Book Review: To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee, May 13-25, 1864


by Gordon C. Rhea

Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2000. Pp. 475. Illus, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95. ISBN:0-8071-2535-0

This is the third volume in Rhea's study of the 1864 Overland campaign. The first two, covering the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, won critical acclaim, and this volume is no less deserving of praise. Rhea picks up the story of the campaign on May 13, the day after the stunning carnage of the fighting on the Mule Shoe and at the Bloody Angle. Rhea then follows Grant's abortive attempts to break Lee's position around Spotsylvania, followed by his unsuccessful attempt to beat Lee to the North Anna River, in order to get between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond. He concludes the volume with Grant's brief but unavailing assaults against Lee's brilliant "inverted V" position at the North Anna, and Grant's decision to swing around Lee's right, this time aiming towards Cold Harbor.

In his perceptive analysis of the campaign, Rhea makes a number of fair but critical judgments of the principal commanders. Rhea contends that the biggest mistake Grant made was in sending away nearly all of Philip Sheridan's Cavalry Corps on a raid almost immediately after the Wilderness. Although the raid did produce some positive results, including the victory at Yellow Tavern and the mortal wounding of Jeb Stuart, it effective blinded Grant until Sheridan returned during the final week of May. In this Grant essentially repeated the mistake made by Hooker just before the onset of the Chancellorsville campaign.

As in his first two volumes, Rhea is critical of Grant's habit of not involving himself more in the actual direction of the fighting. At critical times corps commanders such as Winfield Scott Hancock, Gouverneur K. Warren, and Horatio Wright received almost no guidance from Grant or George G. Meade, who by this time was at best only the nominal commander of the Army of the Potomac. Rhea does an excellent job in detailing the deteriorating relationship between Grant and Meade, and particularly Meade's anomalous position as commander of the Army of the Potomac, with which Grant was always present. Meade also disagreed strongly with Grant on several decisions. The most important of these was Grant's decision to push on the North Anna River, a race against Lee which Meade felt could not be won. After the fruitless assaults of May 24 against the "inverted V," Meade viewed Grant's decision to swing further south to the Pamunkey River, a course he had advocated after Spotsylvania, with smug satisfaction. This would not bode well for the future.

Rhea also takes a somewhat different view of Lee. Many traditional historians, led by Douglas Southall Freeman, have credited Lee with an almost divine omniscience in his ability to frustrate Grant's attempts to get around his flank. Rhea shows conclusively, however, that Lee was often misled as to the true nature of Grant's intentions. This led him to a potentially dangerous mistake in his march to the North Anna, which he was only able to rectify by a brilliantly conceived improvisation. Although slightly better served by his cavalry than Grant, by this time the performance of the Confederate cavalry was also in decline. Poor reconnaissance by Fitzhugh Lee contributed in part to A.P. Hill's failure to successfully contest the crossing of the North Anna by Warren's V Corps at Jericho Mills.

Rhea takes a somewhat more conventional view of Lee's subordinate commanders. While leadership at the division level was still strong, with the likes of Jubal Early, Stephen Dodson Ramseur, and Charles Field, among others, corps command was another matter. Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill both mishandled tactical actions, first at the Harris Farm and then Jericho Mills. Without Longstreet to handle complicated tactical attacks, Lee, in steadily deteriorating health had to take on more than he alone could manage. Thus he was unable, according to Rhea, to take advantage of Grant's mistakes at places such as the Harris Farm, or after he had successfully div

Reviewer: R.L. DiNardo, USMC C&SC   

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