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Cold Harbor Tavern
Cold Harbor Tavern.
From a photograph taken in 1885 as it appears in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War.

Cold Harbor

Where and what was Cold Harbor? Cold Harbor was a seedy looking tavern, squatting by a dusty crossroads 8 miles from Richmond, on the flat, featureless plain, intersected by hundreds of small creeks, gullies, and swamps, that is characteristic of the land between the Pamunkey and the Chickahominy Rivers. There wasn't a harbor for miles and it was anything but cold. It was the only Cold Harbor in the United States, although there were many Cold Harbors on the stagecoach routes along the Thames River in England. The name indicated a place to get a bed for the night and something cold to drink, but not hot meals.

But these dusty crossroads were strategically important if Grant was to attack Richmond, and both Lee and Grant realized it. Also, it was Grant's last chance to continue his strategy of trying to get between Lee and Richmond—any more flanking movements and Lee would be in the entrenchments around the Confederate Capital where Grant did not want to fight him. As Grant stated: "Richmond was fortified and entrenched so perfectly that one man inside to defend was more than equal to five outside besieging or assaulting."

It is significant that Lee also did not want to fight in the entrenchments around Richmond. There he would be on the defensive, and in such a position could not possibly destroy Grant's army. So both commanders were willing for the test.

And what of the lowly foot-soldier, the unsung hero in the ranks, the poor bloody infantryman? Was he ready for the awful test?

Confederate camp
Confederate camp.
From a contemporary sketch.

To the average soldier, this whole campaign was fast becoming just a series of hazy, indistinct recollections, like the fragments of a half-forgotten dream: Long columns of sweat-soaked soldiers marching over hills and rivers and swamps, across ploughed fields and corn fields, down endless dusty roads through dark, lonely woods; 30 days of marching by night and fighting by day, until it must have seemed to them that the only things left in life were stupefying fatigue, merciless heat, choking dust, smoke and noise, mud and blood.

In the Union ranks many of the men began to find out for the first time what hunger really was. They had moved so fast and so often the ration wagons were left far behind. Hardtack was selling for a dollar apiece—if you could find a seller. And here at Cold Harbor the soldiers wrote their names and regiments on pieces of paper and pinned or sewed them to the inside of their dirty blouses, with the forlorn hope that if and when they were killed someone might take the time to find out who they were.

To Lee's barefoot, ragged veterans, hunger had been a constant companion for a long time, but at Cold Harbor they approached starvation. A Confederate sergeant recorded in his diary: "When we reached Cold Harbor the command to which I belonged had been marching almost continuously day and night for more than fifty hours without food, and for the first time we knew what actual starvation was." When scurvy appeared among the men, owing primarily to a lack of fresh vegetables, Lee advised them to eat the roots of the sassafras and wild grape, if they could find any.

In the race for initial possession of the crossroads at Cold Harbor, Lee's cavalry won by a few hours. But in the afternoon of May 31 Gen. Philip Sheridan's cavalry drove them out and held the crossroads until relieved by the Federal VI Corps under Gen. Horatio Wright. Most of Sheridan's troopers were armed with the new Spencer repeating carbine, which made dismounted cavalrymen effective infantry.

The next morning, June 1, Lee threw Gen. Richard Anderson's corps (Longstreet's old corps—Longstreet having been wounded in the Wilderness) against the Federal VI Corps in a bold attempt to sieze the crossroads and roll up Grant's left flank before he could reinforce it, but Anderson was repulsed. Grant then moved the XVIII Corps under "Baldy" Smith, which he had borrowed from Butler's army bottled up on the south side of the James, over to the right of the VI Corps. That afternoon they attacked Anderson, now supported by Gen. Robert Hoke's division.

The assault failed to break the Confederate line, but it did bend it back in several places. Grant believed that with a greater concentration a breakthrough could be achieved. Consequently, he ordered the II Corps under Gen. Winfield Hancock over to the left of the VI Corps, between it and the Chickahominy River, and planned an all out attack by the three corps for the morning of June 2.

Anticipating the move, Lee put A. P. Hill, supported by Gen. John Breckinridge's division, over to his right between Anderson and the Chickahominy and waited.

The expected attack failed to materialize, however. Hancock got lost in the woods and swamps moving to his assigned position, and after an all-night forced march the men were too exhausted to mount an attack. Any chance the assault might have had for success was now gone. The delay was fortunate for Lee because Breckinridge also got lost and was not in position to support Hill on the morning of June 2. The attack was then ordered for that afternoon but again postponed until 4:30 the morning of June 3. And each corps commander received a telegram from Grant's headquarters that read: "Corps Commanders will employ the interim in making examinations of the ground in their front and perfecting arrangements for the assault."

Federal trenches at Cold Harbor
Federal trenches at Cold Harbor,
From a contemporary sketch.

Lee's veterans took advantage of this fatal 24-hour delay to entrench themselves quickly and effectively, using every creek, gully, ravine, and swamp in such fashion that all approaches to their positions could be covered with a murderous fire. A newspaper reporter present at Cold Harbor wrote a vivid description of those entrenchments. "They are intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade opposing lines * * * works within works and works outside works, each laid our with some definite design."

Lee needed this strong position; he would fight at Cold Harbor without a reserve. He wrote to Jefferson Davis: "If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve, he will turn me; if I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them."

