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The Eighteenth Corps at Cold Harbor.

by William Farrar Smith, Brevet Major-General, U. S. A.
On the 27th of May an order came from Washington to me near Bermuda Hundred to concentrate sixteen thousand men under my command ready for removal by water to a point opposite White House on the Pamunkey, there to protect a corps of bridge-builders. On the 28th I received the following order:

Headquarters, in the field, May 28th, 1864.
Major-General Smith, Commanding Eighteenth Corps:

The transportation for your column having arrived, although not in my judgment sufficient, yet in consequence of imperative orders from General Grant your column will move to his assistance. You will use the utmost expedition in embarking and getting on. If you desire any cavalry to accompany you, please designate what regiments or battalions. I grieve much that this weakness of the Army of the Potomac has called the troops away just as we were taking the offensive, and that the attack on Petersburg which was agreed on to take place to-morrow morning must be abandoned; but it is so ordered, and, however against our wishes and judgment, we must obey. I propose to give you every facility in going off. You will have to use great caution in going up the Pamunkey and in getting into White House. The torpedoes on the water or a well-arranged surprise on land would bring your expedition to grief, as you will not have the advantage in going away which we had coming. Your destination will be exactly known by the rebels the moment you start. Indeed, they have already predicted it in their newspapers. . . .

Benjamin F. Butler, Major-General Commanding.

In half an hour after the receipt of this order my troops were moving to Bermuda Hundred and City Point for embarkation.

Learning at Fort Monroe by a telegram on the 29th that the Army of the Potomac had crossed the Pamunkey, I determined to land the troops directly at White House, and the debarkation began there on the morning of the 30th and proceeded as rapidly as the limited wharf facilities would admit.

The landing was covered by Captain Babcock of the U. S. Navy, in command of an old New York ferry-boat on which were mounted some bow and stern guns. The whirligig of time had brought me back to the Army of [222] the Potomac, and that army to its campaigning grounds of 1862, it having in the interim traced a path resembling that reputed to have been made by the Israelites in the wilderness.

During the night of the 30th and the morning of the 31st I received three copies of an order dated Hanovertown, 1 p. M., May 28th, and signed by General Rawlins, chief-of-staff, directing me to leave a garrison at White House and move with the remainder of tile command to New Castle, on the south side of the Pamunkey River. As none of the wagons or reserve ammunition had as yet arrived, and as some of the troops were still behind, I at once sent a confidential aide (Major P. C. F. West) to ask if the necessities were such as to make it incumbent on me to move as I then stood with reference to men, transportation, and supplies, or if I should wait until I could take with me the necessary transportation for the supplies. Fearing that there might be some urgent reason for the appearance at New Castle of such a force as I could gather, and in such condition as I could move it, I decided not to await an answer to my letter but to move at once. Leaving General Adelbert Ames with 2500 men at White House, I marched at 3:30 P. m. with about 10,000 infantry and artillery, but without wagons to carry supplies or ammunition. During the march I received the following autograph letter from General Grant:

headquarters, armies of the United States, near Hawes's Shop, Va., May 30th, 1864, 7:30 P. M.
Major-General W. F. Smith, Commanding Eighteenth Army Corps.

General: Triplicated orders have been sent to you to march up the south bank of the Pamunkey to New Castle, there to await further orders. I send with this a brigade of cavalry to accompany you on the march.

As yet no further directions can be given you than is contained in your orders. The movements of the enemy this evening on our left, down the Mechanicsville road, would indicate the possibility of a design on his part to get between you and the Army of the Potomac. They will be so closely watched that nothing would suit me better than such a move. Sheridan is on our left flank with two divisions of cavalry, with directions to watch as far out as he can go on the Mechanicsville and Cold Harbor roads. This, with the care you can give your left flank with the cavalry you have and the brigade sent to you, and a knowledge of the fact that any movement of the enemy toward you cannot fail to be noticed and followed up from here, will make your advance secure. The position of the Army of the Potomac this evening is as follows: The left of the Fifth Corps is on the Shady Grove road, extending to the Mechanicsville-road and about three miles south of the Totopotomoy. The Ninth Corps is to the right of the Fifth; then. comes the Second and Sixth, forming a line being on the road from Hanover Court-House to Cold Harbor and about six miles south of the Court House.

U. S. Grant, Lieut.-General.

At about 10 o'clock that night the command encamped at Bassett's, near Old Church, and about three miles from New Castle. The troops were not inured to long marches and suffered greatly from the heat. From Bassett's an aide was sent to inform General Grant of the position occupied by the Eighteenth Corps and to ask for further orders.

