The Battle of Cold Harbor, the final battle of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign during the American Civil War, is remembered as one of American history's bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were slaughtered in a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified troops of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Grant said of the battle in his memoirs "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."
The battle was fought in central Virginia over the same ground as the Battle of Gaines' Mill during the Seven Days Battles of 1862. In fact, some accounts refer to the 1862 battle as the First Battle of Cold Harbor, and the 1864 battle as the Second Battle of Cold Harbor. Union soldiers were disturbed to discover skeletal remains from the first battle while entrenching. Despite its name, Cold Harbor was not a port city. It described two rural crossroads named for a hotel located in the area (Cold Harbor Tavern, owned by the Isaac Burnett family), which provided shelter (harbor) but not hot meals. Old Cold Harbor stood two miles east of Gaines' Mill, New Cold Harbor a mile southeast. Both were approximately 10 miles (16 km) northeast of the Confederate capital of Richmond.
Background and opposing forces
Grant's Overland Campaign had been underway since May 4, 1864. The battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House were bloody stalemates. The Battle of North Anna represented a trap set by Lee, which Grant managed to avoid. After each of these major engagements, Grant maneuvered the Army of the Potomac (formally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade but under Grant's direct supervision) around Lee's right flank and headed to the southeast. As the Union Army crossed the Pamunkey River and Lee attempted to determine Grant's position and intentions, three smaller engagements occurred at Haw's Shop, Totopotomoy Creek (Bethesda Church), and Old Church. (Some historians classify these three engagements as part of the greater Cold Harbor battle.) From the Old Church engagement, Lee determined that Union cavalry had designs on the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, which led to a road network that would allow easy access to Richmond and Lee's rear areas.
Lee received notice that reinforcements were heading Grant's way from Bermuda Hundred. The 16,000 men of Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps were withdrawn from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler's Army of the James at Grant's request, and they were moving down the James River and up the York to the Pamunkey. If Smith moved due west from White House Landing to Old Cold Harbor, 3 miles (5 km) southeast of Bethesda Church and Grant's left flank, the extended Federal line would be too far south for the Confederate right to deal with it.
Lee could count on reinforcements of his own. Confederate President Jefferson Davis directed Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard to send the division of Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke, over 7,000 men, from below the James River. With these additional troops, and by managing to replace many of his 20,000 casualties to that point in the campaign, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had 59,000 men to contend with Meade's and Grant's 108,000. But the disparity in numbers was no longer what it had been Grant's reinforcements were often raw recruits and heavy artillery troops, pulled from the defenses of Washington, D.C., who were relatively inexperienced with infantry tactics, while most of Lee's had been veterans moved from inactive fronts, and they would soon be entrenched in impressive fortifications.
The cavalry forces that had fought at Old Church continued to face each other on May 31. Lee sent a cavalry division under Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee to reinforce Brig. Gen. Matthew Butler and secure the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. As Union Brig. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert increased pressure on the Confederates, Robert E. Lee ordered Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's First Corps to shift right from Totopotomoy Creek to support the cavalry. The lead brigade of Hoke's division also reached the crossroads to join Butler and Fitzhugh Lee. However, at 4 p.m., Torbert and elements of Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg's cavalry division drove the Confederates from the Old Cold Harbor crossroads and began to dig in. As more of Hoke's and Anderson's men streamed in, Union cavalry commander Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan became concerned and ordered Torbert to pull back toward Old Church.
Grant continued his interest in Old Cold Harbor and ordered the VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, to move in that direction from his right flank on Totopotomoy Creek. And he ordered Sheridan to secure the crossroads "at all hazards." Torbert returned at 1 a.m. and was relieved to find that the Confederates had failed to notice his previous withdrawal.
Robert E. Lee's plan for June 1 was to use his newly concentrated infantry against the small cavalry forces at Old Cold Harbor. But his subordinates did not coordinate correctly. Anderson did not integrate Hoke's division with his attack plan and left him with the understanding that he was not to assault until the First Corps' attack was well underway, because the Union defenders were disorganized as well. Wright's VI Corps had not moved out until after midnight and was on a 15-mile (24 km) march. Smith's XVIII Corps had mistakenly been sent to New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey River, several miles away, and did not reach Old Cold Harbor in time to assist Torbert.
