Hancock’s departure on the night of May 20 got underway ahead of schedule under the cloak of darkness. Confederates found out about it quickly, though, and Lee, anticipating another of Grant’s flanking maneuvers, had prepared for such an eventuality. On May 11, Lee had entertained similar suspicions and mobilized part of his army to counter, but his miscalculation that day had led to disastrous results at the Mule Shoe. This time, therefore, he waited until he received concrete evidence of Grant’s movement before mobilizing.
His first directive was quick and decisive. He ordered Ewell to move south to Snell and then east to Mud Tavern, where he was to hold the intersection with the Telegraph Road. Hill and Anderson would eventually follow, but for now their jobs were to stay in the earthworks to fend off any part of the Federal army still around Spotsylvania Court House. After all, Lee did not know how much of Grant’s army was on the road and how much still faced him on the Spotsylvania battlefield.
Possessing the Telegraph Road was vital. Doing so would give Lee the inside track southward and prevent Grant from having that same track.
And indeed, Grant did have his eye on that road. Although he dangled Hancock out as bait farther to the east, his planned move south called for Warren’s V Corps to advance straight down the Telegraph Road. Ewell’s movement to Mud Tavern closed that route to Warren. It also essentially cut off Hancock’s II corps moving toward Bowling Green.
Grant reacted by adjusting his own plan. He ordered Warren to adjust his route and follow the path Hancock had taken. Aside from being a safer route, it would also put Warren in a position to reinforce Hancock should the II Corps commander need it. Burnside’s XI Corps would strike down Telegraph Road, instead, with Wright’s VI Corps to follow. If Ewell tried to make a stand at Mud Tavern, he would be caught in a pincer movement between the two wings of Grant’s army, forcing Confederates to withdraw. The last thing Grant wanted was for Lee to dig in around mud Tavern, which could turn into a replay of Spotsy. Grant wanted Lee in the open.
Lee, meanwhile, had his eyes on a stronger position than Mud Tavern. He had cast his gaze southward toward the North Anna River, a position he had scoped out nearly a year and a half earlier. That had been his intended line of defense in the late fall of 1862 but Confederate President Jefferson Davis had ordered Lee northward to defend Fredericksburg instead. Lee knew how formidable a position along the North Anna would be, and with Ewell guarding the intersection at Mud Tavern, Lee now had the inside track.
After ascertaining Federal strength throughout the day, Lee decided that enough of the Federal army had withdrawn to send Anderson’s First Corps southward along Telegraph Road. A. P. Hill—now back in command of the Third Corps following a bout of illness, would move southward along a parallel track to the west.
By the evening of May 21, both armies were well in motion. Warren followed Hancock’s route and camped for the night around Guinea Station. He posted pickets to his west, within a mile of Telegraph Road—the same road Anderson’s and Ewell’s Confederate Corps were passing along. Although positioned defensively, Warren sat in the perfect position to attack—but neither he nor Grant knew of the opportunity available to them.
With Burnside approaching Ewell’s position from the north, the potential for a Federal blow seemed even more sure. However, Burnside stumbled into Ewell’s men in the dark. Unsure how many Confederates were in front of him, and not wanting to risk a fight he couldn’t handle on ground he didn’t know, Burnside backtracked to follow Warren’s route rather than use the Telegraph Road.
Both situations were indicative of the many missed opportunities that slipped by both armies that day—something that would mark this phase of the campaign for the next several days. Both commanding generals moved and countermoved, trying to second-guess the other; in doing so, each left his respective army at various times vulnerable to attack. Grant’s army was stretched out over twenty miles at one point; Lee’s over fifteen miles.
Cavalry would have been invaluable in improving communications between the strung out portions of Federal army, and it would have gathered invaluable information about Lee’s whereabouts. However, aside from a detachment with Hancock’s II Corps, under the ably performing Alfred Torbert, the army still plodded along without its eyes and ears. Phill Sheridan, still too busy out gallivanting with his troopers, continued to fail his commander. It had been a problem that had plagued the army throughout the Spotsylvania phase of the campaign.
“There would probably have been more chance of success had Hancock moved by the Telegraph Road on the night of the 20th, followed by Warren,” mused Meade’s chief of staff, Andrew Humphreys. Grant might have then “brought on a collision before Lee could intrench on new ground.”
In securing the inside track south, Lee maintained interior lines of maneuver, reinforcement, and communication, which he took advantage of as he ably finished his move south on May 22. He had won the race to North Anna.
It had come at a cost, however. “The terrible responsibilities that had been forced upon him, and the strain to which he had been subjected for the three or four weeks past were telling on his endurance,” an observer noted that day, “and added to this, he was really a sick man.”
And Grant was coming at him.