Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the western theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness Lincoln was seeking. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
The Overland Campaign — Grant Pursues Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s offensive focused on defeating Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Union forces persistently engaged the Rebel army.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched the Overland Campaign, when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers. Although Meade nominally commanded the Army of the Potomac, Grant accompanied the army in the field so he could supervise overall campaign operations.
Throughout the month of May, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia slugged it out in a series of battles including the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7), Battle of Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21), and the Battle of North Anna (May 23–26). Although the Rebels inflicted high casualties on the Federals during those battles, Grant continued his strategy of moving south and east (to Lee’s right) and then re-engaging. Grant’s moves forced Lee to reposition his lines continually to defend Richmond.
May 27, 1864 — Clash at Haw’s Shop
On May 27, 1864, Confederate forces intercepted Union cavalrymen as they attempted to cross the Pamunkey River at Dabney’s Ferry and at Crump’s Creek. The following day, cavalry forces continued to fight at the Battle of Haw’s Shop, which is also known as the Battle of Enon Church.
Two cavalry divisions, the 1st and 2nd, of the Union’s Army of the Potomac engaged two cavalry divisions of the South’s Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier Generals Alfred Torbert and David Gregg commanded the Northern troops, while Major Generals Wade Hampton and Fitzhugh Lee led the Southern forces.
Rebels Infantry Reinforces the Cavalry
The battle raged for seven hours, with Northern soldiers attempting to ford the Pamunkey River. Eventually, Southern infantry arrived on the battlefield, reinforcing the Confederate position and repulsing the Federals. The North endured 344 casualties, while the South lost approximately 400 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Totopotomoy Creek continued to rage the next day. Confederate soldiers fortified the south bank of Totopotomoy Creek, and on May 29, Union forces launched several probes to establish the location of the Confederates’ position. On May 30, the Union’s 2nd Corps drove a portion of the Confederate soldiers from their entrenchments, gaining a foothold on the south side of Totopotomoy Creek. As the 2nd Corps advanced, Confederate soldiers, under the command of Jubal Early, attacked the Union left, driving the Northerners back. The engagement ending that evening, bringing the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek to a conclusion.
While the Battle of Haw’s Shop ended in a virtual draw, the larger Battle of Totopotomoy Creek was a technical victory for the Confederates. Southerners remained in possession of the battlefield at the engagement’s end. Confederates suffered 1,100 men killed, wounded, captured, or missing. The Northerners sustained a similar number of casualties. Despite these accomplishments, the Confederates did not stop Grant’s continued advance farther south. Grant did not retreat as earlier Union generals had; instead, he continued to press Lee.