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Chapter 12:

Cold Harbor.

June 1-12, 1864.

  • By the left flank to Cold Harbor
  • -- three positions -- the assault and repulse -- a night attack -- mortars and bomb-proofs -- the ‘Saucy Battery’ -- an Armistice.

‘Early on the night of the 1st,’ [says Hancock, in his official report,] ‘I commenced withdrawing my corps in obedience to instructions from the Major General commanding. My orders required me to mass near army headquarters, but were afterwards changed, and I was directed to make every effort to reach Cold Harbor as early as possible to reinforce Wright's (Sixth Corps) left. Every exertion was made; but the night was dark, the heat and dust oppressive, and the roads unknown. Still we should have reached Cold Harbor in good season; but Capt. Paine, topographical engineer, who had been ordered to report to me to guide my column, unfortunately took one of my divisions by a “short cut” where artillery could not follow, which threw my column into confusion. .... The head of my column reached Cold Harbor at 6.30 A. M., June 2d. but in such an exhausted condition that a little time was allowed the men to close up and to cook their rations. (The attack ordered for the morning was postponed until 5 P. M.)’

It may be desirable at this point to explain in brief the cause of this new movement. Gen. Grant, thinking that the attempt to force a passage across the Chickahominy, where the two opposing armies then lay, had little promise of success, deemed it advisable to extend his line to the left, and endeavor to pass the river lower down by a movement to Cold Harbor. This latter place was the point of convergence of several roads from Richmond, White House (the new base of supplies), and other places. [258] The Sixth Corps, having marched around from the right of our line, was joined by a force from Bermuda Hundred, under Gen. W. F. (Baldy) Smith, and after a severe contest with the enemy, whom they found already confronting them, succeeded in taking and holding this important strategic position. To support his advanced column, then, was the prime object of our movement by the left flank.

In common with the whole corps, we left our position on the evening of June 1st, and fell into column in rear of the Third Brigade, Second Division. Of course we were unapprised of our destination, but had come to believe that the inception of a move in any other direction than by the left flank was not to be thought of; judging both from experience and because that way Richmond lay. During the night, owing, undoubtedly, to the confusion which Gen. Hancock mentions, the Battery got separated, and did not reunite until sunrise. At that time we presented a picture truly interesting to the beholder. The corps commander has hardly done the night justice in his brief description of it. It was ‘hot and dusty,’ and a more veritable set of Graybacks, to the eye, than we were, could not be found outside the Rebel lines. We had made a forced march to be in season for an early attack, but were late for the reasons given. Several of our horses gave out on the road, so hardly were they urged. When we halted for breakfast we could find barely water enough for coffee, and sticky and grimy as we were, must needs forego the outside purifying we were so sorely in need of; but our dipper of coffee and slice of fresh meat, broiled on the coals, eaten with hardtack accompaniment, refreshed us to some extent. Then followed a tedious period of lying awaiting orders, for we had parked on a plain, once a corn-field, [259] not far from the cross-roads, and lay there in the dust under a burning sun, not knowing what the next move was to be. Orders came at last, and moving to the front, we relieved Hexamer's New Jersey Battery from lunettes they had thrown up on the brow of a slight rise of land. In this position the muzzles of their guns were barely above the level of the plain in their front. While moving out un-

The old Tavern at Cold Harbor, 1896

der fire to give us the place, they lost three men and some horses. Nor did the enemy forget us as we unlimbered and got into place, though fortunately inflicting no injury. It became less interesting to them, however, when our guns opened, which they soon did; and not long after, their firing ceased. During the afternoon a shower came up, which was wonderfully refreshing; and heavy bodies of troops were moving from point to point, all signs betokening [260] a battle imminent; but it was not to occur this day.1

Just at dusk Gen. Gibbon rode up to Capt. Sleeper and delivered his orders in person. ‘Captain, as soon as it is dark you will move your battery into those works directly in your front, your right piece resting on that large tree;’ at the same time pointing to a stalwart oak some twenty rods in our front. ‘But, General,’ expostulated the Captain, ‘I shall be exposed to batteries in the rear firing over mine.’ ‘Obey your orders, Captain,’ rejoined the General, and rode away.

