Grant’s Army Crosses the Pumunkey, Turns toward Richmond

May 28, 1864 (Saturday)

Edwin Forbes drawing of the Union Army crossing the Pamunkey.

Edwin Forbes drawing of the Union Army crossing the Pamunkey.

They were still closer to Richmond. General Lee spent the day previous marching his army south and wondering whether Grant was doing the same – or were they now turning west to cross the Pamunkey River? If so, Lee had to somehow block them. His army was strong, with 59,000 men fit for battle, but it was shaken after nearly a month of constant battle. They had been victorious in the field, yet still found their number retreating.

General Grant led the Federals from their defeats south toward Richmond, as if the squabbles over who first left the battle to the enemy mattered not at all. Though they had suffered casualties enough – nearly half of their foe’s remaining strength – the Northern troops were reinforced, fielding 108,000. And as Lee shadowed them from their position along the North Anna, they flowed southeast to the Pamunkey River, and by the dawn of this date, reached the crossing at Hanovertown. They were no more than twelve miles from the gates of Richmond.

Reports came to General Lee that Federal cavalry had crossed, brushing away the regiment of Maryland troopers guarding the ford. Cavalry would do that; they would take every ford they could, but which crossing would be spanned for the infantry? Through the 27th, the clashes grew, and soon Lee was all but certain that Grant would cross his army near Hanovertown and then move west.

Today's fairly approximate map.

Today’s fairly approximate map.

Between Hanovertown and Richmond rose a ridge between the southern banks of Totopotomoy and Beaver Dam Creeks. There, he would shift his own infantry, blocking the path for Grant, should he choose it. In the meanwhile, Lee dispatched cavalry toward Hanovertown to descry the enemy’s movements so he might plan his next.

In actuality, Grant’s army had half crossed the Pamunkey, and spent much of this day crossing the other half. The engineers had thrown up a pontoon bridge near Hanovertown, which knew the tramping of two corps. The other half of Grant’s army crossed at Nelson’s Bridge, a few miles upstream. On this day, they would gather.

Alfred Waud drawing of Hanover Ferry crossing.

Alfred Waud drawing of Hanover Ferry crossing.

All day the cavalries clashed near Haw’s Shop, lying between Atlee Station and Hanovertown. The Rebels, helmed by Wade Hampton, threw up defenses as if they were infantry. It was there that David Gregg’s Federal cavalry found them. He was searching for Lee, just as Lee was searching for Grant. Instead of finding Lee’s main strength, there was a cavalry screen embattled to receive them.

While the Federals advanced closer, it was the Rebels who threw at them a mounted charge, which was repulsed. The Union troopers countered, riding forward with much slaughter, but could not breach the defenses. Again they came, but the ending was little different. Gregg called for reinforcements, and shortly received two brigades.

This was fortunate, as Hampton was just now trying to outflank his enemy. One of the newly arrived brigades was placed to block the attempt, while the other, under George Armstrong Custer, dismounted and arrayed themselves in double lines as if they were infantry. This was enough to break Hampton.

Waud drawing of house near Pamunkey.

Waud drawing of house near Pamunkey.

He had received word that two corps had already crossed the Pamunkey. These men before him had been cavalry, but now, or so it seemed, the infantry had arrived. He broke off the engagement as Custer’s charge broke the last of his lines, turning the orderly withdrawal into a chaotic rout.

Even before news of the defeat reached Lee’s ears, he called upon John Breckinridge’s division to march swiftly from their post at Atlee’s Station toward Haw’s Shop to bar the way. Before long, General Meade, the Army of the Potomac’s immediate commander, ordered forward a brigade under Nelson Miles down the same road. If this played out at all, it was not to be on this day.

At dark, both armies filed into their encampments. Making his headquarters near Atlee’s Station, Lee had already placed his troops in a defensive line along Totopotomoy Creek. Grant’s army was not yet fully across the Pamunkey. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps yet remained on the norther shore, but by the next day, they would gather with their comrades. All were footsore. This was a campaign like no other, and rest was a rare commodity. But there would be little rest.1

  1. Sources: Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Not War But Murder by Ernest B. Furgurson; Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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  1. Gordon Rhea will be speaking a couple of times at the upcoming Cold Harbor sesquicentennial. Looking forward to hearing him & others at what should be a big weekend.