Although the Union forces in the east were meeting defeat on almost every side, most recently at the Battle of Spotsylvania, Grant was not discouraged. One of his greatest strengths was his perseverance. Where others would have quickly retreated, Grant stayed and fought it out. Grant did not want to just move around Lee's right flank as he had done before, since the Confederates would just fall back to strong positions behind the North Anna River. So he sent Hancock's II Corps to move as a feint to try to lure Lee into attacking him on open ground. Lee did not fall for the trick. Instead he fell back behind the North Anna, and Grant missed hitting him on the road.
Grant moved forward at a more leisurely pace, and on May 23 the Federals arrived at the North Anna. They quickly realized that Lee had miscalculated. He believed that the Federals would not try a serious crossing of the North Anna, and the movement there was only a diversion to cover a flanking movement to the east. He had left the North Anna River crossings either lightly guarded, or not defended at all. Hancock's II Corps moved down the Telegraph Road toward Chesterfield Bridge, while to the west Warren moved to cross at Jericho Mills with his V Corps. Hancock's men found one small redoubt guarding the bridge. After an artillery bombardment they charged at 6 pm, drove the Confederates from their position, and captured the bridge before the rebels could burn it.
|Pontoon at Jericho Mills|
Upsteam at Jericho Mills Warren had forded the river without any resistance. As more troops crossed he formed his men in a battle line of three divisions. The Confederates got wind of this crossing, but the Confederates still believed it was a feint, and A. P. Hill sent only one division, that of Major General Cadmus Wilcox, to deal with the threat. They were greatly outnumbered, but they were able to drive the Federals back, throwing one division into panic. The attack was stalled by well placed Federal artillery, and then recoiled when a Federal brigade struck Wilcox's flank. Wilcox determined he could do nothing more against the Federal beachhead. Lee was upset that the Federals had made it across the river. He said to Hill, “[W]hy did you let those people cross here? Why didn't you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?”
The Confederate position on the bluffs running along the North Anna River had been compromised by the Union crossing. However, Lee and his chief engineer soon came up with a brilliant solution. Both Confederate flanks were pulled back into a V formation with the point resting on the river. That way they could keep the Federal forces divided, and hold one at bay while crushing the other. But at this critical moment Lee was sick and confined to his bed. “We must strike them a blow," he said in his tent, "we must never let them pass us again - we must strike them a blow." On May 24th the Federals continued to cross the river. Approaching the Confederate lines, they found them to be as strong as those at Spotyslvania. Instead of trying to attack, Grant ordered his army to dig in, and the campaign turned briefly into a stalemate. Probes were made at various places along the Confederate line, but nowhere was a weak point found where Grant and Meade could attack with a good chance of success. Grant, however, remained sanguine in his letters to Washington:
Lee's army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his Army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of entrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already assured.