The Battle of North Anna

Below is the text for a park brochure on the Battle of North Anna (May 23-26, 1864) including a summary of the battle, directions to the battlefield and a suggested tour route. The visitor centers at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville have copies of the brochure which also includes a map of the battlefield showing the tour route.

After two weeks of inconclusive fighting south of the Rapidan River, Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac, accompanied by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, pursued General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to the banks of the North Anna River. Heavy losses in the The Battles of Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, coupled with expiring enlistment's, had diminished Meade's effective strength, while reinforcements had bolstered Lee's sagging numbers. Never again would the armies be so evenly matched.

After 48 hours of hard marching, Lee's weary Confederate soldiers rested south of the river. Lee posted Colonel John Henagan's South Carolina brigade in and around a small earthen fort, or redoubt, on the north side of the river guarding the Telegraph Road bridge. On the evening of May 23rd, three brigades of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's Second Corps scattered the South Carolinians and captured the bridge.

While Hancock's men advanced against Henagan to the east, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren's Fifth Corps effected a crossing four miles upstream at Jericho Mills. Before Warren could complete the crossing, Major General Cadmus Wilcox's division attacked. Advancing in line of battle from Noel's Station on the Virginia Central Railroad, Wilcox's men caught the Federals off guard and drove them back in disorder. The destruction of the Union corps seemed imminent when one of the attacking brigades inexplicably broke ranks and fled, spreading confusion along the rest of the Confederate line. Wilcox's attack subsequently dissolved, and he was forced to fall back. When briefed on the action the next day, an ailing Robert E. Lee rebuked Wilcox's superior, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, for failing to take full advantage of the opportunity. "Why did you not do as Jackson would have done," he asked, "thrown your whole force upon these people and driven them back?"

With the Federals now firmly in place south of the river, Lee changed his tactics. He anchored the center of his line at a strong point on the river known as Ox Ford, then drew back the left and right flanks of his army, giving his new line the shape of an inverted "V". By maintaining his position at Ox Ford, Lee kept the two wings of the Federal army divided. One wing could not support the other without marching six miles and crossing the river twice. Lee, on the other hand, could readily shift troops from one flank to the other, utilizing his interior lines of communication. The Southern commander planned to use this advantage to the fullest. While part of his army held Warren at bay from the safety of its earthworks, the rest would fall upon Hancock and destroy him.

The Federals reacted just as Lee had anticipated. Mistaking refusal of the Confederate right flank as a sign of retreat, Hancock crossed the Telegraph Road bridge on May 24th and headed south in Pursuit. He had stepped into Lee's trap, but Lee failed to spring it. Illness and fatigue had robbed the Confederate commander. Thus, as Hancock pushed south into the jaws of the Confederate army. Lee lay incapacitated on his cot, muttering over and over to himself, "We must strike a blow, we must never let them pass us again, we must strike them a blow."

But the time for striking a blow soon passed. Meade quickly realized the peril of his situation and ordered Hancock to entrench. By the next morning the danger was gone. Firmly dug in, with communications in place, the Union army no longer faced the possibility of annihilation. For two days the armies faced one another across miles of formidable earthworks with neither side venturing to take the offensive. Admitting stalemate on the North Anna, Grant withdrew the Union army across the river on the night of May 26th and sidestepped once more to the southeast.

Each side suffered approximately 2,000 casualties in the four days of fighting, most of which occurred during Wilcox's attack on the 23rd. In the end, the Battle of North Anna River was significant not so much for what happened but for what did not happen. Though he parried Grant's thrust toward Richmond, Lee had lost his last, and perhaps best, chance of defeating the Union army. Grant, for his part, mistook Lee's apathy on the North Anna as a sign of demoralization among the Confederate troops and became convinced that one final blow would shatter the Rebel army. At Cold Harbor, he put this theory to the test with tragic results.

Directions to the Battlefield and Battlefield Tour

Follow the map and directions closely. Most of the battlefield is privately owned so please observe and respect the no trespassing signs. To reach the battlefield from Fredericksburg, drive south on I-95 approximately 25 miles to Carmel Church (exit 104). After leaving the interstate, turn right on Rt. 207 and proceed west for approximately 0.5 mil. Cross Rt. 1, turn left on Rt. 657, and park at Mt. Carmel Church.

Stop 1 - Mt. Carmel Church

The Federal army arrived at Mt. Carmel Church on the morning of May 23, 1864. From here Warren's Fifth Corps turned west toward Jericho Mill, while Hancock's Second Corps headed south toward the Telegraph Road bridge. Later in the day Grant and Meade established their headquarters at the church.

