After the heavy fighting at Spotsylvania, Grant sought to lure the Army of Northern Virginia from its entrenchments and determined to use the‘s Second Corps, under Winfield Scott Hancock, as bait. Early on May 21, Hancock began a march eastward, screened by a slapdash collection of cavalry under Alfred A. T. Torbert. Around nine o’clock in the morning, Torbert’s men encountered Confederate infantry traveling north, alerting Lee of the movement. Lee assumed that Grant was attempting to flank him and ordered his own infantry east with orders to concentrate north of Hanover Junction along the highly defensible banks of the North Anna River.
Lee’s quick reaction put Grant in a bind. He had not expected the entire Army of Northern Virginia to take off after the lone Second Corps, but he had no choice but to react to his Confederate counterpart. (Grant was hardly the first general to lose the initiative to Lee.) By midnight on May 21, both armies were in motion toward the southeast. Most Confederate units had consolidated along the North Anna River by May 22, and Grant’s men arrived by May 23.
Fighting began on May 23. Lee had arranged his lines in an inverted V–shaped entrenchment with the apex protecting Ox Ford across the North Anna River. To his left, Union troops could cross at a shallow part of the river near Jericho Mill, while on his right Chesterfield Bridge provided an opportune crossing spot. Nevertheless, Lee’s line remained strong because crossing would force Grant to divide his forces, while Lee could shift men efficiently along the interior lines of the V–shape. On the afternoon of May 23, the Union Fifth Corps (commanded by General Gouverneur K. Warren) managed to cross the river at Jericho Mill, while the Union Second Corps brushed aside defenders on the north side of the river at Chesterfield Bridge. The stage was set for the next day’s fighting.On May 24, Union forces roamed around the south side of the North Anna River, initially encountering little to no resistance. Hancock’s Second Corps moved across the river at Chesterfield Bridge and confronted little opposition. Union spirits ran high in hopes that Lee had left the area. Those spirits fell when, at three o’clock, Hancock’s troops ran into Confederates near Hanover Junction on Lee’s right. At first, Union general John Gibbon thought little of these forces, and kept feeding in men in an attempt to brush them out of his way. It soon became apparent, however, that these were not stragglers but members of Lee’s army. A similar situation prevailed at Ox Ford, where Union troops launched a futile assault against Confederate entrenchments. Confronted by strong Confederate positions, Union forces ceased their attacks. On May 25, Grant set his troops to work tearing up rail lines and damaging Confederate infrastructure. After the rather low-intensity fighting, Grant once again decided to move east on the evening of May 26 and morning of May 27.
Some Confederates maintained after the war that illness had prevented Lee from ordering an attack to annihilate the Union Second Corps. In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942–1944), the historianwrote of Lee’s “intestinal ailment that had the usual effect of sharpening his temper and shaking his control of it.” And he dramatized a scene in which Lee strongly rebuked his Third Corps commander, , for not attacking in the tradition of : “Why,” Lee demanded of Hill, “did you not do as Jackson would have done—thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?”
Contemporary evidence fails to support the idea that Lee’s health affected the battle; however, the Confederate high command clearly was not itself. Lee’s most trusted lieutenant,, had been wounded earlier in the month at the . Like Lee, Hill was ill. And the Second Corps commander, , had lost Lee’s trust at Spotsylvania and was about to be transferred to Richmond. Regardless of why Lee seemed content to rest inside his entrenchments, Grant took the fact to mean that the Army of Northern Virginia was on its last legs; his strategy of wearing down the Confederate force had worked. This supposition would bear bitter fruit for the Army of the Potomac a week later at the bloody Battle of Cold Harbor.