The North Anna River to Cold Harbor
The North Anna River – May 1864
“As Grant began to disentangle his army from the lines at Spotsylvania and march by his left flank, he hoped to use some of his men to pin down Lee’s army while marching others to the North Anna River and the railroad line at Hanover Junction about 25 miles away.
If he could accomplish that by beating Lee’s army to those spots, he would have captured one of Lee’s most natural supply lines while depriving the Army of Northern Virginia from using the North Anna River as a defensive line.” *
Theodore Lyman, a Meade staffer described the river in his writings after the war. “The North Anna is a pretty stream, running between high banks, so deep that they form almost a ravine, and for the most part, heavily wooded with oak and tulip trees, very luxuriant. It’s perhaps 125 feet wide and runs with tolerably swift and deep steam, in most places over one’s head. The approaches are by steep roads cut down the banks.”
I hiked this battlefield myself in May of 2014 and Lyman’s description of the forests and the North Anna River here are remarkably similar to what you find today. Protected by the State of Virginia the battlefield has a rather rough hewn feel with a simple gravel walking trail that takes you along the Confederate defensive line and leads to Ox Ford on the North Anna River.
The “official” park trail ends before you get to the river so I just followed the sound of rushing water and realized why the park trail ends. The heavily wooded bluff that over looks the river at Ox Ford is steep and downright treacherous. Making my way through the dense foliage toward the bluff I came upon the remains of rifle pits. Confederate snipers would have manned these forward fighting positions and standing there I could plainly see the advantage the Confederates had here at the North Anna.
The high bluff looks down on the opposite bank of the river, the Confederate trenches and rifle pits lining the natural contours of the steep river bank. I made my way down to the river, under a slightly overcast sky, the North Anna- flowering trees overhanging its banks seemed to shimmer in the light.
It was a sobering experience looking at the opposite bank of the river and imagining what was going through the minds of the young men who were made to cross the river here at Ox Ford in May 1864. The Union troops waded across the river here under fire and actually attempted to scale the bluff but that didn’t last long. The safe place at that point for these troops was exactly where I was standing, right at the river edge, below the bluff out of the line of sight of the Confederates above – unfortunately they were on the wrong side of the river and eventually had to run a deadly gauntlet back across the waterway or be captured.
“Although Grant’s army of the Potomac was nearly 70,000 strong and Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was about 55,000 strong, Lee was thinking aggressively as the two armies reached the North Anna.” * At the river, “Together with his chief engineer, Lee devised one of the most clever defensive lines of the war: an inverted V shape line that would rest the tip of the inverted V on the bluffs at Ox Ford overlooking the North Anna.” *
The North Anna defenses afforded Lee the use of “interior lines” meaning that if the Confederates were assailed on any flank, Lee could rush troops to the critical point by just moving troops within the inverted V. On the other hand Grant would have to split his army in two to assail Lee’s position. (Map)
This inverted V line at the North Anna was devised to do just that, sever Grant’s army in two. “With a River in their back, if Lee’s army overwhelmed one of the Union wings, it would be in danger of being destroyed before it could get back across the River or before it could be reinforced.”*
General Lee was being treated for a case of dysentery during the maneuverings at the North Anna. It is described that the Confederate commander was uncharacteristically emotional and fiery during the operations saying “We must never let them pass us again…we must strike them a blow!”
Lee had laid a trap for the Federals and prayed for Grant to take the bait. Grant did take the bait but realized his mistake before the trap closed. The Union commander consolidated the army back across the river and began to ponder his next move. Lee and the Confederates had lost their opportunity to attack and destroy the Federals piecemeal, an opportunity that would never come again.
“By the morning of May 25th, the two armies were staring across each other in well-entrenched defensive lines, reminiscent of what had happened at Spotsylvania. One Union soldier recalled, To raise a head above the works involved a great personal risk and as nothing was to be gained by exposure, most of the men wisely took advantage of their cover” *
“Grant may not have been defeating Lee tactically, but he was steadily grinding Lee’s army down to the point that Lee would soon lack the firepower to deliver the kind of decisive blow he would need to truly reverse the South’s fortunes. The size of the armies would never again be as close to equal as they were around the North Anna.” *
On May 26th Grant disengaged his troops from the North Anna River and moved his army south again. Elements of both armies clashed at Totopotomoy Creek where the opposing forces skirmished until finally moving on to the cross roads at Cold Harbor.
The fighting at Totopotomoy Creek was just a prelude to the bloody encounter at Cold Harbor just a few miles away but the State of Virginia has thankfully preserved this small but intimate battlefield.
