“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.
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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.