Anderson led his attack with the brigade formerly commanded by veteran Brig. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw, which was now under a less experienced South Carolina politician, Col. Lawrence M. Keitt. Keitt's men approached the entrenched cavalry of Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt. Armed with seven-shot Spencer repeating carbines, Merritt's men delivered heavy fire, mortally wounding Keitt and destroying his brigade's cohesion. Hoke obeyed what he understood to be his orders and did not join in the attack, which was quickly called back by Anderson.
By 9 a.m., Wright's lead elements arrived at the crossroads and began to extend and improve the entrenchments started by the cavalrymen. Although Grant had intended for Wright to attack immediately, his men were exhausted from their long march and they were unsure as to the strength of the enemy. Wright decided to wait until after Smith arrived, which occurred in the afternoon, and the XVIII Corps men began to entrench on the right of the VI Corps. The Union cavalrymen retired to the east.
At 6:30 p.m., the attack that Grant had ordered for the morning finally began. Both Wright's and Smith's corps moved forward. Wright's men made little progress south of the Mechanicsville Road, which connected New and Old Cold Harbor, recoiling from heavy fire. North of the road, Brig. Gen. Emory Upton's brigade of Brig. Gen. David A. Russell's division also encountered heavy fire from Brig. Gen. Thomas L. Clingman's brigade, "A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men's faces." Although Upton tried to rally his men forward, his brigade fell back to its starting point.
To Upton's right, the brigade of Col. William S. Truex found a gap in the Confederate line, between the brigades of Clingman and Brig. Gen. William T. Wofford, through a swampy, brush-filled ravine. As Truex's men charged through the gap, Clingman swung two regiments around to face them, and Anderson sent in Brig. Gen. Eppa Hunton's brigade from his corps reserve. Truex became surrounded on three sides and was forced to withdraw, although his men brought back hundreds of Georgian prisoners with them.
By dark, the fighting petered out. The Union assault had cost it 2,200 casualties with little to show for them besides capturing 750 prisoners. Several of the generals, including Upton and Meade, were furious at Grant for ordering an assault without proper reconnaissance.
Although the June 1 attacks had been unsuccessful, Meade believed that an attack early on June 2 could succeed if he was able to mass sufficient forces against an appropriate location. He and Grant decided to attack Lee's right flank. Anderson's men had been heavily engaged there on June 1, and it seemed unlikely that they had found the time to build substantial defenses. And if the attack succeeded, Lee's right would be driven back into the Chickahominy River. Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps to shift southeast from Totopotomoy Creek and assume a position to the left of Wright's VI Corps. Once Hancock was in position, Meade would attack on his left from Old Cold Harbor with three Union corps in line, totaling 31,000 men: Hancock's II Corps, Wright's VI Corps, and Baldy Smith's XVIII Corps. Also, convinced that Lee was moving troops from his left to fortify his right, Meade ordered Warren and Burnside to attack Lee's left flank in the morning "at all hazards."
Hancock's men marched almost all night and arrived too worn-out for an immediate attack that morning. Grant agreed to let the men rest and postponed the attack until 5 p.m., and then postponed it again until 4:30 a.m. on June 3. But Grant and Meade did not give specific orders for the attack, leaving it up to the corps commanders to decide where they would hit the Confederate lines and how they would coordinate with each other. Nor had any senior commander reconnoitered the enemy position. Baldy Smith wrote that he was "aghast at the reception of such an order, which proved conclusively the utter absence of any military plan." He told his staff that the whole attack was, "simply an order to slaughter my best troops."
Robert E. Lee took advantage of the Union delays to bolster his defenses. When Hancock departed Totopotomoy Creek, Lee was free to shift the division of Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge to his far right flank, where he would once again face Hancock. Breckinridge drove a small Union force off Turkey Hill, which dominated the southern part of the battlefield. Lee also moved troops from Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's corps, the divisions of Brig. Gens. William Mahone and Cadmus M. Wilcox, to support Breckinridge, and stationed cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee to guard the army's right flank. The result was a curving line on low ridges, 7 miles (11 km) long, with the left flank anchored on Totopotomoy Creek, the right on the Chickahominy River, making any flanking moves impossible.
Lee's engineers used their time effectively and constructed the "most ingenious defensive configuration the war had yet witnessed." Barricades were erected of earth and logs. Artillery was posted with converging fields of fire on every avenue of approach, and stakes were driven into the ground to improve the accuracy of gunners' range estimates. A newspaper correspondent wrote that the works were, "Intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade an opposing line, ... [It was] a maze and labyrinth of works within works." Heavy skirmish lines suppressed any ability of the Union to determine the strength or exact positions of the Confederate entrenchments.
