May 24

This Day in History

Civil War

May 24, 1864:

Battle of North Anna continues

Union General Ulysses S. Grant continues to pound away at Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia in the engagement along the North Anna River in central Virginia, that had begun the day before. Since early May, Lee and Grant had been slugging it out along an arc from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania and to Hanover Junction, on the North Anna River. Grant was doing what other Union commanders had failed to do since 1861: ensuring that the Army of Northern Virginia was in constant action to prevent them from retooling.

The cost in men, however, was frighteningly high. Grant had lost 33,000 troops in the fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Worse, he could not gain the upper hand over Lee. As they raced along the arc, Lee had the advantage of moving along the interior lines, while Grant moved on the outside. As a result, Lee always had a shorter distance to the next point on the waltz around Richmond.

At North Anna, Lee beat Grant to the river and quickly assumed a strong position on the high, steep banks. Grant had made two attacks the previous day but each failed. On May 24, the Yankees again probed Lee's position but could not penetrate the Confederate defenses. On another part of the line, a Union brigade carried out an unauthorized assault by a general named James Ledlie, who was evidently drunk. Crossing near Ox Ford in the strongest part of the Confederate line, Ledlie's men nearly broke through before retreating. Surprisingly, Ledlie never faced any punishment, despite the fact that 220 men were lost in the charge.

The engagement at North Anna was small by the standards of this campaign. Grant was wise to refrain from an all-out assault on the Confederate position. However, he was not as cautious just a week later at Cold Harbor, Virginia, where Northern soldiers were butchered wholesale in a devastating attack on fortified Rebels.

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