Following the battle for Spotsylvania Court House, Ulysses. S Grant and George Meade’s Army of the Potomac had shifted around Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia again and moved south. Lee managed to reach his preferred defensive location of the North Anna River, and stood just to the south of it. Realizing that Union artillery could enfilade him if he merely fortified the south bank, Lee made use of a inverted “V” formation that exploited the terrain features of the area.
On May 23rd and 24th, some of Grant’s forces crossed the river. Warren’s V Corps, formed a bridgehead at Jericho Mills on Lee’s left. A.P. Hill launched a assault upon Warren, intending to destroy his bridgehead, but was driven back to his entrenchments. Hancock’s II Corps crossed at Chesterfield Bridge. On May 24th, Wright’s VI Corps crossed the river to back up Warren, Hancock’s men probed Lee’s entrenchments to their south, while James Ledlie of the IX Corps made an ineffectual attempt at crossing Ox Ford near the northern tip of Lee’s reverse “V.”
The conventional story of this affair is that Lee intended to set a trap, and that Grant, lacking his cavalry, blundered into it. Hancock was cut off from any immediate support for his position, as the other Union army corps would have had to cross multiple bodies of water in order to rush to their support. Supposedly, Lee intended to sweep down on Hancock’s forces on May 24th; however, a attack of diarrhea sent him to his bed, and without a trustworthy subordinate commander, he couldn’t deliver a telling blow against Grant. Many historians have accepted this story, including Gordon Rhea, the premier historian of the Overland Campaign.
Some question it, however. Mark Grimsley, another Overland Campaign historian, notes that Lee’s troop movements on May 23-24th were defensive and limited in nature. Also, no contemporary evidence exists to support this interpretation; it was first stated by Charles Venable, one of Lee’s staff, in a speech in 1873, who claimed Lee sought to strike Grant a blow at the North Anna. Grimsley also states that Lee’s formation was a poor offensive one, lacking depth. Colonel Vincent J. Esposito of the USMA points out that Hancock’s men were well dug in by the 24th, and a assault by the Confederates would not have been a sure thing.
Looking at the maps of Lee’s deployment, several things occur to me. For one, Lee’s smallest corps at this point is the Confederate II Corps; it was decimated by nearly 8,000 casualties on May 12 at Spotsylvania Court House alone. It’s received reinforcements in two brigades of John C. Breckinridge’s Valley forces (Which are actually assigned to III Corps), somewhere around 2,500 men, bringing the battered II Corps to around maybe 8-9,000 effectives, by adding Breckenridge to Rhea’s figures for the II Corps. But these relatively fresh troops are in the rear of the II Corps positions. The II Corps and I Corps are the units that oppose Hancock.
The other reinforcements Lee has received are three brigades from George Pickett’s I Corps division. But on May 24th, these seem to form Lee’s reserve, with only Kershaw and Field’s I Corps divisions facing Hancock’s position. The Confederate I Corps hasn’t suffered as heavily as the II Corps, but the two divisions positioned against Hancock, which numbered perhaps 10,000 at the start of the campaign, can’t exceed 8,000 after the fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Immediately positioned against Hancock, who has something in the area of 20,000 or slightly less men, are possibly 16-18,000 Confederates. Lee’s freshest formations in Pickett and Breckenridge are held just south of the Virginia Central Railroad, and Hill’s III Corps opposes Warren and Wright.
There’s also the matter of Hancock’s fortifications. Soldiers in the Civil War dug entrenchments as a matter of habit by this point, and Hancock had been across the North Anna since May 23rd. By May 24th, as Esposito points out, Hancock’s men were well dug-in.
Given all this, I’m inclined towards some version Grimsley’s interpretation. Lee’s intentions at the North Anna seem to be defensive to me. Lee had originally intended to face Burnside’s 1862 invasion at the North Anna; as a defensive line, it was a position he had thought about before. There’s apparently no contemporary evidence of Lee’s offensive intentions at the North Anna. Doubtlessly, Lee did intend to set a trap at the North Anna; but he wanted Grant to strike the first blow so he could use his interior lines to launch a counterstrike, as Lee was in a position to shift his forces to any part of his line before Grant could respond. The interior lines strategy that Lee was using here was similar to what he did at Antietam, and what Meade did at Gettysburg, but it was a defensive rather than offensive strategy.