The works referred to were nothing more than a rifle-pit that had been hastily thrown up by our forces the day before, and under cover of darkness our detachment of heavy artillerymen strengthened them, so that when we took possession later they seemed quite tenable. But we were becoming adepts in the construction of earthworks ourselves and at once set about strengthening the line yet more by building higher, erecting traverses between pieces, and sinking pits for the limber-chests, as a safeguard against the enemy's artillery. Screens of bushes were likewise provided wherever they would screen cannoneers from sharpshooters. Everything being thus prepared, the guns and limbers were moved into their respective positions, after which the horses were unhitched and taken to the rear. This looked as if we had come to stay. We did not then know that Grant had determined to force the enemy's lines in this position at whatever cost. We feel sure, however, that our escape from casualties of any kind, in the brief but terrible storm of missiles soon after hurled in this direction, [261] was mainly due to the care we had bestowed on our defences, which faithfully shielded us and enabled us to work with greater efficiency against the enemy.

By 1 o'clock, A. M. of the 3d our preparations were complete, and although the rain was pattering in fitful showers, we lay down to get a little rest before the tumult of battle the morning had in store should be inaugurated.

Day came at last, but somewhat cloudy and foggy. Our corps occupied the left of the Union

Our Second position at Cold Harbor, 1896

line, with Gibbon on the right, Barlow on the left, and Birney in reserve. We were located in Gibbon's line. A few minutes after the time specified for the attack (4.30) a staff officer rode up from Gen. Gibbon and ordered our right piece to be fired as a [262] signal gun. Then was there indeed a veritable tempest. At once it was responded to by the entire line, and by the Rebels as well, who seemed to have been anticipating it. It had the fury of the Wilderness musketry, with the thunders of the Gettysburg artillery superadded. It was simply terrific. The fire of our Battery is directed upon some guns nearly opposite, of which we soon succeed in getting accurate range, and shell them most prodigally. But this is no one-sided game, for it or some other battery soon gets us in range, now throwing a shot into the bank of earth before us, and now exploding a shell at just the right distance to sweep the fragments across our guns. The Fourth Detachment piece is struck twice by them. Its No. 7 man, John Bradley, has a ‘close call’ made for him by a shot which, just scaling the works, strikes the edge of the pit in which he crouches when not carrying ammunition, covers him with the loose earth, whirls his overcoat away, and sends his canteen flying into the ranks of a neighboring regiment.2 ‘Why don't you get up, John?’ some one asks; and he convulses us by responding from the depths of his safety pit, ‘I'm waiting for that thing to bust,’ not being aware that it had ricochetted.

The enemy's good shooting only served to make us the more earnest, causing us to ply the guns with greater activity; and ultimately we compelled the battery against which the most of our energy had been directed to shift its position. In this engagement we expended all our own ammunition, together with a large portion of the supply furnished [263] us by another battery that had not been engaged. We continued shelling, more or less actively, all the forenoon, and a heavy picket firing on our side, met by a correspondingly heavy one from the enemy, kept the air hissing with bullets; but the main battle, the serious fighting of the day, was over in ten minutes. At the signal there was an advance, a crash of arms, and a sullen falling back; for the impregnable works by which our men were confronted, and the hot fire, direct and enfilading, to which they were subjected, were irresistible. Barlow gained a temporary advantage, taking several hundred prisoners, a color, and three guns, but not being promptly supported, was forced back; not, however, to his original position, but to one about fifty yards from the enemy, where his troops soon covered themselves. Gibbon's men, too, under obstacles, advanced to the enemy's works, and a few entered them, but that was all. They were cut down mercilessly. Five colonels of this division were killed, and one general (Tyler) wounded. In less than an hour the Second Corps lost more than three thousand men. Gibbon's troops, like Barlow's gained a position far in advance of the one they started from, and close to the enemy.3 The story of the Second Corps is the story of the Sixth and Eighteenth that assaulted at the same time. They were repulsed most disastrously at every point.4 [264]

