dark the other divisions of Wright's corps had begun the recrossing of the river. This corps followed the route which had been taken by Russell's division, while Warren took a road a little farther to the north. Burnside and Hancock next withdrew, and so cautiously that their movements entirely escaped detection by the enemy. All the corps left strong guards in their fronts, which were withdrawn at the last moment. The pontoon-bridges were taken up after crossing the river, and cavalry was sent to the several fords to hold them after they had been abandoned by the infantry, and to destroy any facilities for crossing which had been neglected. The withdrawal from the North Anna had now been successfully accomplished.

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