Historians often say that one of Lee’s greatest talents as a commander was his ability to read his opponents and divine their intentions. I call it “Lee’s superpower.” While evidence supports that idea through 1863, Grant’s appearance in the spring of 1864 threw that record into disarray. Grant befuddled Lee time and time again. On several occasions during the Overland campaign, Lee misread Grant’s intentions, and on May 23 at the North Anna River, it happened again—with potentially catastrophic results.
Lee’s arrival on the south bank of the North Anna had left his men exhausted. Rather than create a strong defensive position, he let them rest up. Having won the race to the river, he did not believe Grant would be foolhardy enough to follow because of its strong natural fortifications. Once Lee had secured the Telegraph Road and denied Grant the strategic objective of Hanover Junction, there was no reason for Grant to rush headlong into another fortified position.
Instead, Lee believed Grant would look to once more sidle left and south, pushing east toward the Pamunkey River. Hancock had already led the march in that direction, so it would be easy for Grant to shift his whole army that way.
If Grant did so, Lee would have to counter with a fast march east. That’s why he wanted to give his men the chance to rest. Even when Federal infantry showed up along telegraph Road on the north bank of the river, Lee observed their lines and dismissed them as a feint. The real attack would come down river, he said.
But those Federals were elements of Hancock’s II Corps—the very part of the Federal army Lee expected to be crossing to the east.
Indeed, Meade had wanted to pursue the eastern-more crossing in the face of the Confederate position at North Anna, but Grant overruled him. Lee’s army was the objective, Grant had told Meade before the campaign opened: “Where Lee goes, you too shall go.”
On the afternoon of May 23, when Federals pushed forward there at Chesterfield bridge along the Telegraph Road, and further west at Jericho Mills against A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, confederates were ill prepared for what came at them.
John Henagan’s South Carolinians, ensconced in a redoubt on the north side of the river, put a stout defense but were eventually driven back after a fight one Federal described as “one of the most savage fires of shell and bullets I had ever experienced.”
At Jericho Mills to the west, Hill pieced together a credible defense until a gap in the line lead to total collapse. The incident led to the only documented instance when Lee invoked the lost Stonewall Jackson: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here? Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?” The rebuke must have surely rankled Hill, whose relationship with the late Stonewall had been extremely rocky.
Assessing the situation that evening, Lee saw an opportunity to turn his near defeat to his advantage, and the elegant trap he then set remains the most memorable part of the North Anna phase of the campaign. What remains forgotten is how close Lee came–once again–to catastrophe because had once again misjudged Grant.