Leave the parking lot and turn right onto Rt. 1. Drive south for 2.3 miles. After crossing Long Creek, pull over to the right at the Caroline Store Company sign.

Stop 2 - Long Creek

Equipped with inaccurate maps, Hancock's corps mistook Long Creek for the North Anna River. Colonel Thomas W. Egan's brigade launched its attack on Shenanigan's redoubt from this vicinity.

Proceed 0.3 mile and turn right on Rt. 689. Continue another 0.3 mile and pull over to the right at a blue gate.

Stop -3 Henagan's Redoubt

The Telegraph Road was the primary north-south thoroughfare connecting Fredericksburg with Richmond, Virginia. You are now parked on a trace of the old road, which intersects modern Route 689 at this point. Step out of your car and face the modern road with your back to the gate. You are now looking south down the Telegraph Road, which crossed the North Anna River just a few hundred yards ahead of you. To the right of the road trace, in the brush at the far edge of the field, stand the remains of the earthen redoubt defended by Henagan's(Kershaw's) South Carolina brigade. On the evening of May 23, 1864, three brigades of Hancock's Corps attacked Henagan's men across these fields, captured the redoubt, and secured the Telegraph Road bridge for the Union army.

Continue west on Route 689 for 4.1 miles. On your left is the road trace which Warren's Fifth Corps and Wright's Sixth Corps followed to Jericho Mill. Today it is a private driveway. Proceed 0.3 mile farther and turn left on Rt. 658. Continue 2.1 miles and turn left on Rt. 601. proceed 3.4 miles, crossing the North Anna River, and turn left onto Rt. 684. Travel 1.9 miles and turn left on Rt. 746 at Noel. Drive another 0.2 mile and pull into the dirt road on the left so that your vehicle is perpendicular to Rt. 746 and underneath the power line.

Stop - 4 Noel's Station

late on the afternoon of May 23rd, Cadmus Wilcox's Confederate division marched north from Noel Station across these fields and woods. Several hundred yards to your right-front Wilcox attacked Warren's Fifth Corps but was unable to drive it back across the North Anna River.

Turn around and retrace your route to Route 684. Turn left and proceed 2.9 miles. After crossing the railroad tracks, you will pass the point where the Union line crossed the road in the latter stages of the battle. Turn left into North Anna Battlefield Park and drive to the parking lot.

Stop - 5 Confederate Line

The defensive works of the Fifth and Ninth Corps crossed the road a few hundred yards in front of you, to the west, while A.P. Hill's Confederate line bisected the road near this point. Hill's earthworks, part of General Robert E. Lee's inverted "V" line, are located here. The trail is new since this folder was written and leads along the superb Confederate line to Ox Ford. These earthworks along with those at Cold Harbor and some at Spotsylvania are the best built trenches of the Eastern Theatre and are well preserved.

Return to Route 684 and turn left. Travel 2.5 miles and turn right onto Rt. 1. Drive 0.4 mile and turn left on Rt. 688. After crossing the railroad tracks find a convenient spot to turn around. Just before you recross the tracks you will see a pulloff on the side of the road. park there.

Stop 6. Hanover Junction

Directly in front of you stood the vital junction of the R.F. & P. and Virginia Central Railroads. Protection of this junction by the Confederates was imperative. Lee's headquarters tent during the campaign stood under a towering oak tree in a forty-acre clearing in this vicinity.

Return to Rt. 1, turn right, and drive 1.35 miles to a pulloff on the right side of the road, just beyond a truck crossing sign.

Stop 7 - Fox House

The large brick structure across the highway to your left front is the Fox House, which both sides occupied as a headquarters. On the evening of May 23rd, Lee stood in the doorway sipping a glass of buttermilk, when a Union cannonball struck the doorjamb next to him. Fortunately, it failed to explode. The next day Union General Winfield Hancock, Ambrose Burnside, David Birney, and Thomas Crittenden held a conference in the yard of the house. As they left the meeting and walked toward their horses, a Confederate shell whizzed over their heads and harmlessly struck the ground where they had been standing.

This concludes the tour. To reach I-95 North, drive 2.7 miles north on Rt. 1 and turn right on Rt. 207. To head south on I-95, carefully turn around and proceed south approximately 2.3 miles, turning left on Rt. 30.

Brochures are available for other offsite battlefields, including Yellow Tavern and Trevilian Station, at the Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville Visitor Centers.

Last updated: November 30, 2023

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