“We Must Strike Them a Blow!”—Robert E. Lee at North Anna (part two)

source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:North_Anna_May_24.png
source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:North_Anna_May_24.png

part two of three

The Confederate line along the North Anna was one of the strongest the Army of Northern Virginia held during the war. Laid out by engineers, the line was an inverted “V” positioned along the heights of the river. The line was designed to encourage Grant to cross his various wings across the river and to separate them. Lee told Dr. Gwathmey of his line: “If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him.”

Unfortunately, not only would Lee be struck down with illness but so was his veteran corps commander, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell. Ewell suffered various ailments since his wounding at Second Manassas, but that night, Ewell passed on his command duties to Gen. Jubal Early. Early was a good officer, but aside from a brief stint as temporary commander of the Third Corps at Spotsylvania, he was new to corps command.

The trap Lee set for Grant was only effective if Grant obliged. In a twist of fate, Grant did just that. Reports from the front indicated to Grant that Lee and his army were in full retreat southward. Most of Grant’s corps commanders confirmed as much, and Grant ordered his corps across the North Anna at two separate crossings, Chesterfield Bridge and Quarles Mill.

Lee’s plan was to hold the Federal V Corps with a small contingent of his forces behind earthworks while the bulk of his army attacked the II Corps aimed at pinning it against the North Anna River. The plan was a rare chance for the Confederate commander to use his aggressive tactics in a defensive position—and Grant gave him the great opportunity.

But as the moment arrived for Lee to attack, his intestinal ailment became severe, and he was bedridden in his tent. Without Jackson, Longstreet, or a healthy Ewell or Hill, Lee was prone to inactivity. Who could he trust this most important action to? What subordinate could carry out one of the most important counter stroke movements of the war? Lee’s staff member Charles Venable wrote that Lee was “prostrated by sickness,” and he called out from his cot “We must strike them a blow, we must never let them pass us again, we must strike them a blow!”

The coordination of such an attack, however, required the commanding general to be in the front and in control, not prostrate in his tent. As Venable wrote, the “Lee confined to his tent was not the Lee on the battlefield.”

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