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Cold Harbor

Waiting the word for the Cold Harbor flanking march--Union troops repulsed at the North Anna


Ten minutes with General Grant, June 2, 186.

As the General-in-Chief of all the Federal armies sits smoking with his back to the smaller tree, two extraordinary things are happening: Grant is arriving at the tremendous decision to “fight it out” that cost him ten thousand men the next morning; and the enterprising photographer with the Union army has climbed upstairs in the little roadside meeting house (Bethesda Church, on the way to Cold Harbor), and is photographing the scene again and again. The result is a veritable “moving picture” series of Grant in the field — an opportunity without a parallel to witness the acting of history itself. The informal consultation which the pictures reveal was as near a council of war as Grant ever came.


Ten minutes with General Grant, June 2, 1864--the first scene

Ten minutes with General Grant, June 2, 1864--the second scene

Ten minutes with General Grant--the third scene

It is due to the courtesy of General Horace Porter, himself an actor in these three scenes as a member of Grant's staff, that so many participants in the historic episode can here be identified. In the first picture (on the facing page) General Porter himself sits reading a newspaper on Grant's right, and on his left is General Rawlins, his chief of staff, next to Colonel Ely S. Parker. General Grant impassively listens to the report that Colonel Bowers, his adjutant-general, is reading as he stands inside the circle to the right of the picture. In the second picture (immediately above) the General-in-Chief has arisen and walked to the left, where he leans over General Meade's shoulder and consults his map. In front of them a newly arrived officer bends forward, receiving orders or reporting. Colonel Parker has passed his newspaper to another officer. The rest of the group center their looks upon Grant. Soldiers from the Third Division of the Fifth Army Corps, whose wagons are passing, stop and gaze at the men in whose hands their lives are held. At last, in the third picture, the General-in-Chief has made up his mind. He is back in his original seat and is writing out his orders. The problem has been a painful one; on the one side his conviction that his “hammering policy” is the right one; on the other the heated protest of Northern press and public against what seemed so extravagant a waste of human life. The question was, as General Porter later wrote: “Whether to attempt to crush Lee's army on the north side of the James, with the prospect, in case of success, of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city, perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate Government to flight; or to move the Union army south of the James without giving battle and transfer the field of operations to the vicinity of Petersburg. It was a nice question of judgment.” Grant's judgment was to fight; the result, Cold Harbor.

Cold Harbor is, I think, the only battle I ever fought that I would not fight over again under the circumstances. I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. --General U. S. Grant in his Memoirs.

According to Grant's well-made plans of march, the various corps of the Army of the Potomac set out from the banks of the North Anna on the night of May 26, 1864, at the times and by the routes assigned to them. Early on the morning of May 27th Lee set his force in motion by the Telegraph road and such others as were available, across the Little and South Anna rivers toward Ashland and Atlee's Station on the Virginia Central Railroad.

Thus the armies were stretched like two live wires along the swampy bottom-lands of eastern Virginia, and as they came in contact, here and there along the line, there were the inevitable sputterings of flame and considerable destruction wrought. The advance Federal infantry crossed the Pamunkey, after the cavalry, at Hanoverstown, early on May 28th. The Second Corps was close behind the Sixth; the Fifth was over by noon, while the Ninth, now an integral portion of the Army of the Potomac, passed the river by midnight.

On the 31st General Sheridan reached Cold Harbor, which Meade had ordered him to hold at all hazards. This place, probably named after the old home of some English settler, was not a town but the meeting-place of several roads of great strategic importance to the Federal army. They led not only toward Richmond by the way of the upper Chickahominy bridges, but in the direction of White House Landing, on the Pamunkey River.

