The Civil War Trust announced this week an opportunity to preserve 126 acres of the North Anna Battlefield, including the key site of the historic Fox House.
U.S. 1 South descends in a smooth, straight line from the north bank of the North Anna before bridging the river in a flash and ascending the far slope. Nothing indicates that you’re driving through the heart of the North Anna battlefield, where Lee and Grant squared off for three inconclusive days in May of 1864 following three weeks of unprecedented slaughter. By that measure, North Anna might have even seemed like a respite, where soldiers had enough time to bathe and frolic in the river before resuming their contest.
On the right-hand side of the road, behind overgrown hedges and tall bushes—some of which had once been domesticated but have long since run wild—one of the North Anna battlefield’s most notable landmarks has remained hidden for decades. Once the wartime home of Pastor Thomas Fox, the brick house has weathered a century and a half. She wears the years hard.
But nothing can be more bleak than the day civil war came to the Fox House: May 23, 1864.
The Army of Northern Virginia had reached the area the day before after two days of grueling march. Ulysses S. Grant seemed to be passing farther to the east in an attempt to get around the Confederate right flank yet again. Robert E. Lee expected a fast move to intercept—so he tried to give his men all the extra time to rest up that he could.
Lee needed the time to rest, too. He was noticeably sick by the time he’d arrived at the North Anna midmorning on May 22. “The terrible responsibilities that had been forced upon him,” a staffer officer later explained, “and the strain to which he had been subjected for the three or four weeks past, were telling on his endurance, and added to this, he was really a sick man.” He’d been averaging only three hours a sleep a night, and dysentery wracked his body. “General Lee is much troubled and not well,” observed Maj. Gen. Jubal Early.
By the 23rd, Lee had to resort to traveling by carriage. He spent the midday inspecting his lines. Along the river, near the Chesterfield Bridge, he leaned against a tree and watched a cavalry skirmish unfold along the north bank. Convinced the horsemen had appeared to obfuscate Grant’s true movement further east, he did not order his men to fortify. “This is nothing but a feint,” he concluded. “The enemy is preparing to cross below.” Shortly thereafter, Lee climbed back into his carriage and continued his inspection.
Midafternoon found him recovering from his exertions on the porch of the Fox House, enjoying a glass of buttermilk offered by the pastor. The Telegraph Road, which lead up from the Chesterfield Bridge, passed only a hundred yards in front of the house. Today, Route 1 parallels the old road trace, and what serves as the modern front of the house had been its wartime back.
As Lee sat there, cannon began to boom in the distance. The cavalry skirmish had stepped up in intensity, apparently. Before Lee fully understood what was happening, a cannonball soared out of the distance and lodged itself in the porch next to him—but did not explode.
Lee finished his buttermilk, handed the glass back to the pastor, and returned to his carriage. Time to find out what was really going on.
Meanwhile, the shells continued to rain in on the house, landing about “promiscuously,” said Confederate artillerist Porter Alexander, who arrived to deploy counterbattery fire along the ridge where the Fox House sat. A Federal shell came screaming in and blasted into one of the house’s chimneys, blasting away the top ten feet of bricks, which avalanched down toward Alexander. Unable to leap away, the artillerists threw himself back against a window instead. “The recess was scarcely four inches deep,” he later said, “& the avalanche of bricks fell so close to me that when they were done falling the slope of the pile completely covered by feet & ankles, which were badly bruised.” The bricks killed another staff member and injured a third. “I would not like to have been killed by bricks,” Alexander said.
The Federal army had not tried to outflank the Confederates but had, instead, come right at them. They had forced a river crossing at the Chesterfield Bridge and, several miles upriver, at Jericho Mills. The North Anna had provided the perfect defensive position for Lee, but because he had misjudged Grant’s intentions, he had not contested the river crossing as he should have.
That night, while sitting on the root of an old oak tree near his headquarters at the Miller House, about a mile south of the Fox House, Lee called a council of war and, with the advice of his subordinates, developed his most ingenious defensive position of the campaign.
