June 3, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac suffered one of its most horrifying defeats at a crossroads just nine miles northeast of Richmond.
Before dawn, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander of Major General George G. Meade’s army, concentrated three Federal corps on a north-south line in front of New Cold Harbor:
- Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps from the Army of the James held the right (north)
- Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held the center
- Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps held the left (south)
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the extreme Federal right a few miles north at Bethesda Church
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on Burnside’s left, moving south to link with Smith’s right
General Robert E. Lee had hurriedly assembled the bulk of his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia behind virtually impregnable defenses in front (east) of New Cold Harbor:
- Lieutenant General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps held the left (north), which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s recently transferred Confederates
- Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates from the Shenandoah Valley held the center
- Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the right (south)
- Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps opposed Burnside’s Federals to the north
A correspondent described the Confederate defenses as “intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines… works within works and works without works.” Grant ordered the Federals to reconnoiter the enemy lines before the attack, but this was not done thoroughly enough to identify such strong defenses.
Federal bugles sounded at 4:30 a.m., and the assault began when about 60,000 men advanced in double-lines to break the Confederate line and open the road to Richmond. However, the Confederates held some of the strongest defensive works of the war, with their artillery poised to enfilade attackers. 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.
On the Federal left, a division of II Corps managed to capture an advanced position, but the Confederates quickly drove them off in savage hand-to-hand fighting. In the center, Wright’s men were immediately pinned down by the overwhelming enemy fire. On the Federal right, Smith’s Federals emerged from a ravine and were quickly cut down by the waiting Confederates.
A Federal officer recalled, “The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another.” A Federal soldier wrote, “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.” The fight in the Cold Harbor sector of the line was over within 30 minutes.
Farther north, Warren stopped his movement to Smith’s right, thus allowing Confederate artillerists to turn all their guns on Smith’s men. Burnside’s Federals advanced and drove the enemy skirmishers off, but Burnside thought he had penetrated the first Confederate defense line and ordered a halt to regroup. He planned to renew the assault that afternoon.
The Federals all along the line were stopped by 7 a.m. Grant ordered a renewal wherever the enemy seemed most vulnerable, and Meade ordered the three corps on the left to attack again. Both Hancock and Smith resisted, with Smith calling a renewal a “wanton waste of life.” Wright’s men remained pinned down in the center. Grant finally agreed, writing Meade at 12:30 p.m., “The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered, you may direct a suspension of further advance for the present.”
This was the most lopsided Federal defeat since the ill-fated assault on Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg. The Federals sustained 7,000 casualties, while the Confederates lost less than 1,500. Lee telegraphed Richmond, “So far every attack has been repulsed.” President Jefferson Davis and other officials rode out from the capital to the battlefield.
Postmaster General John Reagan asked Lee, “General, if the enemy breaks your line, what reserve have you?” Lee responded:
“Not a regiment, and that has been my condition ever since the fighting commenced on the Rappahannock. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, he will turn me; if I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them.”
After Davis returned from the battlefield, he received a dispatch that Lee sent to Secretary of War James A. Seddon: “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.
That night, Meade wrote his wife, “I think Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee’s army is not Tennessee and (Braxton) Bragg’s army.” Grant told his staff, “I regret this assault more than any one I ever ordered.” He later wrote in his Memoirs:
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side.”
But Grant was not discouraged. He wrote his wife Julia, “This is likely to prove a very tedious job I have on hand, but I feel very confident of ultimate success.” Meade also wrote his wife, “Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.”
Since arriving at Cold Harbor on the 1st, the Army of the Potomac lost about 12,000 men. Since opening the spring offensive last month, Federal losses exceeded 50,000 killed, wounded, or missing. Charles Francis Adams, Jr. declared that the Federal army “has literally marched in blood and agony from the Rapidan to the James.”
Soldiers and civilians in the North began openly questioning Grant’s leadership, with some even denouncing him as a “butcher.” Indeed, scores of wounded Federals lay helpless between the lines because Grant refused to ask Lee for a flag of truce to collect them. But Grant would soon develop a new strategy that even Lee did not anticipate.
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