Key point: The Civil War was ridiculously brutal.
“Lee’s army is really whipped,” declared Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck on May 26, 1864. “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.” Thwarted by the Army of Northern Virginia at the North Anna River, Grant was preparing to swing around Robert E. Lee’s right flank again and push southeast. Lee then would have no choice but to leave his entrenchments at North Anna and attempt to stop the Federal forces from reaching Richmond, probably along the Chickahominy River. Believing the fight had gone out of Lee’s army, Grant added, “I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already insured.” He would quickly discover that he had spoken too soon.
Almost a month earlier, Maj. Gen. George Meade, operational commander of the Army of the Potomac, had initiated the Overland Campaign with some 118,000 troops. Then came, in swift succession, the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and North Anna, which cost the Union Army an appalling 40,000 casualties. Meade needed reinforcements not only to replace his casualties, but also the many valuable veterans whose three-year enlistments were about to expire at the end of June. Grant, as general-in-chief of all Union forces in the East, petitioned Washington for more men. President Abraham Lincoln sent him 33,000 garrison troops belonging mostly to heavy artillery regiments with no combat experience. At the same time, Grant recalled the XVIII Corps under Maj. Gen. William Smith and other troops that could be spared from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, currently bottled up on the Virginia Peninsula at Bermuda Hundred, southeast of Richmond.
On the evening of May 26, the Federal army started to move. Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan led two of his cavalry divisions southeast to seize a crossing over the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown. Behind them marched Brig. Gen. David Russell’s infantry division from Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps. Sending out pickets to cover their withdrawal, the four remaining corps of bluecoats slipped across the North Anna River in the rain and darkness on pontoon bridges. The maneuver went without a hitch, although Confederate pickets “made things lively” for Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps as it withdrew.
With the Army of the Potomac safely back across the North Anna, the tired Federals began to tramp southeast behind Sheridan in two columns on muddy roads. Bringing up the rear was a cavalry division under Brig. Gen. James Wilson, which had been creating a diversion on Lee’s left flank. Meanwhile, horse soldiers of Brig. Gen. George Custer’s brigade of Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert’s division had reached Dabney Ferry, near Hanovertown, in the foggy early morning hours of the 27th. Sheridan, who was riding with Torbert and Custer, wanted both banks of the river immediately secured so that the 50th New York Engineers could throw two pontoon bridges across the fast-moving, murky water.
The engineers’ task suddenly became more difficult when a detachment of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry opened up from the other side of the river. The troopers of 5th Michigan Cavalry quickly returned fire with their repeating carbines, driving off the Tarheels. The engineers heaved two pontoon boats into the water, and a company of cavalrymen climbed into them and quickly rowed to the other side of the river under covering fire to establish a bridgehead, allowing the engineers to get a bridge across the river. Once the first bridge was complete, the rest of Torbert’s division pounded across, riding hard toward Hanovertown while the engineers began work on a second bridge a few yards upriver.
At 6 am, Lee received reports that Federal cavalry had crossed at Dabney Ferry. It was now clear that Grant was again maneuvering around Lee’s right flank. Lee wasted no time in getting his recently reinforced army moving 15 miles southeast to Altee’s Station. In the last month alone, the Army of Northern Virginia had suffered a staggering 25,500 casualties, roughly 40 percent of Lee’s army. Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge had brought his division from the Shenandoah Valley after defeating the Federals at New Market to reinforce Lee, while Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division arrived after Butler was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred. These new troops plus others Lee managed to scrape together brought his strength back up to 64,000 men.
By that afternoon, lead elements of Lee’s army approached Altee’s Station, where they soon would be joined by the rest of the army. That same day the Army of North Virginia lost Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, the II Corps commander, who took emergency medical leave due to dysentery that was also affecting Lee. Maj. Gen. Jubal Early took his place. The bulk of the Federal army, meanwhile, went into camp a few miles from Dabney Ferry and Nelson’s Bridge, where the ever industrious engineers would soon be building more pontoon bridges early the next day.
