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Cold Harbor.

by Martin T. McMAHON, Brevet Major-General, U. S. V.
In the opinion of a majority of its survivors, the battle of Cold Harbor never should have been fought. There was no military reason to justify it. It was the dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of the Lieutenant-General's first campaign with the Army of the Potomac, and corresponded in all its essential features with what had preceded it. The wide and winding path through the tangled Wilderness and the pines of Spotsylvania, which that army had cut from the Rapidan to the Chickahominy, had been strewn with the bodies of thousands of brave men, the majority of them wearing the Union blue. No great or substantial success had been achieved at any point. The fighting in the Wilderness had told heavily against us, as it must necessarily against an assaulting army in such a country. A gleam of victory had come when the selected column of the Sixth Corps, under Russell and Upton, carried the works near Spotsylvania on the 10th of May.1 I Failure elsewhere and conflicting orders had led to the abandonment of the works and the guns, and about one thousand prisoners remained as the sole fruits of the success. On the 12th, at the Bloody Angle, Hancock had inspired the army with new hope, taking there also four thousand prisoners by a brilliant dash, but the slaughter that followed in holding the works all day had saddened his success. Gloom and discouragement had taken hold of the army also, because of the death three days before of Sedgwick, an officer who would have been worth to that army many thousand men. Many other leaders had fallen whose names were familiar to the rank and file, but the Sixth Corps, although commanded by Sedgwick's most trusted lieutenant, General H. G. Wright, an able and gallant [214]

Confederate positions at the North Anna and at Cold Harbor, with the route of march of Ewell's Corps to the latter place. By Jed. Hotchkiss, top. Eng., Second Corps, A. N. V.

soldier, seemed like an orphaned household. Warren's and Hancock's fight at North Anna had been fierce but ineffective, resulting only in slaughter, of which, as usual, a sadly disproportioned share was ours. The crossings of the North Anna had been forced [see map, p. 136], but our progress had been barred as before by the enemy in stronger position than ever. The three corps which had crossed had withdrawn in the night-time and had commenced a movement toward the Pamunkey, a river formed by the junction of the North Anna and the South Anna. The passage of that river had been completed on May 28, and then, after three days of marching, interspersed with the usual amount of fighting, the army found itself again confronted by Lee's main line on the Totopotomoy. The operations which followed were Known as the battle of Cold Harbor.

On the afternoon of May 31st Sheridan, who was on the left flank of the army, carried, with his cavalry, a position near the old well and cross-roads known as Old Cold Harbor, and, with his men dismounted behind rough breastworks, held it against Fitzhugh Lee until night. To this point, during the night, marched the vanguard of the Army of the Potomac, the [215] Sixth Corps, under Wright, over roads that were many inches deep in dust. The night was sultry and oppressive. Many of our horses and mules were dying of thirst, yet they had to be forced through streams without halting to drink. Frequent messengers from Sheridan came during the night, urging the importance of rapid movement. About 9 the next day (June 1st) the head of the column reached Sheridan's position, and the cavalry was withdrawn. The enemy, who had been seriously threatening Sheridan, withdrew from our immediate front to within their lines and awaited us, occupying a strong outer line of intrenchments in front of our center, somewhat in advance of their main position, which included that on which the battle of Gaines's Mill had been fought two years before. It covered the approaches to the Chickahominy, which was the last formidable obstacle we had to meet before standing in front of the permanent works of Richmond. A large detachment, composed of the Eighteenth Corps and other troops from the Army of the James, under General W. F. Smith, had disembarked at White House on the Pamunkey, and was expected to connect that morning with the Sixth Corps at Cold Harbor. A mistake in orders caused an unnecessary march and long delay. In the afternoon, however, Smith was in position on the right of the Sixth Corps. Late in the afternoon both corps assaulted. The attack was made vigorously, and with no reserves. The outer line in front of the right of the Sixth and the left of the Eighteenth was carried brilliantly, and the enemy was forced back, leaving several hundred prisoners in our hands. On the left, where Russell advanced, our losses were severe. The men went forward under a terrible fire from front and flank, until they were ordered to lie down under such shelter as was afforded by the ground and the enemy's impenetrable slashing, to which they had advanced. Russell was wounded, but remained upon the field all day. This left the well and the old tavern at Cold Harbor in our rear, and brought us in front of the most formidable position yet held by the enemy. In front of him was a wooded country, interspersed with clearings here and there, sparsely populated, and full of swamps. Before daylight the Army of the Potomac stood together once more almost within sight of the spires of Richmond, and on the very ground where, under McClellan, they had defended the passage of the river they were now endeavoring to force.

On the 2d of June our confronting line, on which the burden of the day must necessarily fall, consisted of Hancock on the left, Wright in the center, and Smith on the right. Warren and Burnside were still farther to the right, their lines refused, or drawn back, in the neighborhood of Bethesda Church, but not confronting the enemy. The character of the country was such that at no point could the general direction of the various corps be seen for any considerable distance.