During the afternoon we fired only at long intervals, lying pretty low, meanwhile, as a mark of respect to the enemy's sharpshooters. But now came a rumor that we were again to change position. This of course did not suit us for, having been exposed in this place to the heaviest fire we had yet experienced, without a man being scratched, we thought it a good situation to retain a while longer. Before the rumor received definiteness night came on, and we lay down by the guns, well wearied with the labors and vigils of the past three days.

Then ensued one of those scenes, so familiar afterwards in the trenches before Petersburg, but novel to us now,—a night attack by the enemy. The first drowsiness was just creeping on, when a sound broke out in front that brought us instantly to our feet. As a shower ofttimes comes on, first by a few pattering drops, and then gradually increasing, swells into one continuous roar, so this came on; opening with scattering shots from a few pickets, joined immediately by the whole picket line of each army, then by their respective lines of battle. Such a circumstance occurring to one in his waking moments, has little of the soothing quality to recoinmend it; but when flashed upon a man well-nigh asleep, who does not know but what the enemy are at that moment about to sweep over the works in his very front, it is decidedly demoralizing to the strongest nerves. Superadded to the din of arms, and rising distinctly above it, is heard the wild ‘Hi! Hi! Hi!’ the historic Rebel yell. The most of the firing seems to be at our left, where the advanced positions gained in the charge of the morning left our lines close to those of the enemy. At once we bring our guns to bear and open fire on the flash of the Rebel guns. Canister is brought and [265] laid near by, for closer work if necessary. The scene is one of wild magnificence. The flash of the guns momentarily rends the pitchy blackness of night, and reveals powder-begrimed men springing to their work. Over us scream shells from batteries in our rear, while those from the enemy are bursting on every side. Pandemonium seems tame in comparison. What the outcome of it all is to be, we cannot conjecture; but at last the crash of small arms diminishes, batteries cease firing, and soon all sounds die away. Then rises a deafening cheer which passes the entire length of our line, a token that the attack has been repulsed.

Again we lie down, and again the same uproar breaks out, and the same wild scene is re-enacted, resulting, as before, in the repulse of the enemy. During the fusillade not a man in the Company has been hit, and although several tons of lead and iron have changed sides, the total loss is insignificant.5

A third attempt to slumber is crowned with success, [266] but we are astir at the first streaks of dawn on the morning of June 4th, and are ordered into the advanced position at our left front that rumor had foreshadowed.6

This post was a little knoll, about a quarter of a mile distant in an angle of the works where they swung off to the left. We remember having gone into this advanced position under protest, feeling that for so close range a battery of twelve-pound Napoleons could better serve the country; but the Fates, i. e. Gen. Gibbon, ordered otherwise, and we had the rather grim satisfaction of knowing that the Tenth Massachusetts Battery occupied a position in the main line at Cold Harbor, nearer to the enemy than that of any other. A siege of Lee's fortifications was now begun by order of Grant, with the view of carrying them by regular approaches.

On arriving at our new position we found that our heavy artillerymen had thrown up a line of works which in magnitude were commensurate with the danger attaching to such an exposed position. They were about seven feet high, with traverses, and embrasures on either face of the angle, giving us range in two directions; but so shabbily were they constructed that we gave ourselves the satisfaction of rebuilding them. The limbers were sunk as before, and the horses kept harnessed across a ravine just behind us. The caissons were in park a mile to the [267] rear. Once in twenty-four hours the piece horses changed places with those of the caisson, giving the. former opportunity to be groomed.

