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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

MAY 24: GRANT CROSSES THE NORTH ANNA RIVER

May 24 opened precisely as Lee had anticipated. Concerned that the Confederates might concentrate against Warren's isolated corps, Grant crossed Wright at Jericho Milks. The Union Fifth and Sixth Corps now faced the western leg of Lee's formation. At 8:00 A.M., Hancock forced a crossing at Chesterfield Bridge. Birney's 20th Indiana and 2nd United States Sharpshooters dashed across the narrow span and brushed aside a thin cloud of gray-clad skirmishers. Half a mile downstream, rebels had burned the railway trestle, but soldiers from the 8th Ohio felled a tree across the river and walked over single file. Meade's engineers constructed a pontoon bridge, and soon Major General John Gibbon's division was forming along the rail line. Hancock occupied the river's southern bank from Telegraph Road to the railway.

ON THE MORNING OF MAY 24, HANCOCK PUSHED HIS MEN ACROSS THE CHESTERFIELD BRIDGE AND ONTO THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE RIVER. SEPARATED FROM WARREN AND WRIGHT AT JERICHO MILLS, GRANT HAD NOW SPLIT HIS ARMY, INVITING DISASTER. (NPS)

AT QUARLES' MILL, BRIGADIER GENERAL THOMAS L. CRITTENDEN'S DIVISION OF THE NINTH CORPS WADED THE NORTH ANNA IN PREPARATION, FOR AN ASSAULT ON LEE'S CENTER NEAR OXFORD. (LC)

Grant was encouraged by the ease with which he had pierced Lee's North Anna defenses. Lee, he concluded, must be retreating. It was critical, he decided, to catch the Confederates before they could take up another fortified line. "The enemy have fallen back from North Anna," a jubilant Grant wired Washington. "We are in pursuit." From his headquarters at Hanover Junction, Lee monitored reports from the front with satisfaction. Grant was doing exactly as he had hoped. The time was approaching to spring the trap.

By 11:00 A.M. Hancock's entire corps was below the river, and Warren and Wright had advanced to the Virginia Central Railroad. Neither had encountered significant resistance, which reinforced Grant's impression that Lee was dropping back. The only opposition, which Grant took to be from a rear guard, appeared on the heights above Ox Ford. Grant directed Burnside, who had remained on the northern bank, to eliminate this annoyance.

In preparation for Burnside's assault, Crawford marched downriver to the ford at Quarles' Mill, about a mile above Ox Ford. With the ford secure, Burnside directed Major General Thomas L. Crittenden to cross his division at Quarles' Mill, follow the river's southern bank to Ox Ford, and attack the Confederates from the west. Brigadier General James H. Ledlie's brigade was the first of Crittenden's units across. Ledlie owed his rank to political connections, and he drank excessively. Tipsy and anxious to further his advancement, he decided to attack the rebels at Ox Ford with his brigade alone.

After traversing dense woods along the river's southern bank, Ledlie emerged onto a field fronting the left wing of Lee's inverted V. Brigadier General William Mahone's division occupied the well-sited rebel earthworks. Ledlie sent the 35th Massachusetts forward to probe Mahone's position, but the regiment came tumbling back under a hail of lead. The inebriated general decided he needed reinforcements and sent an officer back to Crittenden with a request for three more regiments. Crittenden was flabbergasted. "The division is not across the river yet," he advised the officer. "Tell [Ledlie] my orders are not to charge." As the man turned to go, Crittenden admonished: "Tell General Ledlie not to charge unless he sees a sure thing where he can capture a battery not well supported; to use the utmost caution." In the time it took the officer to return, Ledlie had become thoroughly drunk. The officer informed Ledlie of Crittenden's directive and pointed out several batteries plainly visible on the ramparts. Ledlie was unimpressed and ordered his brigade to charge.

AMID A VIOLENT THUNDERSTORM, LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHARLES L. CHANDLER LED THE 57TH MASSACHUSETTS IN AN ILL-FATED ATTACK AGAINST THE CONFEDERATE LINES. IN CARRYING OUT THE ORDERS OF HIS DRUNKEN COMMANDER, CHANDLER FELL MORTALLY WOUNDED AND HIS REGIMENT LOST 46 MEN. (EVEN TO HELL ITSELF BY DONNA NEARY, COURTESY OF HERITAGE STUDIO, FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA)

