For most people the confrontation between Grant and Lee at North Anna River was a moment of missed opportunities for the Confederates. An ailing Robert E. Lee was unable to spur his subordinates into action; meanwhile, Ulysses S. Grant struggled with an unhappy George G. Meade as he revisited his command structure. Once Grant addressed those issues, he followed Meade’s preference to slide once more around Lee’s right, with Richmond now just a short distance away. By the end of May the armies had passed Hanover Junction and were on their ways to where, just two years before, Lee had taken over for a wounded Joseph E. Johnston to confront George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
From the beginning of the Overland Campaign Grant had anticipated the possibility of making his way to Richmond, but it was not his preferred plan. He had hoped that Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James would have posed a real threat to Richmond; he had also thought that Franz Sigel would have done a better job of taking control of the Shenandoah Valley. In both instances he was to be sorely disappointed. Sigel’s foray southward through the valley had ended in a humiliating disaster at New Market: instead of forcing Lee to detach units to stop the Yankee advance, he was receiving reinforcements from that campaign. Butler had landed his men at Bermuda Hundred but had failed to pose a serious threat to the Confederates at Richmond and Petersburg. Thus Grant’s notion of fighting it out on the Spotsylvania line to pin Lee in place while Butler and Sigel inflicted serious damage had gone awry; if would be left to the Army of the Potomac to threaten Richmond itself. Indeed, Grant had decided that if William F. “Baldy” Smith’s Eighteenth Corps wasn’t doing much good where it was, then it could come up to reinforce Meade’s army.
What happened–and didn’t happen–at North Anna helps explain what would happen at Cold Harbor. Meade’s outburst that he was not being allowed to command his army had led Grant to relent from his increasing practice of looking over Meade’s shoulder or issuing orders himself. Thus it would be left to Meade and his subordinates to implement Grant’s general plans. At the same time, the failure of the Confederates to take advantage of their opportunity at North Anna convinced Grant that the Army of Northern Virginia had lost its edge and might well be on the point of crumbling. After all, how else would one explain Lee’s failure to attack?
It would not be long until everyone would understand that these perceptions were misapprehensions, and that the Army of the Potomac was just as worn out as its Confederate counterpart.