Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
The Overland Campaign — Grant Pursues Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s offensive focused on defeating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia instead of capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Union forces persistently engaged the Rebel army.
Into the Wilderness
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. The Wilderness was a tangled area of dense forest and undergrowth that had hampered the maneuverability of Federal forces during previous Union defeats at the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862) and the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30–May 6, 1863). Major General George Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac, but as General-in-Chief of the Armies, Grant chose to accompany Meade’s army in the field so that he could personally supervise overall campaign operations. Grant hoped to use the Wilderness to screen his operations, but he also planned to pass through it before it impeded the Union army as it had done before. Hoping to see history repeat itself, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hastened to engage the Federals before they could escape the Wilderness.
Battle of the Wilderness
From May 5 and 6, the two armies met along the two plank roads that passed through the tangled forest. The Battle of the Wilderness was one of the more gruesome engagements of the war, as raging fires in the thick undergrowth burned many of the wounded soldiers to death. When the battle ended, Grant had suffered the same fate as John Pope and Joseph Hooker before him. Lee had inflicted about 18,000 casualties on Meade’s army while suffering only about 7,800 casualties himself. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 7, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Spotsylvania Court House.
Race to Spotsylvania Court House
Lee recognized the critical consequences of allowing Grant to position Meade’s army between Lee’s army and Richmond. Thus, on May 8, the race was on to Spotsylvania. Unfortunately for the Federals, the Rebels reached the community first, enabling them to establish superior defensive positions.
Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
From May 8 through May 21, the two armies built networks of complex trenches and engaged in a series of give-and-take battles around Spotsylvania that again resulted in high casualties. On May 12 and 13, a Union attack at a place known as the Bloody Angle nearly split Lee’s army in half, but the Confederates regrouped and repulsed the Federals in a fight that continued for nearly twenty hours. Unable to break Lee’s lines, Grant disengaged once more and ordered Meade to move his army southeast on May 21.
May 23–26 — Clash at North Anna
Lee responded by moving his army in the same direction, and the two armies raced for the North Anna River. Again, the Army of Northern Virginia was quicker and arrived on the south side of the river in time to impede a Federal crossing. The Battle of North Anna began on the evening of May 23, when three Union brigades, under the command of Winfield Scott Hancock, captured an earthen fort on the north side of the river as well as a bridge that spanned the river. At the same time, Northern forces, commanded by Gouverneur K. Warren, began to ford the North Anna River four miles upstream from Hancock’s men. Confederate soldiers under A.P. Hill almost destroyed Warren’s force but withdrew in confusion when a Confederate brigade broke and retreated.
Meade’s army was now on the south bank of the river, but the Northerners were walking into a trap. Lee had positioned his army in an inverted “V” formation, between the two crossings, with the tip at the river. The formation would enable Lee’s army to fight a holding action on one side of the “V” while attacking from the other side. Fortunately for the Federals, Lee took ill, and the trap was never sprung. Upon realizing his tenuous position, Grant had the army temporarily entrench and, starting on May 26, march off to the southeast once again.
Aftermath of the Battle
At the Battle of North Anna, the Union army suffered approximately 1,973 casualties, including 223 soldiers killed, while the Confederate army suffered 2,017 casualties, including 304 soldiers killed. Technically, the Battle of North Anna was a Confederate victory, as Southern forces remained on the battlefield after Northern soldiers evacuated, but Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia failed to stop Grant’s and Meade’s Army of the Potomac’s advance further south. The Battle of North Anna also was the only major engagement in Grant’s Overland Campaign where the Southerners suffered greater casualties than the Northerners.