The Battle of Cold Harbor

June 3, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac suffered one of its most horrifying defeats at a crossroads just east of Richmond.

As June began, Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant continued his relentless effort to move past the left flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. The Federals converged on Cold Harbor, a desolate intersection about 10 miles northeast of Richmond on the Chickahominy River. Lee ordered his corps under General Richard H. Anderson to seize the position.[1]

Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry repulsed two Confederate charges on June 1. The Confederates prepared defenses as the Federal XVIII Corps under General W.F. Smith came up from the Army of the James as reinforcement. XVIII Corps joined Horatio Wright’s VI Corps in facing the Confederates along a seven-mile front. The two Federal corps counterattacked near nightfall, but by that time the strongly entrenched Confederates were able to stop them, inflicting some 2,200 casualties. The Federals fell back as the rest of Grant’s army arrived.[2]

At Cold Harbor - June 1, 1864 | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

At Cold Harbor – June 1, 1864 | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Grant ordered another attack for the morning of June 2, but delays with troop movements and fatigue postponed the assault until the next day. During the rainy evening, Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, one of Grant’s aides, later wrote that he walked through the camps, and “I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them.” But Porter soon “found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on their backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”[3]

The Federal assault began when the bugles sounded at 4:30 a.m. The II Corps joined the VI and XVIII, and some 60,000 men advanced to break the Confederate line and open the road to Richmond. However, Confederate Generals Anderson and A.P. Hill had entrenched their troops on high ground with access to enfilade fire. As the Federals marched to within 50 yards over open ground, they became easy targets. The Confederates opened a murderous volley that could be heard from Richmond.[4]

One division of II Corps managed to capture an advanced position, but the Confederates quickly drove them off. The battle ended in less than an hour with the Federals losing some 7,000 killed or wounded. The Confederates lost less than 1,500. The Federals withdrew without Grant’s order or consent, and officers quickly protested orders to advance again. Finally revised orders came at 1:30 p.m.: “For the present all further offensive operations will be suspended.”[5]

After the battle, General Lee wired Confederate officials at Richmond: “So far every attack has been repulsed.” Confederate President Jefferson Davis and other officials rode out from Richmond to the battlefield. Lee informed them that the Confederates held the field but warned that he had no reserves. Returning to the capital that evening, Davis received a wire from Lee: “Our loss today has been small, and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.” While Cold Harbor was a resounding Confederate victory, continuous fighting over the past month had depleted the Army of Northern Virginia, and Richmond remained in grave danger.[6]

Meanwhile, General Grant confided in his staff that evening: “I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered.” No advantage had been gained to reward such valiant sacrifice. Since arriving at Cold Harbor, the Federal Army of the Potomac had lost some 12,000 men. Since opening the spring offensive last month, Federal losses exceeded 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing. U.S. diplomat Charles Francis Adams, Jr. declared that the Federal army “has literally marched in blood and agony from the Rapidan to the James.”[7]

—–

[1] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-13; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95

[2] Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 462; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 512-13

[3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6093-103; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 513-14

[4] Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95

[5] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6132-52 ; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15

[6] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6171-91; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69

[7] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15

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One thought on “The Battle of Cold Harbor

  1. […] Following the battle, Federal survivors built defenses facing the entrenched Confederates. Those wounded in the attack of June 3 who could not bring themselves back to Federal lines lingered on the battlefield, as Grant refused to request a truce to collect his men. Finally amid the stench of the dead and misery of the wounded, Grant wrote to Lee on June 5: “It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines.” He proposed forming details on both sides to collect the survivors, or “any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired will be accepted by me.”[1] […]

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