Monday, May 19, 2014

A Visit to the North Anna Battlefield Park

Monument at the beginning of the Ox Ford Trail.
I've lived in Virginia for almost eight months now - and I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of the many battlefields within a short drive.With a beautiful Monday off from work, I decided to continue my recent exploration of the Overland Campaign with a trip to the North Anna Battlefield Park in Doswell, Virginia. This park preserves a small portion of the North Anna Battlefield, and is not run by National Park Service, but rather by Hanover County Parks and Recreation. This relatively obscure destination contains some of the best preserved Civil War entrenchments you will see.

Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee had battled each other to a stalemate at Spotsylvania Court House after nearly two weeks of fighting between May 8th and May 19th. Concluding that Lee's lines were too strong to carry by assault, Grant decided to move the Army of the Potomac again. On the night of May 20th, he sent the 2nd Corps on a twenty mile march to the south and east in an effort to threaten Lee's communications, and to pry Lee out of his entrenchments in pursuit. The maneuver succeeded, and the following day the roads leading south and east from Spotsylvania filled with the long columns of both armies. On the 22nd - the Army of Northern Virginia crossed over the North Anna and came to a halt. The south bank of this river provided a strong defensive line, and just below it ran the Virginia Central Railroad, Lee's critical link to the Shenandoah Valley. He chose to make his stand here.

On May 23rd, the Army of the Potomac closed to river, and secured two crossings, with the 2nd Corps securing Chesterfield Bridge on the Army of Northern Virginia's right flank, and the 5th Corps crossing upstream at Jericho Mills on Lee's left flank. Late in the day a Confederate counterattack failed to drive the 5th Corps back to the north side of the river. With his enemy across the river in two places, Lee devised an ingenious defensive line. He pulled back both wings of his army into strong natural positions so that his lines resembled an inverted V. The apex of his V stood on an imposing and unassailable bluff overlooking Ox Ford on the river, with both legs of his line running away from this point to the southeast and southwest. Having quickly learned the value of earthworks in this campaign, on the evening of May 23rd the Confederate army set to work building elaborate entrenchements all along their strong position. If they could hold the impregnable apex of their line at Ox Ford, the Army of the Potomac would be divided by the river at any point when assaulting Lee's lines. Because of a bend in the river at this point, Union forces on one flank would need to cross the river twice to come to the support of forces on the other flank. Lee hoped that this unique formation would allow him to concentrate his army quickly against one wing of the Army of the Potomac and crush it before help could arrive.

Timothy O'Sullivan photographed Quarles's Mills in late May 1864. Portions of the 9th Corps
crossed near here on May 24th.
Having gotten forces across the river at two places the previous evening, when they awoke on May 24th Grant and Meade assumed that the Confederate army had retreated during the night. They quickly ordered their forces to pursue - unwittingly putting their army into the jaws of Lee's trap. Yet Lee lay bedridden on this day, ill with dysentery. His high command had been decimated over the campaign to this point, and Lee had few subordinates he felt he could trust with an important offensive operation. Instead, he chose not to spring the trap if he could not lead it himself. Union forces probed and in some cases assaulted Lee's strong works - eventually figuring out that the Confederate army was not in retreat. They entrenched themselves and once again the campaign reached a stalemate. Grant would have to maneuver yet again if he wanted to defeat Lee.

Confederate entrenchments with a traverse.
The North Anna Battlefield Park preserves a good portion of the western leg of Lee's earthworks, extending all the way up to and including the apex of the Confederate line overlooking Ox Ford. Currently, there is a ten stop, 2.4 mile interpretive walk that follows this line. The preserved earthworks are unbelievable, complete with traverses built to protect against flanking fire from Union artillery opposite Ox Ford. Looking closely, you can see different styles of earthworks and artillery emplacements built by different units, and locate pits dug behind the lines to protect brigade commanders and staff.

An example of the excellent interpretive signage at the park, which includes great maps.
This map here gives a good view of Lee's inverted "V" line.
The interpretive signs along the trail also tell the story of an ill-fated assault on the works in this location. The Federal troops directly opposite Ox Ford consisted of Ambrose Burnside's 9th Corps. Ordered to pursue the enemy on May 24th, Burnside found Ox Ford held in force and impervious to assault. He sent forces upstream with orders to cross and outflank rebel forces at the ford. Leading the way were about 1,500 men under the command of Brigadier General James H. Ledlie. They splashed across a swollen river, getting wet up to their armpits in the process, and then closed on the Confederate main line along the western leg. As the union forces neared Ox Ford, they found Confederates dug in with infantry and artillery along a high ridge. Ledlie was under orders to use extreme caution, but he saw a chance to earn distinction here. Several accounts also reveal that the general was clearly intoxicated. In the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm, he sent his six regiments forward into a death trap. Captain John Anderson of the 57th Massachusetts remembered:
After proceeding a short distance all semblance of a line became lost. It was just a wild tumultuous rush where the more reckless were far to the front and the cautious ones scattered along back, but still coming on.... Many of the Confederate soldiers stood upon their breastworks and called out in a tantalizing manner, 'Come on Yank, come on to Richmond.'
Pinned down in a ravine in front of the Confederate works, Ledlie's brigade suffered 450 casualties, including a reported 150 captured. Among those mortally wounded was Lieutenant Colonel Charles L. Chandler, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate who commanded the 57th Massachusetts. Amazingly, Ledlie received no censure for his actions, and would soon command a division.

As we approach the 150th anniversary of the actions along the North Anna, the park is getting ready to unveil some new trails. Some 90 acres of land has recently been added to the park, more than doubling its size. These new paths take visitors north of the Confederate lines, and include some well preserved federal entrenchments as well as much of the route of Ledlie's advance. John Cumming's Spotsylvania Blog has a post exploring these new trails. I myself mistakenly explored part of the new network today as I attempted to follow the original ten stop interpretive trail. I am not sure if the new signage has yet been installed. The additional 90 acres will provide a great reason to return and explore the park once again.

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