part three of three
That night, as time slipped by for the Army of Northern Virginia to attack Hancock’s portion of the Army of the Potomac, Lee’s demeanor worsened. Because of his dysentery, his immobility, his lack of sleep, his frustration with his commanders, and now the missed opportunity, he began to take his situation out on his aides and staff around him. After a terse moment in Lee’s tent, Charles Venable said to cavalry staff officer H.B. McClellan, “I have just told the old man that he is not fit to command this army and that he had better send for Beauregard.” Even Lee’s trusted advisors saw that he was at a breaking point.
Due to the inaction of Lee and his lieutenants, Grant was able to extract his two wings from the trap Lee had laid for them, and soon the entire Army of the Potomac was safely on the north bank of the North Anna. After the war, Grant wrote in his memoirs that at North Anna “six miles separating the two wings guarded by but a single division. To get from one wing to the other the river would have to be crossed twice. Lee could reinforce any part of his line from all points of it in a very short march… We were, for the time, practically two armies besieging.”
A few days went by and Lee recovered from the “common soldier’s ailment”—dysentery was something that many men in both armies deal with.
Though Lee recovered, he was always dealing with the stress and pressure of the constant campaigning in 1864. Instead of holding the initiative, he was forced to respond to Grant’s maneuvers. In the back of his mind, Lee knew unless he could do something to wreck Grant’s army, he would be forced with his back against Richmond. Grant was losing battles but winning the campaign—and Lee knew it.
Historians have argued that even if Lee was physically well, the Confederate attack may have punished Hancock severely, but would not have destroyed the Army of the Potomac. Obviously Grant proved that high casualties did not dictate his conduct of the campaign. And as we look to the future, the losses at Cold Harbor did not break Grant’s path to Richmond or Lee’s army.
On the other hand, if Hancock’s entire corps were destroyed, how would this have played out politically? Large numbers of casualties spread out among corps may have had a different response publicly than the annihilation of an entire Federal corps.
We will never know what might have been if Lee was in good health at North Anna or if James Longstreet were present. The present corps commanders were not up to the task and no longer held Lee’s confidence. This was Lee’s best chance to thwart the Army of the Potomac’s offensive through central Virginia. Lee was prophetic in his comments to Gen. Jubal Early when he’d said, “We must destroy this Army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”