Key point: The Civil War was ridiculously brutal.
“Lee’s army is really whipped,” declared Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck on May 26, 1864. “The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of entrenchments cannot be had.” Thwarted by the Army of Northern Virginia at the North Anna River, Grant was preparing to swing around Robert E. Lee’s right flank again and push southeast. Lee then would have no choice but to leave his entrenchments at North Anna and attempt to stop the Federal forces from reaching Richmond, probably along the Chickahominy River. Believing the fight had gone out of Lee’s army, Grant added, “I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already insured.” He would quickly discover that he had spoken too soon.
Almost a month earlier, Maj. Gen. George Meade, operational commander of the Army of the Potomac, had initiated the Overland Campaign with some 118,000 troops. Then came, in swift succession, the Battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and North Anna, which cost the Union Army an appalling 40,000 casualties. Meade needed reinforcements not only to replace his casualties, but also the many valuable veterans whose three-year enlistments were about to expire at the end of June. Grant, as general-in-chief of all Union forces in the East, petitioned Washington for more men. President Abraham Lincoln sent him 33,000 garrison troops belonging mostly to heavy artillery regiments with no combat experience. At the same time, Grant recalled the XVIII Corps under Maj. Gen. William Smith and other troops that could be spared from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James, currently bottled up on the Virginia Peninsula at Bermuda Hundred, southeast of Richmond.
On the evening of May 26, the Federal army started to move. Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan led two of his cavalry divisions southeast to seize a crossing over the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown. Behind them marched Brig. Gen. David Russell’s infantry division from Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps. Sending out pickets to cover their withdrawal, the four remaining corps of bluecoats slipped across the North Anna River in the rain and darkness on pontoon bridges. The maneuver went without a hitch, although Confederate pickets “made things lively” for Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps as it withdrew.