The day was quiet and the water high along the North Anna River today. One hundred and fifty two years ago, Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was coming to grief as it tried to advance down the Telegraph Road and the IX Corps was coming to grief dashing itself impotently against Ox Ford. A thunderstorm would rip through across the battlefield late in the afternoon, drenching a foolhardy assault led by the inebriated James Ledlie. Robert E. Lee, delirious with fever, impotently muttered, “We must strike them a blow. We must strike them a blow.”
This afternoon could not be more beautiful. After 18 days of rain in the last twenty one, today soared into the low eighties with abundant sunlight to dapple the tree-shrouded earthworks. Despite being the anniversary of the battle, only a single blue pickup truck sat in the parking lot of the county park.
When I have the opportunity to give talks about North Anna, or when I sign copies of Strike Them a Blow, I tell people, “Thank you for taking the time to take a closer look at this most overlooked phase of the Overland Campaign.” I am sure other battlefield visitors have come here today, either by intention or coincidence, but it seems so quiet and alone here. Even the construction equipment at the entrance to the park, left by the adjacent gravel company, sits silent and abandoned today.
Someone needs to remember the men who marched and fought and died here, who wallowed in another night of storm and mud with the rain-soaked horror of Spotsylvania still fresh in their minds. “The men suffered much,” said Capt. James Fleming, “having had no rest for the past three days, and their rations having run short, long marches, constant duty, &c., the officers sharing alike with them in the fatigue, exposure, and short rations.”
Some 2,017 Confederates and some 2,623 Federals ended up as casualties at North Anna—in a great battle of the campaign that never quite escalated into a great battle. For those 2,600+ men men, though, it was bad enough.
“How we longed to get away from the North Anna,” recalled artillery Pvt. Frank Wilkeson, “where we had not bit the slightest chance of success.”
How they longed to get away.
How I feel compelled to come.
Someone needs to remember them. But today, all seems quiet.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Other pieces by Chris about the North Anna:
- Grant: “I should change Spotts if I was able, and could improve N. Anna and Cold Harbor.”
- Lee’s Curious Order at North Anna
- Exploring Jericho Mills
- Among the Ruins at Jericho Mill
- Gordon Rhea’s “To the North Anna River”—History Writing at Its Best
- A Run Along North Anna
- The Race to North Anna Begins
- The Race to North Anna, 150 years ago
- Blink and You’ll Miss It: Crossing the North Anna River Today by Edward Alexander
- “We Must Strike Them a Blow!”—Robert E. Lee at North Anna (part one) by Rob Orrison
- Edward Thomas’ Georgia Brigade at the Battle of Jericho Mills on May 23, 1864 by John J. Fox III
- Saving Jericho Mills at the North Anna River