Shaped like an inverted “V,” the apex of the line anchored on high ground above Ox Ford, upriver of the Chesterfield Bridge. The western leg of the “V,” occupied by A. P. Hill’s Third Corps, faced the Federal force at Jericho Mill. The eastern leg of the “V,” occupied by Richard Anderson’s First Corps, would connect with Richard Ewell’s Second Corps less than a mile to the rear of the Fox House. Ewell’s line would parallel the Central Virginia Railroad to protect the vital rail depot at Hanover Junction before refusing itself. A swamp to the east helped protect the flank there.
The “V” would separate the two wings of the Federal army, and the farther each wing advanced, the harder it would be for them to support each other. Lee would then have the opportunity to destroy a large portion of the army in detail.
And so it was, on the morning of May 24, Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second corps crossed the Chesterfield Bridge in force and deployed across the farm fields around the Fox House. Confederates “show no force except sharpshooters in their works,” Hancock reported to headquarters, unaware that the bulk of Lee’s force waited a mile to the south in the strong fortifications they’d built overnight. Lee hoped to lure Hancock forward past the Fox House into the open plateau beyond. Lee would then order Ewell’s corps to sweep forward, swinging on the hinge with Anderson’s line, and either drive Hancock’s exposed men into the river or against Anderson’s fortifications.
The fields around the Fox House, then, would have become Lee’s perfect killing ground.
But Lee’s deteriorating health worsened still further, and by mid-afternoon, with Hancock in place to receive the killing blow, Lee could not launch his attack. Confined to his tent by his dysentery, in near delirium, he could only say, “We must strike them a blow. We must strike them a blow.” Hancock soon discovered his peril and hunkered down, where his men would endure artillery fire and a day and a half of monsoon-like rain before withdrawing back across the river to safety.
Standing on the fields around the Fox House today, long rows of winter rye the size of toy soldiers run down the slope toward the river. The Telegraph Road trace and modern Route 1 run parallel on either edge of the field, but the whoosh of passing Route 1 traffic is hardly noticeable. The Fox House itself—dark, weather-stained brick—hulks on a patch of lawn, hemmed in by the hedges-gone-wild. Peeled-paint windowpanes peek out from the bushes as though on watch for Hancock’s approach.
It’s easy to see why this made such an idea artillery position for the Confederates. It’s even easier to see why Lee paused here for an afternoon respite. It’s a beautiful spot, and the wide viewshed afforded Lee an excellent perspective of his initial position. His centralized position allowed him to easily communicate with his entire army, he could keep watch on the far side of the river, he could keep tabs on the crucial rail junction to his rear, and he could pivot eastward with his entire force at a moment’s notice to intercept Grant once new intelligence arrived. This was the lynchpin of his entire position.
Grant changed the nature of the entire encounter, of course, but Lee adapted brilliantly—and that’s what has me feeling such a chill as I stand on the ridge, in the middle of the field. This bucolic spot might very well have turned into another slaughter pen. The rows of winter rye suddenly resemble long marching columns of infantry—much the same way Hancock’s men must have looked as they came down the Telegraph Road and crossed the Chesterfield Bridge before deploying across this very field.
How things might have played out here had Lee’s health held up is impossible to say, but easy to wonder about. It’s easy to wonder, too, what might have happened had that cannonball exploded when it hit the porch next to Lee. So many questions—which is the story of the entire North Anna phase of the Overland Campaign. So many questions, so many missed opportunities, so many near-disastrous mistakes.
One thing’s for certain: the property around the Fox House and the plateau was the scene of one of the closest calls the Union army had during the entire Overland Campaign. Zipping south along Route 1, one would have no idea how close calamity once lurked.
Chris Mackowski talks more about the value of the Fox House property in this Civil War Trust video. Read his account of this phase of the Overland Campaign in Strike Them a Blow: Battles along the North Anna River, part of the Emerging Civil War Series.