American Battlefield Trust’s map of the Battle of North Anna
After leaving Mt. Carmel Church on May 23, Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps arrived at Jericho Mill at 1:30 pm. Surprised to find no Confederate river defense, Warren began moving across the ford. Meanwhile, on the south bank, Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was passing down the road toward Hanover Junction. One regiment from Col. Joseph N. Brown’s South Carolina brigade moved here to the ground overlooking the ford to investigate the Union foray, but soon withdrew.
Both sides then made a blundering series of decisions that would lead to battle. By 4:15 pm, two of Warren’s divisions had crossed the river, with a pontoon bridge soon to be completed. The next division crossed and camped. On the Confederate side, Hill believed the crossing a cavalry feint, but dispatched Gen. Cadmus Wilcox’s division.
Learning of a possible enemy advance, the Federals of Gen. Lysander Cutler’s division marched to the front, some carrying coffee pots and half-cooked meals on their bayonets. An oncoming rush of cows, pigs, and other animals first alerted the Federals to the danger ahead. Before Cutler’s men could deploy, Gen. Edward Thomas’ Georgia brigade appeared, their commander “[hallooing] as if on a fox chase.” The Confederates struck the famous Iron Brigade, sending the veterans hurrying for the safety of the pontoon bridge. The rout caused one to later quip that it was the “I run” Brigade. At the same time, the lead regiments from Thomas’ brigade broke for the rear as well, also surprised by the Federal infantry. The battle began with the unusual scene of both sides running in opposite directions.
Confederates soon pushed into the gap opened by Cutler’s retreat. The reached the Union rear, threatening to cut off the Fifth Corps from their pontoon bridge. Twelve Napoleon cannon under Union Col. Charles S. Wainwright raced through the sea of retreating Federal infantry and went into battery, opening fire as soon as they unlimbered. The roar of massed canister tore into the Confederate ranks, driving the Southerners into the cover of a ravine. In response, the veteran Confederate infantrymen began to pick off the Union cannoneers.
At this critical moment, the 83rd Pennsylvania appeared on the Confederate flank held by the 1st South Carolina. Both units tried to deploy quickly to face each other, but the Pennsylvanians struck first, driving in and capturing Col. Brown. The Confederate line fell back, while Warren’s Fifth Corps celebrated victory.
The following day, Lee issued A.P. Hill perhaps his strongest rebuke of the war. “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here?” he said. “Why didn't you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as Jackson would have done?” Hill had no answer. With night ending the conflict, Lee’s North Anna River line was breached.