See Civil War trenches, and walk in the footsteps of Union and Confederate soldiers at this beautifully preserved and little-known battlefield.
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The Battle of North Anna was fought from May 23 to May 26, 1864 between the Union Army of the Potomac commanded by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee in Hanover County, Virginia during the American Civil War. The battle was inconclusive. Neither side gained a decisive advantage, and Grant decided to continue moving south toward Richmond.
After the brutal Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, General Grant again tried to outflank Lee, but Lee was one step ahead and established a strong defensive position behind the North Anna River. On May 23, Confederate Maj. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox’s division opposed a river crossing by Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps at Jericho Mills, but Wilcox was outnumbered 2-to-1 and withdrew.
The Army of Northern Virginia then settled into a defensive formation designed to trap pieces of Grant’s army on the river’s southern side. With their backs to the river, the much larger Union Army would be vulnerable to attack. Unfortunately for the Confederates, General Lee developed a debilitating stomach ailment, and his inexperienced corps commanders were in no shape to direct his army.
On May 24, a drunken Brig. Gen. James H. Ledlie decided to attack the Confederate positions at Ox Ford with his lone brigade, with predictable results. His attack was repulsed, and a Confederate counterattack sent his men fleeing for the rear. All tolled, the Union Army sustained 3,986 total casualties in three days of fighting to the Confederate’s 1,552. The two armies moved south, where they would clash again at Cold Harbor.
Fought between Northern and Southern states from 1861 to 1865, the American Civil War erupted over questions of slavery and the primacy of the Federal government over individual states. It ended with Northern victory and restoration of the Union. Nearly 850,000 people died in the conflict, the bloodiest war in U.S. history. Most of the war’s battles were fought in the South, devastating its economy and leaving generational scars.
Compared to the larger and bloodier battles of U.S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign, the Battle of North Anna was relatively minor and faded into obscurity. Though Union and Confederate entrenchments could still be seen in the woods, North Anna Battlefield Park didn’t open until 1996, 132 years after the battle. Hanover County, Virginia managed to preserve 75 acres of the battlefield, principally where Brig. Gen. Ledlie made his ill-conceived attack.
In 2014, the Civil War Trust acquired a 654-acre parcel at the Jericho Mills section of the North Anna battlefield. Today, you can hike a round-trip 4-mile trail from Confederate to Union entrenchments. Hanover County did a wonderful job with its signage, telling the story of Ledlie’s attack from both sides. The colorful interpretive signs feature maps, photos, and quotations.
North Anna Battlefield Park is located at 1576 Verdon Road in Doswell, Virginia. Admission is free, and the park is open from dawn to dusk. Ample parking is available in a gravel lot on site. I highly recommend visiting this historic site, where you can view some of the best-preserved examples of Civil War entrenchments and rifle pits in the country.