In the last days of May, 1864, after falling back from the North Anna River, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia sought a new line of defense between Richmond and Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s pursuing Union forces. Since the battle in the Wilderness three weeks earlier, Grant had kept constant pressure on Lee, not allowing him to withdraw from his front. All the while, the near constant fighting wore down Lee’s army as his irreplaceable casualties mounted. Fighting erupted again on May 27 with cavalry skirmishes at the Pamunkey River crossing at Dabney’s Ferry and along Crump’s Creek, and at Haw’s Shop on May 28 as Grant pushed Lee yet again.
On May 29, the Confederates constructed a line of breastworks on a ridge overlooking east-west running Totopotomoy Creek, forcing the Federals to halt and look for a path around the fortifications. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps pressed Lee’s skirmishers from the north, while Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps moved toward Lee’s right. In the center, Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock’s II Corps took a position near the Edwin Shelton family estate at Rural Plains on Totopotomoy Creek, opposite the waiting Confederates.
Grant ordered an attack along his line for May 30. On the right, Wright’s corps got bogged down in the swamps of Crump’s Creek and never got into a favorable position to attack. In the center, the II Corps division of Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow forced a crossing at Rural Plains and captured the first line of Confederate trenches, but his advance was stopped at the main line. The Union IX Corps under Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, supporting Hancock, moved into position late and pushed back Confederate skirmishers along the Shady Grove Road near Pole Green Church, but didn’t mount a serious attack across the creek. On the Union left, Warren attempted a turning movement near Bethesda Church, but was repulsed by Confederates under Gen. Jubal Early that otherwise might have been occupied in Burnside’s front. Skirmishing continued for another day with little result.
After two days of fighting, 2,300 men were casualties, two thirds of them Confederate. The impending arrival of Union reinforcements from Bermuda Hundred compelled Lee to abandon his Totopotomoy line, and he ordered a movement further south toward Cold Harbor. As before, Lee was followed closely by Grant.
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