May 30, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee learned that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant planned to move his Federals southeast once more, this time to Old Cold Harbor.
As the Federal and Confederate cavalries battled at Haw’s Shop, Lee entrenched the rest of his Army of Northern Virginia behind Totopotomoy Creek, west of the fighting and east of Mechanicsville:
- Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps held the left (northwestern) flank on a line along the creek running northwest to southeast.
- Major General John C. Breckinridge, recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, lined his men to Hill’s right.
- Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps held the center, which curved southward, below the creek, to the Shady Grove Road.
- Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps held the right (southern) flank, anchored at Bethesda Church on the Old Church Road. Due to illness, Ewell was replaced as corps commander by Major General Jubal Early.
Federal infantry crossed the Pamunkey River on the 28th, northeast of Haw’s Shop near Hanovertown. By midnight, all four corps were across and building defenses on the river’s west bank. Grant, the overall Federal commander, directed the Army of the Potomac to move southwest toward Lee’s Confederates across Totopotomoy Creek:
- Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved along the Richmond-Hanovertown Road to the creek, where Hancock saw the Confederates entrenched on the other side.
- Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps lined up on Hancock’s left (south).
- Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps took positions to Hancock’s right (northwest), facing Hill’s Confederates.
- Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps was held in reserve near Haw’s Shop.
- Major General Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps operated near Haw’s Shop, protecting the roads to the Federal supply base at White House Landing.
President Jefferson Davis left Richmond to confer with Lee, whose army was now just 10 miles from the capital. Lee, still suffering from acute diarrhea, explained that supplies were low because the Federals had temporarily disrupted the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee also requested reinforcements.
Davis told Lee that he had asked General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederates holding the Federal Army of the James at bay below Richmond, to send troops north, but Beauregard had replied, “My force is so small at present, that to divide it for the purpose of reinforcing Lee would jeopardize the safety of the part left to guard my lines, and would greatly endanger Richmond itself.”
Beauregard traveled north that night and met with Davis and Lee at Atlee’s Station. The men discussed strategy and Beauregard reiterated his inability to send reinforcements. However, he did agree to reevaluate his situation when he returned to Bermuda Hundred to see if any of his 12,000 men could be spared. Davis and Beauregard left Atlee’s that night.
Lee’s Confederates held all the approaches to Richmond, but the roads south to Old Cold Harbor and New Cold Harbor were still open. On the morning of the 30th, Lee received word that Grant was planning a move to Old Cold Harbor. Lee said:
“After fortifying this line they will probably make another move by their left flank over toward the Chickahominy. This is just a repetition of their former movements. It can only be arrested by striking at once at that part of their force which has crossed the Totopotomoy.”
Early noted that the Federal left flank, held by Warren’s V Corps, was open for attack, and Lee authorized him to do so. Early moved Major General Robert Rodes’s division around Warren’s left and drove the Federals back, routing the Pennsylvania Reserves. Early waited for Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s division to come up, giving the Federals time to regroup and prepare.
Anderson did not come up in support as expected, and Ramseur’s men charged a Federal battery on their own. As the Confederates approached, the massed Federals unleashed a terrible fire; a Confederate soldier recalled, “Our line melted away as if by magic, every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, mostly killed outright in an incredibly short time.”
After three futile charges, the Federals called on the survivors to surrender, which they did. A Confederate officer seethed, “Ramseur was to blame for the whole thing, and ought to have been shot for the part he played in it.” The Confederates sustained 1,593 casualties (263 killed, 961 wounded, and 369 missing or captured), while the Federals lost 731 (679 killed or wounded and 52 captured).
That night, Lee learned that 16,000 Federal troops from Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James, led by Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, were heading north to reinforce Grant. With Smith’s men, Grant could extend his left flank another three miles to the vital crossroads village of Cold Harbor. Lee once again asked Beauregard for reinforcements, but Beauregard replied that the War Department must decide “when and what troops to order from here.” Exasperated, Lee telegraphed Davis directly:
“General Beauregard says the Department must determine what troops to send… The result of this delay will be disaster. Butler’s troops (Smith’s corps) will be with Grant tomorrow. Hoke’s division, at least, should be with me by light tomorrow.”
Davis quickly issued orders through Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg for Beauregard to send Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 7,000 Confederates, “which you reported ready, immediately to this point by railroad… Move with the utmost expedition, but with as much secrecy as possible.”
Also on the 30th, Lee dispatched 2,000 cavalry troopers under Brigadier General Matthew C. Butler to guard the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, near the Gaines’s Mill battlefield of 1862. The Confederates rode out but were met by elements of Sheridan’s horsemen at Old Church. After a brief fight, the Confederates withdrew, giving Sheridan the opportunity to seize the crossroads.
The next day, Lee dispatched a larger cavalry force under Major General Fitzhugh Lee to get to the crossroads before Sheridan. The Confederates did, but Sheridan’s superior numbers eventually drove them off. Sheridan guarded the area in anticipation of “Baldy” Smith’s Federals coming up to form Grant’s new left. But Smith got lost, and Sheridan received word that Hoke’s Confederates were on their way to try taking the crossroads back.
Sheridan wrote to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, “I do not feel able to hold this place. With the heavy odds against me here, I do not think it prudent to hold on.” As Sheridan withdrew, Meade ordered him to “hold on to all he had gained at Cold Harbor at all hazards.” Sheridan’s troopers returned and built fortifications, while Wright’s VI Corps was directed to make a hard night march to reinforce them. Lee ordered Anderson’s corps to join Hoke in taking back the crossroads the next day.
This ended the most terrible month of warfare that ever occurred in Virginia. Grant had waged a relentless war of attrition, losing over 50,000 men while inflicting some 30,000 casualties on Lee. The Federal campaign had been a tactical failure, as Lee had thwarted every one of Grant’s efforts to either destroy the Confederates or capture Richmond. But Grant had succeeded in pushing the front from above the Rapidan to within 10 miles of the capital. June promised to be just as terrible as May.
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