The Battle of Cold Harbor
The Battle of Cold Harbor was Ulysses S. Grant’s worst tactical defeat of the entire Civil War. If he reported the actual casualties, Lincoln quite possibly might have removed him from command.
Cold Harbor was a strange name for a location that had no water near it. Apparently, it was adopted by the early settlers of Virginia who named it after a small village in Surrey. The original name meant a shelter for travelers. In June 1864 it was to be nothing of the kind.
Cold Harbor was a dusty crossroads to the east of Mechanicsville. This crossroads was vital for both sides to control. If the Confederates controlled it, they would control the main east-west road that Grant needed to use should he decide to cross the James River. It also was the principal route to Grant’s supply base at White House. Both sides needed to hold Cold Harbor and the surrounding area.
Initially, the Confederate cavalry of Fitzhugh Lee (Robert E. Lee’s nephew) and the infantry of General Robert Hoke held this vital crossroads. On the evening of May 31, 1864 these forces were driven from their positions by a combined force of Federal cavalry and infantry under the command of General Philip Sheridan.
At the same time Lee was notified by General Richard Anderson that his corps was a mile north of Cold Harbor and was prepared to attack the Federal position. Lee saw an opportunity to crush the enemy. He planned on Hoke’s division of three, possibly four brigades to attack the next morning at first light.
Meanwhile, Grant realized the importance of this obscure crossroads and ordered Sheridan (who wished to fall back) to hold it “at all hazards”. Grant ordered Horatio Wright to make a night march to reinforce Sheridan’s force. The Federal cavalry spent a harrowing night, worrying about the Confederates while reinforcing their positions.
Sheridan’s men blocked the three roads that came into Cold Harbor: north, west and south. As they worked they could hear the Confederate officers giving their men orders and making preparations for their morning attack.
Sheridan’s force was outnumbered 12,000 to 6,500, an almost 2-to-1 advantage for the Confederates. The Confederate attack began after 5:00 AM when a brigade from Joseph Kershaw’s Division of Anderson’s Corps pushed forward in a reconnaissance-in-force. They ran into a buzzsaw of massed fire from the Spencer repeating rifles of 600 Federal cavalrymen. The leading Confederate officer, Colonel Lawrence Keitt of the 20th South Carolina, was killed in the first volley. His inexperienced regiment lasted perhaps five minutes before it broke and fled. The attack was over before Hoke’s men, on the right, realized that it had begun.
The second Confederate attack began before 10:00 AM and suffered a similar fate. Meanwhile, Horatio Wright’s Corps had begun to arrive and relieved Sheridan’s force by about 10:00 AM.
Richard Anderson who had seen his forces repulsed twice had moved into defensive mode. His battle line fell back to the west and began to entrench.
By mid-afternoon, William “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps began to take positions to the right of Horatio Wright. At 3:30 PM Grant ordered Winfield Scott Hancock to move his corps to Wright’s left.
Meade suggested to Grant that the Federals should attack that very evening in order to get positions closer to the Confederate lines. Grant agreed and orders were sent to Wright and Smith to attack along their fronts.
At about 5:00 PM Smith ordered two of his divisions forward. It was a long way to the Confederate lines over open fields against a fortified position. There was a second line of Confederate fortifications beyond the first. The Federals took the first line and captured about 250 prisoners but were stopped by the second line. They retreated to the initial Confederate position.
At this point Wright sent in two full divisions and part of a third. The position that they were attacking was heavily fortified and had abates in front. This slowed down the attacking force and the Confederates met them with massed volleys.
With their colonel killed the lead regiment, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, was near panic. They were a converted artillery unit and this was their first fight. Emory Upton, the division commander, appeared on the scene a organized them into a defensive line. Displaying the courage made famous at Spotsylvania, Upton calmly stood behind a tree firing his rifles at the enemy, while he rallied his men.
As the Confederates were repulsing the attack of the Connecticut troops, other Federals had funneled through a gulley on their left. They fired on the Confederates from their rear and their left. Hoke’s men were captured and their line came into Federal hands. The neighboring brigade was also fired on from the rear and they too fell back.
