May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.
By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.
At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.
Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:
“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”
Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.
The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.
Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.
When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.
Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.
Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.
A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.
The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.
Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.
Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:
“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”
But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.
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