Although they did not know the details of their objectives, the Union soldiers who had survived the frontal assaults at Spotsylvania Court House seemed to be in no doubt as to what they would be up against in the morning. Many were seen writing their names on papers that they pinned inside their uniforms, so their bodies could be identified. One blood-spattered diary from a Union soldier found after the battle included a final entry: "June 3, 1864. Cold Harbor. I was killed."
On the northern end of the battlefield, Union Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren's V Corps linked up with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps near Bethesda Church. Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal A. Early's corps, on Lee's left flank, pushed forward and captured several of Warren's skirmishers. Light fighting occurred throughout the night, having little effect on the main battle to come. Burnside at one point was advised to attack Early's unprotected flank on Shady Grove Road, but he demurred.
At 4:30 a.m. on June 3, the three Union corps began to advance through a thick ground fog. Massive fire from the Confederate lines quickly caused heavy casualties, and the survivors were pinned in place. Although the results varied in different parts of the line, the overall repulse of the Union advance was the most lopsided defeat since the assault on Marye's Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862.
The most effective performance of the day was on the Union left flank, where Hancock's corps was able to break through a portion of Breckinridge's front line and drive those defenders out of their entrenchments in hand-to-hand fighting. Several hundred prisoners and four guns were captured. However, nearby Confederate artillery was brought to bear on the entrenchments, turning them into a death trap for the Federals. Breckinridge's reserves counterattacked these men from the division of Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow and drove them off. Hancock's other advanced division, under Brig. Gen. John Gibbon, became disordered in swampy ground and could not advance through the heavy Confederate fire, with two brigade commanders (Cols. Peter A. Porter and H. Boyd McKeen) lost as casualties. One of Gibbon's men, complaining of a lack of reconnaissance, wrote, "We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made."
In the center, Wright's corps was pinned down by the heavy fire and made little effort to advance further, still smarting from their costly charge on June 1. The normally aggressive Emery Upton felt that further movement by his division was "impracticable." Confederate defenders in this part of the line were unaware that a serious assault had been made against their position.
On the Union right, Smith's men advanced through unfavorable terrain and were channeled into two ravines. When they emerged in front of the Confederate line, rifle and artillery fire mowed them down. A Union officer wrote, "The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another." A Confederate described the carnage of double-canister artillery fire as "deadly, bloody work." The artillery fire against Smith's corps was heavier than might be expected because Warren's V Corps to his right was reluctant to advance and the Confederate gunners in Warren's sector concentrated on Smith's men instead.
The only activity on the northern end of the field was by Burnside's IX Corps, facing Jubal Early. He launched a powerful assault that overran the Confederate skirmishers but mistakenly thought he had pierced the first line of earthworks and halted his corps to regroup before moving on, which he planned for that afternoon.
At 7 a.m., Grant advised Meade to vigorously exploit any successful part of the assault. Meade ordered each of his three corps commanders to assault at once, without regard to the movements of their neighboring corps. But all had had enough. Hancock advised against the move. Smith, calling a repetition of the attack a "wanton waste of life," refused to advance again. Wright's men increased their rifle fire but stayed in place. By 12:30, Grant conceded that his army was done. He wrote to Meade, "The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered, you may direct a suspension of further advance for the present." Union soldiers still pinned down before the Confederate lines began entrenching, using cups and bayonets to dig, sometimes including bodies of dead comrades as part of their improvised earthworks.
Meade inexplicably bragged to his wife the next day that he was in command for the assault. But his performance had been poor. Despite orders from Grant that the corps commanders were to examine the ground, their reconnaissance was lax and Meade failed to supervise them adequately, either before or during the attack. He was able to motivate only about 20,000 of his men to attack the II Corps and parts of the XVIII and IX failing to achieve the mass he knew he required to succeed. His men paid heavily for the poorly coordinated assault. Estimates of casualties that morning are from 3,000 to 7,000 on the Union side, no more than 1,500 on the Confederate.
