June 12, 1864 – This Day During The American Civil War – Battle of Cold Harbor
June 12, 1864 – The Battle of Cold Harbor occurred May 31–June 12, 1864, just outside of the Confederate capitol of Richmond, Virginia, during the American Civil War. Cold Harbor was the final battle of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, which began in early May 1864 with the Battle of the Wilderness. The main part of the Battle of Cold Harbor was a frontal assault on Confederate lines that ended in nearly 7,000 Union casualties after less than an hour—by some accounts most were lost in as little as 10 minutes. It was one of the most brutal confrontations of the war.
Grant intended to attack General Robert E. Lee’s army, cut his supply lines from the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond, and isolate him from the Confederate capital. Grant knew he would be able to overpower and outman Lee if he could draw him out of his fortifications and onto an open battlefield, which he had been unsuccessful at doing so far in the campaign.
Having recently taken command of all Union armies, Grant chose to remain in the field during the Overland Campaign, in such close proximity to Major General George Meade and the Army of the Potomac that questions had arisen about their roles and responsibilities, leading to confusion in orders and coordination. Their progress toward Richmond from Spotsylvania and Orange counties, where the Battle of the Wilderness took place, was painstaking but steady. By the end of May, Old Cold Harbor, in Hanover County, Virginia, was a now-strategic crossroads 10 miles to the northeast of the city. During the Seven Days Battle in the spring of 1862, the Battle of Gaines Mill had been fought in this same area.
On May 29, Grant ordered Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry to probe Lee’s right flank. That took Sheridan into Old Cold Harbor where he confronted infantry and cavalry. After sharp fighting, he took control of the town on May 31. Reconnaissance reported that Lee was extending his right flank, which would cut off the Union’s shortest route to the James River, needed as a critical supply line. If Grant could extend his left flank to the south quickly enough, he could keep access to the James open, overpower the leading edge of Lee’s flank, and come between Lee and Richmond.
Grant by this time seems to have realized the inefficiency of the command system, which had required him and Meade to rely upon multiple exchanges of communications to move troops or initiate attacks. During Cold Harbor, Grant would make strategic decisions, communicate them to Meade, and leave Meade to handle the tactical decisions required to carry out Grant’s orders. Ultimately, no one would fully take control during the fighting, resulting in uncoordinated attacks with disastrous results.
Reinforcements were sent to aid Sheridan: Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps and Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps. Confused orders and bad roads slowed their advance, and the two corps did not arrive until the afternoon of June 1, exhausted. Meade also ordered Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s II Corps to pull out of the Union position held after the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and provide support at Cold Harbor. Shortly after, in the late afternoon, he ordered an attack on the Confederates. Smith and Wright’s exhausted men were able to briefly overrun the trenches only to be pushed back by a strong counterattack.
Meade next ordered an early morning attack on the Confederates, but Smith refused and Hancock’s II Corps had gotten lost and would not arrive until about 6:30 a.m. on June 2. Meade adjusted the time of attack to 5 p.m. that day but Grant, concerned that Hancock’s men wouldn’t be ready to attack, advised Meade to wait until the early morning of June 3.
There had only been a small force of Rebel infantry facing the increasing Union forces in the area on May 31, but thanks to the Union delays Lee, the experienced engineer, had ample time to dig in and reinforce his positions. In addition, in spite of all the delays, the Union did not conduct adequate reconnaissance to assess the enemy strength and did not have a clear view of the Confederate positions because the terrain was heavily wooded and uneven.
Regardless, Union soldiers, most of them veterans, knew that this attack would be costly. That evening, many of them wrote their names on slips of paper and sewed the slips to their uniform coats—a rudimentary form of dog tags—to keep from being buried as “Unknown.”
Finally, early on June 3, the attack began in darkness and dense fog. All five Union corps formed a straight line about seven miles long and advanced. The only coordination from higher command was establishing the time of the advance, marked by a signal gun. The II, VI and XVIII corps were the main attack, on Lee’s right, while Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s IX corps would occupy Lee’s left, preventing the Confederates there from reinforcing his right flank.
As the attack began, the corps became separated by swamps and heavy vegetation, losing contact with each other. Each formation squared off with the Confederate fortifications directly in front of it, providing Lee with the advantage—Confederates were able to easily enfilade the Union troops because of the angles at which Lee had arranged his lines. Estimates are that 7,000 men were killed or wounded in the first hour (some say in the first 10 or 20 minutes) of the assault and the situation did not improve as the Union offensive continued.
The 8th New York Infantry, part of Hancock’s II Corps, sustained the heaviest casualties, losing about a third of their number, most within the first 30 minutes of the battle. The “Bloody 8th,” as they became known, had joined the Overland Campaign after the Battle of the Wilderness and the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, coming from Baltimore where they had served in the city’s defenses.
Only one division had mild success; Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s division of Hancock’s corps was able to overcome part of Lee’s right flank, but without reinforcements—which were requested and available but not provided—any advantage was lost. Facing considerable musket and artillery fire, the rest of the corps advanced as far as they could and dug in, hoping to survive.
As reports came in to Meade, the confusion and lack of coordination of the attack became apparent. Of the three corps in the main attack, none had committed all of its troops. On the Union right, Warren and Burnside were tardy in preparing for their attacks and therefore were unsuccessful in preventing Lee from transferring men to the threatened area.
Meade sent Grant a message indicating that the attack might not be successful, asking if it should be continued. Grant responded by telling Meade to back off as soon as it was clear the attack would fail “but when one does succeed push it vigorously, and if necessary pile in troops at the successful point from wherever they can be taken.” Then Grant moved his headquarters into Meade’s, in effect taking tactical control of the army back.
At 12:30 p.m., after riding the lines himself, Grant suspended the attack, but ordered it renewed later in the afternoon. There were some isolated exchanges of fire, but no advance. Smith flat out refused the order to attack; he never faced any charges or investigation for this act of insubordination.
The following nine days of trench warfare were miserable for both sides, deadly for anyone raising their head above the Union breastworks and deadly for the wounded caught between lines. On June 5, two days after the initial attack, Grant began written communication with Lee to negotiate a truce to retrieve the wounded and dying from between the lines, trying very hard to make it sound as if both sides needed a truce to retrieve casualties. Lee responded he had no casualties to retrieve. Lee had won the fighting and he ultimately won this war of words. Finally, after Grant sent a message that only mentioned his own wounded, Lee agreed. On June 7, a two-hour flag of truce was raised, but by then few of the wounded were found alive. Some had crawled back to their lines under fire, some had been retrieved by comrades during hours of darkness, but thousands died crying out for water under the summer sun over the course of those five days.
Grant, realizing that he could not make further progress, sent Sheridan to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad to the west and planned to send Meade across the James to cut Lee’s supply lines from the south at Petersburg. Finally, late on June 11 or early on June 12, Grant’s aides returned from planning a route for the army across the James River. Grant ordered Meade to leave Cold Harbor as quickly as possible to avoid immediate detection by the Confederates, cross the James, and proceed toward Petersburg. Lee had already guessed that Grant would attack Petersburg and countered by sending II Corps to the Shenandoah Valley in an effort to threaten Washington and distract Grant from Richmond.
Cold Harbor was Grant’s worst defeat of the war. He wrote in his memoirs, “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.” Confederates called Cold Harbor the easiest victory of the war, though it would be Lee’s last great victory.