When the armies left the North Anna River battlefield on May 26-27, each conducted rapid marches to reach new positions. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army, with the advantage of interior lines, moved straight south through Ashland to a point a dozen miles north of Richmond, where it awaited developments. The Union army took a more difficult, roundabout path, using the Pamunkey River as a buffer. Ulysses Grant’s command crossed the Pamunkey at two locations and pushed southwestward toward Richmond.
After an inconclusive cavalry clash at Haw’s Shop on May 28, the head of Grant’s army reached Totopotomoy Creek on the 29th. The wide and shallow creek represented a substantial barrier astride the route to Richmond. Not only did the Totopotomoy’s steeply-shouldered valley stand as a natural obstacle to advancing soldiers, but Confederate infantry and artillery, dug in on the southern side of the creek, further strengthened the position.
While the Union Sixth Corps looked for a way around the creek to the northwest, the Fifth Corps advanced at the opposite end of the line and attempted to turn the southeastern end of Lee’s position. Meanwhile the Second Corps anchored the middle, where nature had made the creek valley strongest. The Confederate leaders juggled their forces to counter the various threats, with the Third Corps on Lee’s left, the First Corps in the center, and the Second Corps on the right. A small division of reenforcements under John C. Breckinridge, recently arrived by railroad from the Shenandoah Valley, offered a welcome addition to the army’s ranks.