June 4 - June 12
Grant and Meade launched no more attacks on the Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor. Although Grant wired Washington that he had "gained no decisive advantage" and that his "losses were not severe," he later said that he regretted for the rest of his life the decision to send in his men. The two opposing armies faced each other for nine days of trench warfare, in some places only yards apart. Sharpshooters worked continuously, killing many. Union artillery bombarded the Confederates with a battery of eight Coehorn mortars; the Confederates responded by depressing the trail of a 24-pound howitzer and arcing shells over the Union positions. Although there were no more large-scale attacks, casualty figures for the entire battle were twice as large as from the June 3 assault alone.
The trenches were hot, dusty, and miserable, but conditions were worse between the lines, where thousands of wounded Federal soldiers suffered horribly without food, water, or medical assistance. Grant was reluctant to ask for a formal truce that would allow him to recover his wounded because that would be a signal he had lost the battle. He and Lee traded notes across the lines from June 5 to June 7 without coming to an agreement, and when Grant formally requested a two-hour cessation of hostilities, it was too late for most of the unfortunate wounded, who were now bloated corpses. Grant was widely criticized in the Northern press for this lapse of judgment.
On June 4, Grant tightened his lines by moving Burnside's corps behind Matadequin Creek as a reserve and moving Warren leftward to connect with Smith, shortening his lines about 3 miles (5 km). On June 6, Early probed Burnside's new position but could not advance through the impassable swamps.
Grant realized that, once again in the campaign, he was in a stalemate with Lee and additional assaults were not the answer. He planned three actions to make some headway. First, in the Shenandoah Valley, Maj. Gen. David Hunter was making progress against Confederate forces, and Grant hoped that by interdicting Lee's supplies, he would be forced to dispatch reinforcements to the Valley. Second, on June 7 he dispatched his cavalry under Sheridan (the divisions of Brig. Gens. David McM. Gregg and Wesley Merritt) to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad near Charlottesville. Third, he planned a stealthy operation to withdraw from Lee's front and move across the James River. Lee reacted to the first two actions as Grant had hoped. He pulled Breckinridge's division from Cold Harbor and sent it toward Lynchburg to parry Hunter. (By June 12, he followed this by assigning Jubal Early permanent command of the Second Corps and sending them to the Valley as well.) And he sent two of his three cavalry divisions in pursuit of Sheridan. However, despite anticipating that Grant might shift across the James, Lee was taken by surprise when it occurred. On June 12, the Army of the Potomac finally disengaged to march southeast to cross the James and threaten Petersburg, a crucial rail junction south of Richmond.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was the final victory won by Lee's army during the war (part of his forces won the Battle of the Crater the following month, during the Siege of Petersburg, but this did not represent a general engagement between the armies), and its most decisive in terms of casualties. The Union army, in attempting the futile assault, lost 10,000 to 13,000 men over twelve days. The battle brought the toll in Union casualties since the beginning of May to a total of more than 52,000, compared to 33,000 for Lee. Although the cost was horrible, Grant's larger army finished the campaign with lower relative casualties than Lee's.
Some authors (Catton, Esposito, Foote, McPherson, Smith) estimate the casualties for the major assault on June 3 and all agree on approximately 7,000 total Union casualties, 1,500 Confederate. Gordon Rhea, considered the preeminent modern historian of Grant's Overland campaign, has examined casualty lists in detail and has published a contrarian view in his 2002 book, Cold Harbor. For the morning assault on June 3, he can account for only 3,500 to 4,000 Union killed, wounded, and missing, and estimates that for the entire day the Union suffered about 6,000 casualties, compared to Lee's 1,000 to 1,500. Although this is a horrific loss, it is dwarfed by Lee's daily losses at Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Pickett's Charge, and is comparable to Malvern Hill.
The battle caused a rise in anti-war sentiment in the Northern states. Grant became known as the "fumbling butcher" for his poor decisions. It also lowered the morale of his remaining troops. But the campaign had served Grant's purpose as foolish as his attack on Cold Harbor was, Lee was trapped. He beat Grant to Petersburg, barely, but spent the remainder of the war (save its final week) defending Richmond behind a fortified trench line. Although Southerners realized their situation was desperate, they hoped that Lee's stubborn (and bloody) resistance would have political repercussions by causing Abraham Lincoln to lose the 1864 presidential election to a more peace-friendly candidate. But the taking of Atlanta in September dashed these hopes, and the end of the Confederacy was just a matter of time.
Photo of Burial Party after the battle by Alexander Gardner taken in 1865 & Oil Tinted by Margaret A. Rogers