The enemy's general line, although refused at certain points and with salients elsewhere, because of the character of the country, was that of an are of a circle, the concave side toward us, overlapping on both flanks the three corps intending to attack. The line of advance of Wright's command holding the center was therefore perpendicular to that of the enemy. [216]

On the forenoon of June 1st Wright occupied an intrenched line close to Old Cold Harbor. At that time Hoke's division formed the Confederate right, near New Cold Harbor, and Anderson's corps (Longstreet's) extended the line to a point opposite Beulah Church. During the afternoon W. F. Smith's corps arrived on the right of Wright, extending the Union line to Beulah Church. At 6 o'clock Smith and Wright drove the enemy through the woods along the road to New Cold Harbor and intrenched a new line. Warren was north of Smith. On June 2d Hancock formed on the left of Wright. Hill's corps and Breckinridge's division took position opposite, extending the Confederate line to the Chickahominy. Burnside, May 30th to June 1st, occupied lines facing south and west, above Sydnor's sawmill; June 2d he withdrew to Warren's right. Ewell's position throughout was on the Confederate left.

[217] Hancock's line, connecting with Wright's left, extended obliquely to the left and rear. A movement upon his part to the front must necessarily take him off obliquely from the line of advance of the center. The same was true of Smith's command upon the right. What resulted from this formation the 3d of June developed. No reconnoissance had been made other than the bloody one of the evening before. Every one felt that this was to be the final struggle. No further flanking marches were possible. Richmond was dead in front. No further wheeling of corps from right to left by the rear; no further dusty marches possible on that line, even “if it took all summer.” The general attack was fixed for the afternoon of the 2d, and all preparations had been made, when the order was countermanded and the attack postponed until half-past 4 the following morning. Promptly at the hour named on the 3d of June the men moved from the slight cover of the rifle-pits, thrown up during the night, with steady, determined advance, and there rang out suddenly on the summer air such a crash of artillery and musketry as is seldom heard in war. No great portion of the advance could be seen from any particular point, but those of the three corps that passed through the clearings were feeling the fire terribly. Not much return was made at first from our infantry, although the fire of our batteries was incessant. The time of actual advance was not over eight minutes. In that little period more men fell bleeding as they advanced than in any other like period of time throughout the war. A strange and terrible feature of this battle was that as the three gallant corps moved on, each was enfiladed while receiving the full force of the enemy's direct fire in front. The enemy's shell and shot were plunging through Hancock's battalions from his right. From the left a similarly destructive fire was poured in upon Smith, and from both flanks on the Sixth Corps in the center. At some points the slashings and obstructions in the enemy's front were reached. Barlow, of Hancock's corps, drove the enemy from an advanced position, but was himself driven out by the fire of their second line. R. O. Tyler's brigade (the Corcoran Legion) of the same corps swept over an advance work, capturing several hundred prisoners. One officer alone, the colonel of the 164th New York [James P. McMahon.--editors.], seizing the colors of his regiment from the dying color-bearer as he fell, succeeded in reaching the parapet of the enemy's main works, where he planted his colors and fell dead near the ditch, bleeding from many wounds. Seven other colonels of Hancock's command died within those few minutes. No troops could stand against such a fire, and the order to lie down was given all along the line. At points where no shelter was afforded, the men were withdrawn to such cover as could be found, and the battle of Cold Harbor, as to its result at least, was over. Each corps commander reported and complained to General Meade that the other corps commanders, right or left, as the case might be, failed to protect him from enfilading fire by silencing batteries in their respective fronts: Smith, that he could go no farther until Wright advanced upon his left; Hancock, that it was useless for him to attempt a further advance until Wright advanced upon his right; Wright, that it was impossible for him to move until Smith and Hancock advanced to his support on [218] the right and left to shield him from the enemy's enfilade. These dispatches necessarily caused mystification at headquarters; so much so that copies of Hancock's and Smith's dispatches were sent to Wright and copies of his to each of the others. The explanation was simple enough, although it was not known until reconnaissance had been made. The three corps had moved upon diverging lines, each directly facing the enemy in its immediate front, and the farther each had advanced the more its flank had become exposed.

Further telegraphic correspondence followed, and at last came a circular order to the corps commanders, understood to be from Lieutenant-General Grant. It directed, in substance, that the three corps should advance and attack with their entire forces the enemy's position in their respective fronts, without reference to the movements of other troops either upon their right or left. Unity of action, so necessary to success, could certainly not be expected from such an order. The attack was made here and there by the advance of troops that had retired for shelter, and by merely opening fire from troops that had already reached obstacles which they could not surpass; and the corps commanders duly reported that the attack had been made and had failed. A third time the order was given for a general assault along the whole line. It came to the corps Headquarters, was transmitted to the division headquarters, and to the brigades and the regiments without comment. To move that army farther, except by regular approaches, was a simple and absolute impossibility, known to be such by every officer and man of the three corps engaged. The order was obeyed by simply renewing the fire from the men as they lay in position. Shortly after midday came the order to suspend for the present all further operations, and directing corps commanders to intrench, including their advance positions, “and directing also that reconnoissances be made, with a view to moving against the enemy's works by regular approaches.”

Major-General Francis C. Barlow. From a photograph.

