May 23, 1864
On the afternoon of May 23, the men of Colonel John W. Henagan's brigade were uneasy. These South Carolinians were stationed along the north bank of the North Anna River, anchored by an earthen redoubt, or fort. Federal cavalry raids in 1863 had prompted Confederates to build these defenses to protect the Chesterfield Bridge.
Henagan's men watched through the afternoon as Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's skirmishers pushed down the Telegraph Road. Despite sending repeated messengers to the rear, no reinforcements arrived to support their position. Worse, no orders came directing a withdrawal to safety. Stationed at the Fox House on the river's south bank, Gen. Robert E. Lee dismissed the Union effort as nothing but a feint. Henagan's men, veterans of many a battle, understood what fate awaited them.
Shortly after 6:00pm, the storm that the South Carolinians predicted arrived. A Union artillery barrage struck first, pounding the redoubt with shrapnel. Union infantrymen followed the bombardment with a cheer, sprinting across the field. The Confederates fired onto their ranks but the Federals pushed ahead, reaching the redoubt and leaping into the moat surrounding the fort. The wall was too steep to climb, so men thrust bayonets into the dirt and used them as steps. Other just climbed on the soldiers of their comrades and jumped over the wall.
By this time, most of the Confederates were running for the safety of the river's south bank. Captain Jonathan C. Kirk of the 20th Indiana captured thirteen South Carolinians along the riverbank and received the Medal of Honor for his exploits that day. The Federals had taken Lee by surprise and captured the North Anna's most critical crossing. The way now lay open for a Union advance across the river.
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