At daylight on June 1st I received from the headquarters of General Grant an order to proceed at once to New Castle ferry, and there place the command between the Fifth and Sixth Corps. From the urgency of the order I deemed [223] minutes to be of importance, and the troops marched without breakfast. On reaching the ferry I found myself in a broad valley surrounded by hills within artillery range, but could find nothing of the Fifth or Sixth corps. I at once drew back to occupy the hills behind me, and send Captain Francis U. Farquhar of the Engineers to General Grant to say that there must have been some mistake in my order, and asking that it be rectified. Uncertain as to the position of the enemy, I began the construction of a bridge across the Pamunkey River, and while so engaged a staff-officer arrived front General Grant to say that there had been a mistake in my order, and that it should have read Cold Harbor instead of New Castle ferry.

The command was therefore marched back to Old Church and thence to Cold Harbor. The day was intensely hot, the dust stifling, and the progress slow, as the head of the column was behind the trains of the Sixth Corps. The ranks were consequently much thinned by the falling out of exhausted men. While we were on the march I received my first order from Meade, directing me to follow the Sixth Corps and form on its right at Cold Harbor. There I was to hold the line from Bethesda Church to Cold Harbor and join with the Sixth Corps in an attack. The distance between the two points was over three miles, and my force of less than ten thousand men would not have filled the space. As I could not fulfill both requirements of the order, I decided to join in the attack, and at once began the formation of the lines of battle.

A hasty reconnoissance of the ground showed that the enemy were posted in a wood in front, which was to be reached by crossing a wide open field. On the right two broad roads, leading from Mechanicsville and Shady Grove, united on an open plain which dominated the ground over which the attack was to be made. That point required a division to hold it, leaving only two divisions, numbering about six thousand men, for the assault. While preparations were being made for the attack, a note was sent to General Meade to inform him that, having moved from White House before the arrival of transportation or supplies, I had no ammunition except that in the cartridge-boxes, and asking that a supply might be sent to me as a reserve.

About the same time General Wright, commanding the Sixth Corps, sent to say that the enemy were turning his left flank, and asking for reenforcements. Though entirely without support on my right, I sent two regiments from the right division.

The attack was begun about 4:30 P. M. by the advance of the divisions of Generals Brooks and Devens. Under a severe fire they crossed the open field, and, entering the wood, made their way through slashings and interlaced tree-tops, and carried the rifle-pits, capturing about 250 prisoners. The brigade on the extreme right of the assaulting line, under the young and gallant Colonel Guy V. Henry, carried the rifle-pits in the front, but found the position commanded by an earth-work on the right flank against which no fire could be brought to bear, and the brigade fell back into the edge of the clearing. Beyond the woods, in another open field, was a second line of works, from which the troops received so heavy a fire that they fell back under [224]

View of Union breastworks on the Cold Harbor line, June 1. from a sketch made at the time.

cover, and held the line of the captured rifle-pits. The advance of the line and the necessity for holding the roads on the right had increased the length of our front so that the greater part of it was held by one line of battle, and the two divisions which had been engaged had nearly exhausted their ammunition. At 10:30 P. M. I addressed a note to General Humphreys, chief-of-staff of the Army of the Potomac, in which I wrote:
I have had the honor to report my necessities and requirements for ammunition, and, having now given the present condition of my situation, must leave it for the commanding general to determine how long I can hold this line if vigorously attacked.

About 12:30 A. M. of the 2d I received the following order:

10:05 P. M., June 1st.
You will make your dispositions to attack to-morrow morning on General Wright's right, and in conjunction with that officer's attack. This attack should be made with your whole force and as vigorously as possible.

Geo. G. Meade, Major-General.

To that I returned the following reply:

Your order for an attack is received. I have endeavored to represent to you my condition. In the present condition of my line an attack by me would be simply preposterous — not only that, but an attack on the part of the enemy of any vigor would probably carry my lines more than half their length. I have called on General Wright for about 100,000 rounds of ammunition, and have asked it to-night. Deserters report enemy massing on my right for an attack in the morning.

About 2:30 A. M. I received an order postponing the contemplated attack until 5 P. M.

At 7 A. M. I received from General Wright sufficient ammunition to fill up the cartridge-boxes, which relieved a most pressing want; and during the morning a division of the Sixth Corps took the place of General Devens's division in the lines, enabling me to shorten my front so that it could be held. A division was also ordered to take post on my right, but it failed to appear. [225]

The day was spent in strengthening the position and making ready for the next conflict. In the afternoon the following circular order was received:

2:30 P. M., June 2d.
Circular: The attack ordered for 5 P. M. this day is postponed to 4:30 A. M. to-morrow. Corps commanders will employ the interim in making examinations of the ground on their front and perfecting the arrangements for the assault.

