May 23

This Day in History

Civil War

May 23, 1864:

Fighting begins on the North Anna River, Virginia

The campaign between Union commander Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, continues southward to the North Anna River around Hanover Junction. In early May, Grant crossed the Rapidan River with the Army of the Potomac and then clashed with Lee’s forces at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 5 and 6 before racing to Spotsylvania Court House for an epic 12-day battle. Grant's continuous pressure on Lee would ultimately win the war, but he was racking up casualties at a rate that was difficult for the Northern public to stomach.

Grant believed that Lee could not maintain his position at Spotsylvania because two other Union armies under the command of Franz Sigel and Benjamin Butler were attempting to cut off the Confederate supply line in the Shenandoah Valley and the Rebel stronghold south of Richmond. But both were failing miserably.

By May 19, Grant had had enough of Spotsylvania. He pulled his troops to try another run around Lee to Richmond. Correctly predicting Grant's move, just as he had done two weeks before when Grant left the Wilderness for Spotsylvania, Lee raced the Yankees 20 miles south and beat Grant's troops to the North Anna River. The rail center here was crucial to his supplies.

At the North Anna, Grant found Lee's position to be even stronger than at Spotsylvania. The river had high banks, and Lee's side was higher than the Union side in several places. Still, Grant made an attempt to dislodge the Rebels. He made two assaults, but neither came close to breaking the Confederate lines. He would try again the next day before moving south to Cold Harbor, Virginia.

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