Both Lee and Meade had received reenforcements — the [83]

Ready for the advance that Lee drove back Between these luxuriant banks stretch the pontoons and bridges to facilitate the rapid crossing of the North Anna by Hancock's Corps on May 24th. Thus was completed the passage to the south of the stream of the two wings of the Army of the Potomac. But when the center under Burnside was driven back and severely handled at Ox Ford, Grant immediately detached a brigade each from Hancock and Warren to attack the apex of Lee's wedge on the south bank of the river, but the position was too strong to justify the attempt. Then it dawned upon the Federal general-in-chief that Lee had cleaved the Army of the Potomac into two separated bodies. To reenforce either wing would require two crossings of the river, while Lee could quickly march troops from one side to the other within his impregnable wedge. As Grant put it in his report, “To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify.”

[84] former by Breckinridge, and the scattered forces in western Virginia, and by Pickett and Hoke from North Carolina. From Bermuda Hundred where General Butler was “bottled up” --to use a phrase which Grant employed and afterward regretted-General W. F. Smith was ordered to bring the Eighteenth Corps of the Army of the James to the assistance of Meade, since Butler could defend his position perfectly well with a small force, and could make no headway against Beauregard with a large one. Grant had now nearly one hundred and fourteen thousand troops and Lee about eighty thousand.

Sheridan's appearance at Cold Harbor was resented in vain by Fitzhugh Lee, and the next morning, June 1st, the Sixth Corps arrived, followed by General Smith and ten thousand men of the Eighteenth, who had hastened from the landing-place at White House. These took position on the right of the Sixth, and the Federal line was promptly faced by Longstreet's corps, a part of A. P. Hill's, and the divisions of Hoke and Breckinridge. At six o'clock in the afternoon Wright and Smith advanced to the attack, which Hoke and Kershaw received with courage and determination. The Confederate line was broken in several places, but before night checked the struggle the Southerners had in some degree regained their position. The short contest was a severe one for the Federal side. Wright lost about twelve hundred men and Smith one thousand.

The following day the final dispositions were made for the mighty struggle that would decide Grant's last chance to interpose between Lee and Richmond. Hancock and the Second Corps arrived at Cold Harbor and took position on the left of General Wright. Burnside, with the Ninth Corps, was placed near Bethesda Church on the road to Mechanicsville, while Warren, with the Fifth, came to his left and connected with Smith's right. Sheridan was sent to hold the lower Chickahominy bridges and to cover the road to White House, [85]

Improvised breastworks The End of the Gray Line at Cold Harbor. Here at the extreme left of the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor is an example of the crude protection resorted to by the soldiers on both sides in advance or retreat. A momentary lull in the battle was invariably employed in strengthening each position. Trees were felled under fire, and fence rails gathered quickly were piled up to make possible another stand. The space between the lines at Cold Harbor was so narrow at many points as to resemble a road, encumbered with the dead and wounded. This extraordinary proximity induced a nervous alertness which made the troops peculiarly sensitive to night alarms; even small parties searching quietly for wounded comrades might begin a panic. A few scattering shots were often enough to start a heavy and continuous musketry fire and a roar of artillery along the entire line. It was a favorite ruse of the Federal soldiers to aim their muskets carefully to clear the top of the Confederate breastworks and then set up a great shout. The Confederates, deceived into the belief that an attack was coming, would spring up and expose themselves to the well-directed volley which thinned their ranks.

[86] which was now the base of supplies. On the Southern side Ewell's corps, now commanded by General Early, faced Burnside's and Warren's. Longstreet's corps, still under Anderson, was opposite Wright and Smith, while A. P. Hill, on the extreme right, confronted Hancock. There was sharp fighting during the entire day, but Early did not succeed in getting upon the Federal right flank, as he attempted to do.

Both armies lay very close to each other and were well entrenched. Lee was naturally strong on his right, and his left was difficult of access, since it must be approached through wooded swamps. Well-placed batteries made artillery fire from front and both flanks possible, but Grant decided to attack the whole Confederate front, and word was sent to the corps commanders to assault at half-past 4 the following morning.

The hot sultry weather of the preceding days had brought much suffering. The movement of troops and wagons raised clouds of dust which settled down upon the sweltering men and beasts. But five o'clock on the afternoon of June 2d brought the grateful rain, and this continued during the night, giving great relief to the exhausted troops.