Geo. G. Meade, Major-General Commanding.

Such an order of battle as was developed in that circular — an attack along the whole line — is denounced by the standard writers on the art of war, and belongs to the first period in history after man had ceased to fight in unorganized masses. Giving up the few advantages belonging to the assailants, it increases largely the chances of successful defense, and would never be adopted by a trained general, except perhaps under certain peculiar conditions, where also the attacking force had an overwhelming superiority in numbers. Aghast at the reception of such an order, which proved conclusively the utter absence of any military plan, I sent a note to General Wright, commanding the corps on my left, asking him to let me know what was to be his plan of attack, that I might conform to it, and thus have two corps acting in unison. General Wright replied that he was “going to pitch in.” This left to me only the attack in front contemplated in the circular.

The position held by the Eighteenth Corps may be briefly given: A gap of nearly two miles between its right and the left of the Fifth Corps under Warren made it necessary to throw back the right flank of the corps to hold the open plain and roads and to prevent that flank from being turned. This necessity put the division on the right quite out of the battle, except in the use of its artillery at rather long range. In front of the center was a line of Confederate earth-works like a curtain, with a flanking arrangement at either end — that on the right being somewhat exposed to the fire of the artillery of my right division, that on the left being opposed to the left of the Eighteenth and right of the Sixth Corps. Near the center was a small stream with marshy sides running toward the enemy's lines. On its right was a bluff a few feet in height affording to the troops moving down the stream partial shelter from a cross-fire from the right.

The plan adopted gave to Devens, with his division, the duty of keeping the right flank secure. Martindale's division was to move down the stream to the assault, while the division of Brooks maintained our connection with the Sixth Corps on the left.

At precisely 4:30 on the morning of the 3d of June Martindale's command moved down the stream, out of the woods, and against the earth-works. The first line reached the foot of the works but fell back, under the heavy front and cross fire, to the edge of the woods, but within short musket range of the line they had gallantly attempted to carry.

Soon after the repulse of the first assault I made a personal inspection of General Martindale's front, and found that before again assaulting the works it would be necessary to form a line of battle faced to the right, to keep down in some measure the flank fire from the right on the assaulting column; [226] and also that to advance farther before the Sixth Corps advanced was to subject my troops to a heavy flank fire from the left. General Martin-dale was ordered to keep his column as well covered as possible, and only to advance when he saw an advance by General Brooks on his left. I then went to inspect the front of General Brooks and directed him to form a column for an assault, thinking then to inform General Wright that I would make with him a combined assault, and thus break up the cross-fire from the left. While General Brooks was forming his column, so heavy a fire from the right came in on his troops that I at once ordered him not to move, but to keep his men sheltered till the cross-fire slackened. Going back to the right to ascertain the cause of the firing, I found that Martindale had anticipated matters, and that under his orders Stannard's brigade had made three assaults, having been repulsed in all with severe loss.

I then made the following report to General Meade:

General Martindale got into so hot a place that he was forced to assault the works without the assistance of the column of General Brooks. The assault was made three times, and each time repulsed. While I was on the front of General Brooks, the enfilading fire of the enemy was so heavy as to force me to give the order to General Brooks not to attempt to advance his column until the fire was slackened. This fire being entirely on my right, I have had nothing but artillery fire to use against it, and have therefore been unable to silence it. My troops are very much cut up, and I have no hopes of being able to carry the works in my front unless a movement of the Sixth Corps, on my left, may relieve at least one of my flanks from this galling fire.

In answer I received the following from the chief-of-staff of the Army of the Potomac, dated June 3d, 8 A. M.:

General Wright has been ordered to assault and to continue his attack without reference to your advance, and the commanding general directs that your assault be continued without reference to General Wright's. General Wright has, but a very short time before the receipt of your communication through Major West, reported that he was waiting your advance to enable him to assault.

My right was held by General Devens, and his troops could not be spared for an assault. Of General Martindale's two brigades, Stannard's had been thoroughly used up, and Stedman, in addition to having been repulsed, was holding the line between Martindale and Devens, and also endeavoring to keep down the cross-fire from the right. Two of Brooks's brigades had suffered severely in the first advance and through holding their position under the terrible cross-fire. This left but one brigade of fresh troops, under General Burnham. I had had but about ten thousand men with me on the 1st of June, on my arrival, and had already lost heavily in killed and wounded.

