Battle of Cold Harbor : Union Army

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Union Army and Battle of Cold Harbor
Union Military and the Battle of Cold Harbor

Battle of Cold Harbor : Union Account
Account of Union Forces at the Battle of Cold Harbor

JUNE 1-3, 1864

Cold Harbor, Va., June 1-3, 1864. Army of the Potomac.
This was the last engagement of any consequence in the campaign
from the Rapidan to the James, which began with the battle of
Wilderness on May 5-7. The severe losses in the Wilder-
ness, at
Spotsylvania Court House and along the North Anna
river had made necessary several changes, and
the Army of the
Potomac on the last day of May was organized as follows: The
2nd corps, Maj.Gen. Winfield S. Hancock commanding, was com-
posed of the three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gen. Francis C.
Barlow, Brig.Gen. John Gibbon and Brig.-Gen. David B. Birney,
and the artillery brigade under Col. John C. Tidball. The 5th
corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, included
four divisions, respectively, commanded by Brig.-Gens. Charles
Griffin, Henry H. Lockwood, Samuel W. Crawford and Lysander
Cutler, and the artillery brigade of Col. Charles S. Wain-
wright. (On June 2 Crawford's division was consolidated with
Lockwood's.) The 6th corps, Maj.-Gen. Horatio G. Wright com-
manding, consisted of three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gens.
David A. Russell, Thomas H. Neill and James B. Ricketts, and
the artillery brigade of Col. Charles H. Tompkins. The 9th
corps, under command of Maj.-Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, was made
up of the four divisions commanded by Maj.-Gen. Thomas L. Crit-
tenden, Brig.-Gen. Robert B. Potter, Brig.-Gen. Orlando B.
Willcox and Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, and the reserve artil-
lery under Capt. John Edwards. (Ferrero's division was com-
posed of colored troops.) The cavalry corps under Maj.-Gen. P.
Sheridan, consisted of three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gens.
Alfred T. A. Torbert, David McM. Gregg and James H. Wilson, and
a brigade of horse artillery under Capt. James M. Robertson.
The 18th corps, formerly with the Army of the James, commanded
by Maj. Gen. William F. Smith, embraced three divisions, re-
spectively commanded by Brig.-Gens. William H. T. Brooks, James
H. Martindale and Charles Devens, and the artillery brigade un-
der command of Capt. Samuel S. Elder. This corps was added to
the Army of the Potomac just in time to take part in the battle
of Cold Harbor. The artillery reserve was under command of
Brig.-Gen. Henry J. Hunt. On June 1 Grant's forces numbered
''present for duty'' 113,875 men of all arms. The Confederate
army under command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was organized practi-
cally as it was at the beginning of the campaign, (See Wilder-
ness) with the exception of some slight changes in commanders
and the accession of the divisions of Breckenridge, Pickett and
Hoke. Various estimates have been made of the strength of the
Confederate forces at Cold Harbor. Maj. Jed Hotchkiss, topog-
rapher for Lee's army states it as being 58,000 men, which is
probably not far from the truth.

