Grant, after the fruitless skirmishing on the North Anna, decided to resume his drive by once again heading east and south, around Lee’s left, the same type of movement he had been making since the outset of this campaign. However, he had a tricky problem to resolve: How to cross to the north bank of the North Anna without Lee becoming wise to his intentions, and launching an assault on the Union army as it straddled the North Anna? To divert Lee’s attention, Grant sent two divisions of cavalry west to convince Lee that Grant was going to move west instead of east. The ruse worked, and Grant quietly moved his infantry corps successfully across the North Anna on the evening of the 26th-27th.
Lee on the 27th instantly realized what Grant was doing, and sent his army hurtling south to take up a strong defensive position at Atlee’s Station, only nine miles north of Richmond, where he could guard the railroads that supplied Richmond and his army.
Grant sent his cavalry ahead to blaze a path across the Pamunkey River for his infantry marching southeast. On May 27th Union cavalry established a bridgehead over the Pamunkey at Dabney Ford with a Union engineer regiment building a pontoon bridge. General Custer’s cavalry beat off a Confederate counterattack and Union infantry and Cavalry passed over the Pamunkey on the pontoon bridge.
On the 28th Union and Confederate cavalry fighting dismounted, clashed at Haw’s Shop while the remainder of Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey, except for Burnside’s corps that was guarding the army’s wagon train.
Lee now knew that Grant was across the Pamunkey but was unsure what Grant’s next move would be, and for now held his position behind Totopotomoy Creek at Atlee’s Station. Here is Grant’s account of this movement in his Personal Memoirs:
Wilson’s division of cavalry was brought up from the left and moved by our right south to Little River. Here he manoeuvred to give the impression that we were going to attack the left flank of Lee’s army.
Under cover of night our right wing was withdrawn to the north side of the river, Lee being completely deceived by Wilson’s feint. On the afternoon of the 26th Sheridan moved, sending Gregg’s and Torbert’s cavalry to Taylor’s and Littlepage’s fords towards Hanover. As soon as it was dark both divisions moved quietly to Hanover Ferry, leaving small guards behind to keep up the impression that crossings were to be attempted in the morning. Sheridan was followed by a division of infantry under General Russell. On the morning of the 27th the crossing was effected with but little loss, the enemy losing thirty or forty, taken prisoners. Thus a position was secured south of the Pamunkey.
Russell stopped at the crossing while the cavalry pushed on to Hanover Town. Here Barringer’s, formerly Gordon’s, brigade of rebel cavalry was encountered, but it was speedily driven away.
Warren’s and Wright’s corps were moved by the rear of Burnside’s and Hancock’s corps. When out of the way these latter corps followed, leaving pickets confronting the enemy. Wilson’s cavalry followed last, watching all the fords until everything had recrossed; then taking up the pontoons and destroying other bridges, became the rear-guard.
Two roads were traversed by the troops in this move. The one nearest to and north of the North Anna and Pamunkey was taken by Wright, followed by Hancock. Warren, followed by Burnside, moved by a road farther north, and longer. The trains moved by a road still farther north, and had to travel a still greater distance. All the troops that had crossed the Pamunkey on the morning of the 27th remained quiet during the rest of the day, while the troops north of that stream marched to reach the crossing that had been secured for them.
Lee had evidently been deceived by our movement from North Anna; for on the morning of the 27th he telegraphed to Richmond: “Enemy crossed to north side, and cavalry and infantry crossed at Hanover Town.” The troops that had then crossed left his front the night of the 25th.
The country we were now in was a difficult one to move troops over. The streams were numerous, deep and sluggish, sometimes spreading out into swamps grown up with impenetrable growths of trees and underbrush. The banks were generally low and marshy, making the streams difficult to approach except where there were roads and bridges.
Hanover Town is about twenty miles from Richmond. There are two roads leading there; the most direct and shortest one crossing the Chickahominy at Meadow Bridge, near the Virginia Central Railroad, the second going by New and Old Cold Harbor. A few miles out from Hanover Town there is a third road by way of Mechanicsville to Richmond. New Cold Harbor was important to us because while there we both covered the roads back to White House (where our supplies came from), and the roads south-east over which we would have to pass to get to the James River below the Richmond defences.
On the morning of the 28th the army made an early start, and by noon all had crossed except Burnside’s corps. This was left on the north side temporarily to guard the large wagon train. A line was at once formed extending south from the river, Wright’s corps on the right, Hancock’s in the centre, and Warren’s on the left, ready to meet the enemy if he should come.