The Confederate position at the North Anna River has usually been characterized as an inverted V, but another way to look at it is as a giant salient—a portion of the line that juts out from the main line. Viewed in that light, echoes of the salient at Spotsylvania begin to reverberate. Salients are inherently weak positions, as the Muleshoe had demonstrated on May 12.
Converging fire from the exterior of a salient concentrates inward against defenders, whereas the firepower of the defenders diverges outward—it fans out—making it weaker over distance. Also, if someone breaks through the line anywhere along the salient, he is then in the rear of the entire position, making it almost immediately untenable.
Lee’s salient at North Anna differed from the Muleshoe in several significant ways, though. The tip of the Muleshoe pointed toward open fields and, beyond, a forest that allowed Federals to mask their approach. The tip of the position at North Anna, in contrast, rested on high banks overlooking Ox Ford. Therefore, the approaches toward the tip of the position could not be so easily assailed.
The western face of Lee’s salient at Spotsylvania did not run along particularly strong ground, and the Union line came within only a couple hundred yards of it—and much of the no man’s land in between provided good topography for cover (which Emory Upton exploited for his May 10 attack). At North Anna, Confederates dominated a ridge that overlooked some open fields.
The eastern face of Lee’s position at North Anna, meanwhile, could be assailed only after Federals crossed the river farther east, where they could be easily observed, and then would have to face enfilading fire from Anderson’s corps, which held the eastern side of the position.
At Spotsyvania, when Lee wanted to take advantage of his interior lines for reinforcement, he had to cross his men along indirect roads and through thick forest. At North Anna, the clear, straight Central Virginia Railroad offered an easy, convenient method for shifting troops if he needed to.
When Lee pulled the wings of his army back into this inverted-V position, he created the illusion that he was withdrawing. He then counted on Grant’s aggressiveness to cross the river in pursuit: Warren’s V Corps was already south of the river at Jericho Mills, with Wright’s VI Corps in support, and Hancock’s II Corps seemed itching to cross at Chesterfield Bridge to the east. Burnside, in the middle, would try at Ox Ford but find himself unable to cross in the face of Lee’s strong position there. Thus Grant’s army would be divided in two, with two river crossings and six miles of road to march over in order for those wings to support each other.
Lee hadn’t expected to fight at North Anna, and as at Spotsylvania, he found himself having to adapt to the topography on the fly. When he and his commanders discussed their situation on the evening May 23, they realized that luck was with them this time. The salient that resulted proved to be the strongest Confederate position yet—unlike the Muleshoe, which had proven to be their weakest.