We soon became well established in our new situation. Every day saw our defences strengthened by some addition. For security from sharpshooting when not in action, we filled cracker boxes with sand and suspended them in the embrasures, or constructed a thick wicker matting of green withes, of about the same size, which answered a like purpose. The historian of the Tenth Vermont Infantry has left on record a reference to the great strength of the works occupied by the Second Corps at Cold Harbor, which he saw when the movement to the James River began.7 We were left for the most part unmolested, and what firing we engaged in was directed at small working parties; or perhaps we took the part of our pickets, when the enemy pressed them too hotly, by sending a shell over among their zealous opponents, which always exerted a wonderfully quieting influence upon them.

Once in a while also we would bestow our attention upon some battery that had the audacity to throw a shell or two into the Union lines. These things we did with impunity, resting confident in the strength of our position. But faith in this fancied security received a rude shock, when, early one morning, we were awakened by the explosion of a mortar shell above our heads. The Tenth Massachusetts [268] had nothing to compete with that, and knowing the accuracy with which mortar shells can be dropped within fortifications, we at once set ourselves to provide against such demonstrations. This we did by erecting bomb-proofs twelve feet square and five feet high, to secure both ourselves and the ammunition, in case such evidences of Rebel regard should multiply (which we may add in passing, they never did).

An interesting feature in our stay of nearly twelve days here was the opportunity it afforded of studying the phases of bullets in their passage through the air, and from these determining their source and distance from us. This we did by noting the differences in sound made by them under different circumstances. The bullets of the enemy could readily be distinguished from our own, and their relative distance from the earth was easily determined. Some of them in their passage through the air made a noise like the cry of a kitten. There was one phase in the development of this study by no means agreeable. It was when, on going to the spring in the rear to fill canteens, or walking about carelessly too far behind the works, one heard a sharp hiss, followed instantly by a dull thud in the earth. Then he knew a loud call had been made for him.

It was in this position that the Battery earned the sobriquet of ‘Saucy Battery,’ partly, it may be, on account of the advanced position it occupied in the line, and partly owing to the habit it had of intruding its shot into all suspicious occasions with greater or less accuracy.

For some days after the battle our dead and wounded lay between the lines where they fell, and, under a broiling sun, the former were becoming [269]

Sleeper's Battery, Third position, Cold Harbor sketched by A. Waud. 1864 Harper's Weekly

[270] [271] very offensive. Whereupon, on the afternoon of Sunday (the 5th), Gen. Grant sent a flag of truce to Lee, proposing to bury the dead and succor the wounded.8 After some informalities in the asking had been adjusted,9 the truce was granted the 7th, to last from 12 M. till 3 P. M.

Then ensued a scene so anomalous in the prosecution of war! All the firing soon died away, the details went out from both sides to engage in the burial of the dead. The rest clambered upon their respective works and looked unrestrained upon the men with whom they had so lately contended, and would yet again contend, in deadly strife. Now ‘Yank’ and ‘Johnny’ could banter, trade, or jest fearlessly with each other; for the more confident went outside the works from both sides, and stood in friendly converse together. But all too soon the hours slipped away, and a single rifle-shot announced the truce ended. The works on either side, whose tops a moment before were swarming with animate existence, were cleared in an instant, and man, incomprehensible being! was seeking the life of his brother as zealously as ever. It should be said, however, that for the whole of the subsequent night and succeeding day, firing generally ceased between the lines by agreement between the pickets, and at intervals afterwards both sides would cease hostilities and talk freely with one another, and perhaps exchange papers or rations. But such truces were precarious, as the least thing—the accidental discharge [272] of a musket, or the rumble of a wagon—would bring on the firing again.

The loss of the Union army at Cold Harbor was 13,153 men; of the Rebels, not more than as many hundred.

Morning reports.


June 1. One horse died—exhaustion.

June 2. One horse died—exhaustion.

June 6. Corp. Geo. A. Smith returned from hospital and reported for duty. L. R. Allard, formerly dropped from the rolls, returned from. Camp Parole Md., and is again taken up on the books.