At the hour designated the Federal lines moved promptly from their shallow rifle-pits toward the Confederate works. The main assault was made by the Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth corps. With determined and firm step they started to cross the space between the opposing entrenchments. The silence of the dawning summer morning was broken by the screams of musket-ball and canister and shell. That move of the Federal battle-line opened the fiery furnace across the intervening space, which was, in the next instant, a Vesuvius, pouring tons and tons of steel and lead into the moving human mass. From front, from right and left, artillery crashed and swept the field, musketry and grape hewed and mangled and mowed down the line of blue as it moved on its approach. [87]

Cold Harbor

The battle of Cold Harbor on June 3d was the third tremendous engagement of Grant's campaign against Richmond within a month. It was also his costliest onset on Lee's veteran army. Grant had risked much in his change of base to the James in order to bring him nearer to Richmond and to the friendly hand which Butler with the Army of the James was in a position to reach out to him. Lee had again confronted him, entrenching himself but six miles from the outworks of Richmond, while the Chickahominy cut off any further flanking movement. There was nothing to do but fight it out, and Grant ordered an attack all along the line. On June 3d he hurled the Army of the Potomac against the inferior numbers of Lee, and in a brave assault upon the Confederate entrenchments, lost ten thousand men in twenty minutes. Grant's assault at Cold Harbor was marked by the gallantry of General Hancock's division and of the brigades of Gibbon and Barlow, who on the left of the Federal line charged up the ascent in their front upon the concentrated artillery of the Confederates; they took the position and held it for a moment under a galling fire, which finally drove them back, but not until they had captured a flag and three hundred prisoners. The battle was substantially over by half-past 7 in the morning, but sullen fighting continued throughout the day. About noontime General Grant, who had visited all the corps commanders to see for himself the positions gained and what could be done, concluded that the Confederates were too strongly entrenched to be dislodged and ordered that further offensive action should cease. All the next day the dead and wounded lay on the field uncared for while both armies warily watched each other. The lower picture was taken during this weary wait. Not till the 7th was a satisfactory truce arranged, and then all but two of the wounded Federals had died. No wonder that Grant wrote, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.”

Where ten thousand fell

Federal Camp at Cold Harbor after the battle


The three corps of the Federal army had gotten in some places as near as thirty yards to the main Confederate entrenchments, but to carry them was found impossible. The whole line was ordered to lie down, and shelter from the deadly fire was sought wherever it could be found. The advance had occupied less than ten minutes, and before an hour had passed the greater part of the fighting was over. Meade, at headquarters, was quickly made aware that each corps commander had a serious grievance against his neighbor, and, strange to say, the complaints were all phrased alike. General McMahon in “Battles and leaders of the Civil war” explains this curious state of affairs:

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 his right and left to shield him from the enemy's enfilade. These despatches necessarily caused mystification at headquarters. . . . 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.

Not yet understanding the real state of affairs Meade continued to issue orders to advance. To do so was now beyond human possibility. The men could only renew the fire from the positions they had gained. General Smith received a verbal order from Meade to make another assault, and he flatly refused to obey. It was long past noon, and after Grant was cognizant of the full situation, that [89]

The forces at last join hands Charles City Court House on the James River, June 14, 1864. It was with infinite relief that Grant saw the advance of the Army of the Potomac reach this point on June 14th. His last flanking movement was an extremely hazardous one. More than fifty miles intervened between him and Butler by the roads he would have to travel, and he had to cross both the Chickahominy and the James, which were unbridged. The paramount difficulty was to get the Army of the Potomac out of its position before Lee, who confronted it at Cold Harbor. Lee had the shorter line and better roads to move over and meet Grant at the Chickahominy, or he might, if he chose, descend rapidly on Butler and crush him before Grant could unite with him. “But,” says Grant, “the move had to be made, and I relied upon Lee's not seeing my danger as I saw it.” Near the old Charles City Court House the crossing of the James was successfully accomplished, and on the 14th Grant took steamer and ran up the river to Bermuda Hundred to see General Butler and direct the movement against Petersburg, that began the final investment of that city.


