I think about the Army of the Potomac waking up on this day in 1864, ready to follow up on its successes of the previous day along the banks of the North Anna River, tentatively extending its reach southward only to discover nothing.
“My skirmishers are pushing out, and find no enemy so far,” V Corps commander Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren reported to army headquarters. “I shall keep feeling out till I develop the enemy’s position, if he is still around.”
“[W]e found that the enemy had fallen back somewhat from our front,” artillerist Charles Wainwright recorded. “The Second Corps has also found their front free this morning so that they crossed without opposition.”
The II Corps encountered “a few scattering of men” on the south bank of the North Anna. Sharpshooters harassed the corps’ advance, but otherwise, Hancock’s men pushed onward with little stopping them.
Ulysses S. Grant and George Gordon Meade, experiencing a morning of significant tension between them, gave little consideration to the whereabouts of the Confederates. Meade directed Warren, followed by Horatio Wright’s VI Corps, to advance toward the South Anna River. If no Confederates awaited there, Meade expected Warren to cross the following morning.
Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps, just that morning incorporated into the Army of the Potomac’s formal structure, finally found Rebels—perched high atop the bluffs on the south bank of the North Anna overlooking Ox Ford. Burnside, also directed to advance toward the South Anna, could not get across the North Anna. “The prospects of success are not all that flattering,” Burnside admitted.
The Union army had unwittingly advanced into the jaws of one of Lee’s most ingenious traps. Only slowly did the Federals realize it. First, Hancock’s advance started taking artillery fire. Then they ran into a Confederate line along the Central Virginia Railroad. “[T]he enemy are in strong force,” he realized midafternoon.
And then the downpour began—one of the heaviest of a campaign that had seen some torrential rain.
Imagine how those Federals felt, bogged down by Confederates, bogged down in the rain, after such an optimistic start to the day? Imagine that turnabout.
Read more about the battle along the North Anna River in Strike Them a Blow: Battle Along the North Anna River. You can also check out some of the great North Anna pieces in the ECW archives.
And don’t forget: I’ll be speaking about Lee’s defense along the North Anna at the Fourth Annual Emerging Civil War Symposium at Stevenson Ridge, Aug. 4-6, 2017.