May 31 to June 12, 1864


Pressing on with his Overland Campaign after confrontations at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and North Anna, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant again moved around Confederate General Robert E. Lee's right in an effort to capture Richmond. Crossing the Pamunkey River, Grant's men fought skirmishes at Haw's Shop, Totopotomoy Creek, and Old Church. Pushing his cavalry forward towards the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, Grant also ordered Major General William "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps to move from Bermuda Hundred to join the main army. Recently reinforced, Lee anticipated Grant's designs on Old Cold Harbor and dispatched cavalry under Brigadier Generals Matthew Butler and Fitzhugh Lee to the scene. Arriving they encountered elements of Major General Philip H. Sheridan's cavalry corps. As the two forces skirmished on May 31, Lee sent Major General Robert Hoke's division as well as Major General Richard Anderson's First Corps to Old Cold Harbor. Around 4:00 PM, Union cavalry under Brigadier General Alfred Torbert and David Gregg succeeded in driving the Confederates from the crossroads.

Early Fighting

As the Confederate infantry began arrive late in the day, Sheridan, concerned about his advanced position, withdrew back towards Old Church. Wishing to exploit the advantage gained at Old Cold Harbour, Grant ordered Major General Horatio Wright's crossroads at all costs. Moving back to Old Cold Harbor around 1:00 AM on June 1, Sheridan's horsemen were able to reoccupy their old position as the Confederates had failed to notice their early withdrawal.

In an effort to re-take the crossroads, Lee ordered Anderson and Hoke to attack the Union lines early on June 1. Anderson failed to relay this order to Hoke and the resulting attack consisted only of First Corps troops. Moving forward, troops from Kershaw's Brigade led the assault and were met with savage fire from Brigadier General Wesley Merritt's entrenched cavalry. Using seven-shot Spencer carbines, Merritt's men quickly beat back the Confederates. Around 9:00 AM, the lead elements of Wright's corps began arriving on the field and moved into the cavalry's lines.

Union Movements

Though Grant had wished IV Corps to attack immediately, it was exhausted from marching most of the night and Wright elected to delay until Smith's men arrived. Reaching Old Cold Harbour in early afternoon, XVIII Corps began entrenching on Wright's right as the cavalry retired east. Around 6:30 PM, with minimal scouting of the Confederate lines, both corps moved to the attack. Storming forward over unfamiliar ground they were met by heavy fire from Anderson and Hoke's men. Though a gap in the Confederate line was found, it was quickly closed by Anderson and the Union troops were forced to retire to their lines.

While the assault had failed, Grant's chief subordinate, Major General George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, believed an attack the next day could be successful if enough force was brought against the Confederate line. To achieve this, Major General Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps was shifted from Totopotomoy and placed on Wright's left. Once Hancock was in position, Meade intended to move forward with three corps before Lee could prepare substantial defences. Arriving early on June 2, II Corp was tired from their march and Grant agreed to delay the attack until 5:00 PM to allow them to rest.

Regrettable Assaults

The assault was again delayed that afternoon until 4:30 AM on June 3. In planning for the attack, both Grant and Meade failed to issue specific instructions for the assault's target and trusted their corps commanders to reconnoitre the ground on their own. Though unhappy at the lack of direction from above, the Union corps commanders failed to take the initiative by scouting their lines of advance. For those in the ranks who had survived frontal assaults at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, a degree of fatalism took hold and many pinned paper containing their name to their uniforms to aid in identifying their body.

While Union forces delayed on June 2, Lee's engineers and troops were busy constructing an elaborate system of fortifications containing pre-ranged artillery, converging fields of fire, and various obstacles. To support the assault, Major General Ambrose Burnside's IX Corps and Major General. Warren's V Corps were formed at the north end of the field with orders to attack Lieutenant General Jubal Early's corps on Lee's left. Moving forward through the early morning fog, XVIII, VI, and II Corps quickly encountered heavy fire from the Confederate lines. Attacking, Smith's men were channelled into two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers halting their advance. In the centre, Wright's men, still bloodied from June 1, were quickly pinned down and made little effort to renew the attack. The only success came on Hancock's front where troops from Major General Francis Barlow's division succeeded in breaking through the Confederate lines. Recognizing the danger, the breach was quickly sealed by the Confederates who then proceeded to throw back the Union attackers. In the north, Burnside launched a sizable attack on Early, but halted to regroup after mistakenly thinking he had shattered the enemy lines. As the assault was failing, Grant and Meade pressed their commanders to push forward with little success. By 12:30 PM, Grant conceded that the assault had failed and Union troops began digging in until they could withdraw under the cover of darkness.

Aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor

In the fighting, Grant's army had sustained 1,844 killed, 9,077 wounded, and 1,816 captured/missing. For Lee, the losses were a relatively light 83 killed, 3,380 wounded, and 1,132 captured/missing. Lee's final major victory, Cold Harbor led to an increase in anti-war sentiment in the North and criticisms of Grant's leadership. With the failure of the assault, Grant remained in place at Cold Harbor until June 12 when he moved the army away and succeeded in crossing the James River. Of the battle, Grant stated 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 above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Spring 2013