Armies Converge on Cold Harbor

June 2, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac missed opportunities to penetrate the defenses of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of the Northern Virginia, but Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered one more assault to take place.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit:

As June began, Grant, the overall Federal commander, continued his relentless effort to move Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac past Lee’s left flank. The armies faced each other along a seven-mile front that began at Atlee’s Station and Totopotomoy Creek to the north and ended at Old Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy River to the south.

Elements of both armies had fought for the desolate crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, about 15 miles northeast of Richmond, on May 31, with Major General Philip Sheridan’s Federal cavalry gaining control. Lee directed Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps, supported by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division, to dislodge the Federal troopers.

Sheridan maintained his tentative hold on the crossroads while waiting for infantry support from Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps (recently transferred from the Army of the James) and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps. But Smith got lost on his way to Cold Harbor, and Wright’s men conducted a 15-mile forced march through the night of the 31st and had not yet arrived by morning.

Due to miscommunication, Anderson deployed his troops piecemeal while Hoke’s men dug trenches. The Federals held off the weak Confederate attack with their Spencer repeating rifles, mortally wounding Colonel Lawrence Keitt, a prominent South Carolina politician. Anderson directed another assault, but this was repulsed as well.

Wright’s Federals began arriving around 9 a.m. and replacing the cavalrymen on the line. Although Grant wanted Wright to attack immediately, his men were exhausted and Wright did not know the enemy strength in his front, so he opted to wait until Smith arrived. Wright did not know that Smith was lost and would not get there for several hours.

When Smith’s troops finally arrived, they took positions to VI Corps’ right. As they prepared to attack, Meade worried that they did not have enough men. He therefore contacted Major General Gouverneur Warren, commanding V Corps, “Generals Wright and Smith will attack this evening. It is very desirable you should join this attack, unless in your judgment it is impracticable.”

Warren dispatched a division under Brigadier General Henry H. Lockwood at 6 p.m. The Federals launched their attack, originally scheduled for that morning, at 6:30 p.m. The Confederates held firm south of the Mechanicsville Road, which connected Old and New Cold Harbor. North of the road, the Federals were met by murderous fire. Connecticut Lieutenant Theodore Vaill described it as:

“A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastworks; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.”

The Federals fell back. To their right, other Federal forces discovered a gap in the Confederate line and pushed through. But they soon found themselves in a ravine, surrounded on three sides. They fought their way out and fell back after taking hundreds of prisoners.

Farther north on the Old Church Road, Lieutenant General Jubal Early sent his Confederates forward in a probing action against the lines held by IX and V corps. The Federals repelled these attacks around 7 p.m. Later that night, Warren learned that Lockwood’s division had gotten lost on its way to Cold Harbor. Warren reported to Meade:

“In some unaccountable way, (Lockwood) took his whole division, without my knowing it, away from the left of the line of battle, and turned up in the dark 2 miles in my rear, and I have not yet got him back. All this time the firing should have guided him at least. He is too incompetent, and too high rank leaves us no subordinate place for him. I earnestly beg that he may at once be relieved of duty with this army.”

Meade agreed and replaced Lockwood as division commander with Brigadier General Samuel W. Crawford.

Fighting ended at nightfall, with the Federals sustaining about 2,650 casualties and the Confederates losing about 1,800. The Federals had pinned the Confederates into defensive works in front of New Cold Harbor, closer to Richmond than Old Cold Harbor. While the Federals were within striking distance, Meade was enraged that Grant had ordered an assault without first conducting reconnaissance. Meade also worried that the army was being spread too thin.

Grant was frustrated by the missed opportunities to break the enemy line. Convinced that an early morning attack would break through, he ordered Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to make a night march and join the action at the crossroads the next day. Lee hurried the bulk of his army to the Cold Harbor sector of the line, where the Confederates quickly built strong fortifications that included breastworks, abatis, and entrenchments.

Lee also informed General P.G.T. Beauregard, whose Confederates held Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federals at Bermuda Hundred to the south, that Grant’s forces had shifted closer to the James River and requested reinforcements. Beauregard replied that he could send none without risking cutting communication between Richmond and Petersburg.

Lee countered by stating that, “as two-thirds of Butler’s force has joined Grant, can you not leave sufficient guard to move with the balance of your command to north side of James River and take command of the right wing of the army?” President Jefferson Davis directed Major General Robert Ransom, Jr., commanding Confederates at Richmond, to mobilize local forces to establish defenses at the Chickahominy River.

By morning, Lee had shifted the forces of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill and Major General John C. Breckinridge south to join Anderson and Hoke in front of New Cold Harbor. Early’s corps remained in the northern sector to face Warren’s V Corps and IX Corps under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside.

Warren received orders to shift to his left (south) to link with Smith’s corps, while Burnside was to fall back in reserve by Bethesda Church. Skirmishing occurred when Early’s men conducted a reconnaissance in force to determine where Burnside’s troops were going. However, Lee remained mainly focused on his right (south), around Cold Harbor.

Hancock’s advance elements did not begin arriving at the crossroads until around 6:30 a.m., and by this time most men on both sides were spent. They had been continuously marching and fighting for almost a month, inflicting a combined 70,000 casualties on each other. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., later wrote, “Many a man has gone crazy since this campaign began from the terrible pressure on mind & body.”

The oppressive heat added to the fatigue until a heavy afternoon rain cooled temperatures somewhat. Grant ordered the assault to begin at 5 p.m., but the rain and continued delays compelled him to reschedule for the next morning. During this time, the Confederates in front of New Cold Harbor were building the strongest defensive works of the war. Some makeshift forts had walls five feet high, and artillery covered every approach.

Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff later wrote that he walked through the camps on the rainy night of the 2nd, 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.”



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