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

north-anna-battle-map

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. Continue Reading