The field in front of us, after the repulse of the main attack, was indeed a sad sight. I remember at one point a mute and pathetic evidence of sterling [219] valor. The 2d Connecticut Heavy Artillery, a new regiment eighteen hundred strong, had joined us but a few days before the battle. Its uniform was bright and fresh; therefore its dead were easily distinguished where they lay. They marked in a dotted line an obtuse angle, covering a wide front, with its apex toward the enemy, and there upon his face, still in death, with his head to the works, lay the colonel, the brave and genial Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg.2

When night came on, the groans and moaning of the wounded, all our own, who were lying between the lines, were heartrending. Some were brought in by volunteers from our intrenchments, but many remained for three days uncared for beneath the hot summer suns and the unrefreshing dews of the sultry summer nights. The men in the works grew impatient, yet it was against orders and was almost certain death to go beyond our earth-works. An impression prevails in the popular mind, and with some reason perhaps, that a commander who sends a flag of truce asking permission to bury his dead and bring in his wounded has lost the field of battle. Hence the reluctance upon our part to ask a flag of truce. In effect it was done at last on the evening of the third day after the battle, when, for the most part, the wounded needed no further care and our dead had to be buried almost where they fell.

Cold Harbor, June 3-bomb-proofs on the line of the Second Corps. From a sketch made at the time.

The work of intrenching could only be done at night. The fire of sharp-shooters was incessant, and no man upon all that line could stand erect and live an instant. This condition of things continued for twelve days and nights: Sharp-shooters' fire from both sides went on all day; all night the zigzags and parallels nearer to the enemy's works were being constructed. In none of its marches by day or night did that army suffer more than during those twelve days. Rations and ammunition were brought forward from parallel to parallel through the zigzag trenches, and in some instances where regiments whose term of service had expired were ordered home, they had to leave the field crawling on hands and knees through the trenches to the rear. At 9 o'clock every night the enemy opened fire with artillery and musketry along his whole line. This was undoubtedly done under the suspicion that the Army of the Potomac had seen the hopelessness of the task before it and would withdraw in the night-time for another movement by the flank, and, if engaged in such a movement, would be thrown into confusion by this threat of a night attack. However, no advance was made by the enemy.

Another strange order came about this time. It opened with a preamble [220] that inasmuch as the enemy had without provocation repeatedly opened fire during the night upon our lines, therefore, at midnight of that day, the corps commanders were directed to open fire from all their batteries generally upon the enemy's position and continue it until daylight. This was coupled with the proviso that if in the opinion of a corps commander the fire would provoke a return from the enemy which would inflict severe damage upon his troops, then he was exempted from the operation of the order. The commanders of the three corps holding the front communicated with one another by telegraph with this result: Smith was satisfied that the fire which he would provoke would inflict upon him disproportionate damage. Hancock for the same reason did not intend to open fire unless the fire provoked by the other corps reached his lines. Wright adopted the same rule of action. Twelve o'clock came, and the summer night continued undisturbed.

Thus things went on until the 15th of June. Preparations had been made in the meantime for the abandonment of the position and the withdrawal of the army to another line of operations. Yet the summer had scarcely begun. The army was withdrawn successfully and skillfully, and, crossing to the south bank of the James, entered upon the new campaign before Petersburg, which culminated nearly a year thereafter in the capture of Richmond.

Cold Harbor was a discouraging fight in every particular. The men could not help recalling and discussing certain facts. Two years before, this same army had been placed much nearer Richmond with comparatively little loss. During Grant's advance from the Rapidan he had the advantage, of which he freely availed himself, of ordering troops to his assistance, not begging for them as McClellan did in vain. He depleted the defenses of Washington at his pleasure, and of new troops more than the number of men with which he commenced the campaign joined him before its termination at Appomattox. The line of the peninsula and the advance to Cold Harbor and the Chickahominy had been McClellan's second plan. His first had been a movement from Urbana [see Vol. II., p. 163], with the possibility in view of crossing to the south side of the James and compelling the evacuation of Richmond and its defenses. This plan had been overruled in Washington, and that of the peninsula, also suggested by McClellan, had been approved as a compromise. But the plan of an overland march to Richmond, while protected navigable waters within our control led to the very door, was fully tried between the 3d of May and the 15th of June and had failed. Whether the failure was due to faults inherent in the plan, or the belief upon the part of the Lieutenant-General that the Army of the Potomac had never been fought to its utmost in previous campaigns, or to the system, new to that army, of fighting battles by watch and wire, it is useless to inquire and difficult to determine.

“Cold Harbor,” said General Grant, “is, I think, the only battle I ever fought that I would not fight over again under the circumstances” ( “Around the world with General Grant,” by John Russell Young, Vol. II., ch. XXXIV., p. 304); and again, in his “Memoirs,” p. 276, Vol. II., “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” [221]

A bomb-shell in an artillery camp-fire — an incident of Cold Harbor. From a sketch made at the time.

1 Upton was promoted the next day by telegraph to be brigadier-general — an honor he had more than once deserved.--M. T. McM.

2 Killed on June 1st, the day on which his regiment suffered great loss.--editors.

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