Meade issued orders for the suspension of all further offensive operations.

A word remains to be said as to fortunes of Burnside's and Warren's forces, which were on the Federal right. Generals Potter and Willcox of the Ninth Corps made a quick capture of Early's advanced rifle-pits and were waiting for the order to advance on his main entrenchments, when the order of suspension arrived. Early fell upon him later in the day but was repulsed. Warren, on the left of Burnside, drove Rodes' division back and repulsed Gordon's brigade, which had attacked him. The commander of the Fifth Corps reported that his line was too extended for further operations and Birney's division was sent from the Second Corps to his left. But by the time this got into position the battle of Cold Harbor was practically over.

After the day's conflict the field presented a scene that was indescribable. It showed war in all its horror. It is even painful to attempt a record of the actual facts, so appalling was the loss and the suffering. The groans and the moaning of the wounded during the night were heart-breaking. For three days many unfortunate beings were left lying, uncared for, where they fell. It was almost certain death to venture outside of the entrenchments. Where the heaviest assaults occurred the ground was literally covered with the dead and dying, and nearly all of them were Federal soldiers. Volunteers who offered to go to their relief were in peril of being shot, yet many went bravely out in the face of the deadly fire, to bring in their wounded comrades.

On the 5th, the Second Corps was extended to the Chickahominy, and the Fifth Corps was ordered to the rear of Cold Harbor. The Eighteenth Corps was placed along the Matadequin. Lee threatened attack on the 6th and 7th, but he soon desisted and retired to his entrenchments.

The losses to the Federal army in this battle and the engagements which preceded it were over seventeen thousand, [91]

Back to the old base White House Landing, on the Pamunkey River, bustles with life in June, 1864. Once more, just before the battle of Cold Harbor, McClellan's old headquarters at the outset of the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 springs into great activity. River steamers and barges discharge their cargoes for the army that is again endeavoring to drive Lee across the Chickahominy and back upon Richmond. Grant's main reliance was upon the inexhaustible supplies which lay at the command of the North. He knew well that the decimated and impoverished South could not long hold out against the “hammering” which the greater abundance of Federal money and men made it possible for him to keep up. Hence, without haste but without rest, he attacked Lee upon every occasion and under all conditions, aware that his own losses, even if the greater, could be made up, while those of his antagonist could not. He believed that this was the surest and speediest way to end the war, and that all told it would involve the least sacrifice of blood and treasure.

[92] while the Confederate loss did not exceed one-fifth of that number. Grant had failed in his plan to destroy Lee north of the James River, and saw that he must now cross it.

Thirty days had passed in the campaign since the Wilderness and the grand total in losses to Grant's army in killed, wounded, and missing was 54,929. The losses in Lee's army were never accurately given, but they were very much less in proportion to the numerical strength of the two armies. If Grant had inflicted punishment upon his foe equal to that suffered by the Federal forces, Lee's army would have been practically annihilated. But, as matters stood, after the battle of Cold Harbor, with reenforcements to the Confederate arms and the comparatively small losses they had sustained, Lee's army stood on the field of this last engagement almost as large as it was at the beginning of the campaign.

For nearly twelve days the two armies lay within their entrenchments on this field, while the Federal cavalry was sent to destroy the railroad communications between Richmond and the Shenandoah valley and Lynchburg. One writer says that during this time sharpshooting was incessant, and “no man upon all that line could stand erect and live an instant.” Soldiers whose terms of service had expired and were ordered home, had to crawl on their hands and knees through the trenches to the rear. No advance was attempted during this time by the Confederates, but every night at nine o'clock the whole Confederate line opened fire with musket and cannon. This was done by Lee in apprehension of the possible withdrawal by night of Grant's army.

The Federal general-in-chief had decided to secure Petersburg and confront Lee once more. General Gillmore was sent by Butler, with cavalry and infantry, on June 10th to make the capture, but was unsuccessful. Thereupon General Smith and the Eighteenth Corps were despatched to White House Landing to go forward by water and reach Petersburg before Lee had time to reenforce it.

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