Cold Harbor is about 3 miles north of the Chickahominy
river and 11 miles from Richmond. Grant considered it an im-
portant point as several roads centered there, notably among
them those leading to Bethesda Church, White House landing on
the Pamunkey, and the several crossings of the Chickahominy,
offering facilities for the movement of troops in almost any
direction. On the last day of May Sheridan sent Torbert's di-
vision to drive away from Cold Harbor the Confederate cavalry
under Fitzhugh Lee, which was done with slight loss. Gregg's
division reinforced Torbert, but the Confederates were also re-
inforced and Sheridan sent word to Grant that the enemy was
moving a heavy force against the place and that he did not
think it prudent to hold on. In response to this message
Sheridan was instructed to hold on at all hazards, as a force
of infantry was on the way to relieve him. This infantry force
was the 6th corps, which arrived at Cold Harbor at 9 a. m. on
the 1st, just as Sheridan had repulsed the second assault by
Kershaw's division, the rapid fire of the retreating carbines
and the heavy charges of canister proving too much for the en-
emy. Wright relieved the cavalry and about 2 p. m. Smith's
corps came up from Newcastle and took position on the right of
the 6th. Both were under instructions to assault as soon as
they were ready but the troops were not properly disposed until
6 o'clock that afternoon. When Lee discovered that Grant was
moving some of his force to the left of the Federal line, he
decided to meet the maneuver by transferring Anderson's corps
from the Confederate left to the right in order to confront
Wright. Anderson took position on the left of Hoke, whose
division formed the extreme right of Lee's line. At 6 p. m.
Wright and Smith moved forward to the attack. In their front
was an open space, varying in width from 300 to 1,2OO yards,
and the moment the first line debauched from the wood the enemy
opened fire. The troops pressed forward, however, with an un-
wavering line until they reached the timber on the farther side
of the clearing. Ricketts' division struck the main line of
entrenchments at the point where Anderson's and Hoke's commands
joined, with such force that the flank of each was rolled back
and about 500 prisoners were captured. Smith drove the enemy
from a line of rifle-pits in the edge of the wood and captured
about 250 prisoners, but when he attempted to advance on the
main line he was met by such a galling fire that he was com-
pelled to retire to the woods, holding the first line captured.
After trying in vain to dislodge Ricketts the enemy retired
from that part of the works and formed a new line some distance
in the rear. Wright and Smith then intrenched the positions
they had gained and held them during the night, though repeated
attacks were made by the enemy in an endeavor to regain the
lost ground. Badeau says: ''The ground won, on the 1st of
June, was of the highest consequence to the national army; it
cost 2,000 men in killed and wounded. but it secured the roads
to the James, and almost outflanked Lee.''

In the meantime Lee had assumed the offensive on his left.
Hancock and Burnside along Swift run and near Bethesda Church
were attacked, probably with a view to force Grant to draw
troops from Cold Harbor to reinforce his right. Three attacks
were also made on Warren, whose corps was extended to cover
over 4 miles of the line, but each attack was repulsed by
artillery alone. Late in the afternoon Hancock was ordered to
withdraw his corps early that night and move to the left of
Wright at Cold Harbor, using every effort to reach there by
daylight the next morning. Grant's object was to make a gen-
eral assault as early as possible on the 2nd, Hancock, Wright
and Smith to lead the attack, supported by Warren and Burnside,
but the night march of the 2nd corps in the heat and dust had
almost completely exhausted the men, so that the assault was
first postponed until 5 p. m. and then to 4:30 on the morning
of the 3d. The 2nd was therefore spent in forming the lines,
in skirmishing and entrenching. In the afternoon it was dis-
covered that a considerable Confederate force under Early was
in front of the Federal right and at midnight the orders to
Warren and Burnside were modified by directing them, in case
Early was still in their front, to attack at 4:30 ''in such man-
ner and by such combinations of the two corps as may in both
your judgments be deemed best. If the enemy should appear to
be in strongest force on our left, and your attack should in
consequence prove successful, you will follow it up, closing in
upon them toward our left; if, on the contrary, the attack on
the left should be successful, it will be followed up, moving
toward our right.''

The battle of June 3 was fought on the same ground as the
battle of Gaines' mill in the Peninsular campaign of 1862 ex-
cept the positions were exactly reversed. Lee now held the
trenches, extended and strengthened, that had been occupied by
Porter, who, with a single corps, had held the entire Confeder-
ate army at bay and even repulsed its most determined attacks,
inflicting severe loss upon its charging columns, while the Un-
ion troops were now to assault a position which Lee two years
before had found to be impregnable. The Confederate right was
extended along a ridge, the crest of which formed a natural
parapet, while just in front was a sunken road that could be
used as an entrenchment. Promptly at the designated hour the
columns of the 2nd, 6th and 18th corps moved to the attack.
Hancock sent forward the divisions of Barlow and Gibbon, sup-
ported by Birney. Barlow advanced in two lines under a heavy
fire of infantry and artillery, until the first line encoun-
tered the enemy's line in the sunken road. This was quickly
dislodged and as the Confederates retired over the crest Bar-
low's men followed, capturing several hundred prisoners and 3
pieces of artillery. These guns were turned on the enemy, who
broke in confusion, leaving the national forces in possession
of a considerable portion of the main line of works. The bro-
ken ranks were soon rallied and reinforced, a heavy enfilading
artillery fire was brought to bear on the assailants, and as
Barlow's second line had not come up in time to secure the ad-
vantage gained he gave the order to fall back to a slight crest
about 50 yards in the rear, where rifle-pits were dug under a
heavy fire, and this position was held the remainder of the