On the morning of the 28th, the Confederates resumed marching toward Totopotomoy Creek, where Lee intended to take up a new defensive position. The bluecoats, meanwhile, began to cross the Pamunkey while two divisions of Sheridan’s cavalry covered their rear and the remaining division under Brig. Gen. David Gregg proceeded to a crossroads named Haw’s Shop to make a reconnaissance. There the Federals bumped headfirst into Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton and 4,500 Confederate cavalrymen around mid-morning. Gregg quickly dismounted his men and dug in west of Haw’s Shop. Hampton also dismounted half his men and quickly constructed breastworks out of fence rails and logs on a ridge a few hundred yards west of the Federals. For the next six hours the two forces blazed away at each other across the fields and woods. At 4 pm, Custer’s brigade arrived on the battlefield and launched a dismounted attack in two lines.
On the northern flank of the battlefield, a Confederate scout mistook dismounted friendly cavalrymen for Federal infantry, which led Hampton to fear that he was being cut off. He ordered a withdrawal that Custer’s men quickly exploited, overrunning the 20th Georgia Battalion. Most of Hampton’s force escaped, having suffered 378 casualties, and retreated toward Totopotomoy Creek with a number of prisoners. The Federal cavalry sustained 365 casualties.
By May 29, Meade’s army was firmly across the Pamunkey. Grant was still not sure where Lee was, but he thought he might be somewhere along Totopotomoy Creek. With Sheridan’s cavalry resting at Old Church after the fight at Haw’s Shop, Union infantry began probing for the enemy. Skirmishing broke out as the Federals pushed southwest toward the Army of Northern Virginia’s dug-in position along the south side of the creek. Early’s II Corps held the right of the Confederate line in the swampy woods near Totopotomoy Creek; Breckinridge held the center with Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s III Corps on the left and Lt. Gen. Richard Anderson’s I Corps positioned behind Early in reserve.
While Lee waited to see what the Federals would do, he met with General P.G.T. Beauregard in an attempt to obtain more troops but initially was disappointed. Beauregard could spare none. “If General Grant advances tomorrow,” Lee telegraphed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that evening, “I will engage him with my present force.” It was less a threat than a simple statement of fact.
The next day the Federal army moved toward Lee’s position. Skirmishing and artillery fire broke out as Hancock’s corps overran some of Breckinridge’s advanced rifle pits. Wright’s corps, operating against Hill on the enemy’s left flank, became bogged down in swampy terrain near Crump’s Creek. Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps, pressing against Early, waded Totopotomoy Creek and began probing along Shady Grove Road. Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside was ordered to move his IX Corps between Hancock and Warren.
Seeing an opportunity to strike Warren, Lee ordered Early to attack. Early sent Maj. Gens. Robert Rodes’ and Stephen Ramseur’s divisions forward along the Old Church Road, while Maj. Gen. John Gordon’s division was held in reserve. From there, Early’s men followed the road east, crashing into Colonel Martin Hardin’s brigade of Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford’s division. The rest of the division had taken up position at Bethesda Church. Hardin’s brigade broke and ran hard for Crawford’s position with the Confederates screeching after them. Crawford’s division quickly gave way as well, retreating north to Shady Grove Road. By this time, the Confederate attack had stalled. Rodes attempted to reorganize his men, losing valuable time, while Ramseur moved his division into position to lead the attack. Anderson, whom Early had instructed to attack Warren from the west, unaccountably did nothing.
Warren wasted no time in repositioning his infantry and artillery to deal with Early’s attack from the south. When Ramseur’s men finally charged forward “with reckless daring,” they were met with deadly artillery fire from the 1st New York Light Artillery, ending the attack. Early withdrew, suffering 1,200 casualties and blaming Anderson—with some justification—for failing to help. Warren suffered 750 killed and wounded.