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 instead of 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.
Meade Moves South
Following the Confederate victory at the Battle of North Anna (May 23–26), Grant did not retreat. Rather, on May 27, he ordered Meade to move his army deeper into Confederate territory, southeast towards Totopotomoy Creek. On May 27, 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, infantrymen from both the North and the South began to arrive.
May 28–30, 1864 — Clash Along Totopotomoy Creek
Beginning on May 28, 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 ended that evening, bringing the Battle of Totopotomoy Creek to a conclusion.
Aftermath of the Battle
The 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 their accomplishments, the Confederates did not stop Grant from continuing his advance into the heart of the Confederacy.