Rain began falling as the Federals stepped from the woods. The blue-clad line immediately became jumbled. "It was just a wild tumultuous rush where the most reckless were far to the front and the cautious ones scattered along back, but still coming," a participant related. Mahone's soldiers marveled at their good fortune. Waiting until Ledlie's Federals came within range, they raked them with musketry and canister. Ledlie's foremost elements sought cover in a ditch and lay pinned under sheets of lead flying overhead. Then a violent thunderstorm lashed the combatants. Colonel Stephen M. Weld of the 56th Massachusetts and Lieutenant Colonel Charles L. Chandler of the 57th Massachusetts managed to rally their troops, but Mississippians sortied from the works and shot them down. Weld was slightly wounded and Chandler mortally so. Facing extermination, Ledlie's survivors broke and scrambled back to Quarles' Mill. "General Ledlie made a botch of it," Colonel Weld wrote in his diary. "Had too much [alcohol] on board, I think." Ledlie was to bedevil his men until the end of July, when he was cashiered for drunkenness during the Battle of the Crater.

At the same time that Ledlie crossed at Quarles' Mill, Hancock pushed south from Chesterfield Bridge. Meeting escalating resistance from rebel skirmishers, Hancock directed Gibbon to advance along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad. A short march brought Gibbon's lead brigade—that of Colonel Thomas A. Smyth—into a nest of skirmishers from Brigadier General E. McIvor Law's veteran Alabama brigade. Clawing forward, Smyth slammed into entrenchments held by Law's men and North Carolinians under Colonel William R. Cox. Smyth attacked, the Confederates counterattacked, and soon Gibbon had fed most of his division into the fray. Battle lines seesawed along the rail line and around the nearby Doswell house in combat that raged fiercely but inconclusively. The combatants paused to protect their powder when the thunderstorm struck, then resumed firing when the rain let up. Some of Birney's men pitched in as well but could not pierce the Confederate line.


(click on image for a PDF version)
THE INVERTED V: MAY 24, 6-7 P.M.
Having thrown both his flanks back from the river, Lee sets a trap that forces Grant to split his army and position himself with his back to the North Anna. In the late afternoon, Crittenden's division of Burnside's Ninth Corps crosses at Quarles' Mill and a drunken General Ledlie makes an ill-fated and costly attack on Mahone's trenches. At the same time, Hancock crosses the river and probes Lee's right flank. Incapacitated by poor health, Lee fails to spring the trap, and while Grant fortifies his position on the south bank, the Confederate opportunity passes.

The futile assaults at Ox Ford and the Doswell house did nothing to improve tempers at Mt. Carmel Church, where Grant and Meade had their headquarters. Meade lost his composure over a dispatch from Major General William T. Sherman, commanding the Union armies in the West, which assured Grant that he would win the war if he could only get the Army of the Potomac to fight. "Sir!" Meade barked at Assistant Secretary of War Charles A. Dana, who read the communication to him. "I consider that dispatch an insult to the army I command, and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant's inspiration or anybody else's inspiration to make it fight!" Meade fumed all day and mumbled at dinner about the "armed rabble" in the West. Grant took an important step that must have partially mollified his distraught subordinate. Henceforth, he directed, Burnside was to report directly to Meade, and the Ninth Corps was to be incorporated into the Army of the Potomac.

FIRING FROM THE NORTH SIDE OF THE RIVER, UNION ARTILLERY ATTEMPTED TO LEND ASSISTANCE TO LEDLIE'S ATTACK, BUT LITTLE COULD BE DONE TO WEAKEN LEE'S STRONGLY FORTIFIED POSITIONS. (NPS)

Lee's trap had worked precisely as the rebel commander had hoped. Fate, however, snatched his prize from him. Succumbing to the strain of campaigning, Lee contracted a debilitating intestinal ailment. As the Confederacy's best opportunity of the campaign passed, Lee lay confined to his cot, helpless to direct the offensive and lacking a suitable subordinate to take his place. Hill had failed at Jericho Mills, Ewell was sick, and Anderson was inexperienced. "We must strike them a blow—we must never let them pass again—we must strike them a blow" Lee repeated as he lay in his tent. But he lacked the means for executing his design.

By late afternoon, the Union commanders began grasping the nature of their predicament. At 6:30 P.M., Hancock warned Meade that "the enemy had a similar line to that [at Spotsylvania Court House], with the salient resting opposite to Burnside, and their right, so far as we are concerned, thrown back toward Hanover Junction." Grant at last recognized that Lee had assumed a formation that divided the Union army. He immediately ordered his generals to stop advancing and start entrenching, and his engineers began erecting pontoon bridges to facilitate communication between the army's widely separated wings.

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