Gibbon's division, on the right of Barlow, was also formed
in two lines, Tyler's brigade on the right and Smyth's on the
left in the first line, McKeen's and Owen's on the right and
left respectively in the second. As the division advanced the
line was cut in two by an impassable swamp, but the men pushed
bravely on, in spite of this obstacle and the galling fire of
cannon and musketry that was poured upon them, until close up
to the enemy's works. A portion of Smyth's brigade gained the
intrenchments, and Col. McMahon, with part of his regiment, the
164th N. Y., of Tyler's brigade, gained the parapet, where
McMahon was killed and those who were with him were either
killed or captured, the regimental colors falling into the
hands of the Confederates. Owen had been directed to push
forward in column through Smyth's line, but instead of doing so
he deployed on the left as soon as Smyth became engaged, thus
losing the opportunity of supporting the lodgment made by that
officer and McMahon. The result was the assault of Gibbon was
repulsed, and the division fell back, taking advantage of the
inequalities of the ground to avoid the murderous fire that
followed them on their retreat. Some idea of the intensity of
the fighting on this part of the line may be gained from the
fact that Gibbon's command lost 65 officers and 1,032 men in
killed and wounded during the assault. Wright's advance with
the 6th corps was made with Russell's division on the left,
Ricketts' in the center and Neill's on the right. Neill car-
ried the advanced rifle-pits, after which the whole corps as-
saulted the main line with great vigor, but the attack was
repulsed with heavy loss. The only advantage gained - and this
a rather dubious one - by the corps was that of being able to
occupy a position closer to the Confederate entrenchments than
before the attack.

A description of the attack by the 18th corps is perhaps
best given by quoting Smith's report. He says: ''In front of my
right was an open plain, swept by the fire of the enemy, both
direct and from our right; on my left the open space was nar-
rower, but equally covered by the artillery of the enemy. Near
the center was a ravine, in which the troops would be sheltered
from the cross-fire, and through this ravine I determined the
main assault should be made. Gen. Devens' division had been
placed on the right to protect our flank and hold as much as
possible of the lines vacated by the troops moving forward.
Gen. Martindale with his division was ordered to move down the
ravine, while Gen. Brooks with his division was to advance on
the left, taking care to keep up the connection between Martin-
dale and the Sixth Corps, and if, in the advance, those two
commanders should join, he (Gen. Brooks) was ordered to throw
his command behind Gen. Martindale ready to operate on the
right flank, if necessary. The troops moved promptly at the
time ordered, and, driving in the skirmishers of the enemy,
carried his first line of works or rifle- pits. Here the com-
mand was halted under a severe fire to readjust the lines.
After a personal inspection of Gen. Martindale's front, I found
that I had to form a line of battle faced to the right to pro-
tect the right flank of the moving column, and also that no
farther advance could be made until the Sixth Corps advanced to
cover my left from a cross-fire. Martindale was ordered to
keep his column covered as much as possible, and to move only
when Gen. Brooks moved. I then went to the front of Gen.
Brooks, line to reconnoiter there. Gen. Brooks was forming his
column when a heavy fire on the right began, which brought so
severe a cross-fire on Brooks that I at once ordered him not to
move his men farther, but to keep them sheltered until the
cross-fire was over. Going back to the right, I found that
Martindale had been suffering severely. and having mistaken the
firing in front of the Sixth Corps for that of Brooks had de-
termined to make the assault, and that Stannard's brigade had
been repulsed in three gallant assaults.''

On the right the attacks of Burnside and Warren were at-
tended by no decisive results. The former sent forward the di-
visions of Potter and Willcox; Crittenden's being held in re
serve. Potter sent in Curtin's brigade, which forced back the
enemy's skirmishers carried some detached rifle-pits and build-
ings, and gained a position close up to the main line, from
which the Federal artillery silenced the principal battery in-
side the Confederate works and blew up two of their caissons.
Willcox recaptured a line of rifle-pits from which he had been
driven the day before, Hartranft's brigade driving the enemy to
his main entrenchments and establishing itself close in their
front. In this attack Griffin's division of the 5th corps co-
operated with Willcox. Owing to the necessity of placing ar-
tillery in position to silence the enemy's guns, active opera-
tions were suspended until 1 p. m. An order was therefore is-
sued to the various division commanders in the two corps to
attack at that hour, and Wilson was directed to move with part
of his cavalry division across the Totopotomy, with a view of
attacking the Confederate position on the flank and rear. The
arrangements were all completed by the appointed time and the
skirmish line was about to advance for the beginning of the
assault, when an order was received from headquarters to cease
all offensive movements, on account of the general repulse on
the left.

