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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

MAY 21: THE ARMIES START FOR THE NORTH ANNA RIVER

Shortly after dark on May 20, Hancock started on his eastward loop, screened by three Union cavalry regiments under Brigadier General Alfred T. A. Torbert. Skirmishes sparked between Torbert's troopers and Brigadier General John R. Chambliss's Virginia horsemen, who were patrolling the region. The blue-clad column passed through Massaponax Church and by dawn on May 21 had reached Guinea Station on the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. Hancock's curious soldiers visited the Chandler house, where Lieutenant General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson had died the previous year. While Hancock's men paused to regroup, Torbert's troopers swung south to Bowling Green and on to Milford Station, farther down the rail line.

HAVING WON THE RACE TO SPOTSYLVANIA COURT HOUSE, LEE DEFENDED THIS IMPORTANT CROSSROADS FOR NEARLY TWO WEEKS BEFORE GRANT ONCE AGAIN HEADED EAST AND SOUTH AROUND THE CONFEDERATES. (NPS)

Five hundred soldiers from Kemper's Brigade of Pickett's division had left Richmond the night before to join Lee. Bivouacking at Milford Station, the Confederates received word of Torbert's approach and deployed around the station buildings. After a short skirmish, the Confederates retired across the Mattaponi River west of town. The order to withdraw failed to reach the 11th Virginia, which tenaciously held onto a neighboring hilltop until it had expended its ammunition. Raising a dirty towel as a flag of truce, the brave little band surrendered, persuaded that its sacrifice had bought time for the rest of the brigade to escape. "Good generalship, I suppose, but 'tough on the frogs,'" a Southerner ruefully observed.

Hancock's troops reached Bowling Green in midmorning. Jubilant slaves pranced beside the column, celebrating their newfound freedom. Pressing on to Milford Station, Hancock crossed the Mattaponi and entrenched west of town. The engagement at Milford Station had major repercussions. Hancock had expected to meet elements detached from Lee's army. Instead, he faced fresh troops from Pickett's division, which meant that Lee remained as strong as ever. Rather than risk a fight far from the main Union force, Hancock decided to abandon his maneuver, A small band of Confederates, well-positioned by chance, had frustrated Grant's plan of operation.

Lee reacted cautiously by extending Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps to Telegraph Road at Mud Tavern in preparation for marching south. Lee was reluctant, however, to withdraw his remaining infantry until he received conclusive intelligence about Grant's deployments. Cognizant that his delay might permit Grant to reach the North Anna first, Lee directed Breckinridge, who was on his way from the Shenandoah Valley, to stop at Hanover Junction and defend the North Anna line until Lee could forward reinforcements.


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NO TURNING BACK: MAY 4-22
On May 4, Grant crosses the Rapidan River and over the next two days fights Lee to a standstill in the Wilderness. Realizing his failure to gain an advantage over the Confederates, Grant continues south, only to be stopped by Lee on May 8 near Spotsylvania Court House. For nearly two weeks, Grant hammers away at Lee's entrenched position near the crossroads community, but once again the Union commander fails to overwhelm the rebel army and chooses to continue his push southward. On May 21, the Army of the Potomac begins to swing east and south in an attempt to draw Lee out of his trenches. Abandoning his position at Spotsylvania, Lee races south, crossing the North Anna River the next day, and begins preparations to defend the vital rail link at Hanover Junction. Once again having lost the race south, Grant pushes onto the Telegraph Road and by nightfall on the twenty-second is in a position to pursue Lee and attempt a crossing of the river the following day.

The next phase of Grant's plan was scheduled to click into place at 10:00 A.M. with Major General Gouverneur K. Warren withdrawing his Fifth Corps from its earthworks, marching to Massaponax Church, and proceeding south along Telegraph Road to a point suitable for supporting Hancock. Shortly before 10:00, Grant changed Warren's route in response to intelligence that Lee was sending Ewell to block Telegraph Road. Under Grant's new formulation, the Fifth Corps was to proceed to Guinea Station and extend along country roads toward Hancock. Late in the day, Burnside started down Telegraph Road toward Mud Tavern, encountered Ewell's rear guard, and turned around, proceeding instead by way of Guinea Station, an option permitted under his discretionary orders. Major General Horatio G. Wright's Sixth Corps followed behind Burnside, Lee meanwhile thrust Ewell south along Telegraph Road, followed by Major General Richard H. Anderson's First Corps, and sent Lieutenant General Ambrose P. Hill's Third Corps south along companion roads. The race for the North Anna was on.

HIS FORCES PUSHING EASTWARD, GRANT FOUND TIME TO STOP AT THIS SMALL COTTAGE, NEAR GUINEA STATION, WHERE CONFEDERATE LIEUTENANT GENERAL "STONEWALL" JACKSON HAD DIED THE PREVIOUS YEAR. (NPS)

FORDING THE MATTAPONI. (BL)

Grant missed several opportunities on May 21. His ploy to entice Lee with Hancock had been flawed. Instead of taking Grant's bait, Lee seized Telegraph Road to ensure that he reached the North Anna first. "Had Grant originally started his movement as a race for the North Anna, having the initiative, he might easily have won it," a Confederate observed. "But Hancock's delay, while acting as bait, enabled Gen. Lee to seize the advantage, which he was quick to do." Grant also failed to exploit an excellent opportunity afforded by Warren. Major elements of the Fifth Corps lay camped only a mile east of Telegraph Road. All night, Lee's fragile column marched past, oblivious to the danger on its flank. Fortunately for the Confederates, the Federals remained equally oblivious and forfeited a superb chance to attack. "Such opportunities are only presented once in a campaign and should not be lost," a Union staff officer lamented.

ON MAY 21, PHOTOGRAPHER TIMOTHY O'SULLIVAN CAPTURED THIS SCENE AT MASSAPONAX CHURCH, WHERE GRANT (SEATED SECOND FROM LEFT ON THE PEW DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THE TWO TREES) AND MEADE BRIEFLY STOPPED WHILE THEIR ARMY CONTINUED IN ITS ATTEMPT TO SWEEP AROUND LEE. (LC)
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