Anderson saved the day for the Confederates by promptly sending in two of his brigades in the counterattack. They fought on into the dark until they pushed the Federals out of almost all that they lost but their lines were in very bad shape, according to one soldier.
By 10:00 PM the firing died away and Upton counted up his losses. The 2nd Connecticut had a total of 386 killed, wounded and missing. Overall, the VI Corps was estimated to have losses of 1,200 killed or wounded; the XVIII Corps had about 1,000 killed or wounded.
Anderson reported to Lee that he needed reinforcements. Lee had already ordered Breckinridge’s force from the Shenandoah Valley to strengthen the Confederate line.
Grant designated Hancock’s Corps to attack on June 2nd. They had only just arrived on the field and were exhausted from their long march. Realizing the state of Hancock’s men the attack was postponed until 4:30 AM June 3rd.
By the afternoon of the 2nd, Breckinridge’s men moved into position on Hoke’s right. Lee also ordered two divisions to extend Breckinridge’s line to the Chickahominy River.
Lee ordered actions on both ends of his line in the afternoon. Confederate forces at the southern end of the line assaulted and captured a slightly elevated spot known as Turkey Hill. At about the same time Jubal Early’s Corps attacked the Federal forward positions. They were repulsed when they reached the main line.
“Baldy” Smith had concerns about Grant’s plan of attack that called for a massive three corps wide assault. He called said that it “was simply an order to slaughter his best troops.”
At dawn on June 3rd the Federal attack commenced. Gibbons Division of the II Corps was slated to attack in two waves of two brigades each.
At 4:30 AM the Federal artillery began a general cannonade that was immediately returned by the Confederates. The cannonade was so loud that it could be heard in Richmond 12 miles away.
At 4:40 AM the first waves of the attack commenced. The men of Francis Barlow’s Division of the II Corps enjoyed immediate success. They captured the rifle pits and a number of troops. The rest withdrew to the rear in confusion.
However, Gibbon’s men ran into problems immediately, running into a deep swamp. The swamp acted like a wedge and split his force. Half of them immediately ran into heavy rifle fire from the Confederate line. The other half became stalled in a deep ravine close to the enemy line. Between the two obstacles, Gibbon’s attack was completely disrupted.
The VI Corps’ attack was stopped almost immediately with a great deal of casualties.
The XVIII Corps in the center of the attack ran right into an artillery position where the Confederate Colonel, William Oates, ordered rounds of double canister to be fired into them. A Massachusetts soldier who was watching from the reserve position said, “So intense was the fire that the division in front seemed to melt away like snow falling on moist ground.” In less than 10 minutes an entire Federal brigade ceased to exist as a cohesive fighting unit.
The second wave of Barlow’s Division was mercilessly flayed by concentrated rifle fire when they attempted to attacked the Confederate second line. As they tried to retreat to the captured Confederate rifle pits they sustained even more casualties. Some of the green troops retreated back to their starting point.
Gibbon’s two brigades were ripped by terrific rifle fire. They too sustained heavy casualties. The colonel of the 36th Wisconsin received a mortal wound and Colonel Frank Haskell of Gettysburg fame took command of the unit. To preserve his men he ordered them to lie down. As they were carrying out his orders he was hit in the head and killed instantly.
The second wave of the VI Corps attacked with the reserve division of Brigadier General Thomas Neill. Neill’s men fell in heaps from the terrific volume of rifle fire that they received.
The second wave of the XVIII Corps under the personal command attempted to force the Confederate line. Again, the high volume of Confederate fire caused massive casualties to the point where Smith sent a message to General Meade that he had no hope of carrying the enemy works without the neighboring VI Corps helping him on the flanks. Horatio Wright sent a similar message with much the same import.
By 8:00 Am the Federals were entrenching all along the line. When ordered to attack again, the Federal troops remained in their rifle pits and behind their entrenchments.
By 1:30 PM the orders were sent that all further offensive operations were suspended.
The Federal losses for June 3rd have been estimated at over 5,000. Total Confederate losses were 4,595 (83 killed, 3,380 wounded, 1,132 captured or missing) for the entire battle. Total Federal losses for the entire battle of Cold Harbor were 12,737 (1,844 killed, 9,077 wounded, 1,816 captured or missing), an almost unbelievable imbalance.