June 7. One horse died—exhaustion.

June 8. One horse died in train—exhaustion. Alvin Abbott previously dropped, returned. Corporal W. B. Lemmon returned.

June 9. One horse died in train,—exhaustion. June 10. One horse died of exhaustion.

June 11. Received from Capt. Cochrane 18 horses. Two horses died—glanders.

June 12. Two horses died of exhaustion.

1 At 2.40 P. M. I received an order further postponing the assault till 4.30 A. M., June 3d.—Hancock's Official Report.

2 The following entry was made in his diary, at the close of this day, by a ‘spare man’ in the Fourth Detachment: ‘It seems to-day as though H-ll had broke loose. The fighting is harder than ever. Shot and shell are flying around my head at a fearful rate. Two caissons blown up.’

3Hancock's corps, the only portion of the Yankee army that had come in contact with the Confederate works, had been hurled back in a storm of fire.’—Third Year of the War. Edward A. Pollard.

4 The following statement is made by Mr. Swinton on p. 487, ‘Army of the Potomac,’ and has been adopted by many subsequent writers. ‘Harper's Pictorial History of the Rebellion’ discredits it. Others have denied it.

‘Some hours after the failure of the first assault, Gen. Meade sent instructions to each corps commander to renew the attack. . . . . . . But no man stirred, and the immobile lines pronounced a verdict, silent yet emphatic, against further slaughter.’

5 I append the following extracts touching these night attacks, and leave the reader to draw his own conclusions. I may add that the author of the first is unusually candid and reliable for one on his side.

The only change made in the Southern line after the battle was the withdrawal of Breckenridge's troops from the salient they had lost and regained. The line was straightened, and this weak point removed. When this was accomplished, Breckenridge, about 9 o'clock that night, advanced his skirmish line to its original position. Immediately the enemy drove it in, at the same time making an effort to carry the line of battle. They were promptly repulsed. An attack was then made on Hoke's line with a like result. The firing then ceased for the night. McCabe: Life and Campaigns of Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Per contra.

A little before dark it was evident from the commotion among the Confederates in front of the Philadelphia Brigade, and of the brigades on the right and left, that an assault was in preparation, Soon the commands of their officers were heard, then the well-known yell, and a rush for our line. Now came our turn, but we had not the advantage of strong earthworks. The men rose in their places, and poured in heavy volleys of musketry, and for a few moments there was a struggle as severe as in the morning, extending along the entire front of Hancock and Wright. It was soon over; some of the Confederates were captured, many lay killed or wounded, and the rest of the advance quickly retired to their defences. Banes: History of the Philadelphia Brigade.

And again.

June 3, 10:20 P. M.

Despatch received from Army Headquarters, authorizing corps commanders to open all of their artillery at 12 or 1 o'clock to-night, in retaliation for the enemy's attack at 8 this P. M.

The Diary of a Staff Officer, Second Corps.


June 4.

Commenced pushing up closer to the enemy's lines by snapping, covered ways, &c.

The Diary of a Staff Officer.

7 The following is the extract referred to:

On the 11th the division moved to the left into some works vacated by the Second Corps, which were very high, and so close up to the enemy's lines that ‘Yank’ and ‘Johnny’ could easily converse with each other . . . . Behind these works were vast excavations covered with logs, in which officers burrowed. They served the double purpose of shelter from the shells of the Rebel mortar batteries, and protection from the burning heat of the sun. History of the Tenth Reg. Vermont Vol. Chaplain E. M. Haynes.

8June 5, 5 P. M. By direction of Gen. Hancock, I accompanied a flag of truce with Col. Lyman, of Gen. Meade's staff. The point selected to put out the flag was on the Mechanicsville road, where our pickets are very close to the enemy's . . . . . . . Major Wooten, 18th N. C. Infantry, met Col. Lyman and myself.’—Diary of a Staff Officer.

9 For interesting particulars on this point see McCabe's Life and Campaigns of Lee.

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