The Totopotomoy Creek Battlefield is a relatively small preserved space with remains of trenches and earthworks from the brief fighting that took place here in late May 1864. The Shelton House, there during the battle, still remains as well as some fine old country roads that meander through cultivated fields. The first sprouts of corn were coming up in the plowed fields as I made my way to Totopotomoy Creek a slow-moving stream that separated the armies and served as a distinctive feature during the battle.
The two armies clashed here as Grant’s army moved south from Spotsylvania trying to get around the Confederate flank and get between Lee and the City of Richmond. The two armies soon moved on in a race that was slowly grinding down both. The race led to the next road crossing at a place called Cold Harbor.
“Promptly at 4:30am on June 3rd. 1864, as the first faint rays of sunlight began to penetrate the darkness on the eastern horizon, three Corps of Union infantry, the Second, Sixth, and the Eighteen, – more than 50,000 men- emerged from their lines along a mile and a half front and began a wild rush toward the shadowy outlines of the enemy entrenchments, located just several hundred yards to the west. Despite some initial success on the Union left, where elements of Gen. Francis Barlow’s division of the Second Corps temporarily captured a portion of enemy works, the Union assault quickly degenerated into one of the most concentrated slaughters of the war” **
“Most regiments of the Second, Sixth and Eighteenth corps found themselves in the open and advancing, not only against impregnable earthworks, but also against skillfully designed salients that exposed them to devastating artillery crossfires. Under the supervision of Lee’s engineers, trench warfare was rapidly achieving unparalleled degrees of efficiency against traditional, but outdated, infantry tactics.”
“By roughly 5:30am, or approximately an hour after they commencement of the June 3rd assault, the three Union corps found themselves hopelessly pinned down alone the entire mile and a half front, which, in many instances, had been pushed to within 30-75 yards of the enemy lines. While sporadic fighting continued throughout the morning and early afternoon, the pathetic nature of the situation compelled Meade to suspend offensive operations at 1:30pm, at which time all the units were formally directed to entrench in place.” **
“Estimates of total Union casualties on June 3rd., 1864, vary between 5,600-7,000 the vast majority being sustained during the first 30-50 minutes of the day’s slaughter. Estimates of Confederate casualties were but a mere fraction of those sustained by the Army f the Potomac” **
“The Union commanders decision to proceed with the general attack that morning…would earn Grant the nickname “butcher” and would ultimately haunt him for the rest of his life.” ** In fact Grant in his memoirs states that the assault at Cold Harbor was a mistake. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made…..”
The Cold Harbor Battlefield, maintained by the National Park Service, is relatively small considering the fighting here, but a haunting battlefield space it is. Evidence of the elaborate confederate trench system is in plain sight now seen as ghostly mounds through the open forest landscape. One can walk across this battlefield space in just a few minutes but it is a moving experience.
Strolling the forest toward the Confederate trenches a sense of foreboding comes over you. The Union soldiers that charged across this landscape knew they were most likely on a suicide mission. The evening before the attack soldiers were seen sewing their names to the insides of their tunics so they could be identified on the field in case they were killed or mortally wounded.
The sewing that took place at Cold Harbor would be the precursor to the army’s regulation “dog tag” worn by all our soldiers today.
The ghostly trenches at Cold Harbor are some of the best preserved trenches of the war. The main battlefield space is dramatic but take the side trails to see the best preserved trenches on the battlefield. Some of these that lead down to “Bloody Run” are some 6-8 feet high and follow a continuous line through a now dense forest. Bloody Run, a small stream that meanders through the battlefield got its namesake after the lopsided battle.
Grant and the Union Army were stymied again. Both armies faced each other across a no-man’s land fully entrenched. The Union commander looked to extricate his army and attempt another movement south and around the Confederates.
This Grant accomplished by building the longest pontoon bridge of the war, a 2200 ft span across the James River near Petersburg Virginia. Sending troops forward to seize Petersburg, the main Confederate rail hub, the Union forces were at the last minute stopped by a fast acting Confederate General PT Beauregard.
Fighting along this Petersburg line would develop into a major siege of the City with both armies digging in and facing each other across a now familiar no-man’s land. Trench warfare took on its most elaborate forms during the battles of Cold Harbor and Petersburg and is seen as a precursor to modern warfare.
Grant settled in at City Point on the James River where the Union supplies would build up during the siege….it would take eight grueling months in the trenches before the stalemate would be broken.
(*) The Overland Campaign – Charles River Editors
(**) Grant and Lee:The Virginia Campaigns 1864-1865 by William Frassanito