Although by May 27, 1864, it was a mere ten miles between the Army of the Potomac and the Capitol Square in Richmond, they faced two natural obstacles, in addition to the Confederate Army. Totopotomoy Creek sliced across the Federal front, creating an impediment to the advance and an ideal defensive position for Robert E. Lee. Beyond that lay the Chickahominy River, a swampy watercourse that had contributed to General George McClellan's defeat here in 1862.
A military bridge on the Chickahominy River in June 1862. Although docile in dry weather, the river swelled with rain during McClellan's Peninsula Campaign.
Library of Congress
With all four infantry corps spread out across a wide front, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army moved forward cautiously. On the afternoon of May 29, the leading units in the weary Second Corps encountered the first substantial Confederate resistance here, along the road between Haw's Shop (to the east) and Atlee's Station (to the west). As gray-clad skirmishers slowly retired, it became evident that Lee had established his primary line behind Totopotomoy Creek. John C. Breckinridge's division manned the entrenchments immediately across the creek.
The Federal army entrenched, and for the next three days a series of vigorous skirmishes rippled along the creek's valley. General Francis Barlow's division occupied the ground on the Shelton farm, and from here it launched occasional probes. Eventually the Federals established a series of toeholds across the creek, but without any prospect of dislodging the Confederates from their primary line of battle. Each side suffered hundreds of casualties during the course of the many nameless skirmishes up and down the creek's corridor.
Entrenched along the Totopotomoy for several days, Union and Confederate soldiers clashed in skirmishes up and down the creek bed.
Douglas Ullman, Jr.
Despite the defensive advantages of Totopotomoy Creek, however, Lee could see his army slowly being squeezed. Geography and aggressive Federal movements had pushed the Confederates closer to Richmond than they cared to be.
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