Reading primary sources is an especially fun part of researching a book. Not only is it interesting to read other people’s mail, as a once-upon-a-time radio newscaster, I’m always on the lookout for great “soundbites”—those great lines or pieces of descriptions that really jump out as colorful or insightful or unique. Another cool part of the experience is finding a puzzle piece that doesn’t seem to quite jive with everything else.
Such was the case as I worked on my most recent manuscript, Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River.
Robert E. Lee’s army had reached the river early on May 22, 1864, but Lee didn’t expect Ulysses S. Grant’s army to attack him there. Yet Grant did, on May 23, catching Lee totally by surprise and unprepared.
Lee reacted well under pressure, though, re-configuring his lines into one of the best defensive positions of the war: an inverted “V” that hinged on high ground above Ox Ford. One leg of the “V” extended southwest, manned by A. P. Hill’s Third Corps; the other leg extended southeast, manned by Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps extended the line eastward and then refused back on itself to protect the flank.
The formation was elegant. It encouraged Grant’s army to advance on two fronts, on either side of the “V,” which acted as a wedge, thus separating one wing from the from the other. The isolated wings would have to traverse six miles and cross the North Anna twice in order to support each other—leaving each vulnerable to attack in the meantime.
The apex of the “V” at Ox Ford served as the keystone. Anderson’s leg of the “V” made up the center of the entire Confederate line. Hill and Ewell were both anchored to it. In fact, with Winfield Scott Hancock’s Federal II Corps advancing across Anderson’s front, Anderson and Ewell could pin Hancock in place—and then Ewell could swing out of his trenches, pivoting on his junction with Anderson, and crush Hancock between the two corps like jaws snapping shut. This was what Lee had in mind when he later said, “We must strike a blow.”
With that in mind, I stumbled across an interesting dispatch. On the night of May 23, as Lee’s army reconfigured its entire position into its “V” shape, Lee sent a curious dispatch to Anderson. Stamped 11:30 PM and sent by adjutant Walter Taylor, it read:
Major General Anderson:
The general commanding directs that you have the wagons of your corps packed and everything in readiness by daybreak tomorrow to move in any direction.
(The Wartime Papers of Robert E. Lee, 749)
If Anderson was to serve as the centerpiece for the other wings to attach to, why would Lee want Anderson to be ready to move? Doing so would uncover Hill’s right flank and Ewell’s left. It would have hobbled the entire Confederate position.
The inverted “V” gave Lee the advantage of interior lines, and the Central Virginia Railroad spanned one flank of the position to the other, giving Lee the easy and quick ability to shuffle reinforcements. However, Lee already held John Breckenridge and George Pickett’s divisions in reserve for just such a purpose. Anderson would not have been the logical choice for any such redeployment, even as a backup.
So what did Lee have in mind with this dispatch?
The existing literature doesn’t shed much light on the quest. Gordon Rhea and Mike Miller, both of whom have written excellent histories of the battle, both omit this dispatch from their accounts. I admit: I did, too. It just doesn’t seem to jive unless I make some assumptions—but in this case, there just isn’t enough to go on.
Some pieces of documentary evidence are easy to evaluate and, when appropriate, omit. One of my favorite examples comes from George M. Neese, an artillerist who watched Lee on the morning of May 23 as the Federal cavalry first showed up on the north bank of the river. “A single glance from the old warrior’s eye, like a flash of genius, instantly penetrated and fathomed the depth’s of the enemy’s design…” Neese wrote in Three Years in the Confederate Horse Artillery (275).
Written in 1911, the author’s hindsight has all the hallmarks of wishful thinking. Lee declared at the time—which Neese recounts as part of the same episode—that the cavalry action he was witnessing was only a feint. Whoops!
An official dispatch from the army commander written on the field in the crucible of the moment is a little harder to simply overlook than a memoirist’s 45-year-old fancy. What did Lee intend? As ingenious as the inverted “V” turned out to be, was there even more to it then history has realized? Or had Lee intended a movement that might have ended in catastrophe had he not been too ill to execute? Or maybe, by 11:30 on the night of May 23, Lee in his illness was starting to second-guess himself? Was he feeling cautious? Pessimistic? Was he just getting confused (and, if so, why did Taylor straighten him out)?
It is a thought-provoking puzzle piece, and I don’t have an answer for it, but I thought I would share. Maybe you have some ideas….