The Battle of Cold Harbor

Within a dozen miles of Richmond sat the dusty crossroads of Cold Harbor. The town, with its tavern and “triangular grove of trees at the intersection of five roads,” would be the next stop in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign in Virginia to defeat Robert E. Lee. There, approximately 109,000 Union troops sat ready to take on around 59,000 entrenched rebels.[i] The battle was likely to only be a continuation of the “relentless, ceaseless warfare” that had characterized Grant’s campaign into Virginia throughout 1864, and in Grant’s mind, he felt that “success over Lee’s army” was “already assured.”[ii]

In taking on the Confederates, Grant faced a dilemma: would it be more prudent to take on the rebels in the same area where they whipped General George McClellan or drive them toward the rebel capital where their defensive works would be even further developed?[iii] With the belief that Lee’s men were “really whipped,” Grant ordered an advance on the fortifications at dawn on June 3, 1864.[iv] In fact, Lee’s men were in better spirits than Grant anticipated. Grant’s men were the ones lacking confidence, as Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter noticed when he toured the camps during the rainy evening before the attack was to be mounted: he noticed that “many of the soldiers had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them” only to look closer and find “that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families at home.”[v] Some went a morbid step further: when one man was found dead in the fighting, his pocket contained a blood-stained diary with a final entry reading, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”[vi]

Awaiting the federal troops’ advance were rebel works that were “intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines . . . works within works and works without works.”[vii] At dawn came more than 60,000 Union men charging the center of the defense with a “deep-throated roar.”[viii] A resounding repulse came: one federal soldier later recalled, “It seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle and was just about as destructive.”[ix] With thousands of Union casualties in just the first minutes of the assault, the Confederates defended their fortifications with the same effectiveness as those at Marye’s Heights in Fredericksburg as their firepower “had the fury of the Wilderness musketry, with the thunders of the Gettysburg artillery superadded.”[x] The closer a soldier came to piercing the rebel line, the more likely multiple marksmen would target him, leading one defender to observe “the dust fog out of a man’s clothing in two or three places where as many balls would strike him at the same moment.”[xi] After the assault had slowed, one Alabama colonel looked onto the battlefield and saw “the dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid.”[xii]

Collecting Bones of Soldiers at Cold Harbor. By: John Reekie. Courtesy: Library of Congress.

By evening, Grant noted, “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered.”[xiii] At Grant’s side, General George Meade wrote to 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 Bragg’s army.”[xiv] On the Confederate side, there was elation on Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ birthday as Lee wrote, “Our loss today has been small and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.”[xv]

With no change in territory held by either side, the fighting at Cold Harbor resulted in around 1,500 killed and wounded for the rebels and over 7,000 Union casualties.[xvi] In Grant’s campaigning through Virginia, the Army of the Potomac had lost more than half the number of men as in the previous three years when commanded by McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker, and Meade.[xvii] Within Union ranks, the number of casualties had begun to look to some as a continuous funeral procession of tens of thousands that were slaughtered only to reach the same point as McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign.[xviii] After Cold Harbor, the environment had been taking its toll as well: with soldiers being plagued by lice and redbugs in crowded trenches—with ever present heat and thirst—the stench of rotting corpses and the cries for help coming from the field were all too much to bear.[xix] Recognizing this, Grant and his officers knew that they had to take account of the circumstances and rework their strategy for their men could take no more.

Ulysses S. Grant at Cold Harbor. By: Mathew Brady. Courtesy: National Archives.

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 733.

[ii] See id.; Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 290.

[iii] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, 734.

[iv] Id. at 735 (citing War of the Rebellion . . . Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, Vol. 36, p. 3, p. 206 (Washington, 1880-1901)).

[v] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 290.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Bruce Catton, A Stillness at Appomattox, (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), 159.

[viii] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 290.

[ix] Id.

[x] See id.

[xi] Id. at 291.

[xii] Id. at 292.

[xiii] Horace Porter, Campaigning with Grant, (New York, 1897), 179.

[xiv] George Meade, Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, 2 vols. (New York, 1913), II, 201.

[xv] Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. III, 294.

[xvi] Id. at 292.

[xvii] See id. at 295.

[xviii] Id.

[xix] See id. at 294-97.

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