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
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.
(click on image for a PDF version)
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
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)