Meade reported his loss in the battle of Cold Harbor as
1,705 killed, 9,042 wounded and 2,042 missing. As in the other
engagements of the campaign from the Rapidan to the James, no
detailed report of the Confederate casualties was made, but
Lee's loss at Cold Harbor was comparatively slight. Hotchkiss
gives it as ''about 1,700.'' Some of the Federal wounded were
brought in at night by volunteers from the entrenching parties,
but most of them lay on the field, under the hot sun of a Vir-
ginia summer, for three days before Grant would consent to ask
permission under a flag of truce to bury the dead and care for
the injured. By that time the wounded were nearly all beyond
the need of medical aid, and the dead had to be interred almost
where they fell. The assault on the 3d has been severely crit-
cised by military men. Gen. Martin T. McMahon, in ''Battles and
Leaders,'' begins his article on the battle of Cold Harbor with
the following statement: ''In the opinion of a majority of its
survivors, the battle of Cold Harbor never should have been
fought. There was no military reason to justify it. It was
the dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of the Lieuten-
ant-General's first campaign with the Army of the Potomac, and
corresponded in all its essential features with what had pre-
ceded it.'' Grant, in his ''Personal Memoirs'' (Vol. II, page
276), says: ''I have always regretted that the last assault at
Cold Harbor was ever made. * * * No advantage whatever was
gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed
the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the
Confederate side.'' After the battle Grant turned his attention
to the plan of effecting a junction with Butler and approaching
Richmond from the south side of the James, along the lines sug-
gested by McClellan two years before. The ''hammering'' process
had proved to be too costly and the army settled down to a
regular siege of the Confederate capital. The campaign from
the Rapidan to the James began with the battle of the Wilder-
ness on May 5, and from that time until June 10, when the move-
ment to the James was commenced from Cold Harbor, the Army of
the Potomac lost 54,550 men.

Source: The Union Army, vol. 5

Recommended Reading: Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. Library of Journal: On June 3, 1864, the Union Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth Corps assaulted Confederate breastworks at Cold Harbor outside Richmond, VA. The resulting bloodbath amounted to U.S. Grant's worst defeat and "Bobby" Lee's final great victory. In his latest book, native Virginian and Baltimore Sun correspondent Furgurson (Chancellorsville, 1863) vividly retells the well-known story of how the friction between Grant and his insecure direct subordinate, George Meade, poisoned the Army of the Potomac's whole chain of command. Continued below…

By contrast, he depicts Lee as a commander beset by poor health and impossible logistical problems who brilliantly deployed his meager forces and soundly thrashed his overconfident adversary, thereby saving the rebel capital and extending an unwinnable war by nearly a year. The book is rich in word pictures and engaging anecdotes. Furgurson considers the wounded that were left to suffer with the dead between the lines while Lee and Grant quibble over protocols of recovery; the disastrous affect of poor maps and impassable terrain on the Federal assault; and Grant's immediate need to bring Lincoln a battlefield victory before the 1864 presidential election. Furgurson's contribution is his evocative retelling of a great American military tragedy.

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Recommended Reading: Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, by Gordon C. Rhea (Hardcover). Description: In his gripping volume on the spring 1864 Overland campaign--which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Civil War--Gordon Rhea vividly re-creates the battles and maneuvers from the North Anna stalemate through the Cold Harbor offensive. Rhea's tenacious research elicits stunning new facts from the records of a phase oddly ignored or mythologized by historians. The Cold Harbor of these pages differs sharply from the Cold Harbor of popular lore. We see Grant, in one of his most brilliant moves, pull his army across the North Anna River and steal a march on Lee. In response, Lee sets up a strong defensive line along Totopotomoy Creek, and the battles spark across woods and fields northeast of Richmond. Continued below…

