Battle of Cold Harbor Civil War Campaign

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Civil War Cold Harbor
Cold Harbor Campaign History

Battle of Cold Harbor Civil War History

Battle of Cold Harbor: May 31 - June 12, 1864

     In the Overland Campaign of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant with the Army of the Potomac battled General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for six weeks across central Virginia. At the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek, Lee repeatedly stalled, but failed to stop, Grant's southward progress toward Richmond. The next logical military objective for Grant was the crossroads styled by locals Old Cold Harbor.

     Anticipating another Federal move to the southeast, General Lee's 55,000 troops left Spotsylvania and headed for the North Anna River, arriving on May 22. Grant and Meade attacked Lee on May 23, and seized Telegraph Bridge over the North Anna. Other Federal troops crossed the river near Jericho Mill, and repulsed a savage assault from A. P. Hill. Despite being ill and bedridden, Lee planned a unique, inverted V-shaped line that separated the Federal crossing points. On May 24, the Federals sustained heavy losses at Ox Ford, and failed to unite their lines. Unable to breach Lee's defenses, -the Federal army abandoned the North Anna on May 27, and again ventured to the southeast.
       On May 28, the Federals slipped across the Pamunkey River at Hanovertown. Their cavalry screened the move by engaging the Confederates in an intense battle at Haw's Shop (or Enon Church). Lee guessed the Federals would drive west against the Richmond railroads, and on May 29 he assumed a defensive line along Totopotomoy Creek. The armies skirmished for three days until, on June 1, General Sheridan's cavalry seized the important crossroads at Cold Harbor, only ten miles from Richmond. Both armies at once converged on this strategic point. The Confederates spent all the following day constructing a strong line of fortifications.
       Grant and Meade attacked on June 3. In a series of frontal assaults, the Federals were slaughtered, sustaining approximately 7,000 casualties compared to Confederate losses of 1,500. Grant always regretted ordering the assault at Cold Harbor.
       The Federals dug in. For ten days, the two antagonists remained in their trenches. But the Federal commanders had no intention of fighting a stagnant war of siege and attrition, and now proposed one final, side-stepping movement around Lee's Confederates. The Federal army would direct its next move against Richmond's railroad center, at Petersburg. Lee, his army lacking the strength to take the initiative, was compelled to wait for the next Federal attack to come.
Grant's advance to Petersburg is now popularly known as the Siege of Petersburg.

 

Battle of Cold Harbor: A Timeline

MAY 31,1864

After sparring along the Totopotomoy northeast of Richmond, Grant ordered Major General Philip Sheridan's cavalry to move south and capture the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. Arriving near the intersection, the Union force ran into Major General Fitzhugh Lee's Confederate horsemen.

A sharp contest ensued, soon joined by Confederate infantry under Brigadier General Thomas Clingman of Major General Robert Hoke's division. After a short battle, Union cavalry drove the Confederates beyond the crossroads. The Rebels then started digging new positions a half mile to the southwest.

JUNE 1

Lee desired to retake Old Cold Harbor and sent Major General Joseph Kershaw's troops to join Hoke in a morning assault. The effort was short and uncoordinated. Hoke failed to press the attack and Sheridan's troopers, armed with Spencer repeating carbines, easily repulsed the assault.

Grant, encouraged by this success, ordered up reinforcements and planned his own attack for later the same day. If the Union frontal assault broke through the Confederate defenses, it would place the Union army between Lee and Richmond. After a hot and dusty night march, Major General Horatio Wright's VI Corps arrived and relieved Sheridan's cavalry, but Grant had to delay the attack Major General William Smith's XVIII Corps, Army of the James, marching in the wrong direction under out-of-date orders, had to retrace its route and arrived late in the afternoon.

The Union attack finally began at 5 p.m. Finding a fifty yard gap between Hoke's and Kershaw's divisions, Wright's veterans poured through, capturing part of the Confederate lines. A southern counterattack however, sealed off the break and ended the day's fighting. Confederate infantry strengthened their lines that night and waited for the battle to begin next morning.

On June 1, 1864, "A tall and uncommonly fine looking officer in the front rank of the enemy's column, looking me directly in the face, took off his cap and cheered his men with words I could not catch."  General Clingman referring to Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery during the Battle of Cold Harbor. Kellogg had been about ten paces directly in front of Clingman. And within moments of exclaiming those words, Kellogg received two bullets to the head and immediately fell dead.

JUNE 2

Disappointed by the failed attack Grant planned another advance for 5 a.m. on June 2. He ordered Major General Winfield Hancock's II Corps to march to the left of the VI Corps. Exhausted by a brutal night march over narrow, dusty roads, the II Corps did not arrive until 6:30 a.m. Grant postponed the attack until 5 p.m. Later that day, he approved a postponement until 4:30 a.m. of June 3 because of the spent condition of Hancock's men.

The Union delays gave Lee precious hours, time he used to strengthen his defenses. The Confederates had built simple trenches by daybreak of June 2. Under Lee's personal supervision, these works were expanded and strengthened throughout the day. By nightfall the Confederates occupied an interlocking series of trenches with overlapping fields of fire. Reinforcements under Major General John Breckinridge and Lieutenant General Ambrose Hill arrived and fortified the Confederate right. Lee was ready.

JUNE 3

At 4:30 on the morning of June 3 almost 50,000 Federal troops in the II, VI and XVIII Corps launched a massive assault. The Confederate position, now well entrenched, proved too strong for the Union troops. In less than an hour, thousands of Federal soldiers lay dead and dying between the lines. Pinned down by a tremendous volume of Confederate infantry and artillery fire, Grant's men could neither advance nor retreat. With cups, plates, and bayonets, they dug makeshift trenches. Later, when darkness fell, these trenches were joined and improved.

JUNE 4-12

The great attack at Cold Harbor was over. Hundreds of wounded Federal soldiers remained on the battlefield for four days as Grant and Lee negotiated a cease-fire. Few survived the ordeal.

From June 4 to June 12 both armies fortified their positions and settled into siege warfare. The days were filled with minor attacks, artillery duels and sniping. With the Union defeat at Cold Harbor, Grant changed his overall strategy and abandoned further direct moves against Richmond. On the night of June 12 Union forces withdrew and marched south towards the James River. During the two week period along the Totopotomoy and at Cold Harbor, the Federal army lost 12,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured while the Confederates suffered almost 4,000 casualties.

Grant's next target was Petersburg and the railroads that provided needed supplies to the Confederate army. Cold Harbor proved to be Lee's last major field victory and changed the course of the war from one of maneuver to one of entrenchment.

Sources: The Atlas of the Civil War, edited by James M. McPherson; National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Richmond National Battlefield Park; Rhea, Gordon C., Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee May 26th-June 3, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002; Fox, William F., Regimental Losses in the American Civil War, Albany Publishing, 1889.

Recommended Reading: Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864. Library 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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