Grant's battle plan was relatively uncomplicated. It was, essentially, a simple, frontal assault. Hancock's II Corps and Wright's VI Corps, between the Chickahominy and the Cold Harbor road (now State Route 156), together with Smith's XVIII Corps north of the road, were to attack all out and break the Confederate lines. Gen. Gouverneur Warren's V Corps, north of the XVIII, was to be held in reserve, while Burnside's IX Corps, on Grant's extreme right, was not to enter the fight unless Lee weakened his line in that sector, then it would attack, supported by the V Corps. Lee did not weaken any part of his line, so these two corps were not engaged to any appreciable extent. Thus the battle actually took place on approximately a 2&nbps;1/2-mile front, although the armies stretched for 6 miles from south to north, with the Union army facing west. Grant's total strength was over 100,000 men, but less than 50,000 were actually engaged in the struggle.

Lee now had A. P. Hill, supported by Breckinridge, on his south flank next to the Chickahominy opposite Hancock and Wright. Hoke's division straddled the Cold Harbor road with Gen. Joseph Kershaw's division just north of Hoke, then Anderson and Gen. Richard Ewell's corps. Lee's total strength consisted of less than 60,000 men, but only about half were involved in the action of June 3.

It rained all night the night of June 2. Toward morning the heavy rain died to a soft, sticky mist that held the area in clammy fingers. The first gray streaks of dawn warned of the approach of a scorching sun that would turn the rain-soaked plain, with its myriad streams and swamps, into a steaming cauldron. Promptly at 4:30 the three corps jumped off to the attack, knowing nothing of the strength of the Confederate positions they would have to face. The corps commanders had ignored Grant's telegraphed order of the previous afternoon and no proper reconnaissance was made.

The average soldier saw little in any battle in the Civil War, and even less at Cold Harbor because of the terrain. But as the first yellow rays of the sun shifted the gray mists, most of the Union soldiers could see the main line of Confederate entrenchments across the open spaces in front of them—a tracing of raw earth that had been turned up like a huge furrow, along a line of uneven ridges, looking empty but strangely ominous. Here and there bright regimental colors perched insolently on the dirt hills.

Federal coehorn mortars
Federal coehorn mortars at Cold Harbor.
From a contemporary sketch.

Suddenly, it seemed, the line was dotted with black slouch hats and glistening bayonets. Yellow sheets of flame flashed from end to end, then disappeared in a heavy cloud of smoke. Regiment after regiment exploded into action with a metallic roar. Gigantic crashes of artillery split the air. Shells screamed overhead like a pack of banshees, exploding in clouds of earth, horses, and men. The noise roared to a crescendo with a volume of sound that left the men dazed and confused. One veteran said it was more like a volcanic blast than a battle.

It was over in less than 30 minutes, but 7,000 killed and wounded Union soldiers were left lying in the sun between the trenches. Said one general sadly: "In that little period more men fell bleeding as they advanced than in any other like period of time throughout the war."

Those not already killed or wounded threw themselves on the ground and desperately heaved up little mounds of earth in front of them with bayonets, spoons, cups, and broken canteens. They could neither advance nor retreat—nothing standing could live long in that hail of lead and iron. They just dug in and stayed there.

Looking for a friend at Cold Harbor
Looking for a friend at Cold Harbor.
From a contemporary sketch.

A peculiar thing about the battle came to light afterwards. The three corps commanders sent identical telegrams to Grant's headquarters, each accusing the other of not supporting him in the attack. Later it was discovered what had actually happened. Hancock, on the left, had veered to his left because of the heavy fire from there and the peculiarities of the terrain. Wright, in the center, had gone straight ahead. And Smith, on the right, bore off to his right because of swamps and ravines. So the farther they advanced the more separated they became and the more their flanks were left open to a deadly crossfire.

No other major assault was attempted by either army, although the troops stayed in the hot, filthy trenches until June 12, with constant, nerve-wracking sharpshooting and skirmishing. From June 1 to 12 the Union losses totaled 12,700; Confederate losses are estimated at between 1,500 and 2,000.

Cold Harbor proved to be Lee's last major victory in the field, and although it was a military zero so far as Grant was concerned, it turned out to be one of the most important and significant battles fought during the Civil War. The results of this battle changed the course of the war in the east from a war of maneuver to a war of siege. It also influenced the strategy and tactics of future wars by showing that well-selected, well-manned entrenchments, adequately supported by artillery, were practically impregnable to frontal assaults.

Pontoon bridge
Pontoon bridge across the James.
Courtesy, National Archives.

On June 5, Grant decided to bypass Richmond, cross the James and attack Petersburg, an important railway center 25 miles south of the Confederate Capital. This would still keep Lee's army pinned down, and if successful would cut communications between Richmond and the rest of the Confederacy.

On June 6 he withdrew Warren's V Corps from the lines and used it to secure the passages across the Chickahominy and down to the James. On June 7 he sent Sheridan, with two divisions of cavalry, back into the Shenandoah Valley against Early. To counter this, Lee was forced to send Gen. Wade Hampton's cavalry after Sheridan, which in effect left Lee without adequate cavalry. During the night of June 12 Grant secretly moved all the troops out of the trenches at Cold Harbor, without Lee's being aware of the move until the following morning, and by June 16 the Army of the Potomac of over 100,000 men, 5,000 wagons, 2,800 head of cattle, and 25,000 horses and mules, were all safely across the James River. Richmond was saved for another 10 months.

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