On sending to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac for artillery ammunition some strictures were made upon what was deemed my extravagant use of it, and I addressed a note to General Meade from which I make the following extract:

I have nothing to cover the entire open space on my right but my artillery, and I have tried to keep down both the enemy's artillery and infantry fire which enfilades my front by artillery fire. I have a regiment so far advanced that I cannot withdraw it without serious loss, and the enemy are trying to get a battery in position to enfilade this regiment. It has [227] become, therefore, somewhat of a question as to the expenditure of ammunition or muscle. All the artillery firing has been strictly under my orders, and has not exceeded the amount I have deemed necessary to cover my men. I regret exceedingly that the absence of my own ammunition should have forced me to make the requisition. Of its propriety the general commanding must himself be the judge.

To that General Meade replied, telling me to call for all the ammunition I required and additional batteries if they could be used, and adding:

I am sorry to hear that General Martindale is unable to assault. I have just heard from Warren, who is forcing the enemy back on his right,, I have directed him to push forward his left in order to relieve the attack you are able to make.

I then wrote and asked for two batteries of rifle guns, and stated:

My last four regiments that I have got for an assault are now forming for an attack, but I dare not order it till I see more hope of success to be gained by General Warren's attack or otherwise.

Later in the day I received a verbal order from. General Meade to make another assault, and that order I refused to obey.

I had carefully examined the entire front of my line, and was convinced that no assault could succeed that did not embrace a portion of the works in “front of my right,” where I was powerless to make an attack.

An assault under such conditions I looked on as involving a wanton waste of life. An hour or more after I had declined to obey the order Colonel Comstock, an engineer officer of General Grant's staff, and to-day a distinguished officer of the Corps of Engineers, came to me and said that he had been ordered by General Grant to go over my lines. This visit was but the natural consequence of my act, and I at once directed Captain Farquhar, of the Engineers, who was on my staff, to accompany Colonel Comstock. After a reasonable lapse of time Captain Farquhar came back and, smiling, said, “Comstock was thoroughly satisfied and has gone back to report to General Grant.” What Colonel Comstock reported I never knew, but I heard nothing more from headquarters on the subject. Some of the troops of other corps must have been more advantageously situated for making an attack than the Eighteenth Corps, but no success seemed to have attended the efforts made on any part of the line, for the next order I received was dated 1:30 P. M., and read:

Orders. For the present all further offensive operations will be suspended. Corps commanders will at once intrench the positions they now hold, including their advance positions, and will cause reconnoissances to be made with a view to moving against the enemy's works by regular approaches.

My troops were put under cover as rapidly as possible and the front line was strengthened. The last order of the day was as follows, and dated 6:30 P. M.:

Circular to Corps Commanders. The commanding general directs you to report the condition of affairs in your front and what it is practicable to do to-morrow.

In obedience to it I made this report:

“In reference to the condition of affairs in my front, I would respectfully state that I now hold and have held all that I have gained, and am now intrenching myself as rapidly as possible. In reference to what it may be practicable to do to-morrow on my front, I can only say [228] that what I failed to do to-day, viz., to carry the enemy's works on my front by columns of assault on the most practicable point (on my front), I would hardly dare to recommend as practicable to-morrow with my diminished force. General Ames's column is reported quite near here, which will a little more than make good my loss of to-day.”1

There was very little straggling during the battle,--far less than I had usually observed. Shortly after the attack began in the morning there came out from the fray a fine-looking sergeant in the new and untarnished uniform of a “Heavy artillery regiment” which had joined the army the day before. As he passed I asked him where he was going. Touching his hat in the most approved military manner, he said, “General, I am going back to the hill to rally.”

The stragglers did not always succeed in reaching a place of safety, for four or five of them had hidden in a dense thicket in the ravine down which Martindale had moved. A series of most unearthly screams near headquarters occasioned the sending of a staff-officer to ascertain the cause. He reported that a shell which had passed over the column of assault had exploded in this thicket and had horribly mangled all the skulkers.

Major-General Horatio G. Wright. From a photograph.

At the close of the battle the front of General Martindale was less than two hundred yards from the enemy's line, and in the open space between were many dead and wounded. For three days no cessation of hostilities was asked for, and common rumor gave as a reason that there was fear of a refusal, as there were no dead or wounded of the enemy between the lines to be cared for. Some of our wounded were brought in by men who risked their lives in the act, and some were rescued by digging trenches to them. The groans of such as could not be reached grew fainter and fainter until they ceased.