Their back to the Chickahominy River and on their last legs, the rebel troops defiantly face an army-wide assault ordered by Grant that extends over three hellish days. Rhea gives a surprising new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded. Here, Grant is not a callous butcher, and Lee does not wage a perfect fight. Every imaginable primary source has been exhausted to unravel the strategies, mistakes, gambles, and problems with subordinates that preoccupied two exquisitely matched minds. In COLD HARBOR, Rhea separates fact from fiction in a charged, evocative narrative. He leaves readers under a moonless sky, Grant pondering the eastward course of the James River fifteen miles south of the encamped armies. About the Author: Gordon Rhea is the author of three previous books, a winner of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award, a frequent lecturer throughout the country on military history, and a practicing attorney.


Recommended Reading: Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, May-June 1864, by Noah Andre Trudeau. Description: "Nobody has brought together in one volume so many eyewitness accounts from both sides."-Civil War History Winner of the Fletcher Pratt Award. In this authoritative chronicle of the great 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, Noah Andre Trudeau vividly re-creates the brutal forty days that marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. In riveting detail Trudeau traces the carnage from the initial battles in Virginia's Wilderness to the gruesome hand-to-hand combat at Spotsylvania's "Bloody Angle," to the ingenious trap laid by Lee at the North Anna River, to the killing ground of Cold Harbor. Through fascinating eyewitness accounts, he relates the human stories behind this epic saga. Continued below…

Common soldiers struggle to find the words to describe the agony of their comrades, incredible tales of individual valor, their own mortality. Also recounting their experiences are the women who nursed these soldiers and black troops who were getting their first taste of battle. The raw vitality of battle sketches by Edwin Forbes and Alfred R. Waud complement the words of the participants. PRAISE FOR THE BOOK: "Bloody Roads South is a powerful and eloquent narrative of the costliest, most violent campaign of the Civil War. Grant vs. Lee in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, and at Cold Harbor has never been told better."-Stephen W. Sears, author of The Landscape Turned Red. About the Author: Noah Andre Trudeau is an executive producer for cultural programs at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 and The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865.


Recommended Reading: Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Civil War America) (Hardcover) (The University of North Carolina Press) (September 5, 2007). Description: In the study of field fortifications in the Civil War that began with Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War, Hess turns to the 1864 Overland campaign to cover battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. Continued below...

Drawing on meticulous research in primary sources and careful examination of trench remnants at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred, Hess describes Union and Confederate earthworks and how Grant and Lee used them in this new era of field entrenchments.


Recommended Reading: Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War: The Eastern Campaigns, 1861-1864 (Civil War America) (Hardcover). Description: The eastern campaigns of the Civil War involved the widespread use of field fortifications, from Big Bethel and the Peninsula to Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Charleston, and Mine Run. While many of these fortifications were meant to last only as long as the battle, Earl J. Hess argues that their history is deeply significant. The Civil War saw more use of fieldworks than did any previous conflict in Western history. Hess studies the use of fortifications by tracing the campaigns of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia from April 1861 to April 1864. Continued below... 

 He considers the role of field fortifications in the defense of cities, river crossings, and railroads and in numerous battles. Blending technical aspects of construction with operational history, Hess demonstrates the crucial role these earthworks played in the success or failure of field armies. He also argues that the development of trench warfare in 1864 resulted from the shock of battle and the continued presence of the enemy within striking distance, not simply from the use of the rifle-musket, as historians have previously asserted. Based on fieldwork at 300 battle sites and extensive research in official reports, letters, diaries, and archaeological studies, this book should become an indispensable reference for Civil War historians.


Recommended Reading: The Battlefield of Cold Harbor, Hanover County, Virginia, 1864 (Map). Review: The site of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia's last Civil War Victory is one of astonishment, battlefield courage, and horrific carnage… This work includes the most complete, accurate and detailed maps of the battle of Cold Harbor ever published. Watercolor and colored pencil map showing farms, mills, entrenchments, watercourses, woods, fields and residences are all meticulously detailed and scaled to perfection. Continued below...

The reverse side includes an account of Union mapping at Cold Harbor; full color reproduction of the Army of the Potomac’s Overland Campaign theater map; and photographs of two prominent Union topographical engineers, W. H. Paine and W.A. Roebling. A welcome addition to every Civil War buff’s library as well as the individual that appreciates detailed topographical maps. FIVE STARS.

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