On the morning of June 5th General Meade came to my headquarters to say that he was going to fill the gap on my right, and during his visit I asked him how he came to give such an order for battle as that of the 2d. He replied that he had worked out every plan for every move from the crossing of the Rapidan onward, that the papers were full of the doings of Grant's army, and that he was tired of it, and was determined to let General Grant plan his own battles. I have no knowledge of the facts, but have always supposed that General Grant's order was to attack the enemy at 4:30 A. M. of the 3d, leaving the details to his subordinate. [229]

On the 9th of July following, I had a conversation with General Grant about the campaign, in which I expressed the opinion that the battle of Cold Harbor was fought in contravention of military principles, with which, after some discussion, he seemingly agreed, saying that he had never said anything about it, because it could do no good. On the 19th of the same month he referred to the former discussion, saying that he had come to the conclusion that I had intended to whip him over Meade's shoulders, and that he thought “it was a very good battle anyhow.”

In his report dated July 22d, 1865, General Grant devotes to the subject only the following sentences: “On the 3d of June we again assaulted the enemy's works in the hope of driving him from his position. In this attempt our loss was heavy, while that of the enemy I have reason to believe was comparatively light.”

There is a branch of the art of war which can be executed with such precision as fairly to entitle it to be classed as a science. I refer to logistics, so far as that term relates to the moving of armies and the placing of troops at the proper time in the immediate vicinity of a chosen battle-field. Complete ignorance of this subject or culpable neglect ruled the logistics that brought the Army of the Potomac to the battle-field of Cold Harbor in 1864. The Union arms were robbed of the advantages of the position, and of the success gained by General Sheridan on the 31st of May, by a failure to concentrate the army against the right flank of the enemy early on the morning of the 1st of June. From the failure there resulted a concentration that left four exposed flanks2 in close proximity to the enemy, caused a delay of many hours in the attack of the 1st of June, made that attack fruitless in results, and gave to us the murderous order of parallel advance to battle of June 3d.

In conclusion, let us review the logistics of Cold Harbor. On the 30th of May, the line held by the Army of the Potomac ran along the road from Hanover Court House to Cold Harbor, beginning at a point about six miles south of the Court House, where the right of the Sixth Corps rested. To the left came the Second, Ninth, and Fifth corps in the order named, the left of the latter corps being near Bethesda Church. On that day at White House, fifteen miles to the left, the Eighteenth Army Corps was debarking. On the 31st Sheridan, with two divisions of cavalry, had engaged and driven the enemy from their rifle-pits at Cold Harbor. The force he encountered consisted of infantry and dismounted cavalry, which proved that he was on Lee's flank when Lee had as yet but little infantry. Sheridan, thinking it unsafe to attempt to hold the place with his isolated command, retired from the town, but was met by an order to hold Cold Harbor at all hazards. Returning, he reoccupied the works, and strengthening them held his position until relieved by the Sixth Corps, about 10 o'clock the next morning.

On the 31st the determination was reached to concentrate at Cold Harbor, and that afternoon the Sixth Corps moved under orders for Cold Harbor, about fifteen miles distant; the Second Corps was ordered to march and take position on the left of the Sixth Corps, having about the same distance to, [230] move. The Eighteenth Corps, at White House, about thirteen miles from Cold Harbor, moved on the 31st, at 3:30 P. M., for New Castle, fifteen miles up the Pamunkey, and thence, on the 1st of June, about twelve miles to Cold Harbor, taking place on the right of the Sixth Corps, and thus crossing both the lines of march of the Sixth and Second corps. It arrived in time to join in an attack at 4:30 P. M. of the 1st. The Fifth Corps did not move at all, remaining in its position two miles to the right of the Eighteenth Corps. This gap threw one division of the Eighteenth Corps practically out of action on both the days of battle.

When the concentration near Cold Harbor was determined upon, had the Eighteenth Corps been ordered to join Sheridan it would have reached him on the night of the 31st, with about the same length of march it did make, and would have been fresh for battle early on the morning of the 1st. The Sixth Corps, moving to take position on the right of the Eighteenth, would have had a shorter march than it made, and should have been in position at an early hour of the same morning. The Second Corps, with a very short march, would have filled the gap between the Sixth and Fifth corps, and would also have been in position for an early battle. The Ninth Corps could have marched to a proper place as a reserve. The army would then have presented a continuous line and an oblique order of battle, with the right wing thrown back or refused.

In speaking of a concentration much better than the one which was made by the Army of the Potomac, Jomini says: “The logistics were contemptible.”

1 During the evening some regiments rejoined which had been detained at the Pamunkey by want of transportation, and that night General Ames came up with 2500 men, having been relieved by other troops from duty at White House.--W. F. S.

2 The wide gap between the Eighteenth and the Fifth corps made two additional flanks.--W. F. S.

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