Civil War Battles
State War Records
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The Battle of Second Cold Harbor, the final battle of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign, is remembered as one of history's bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were slaughtered in a hopeless assault against of Gen. Robert E. Lee's fortified troops. Grant said of the battle in his memoirs "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of May 22, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor, no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."
The battle was fought in central Virginia, 10 miles from Richmond. Soldiers were disturbed to discover skeletal remains from the first Battle First Cold Harbor while digging their positions. Cold Harbor was a rural crossroads named for a hotel located in the area, which provided shelter (harbor), but not hot meals. It is located 10 miles from Richmond.
On May 26, during the night, from behind the North Anna River, the Union army initiated another movement beyond the Confederate right flank. Grant, personally directing operations of Meade's army, ordered Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan with 2 cavalry divisions southeastward. The cavalrymen rode throughout the night in a pelting rainstorm.
On May 27, by 9:00 A.M., Sheridan had secured a vital corossing on the Panmunkey River. For the next 2 days, the 4 Union infantry corps shuffled toward the river.
On May 28, Grant had 3 corps across the stream, rimming Hanover Town, on the road to Richmond. During the second day, Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg's Union cavalry division, reconnoitering to the west, struck 3 brigades of Confederate cavalry on a similar mission. For 6 hours, the two forces, fighting dismounted, contested the ground around Haw's Shop.
Since Grant's departure from the North Anna, Gen. Robert E. Lee had cautiously begun moving toward Richmond. Lee believed correctly that Grant would cross near hanover Town. With the intelligence gathered at Haw's Shop, Lee's 3 infantry corps were covering the roads between the Federals and Richmond by darkness of May 28. The artery of approach still open passed through New and old Cold harbor.
On May 29-30, little movement occured, though skirmishes flared periodically along the front. The 2 armies had now become so interlocked that each could readily discover the other's movements. Grant received reinforcements from Bermuda Hundred- the XVII and part of the X Corps, numbering 16,000. Lee, likewise, secured Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke's 6,000-man division from the defenses south of Richmond.
On May 31, in the morning, Grant ordered Sheridan to seize Cold Harbor and the intersecting roads. The battle began when Sheridan's cavalry occupied the crucial crossroads of Old Cold Harbor. Grant hoped that one more attack might finally break Lee's outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia. When Lee learned of Sheridan's movement, he ordered Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, commander of the I Corps, to rtetake the crossroads early on June 1.
Over the next 2 days, Lee and Grant, having disengaged from a standoff at the North Anna River 10 miles to the north, took up new positions. Having received reinforcements, Grant brought 105,000 men onto the field. His reinforcements were often raw recruits and heavy artillery troops unfamiliar with infantry tactics Lee had managed to bring about 60,000 men, mostly veterans moved from inactive fronts. They were strongly entrenched in fortifications.
Grant, unaware of the strength of the Confederate earthworks that confronted his army, directed Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to mount an assault. Meade and his corps commanders failed to conduct any meaningful reconnaissance of the enemy position.
On June 1, at dawn, Anderson's troops advanced on the Union cavalrymen. Two brigades of Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw's division led the charge. Advancing across an open field in serried ranks, the Confederates stormed forward. Sheridan's troopers, armed with spencer repeaters, riddled the Confederate lines, killing a brigade commander. The Confederates reformed and came again, only to be swept back by a withering fire.
About noon, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps replaced the cavalrymen. Wright, ordered to attack when Maj. Gen. William F. Smith's XVIII Corps arrived, waited the entire afternoon. Smith had been ordered to the wrong place, not arriving until 4:00 P.M. Finally, an hour later, 6 Union divisions charged against Anderson and Hoke. The Federals momentarily broke through on one part of the line, but a Confederate counterattack dislodged the Federals.
The news of Wright's and Smith's repulse concluded a difficult day for Grant, one of disjointed operations and missed opportunities. Rightly believing that an early morning, coordinated attack at Cold harbor could secure the field, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps on an all-night march to the crossroads. What Grant asked for, however, the army could not deliver. The torpid heat, suffocating dust, and bone-weary fatigue slowed Hancock's march to a crawl. Not until 6:00 A.M. on June 2nd, did the exhausted leading elements of the corps reach Cold Harbor. Grant held the assault till 5:00 P.M., but additional delays and the condition of Hancock's men finally cancelled the attack until the next morning. The best opportunity of the entire 30-day campaign had slipped by. The failure provided Lee's army all the time they required.
On June 2, Lee funneled his units toward Cold Harbor. By late afternoon, the entire army was filing into their positions along the front, which extended for 7 miles, from Pole Green Church on the north to Grapevine Bridge on the south. The expert Confederates blended their line with all the natural features of the land. With interlocking sectors and overlapping fields of fire, the position was probably the best the Army of Northern Virginia ever defended.
On June 3, precisely at 4:30 A.M., Meade's assault on the Confederate right flank was conducted by 3 corps: Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps, Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright's VI Corps, and Maj. Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps. In double lines along a 6-mile front, they charged the nearly impregnable Confederate position. The Confederates, consisting mostly from the I and III Corps who fought from behind earthworks, slaughtered the Federals as soon as they moved forward.
Before the assault, the Union soldiers had been in no doubt as to what they were up against. Many were seen writing their names on papers that they pinned inside their uniforms, so their bodies could be identified. The II and XVIII Corps, followed later by the IX Corps, assaulted along the Bethesda Church-Cold Harbor line. The concealed Confederates waited patiently; the earthworks suddenly bristled with thousands of rifles. Seconds later, in a volcanic blast of sound and flame, the Confederate line erupted. Then the "inexplicable and incredible butchery began."
Along the entire Union line, the men on the line crumpled in heaps from the Confederate fire. Wright and Smith made little headway in the crossfire. Only on the Union left did 2 brigades of Hancock's corps penetrate the Confederate line. The Federals stood on the breastworks momentarily before being blown away by rifle and canister fire. The assault along the entire front had been completely repulsed in less than a half-hour. Union forces lost between 3,000 and 7,000 men in about 40 minutes. Grant called off the attacks at midday after visiting his corps commanders.
On June 4 , Grant launched no more attacks on the Confederate defenses. He later said that he regretted for the rest of his life the decision to send in his men. The two opposing armies faced each other for nine days of trench warfare, which featured no more large assaults, but nevertheless resulted in doubling casualty figures for the entire battle. Grant was criticized in the Northern press for refusing to negotiate an immediate temporary truce with Lee for the purpose of gathering bodies and treating the wounded between the lines.
On June 12, the Army of the Potomac finally disengaged to march southeast to cross the James River and attack Petersburg, a crucial rail junction south of Richmond.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was the final victory won by Lee's army, and its most decisive in terms of casualties. The Union army, in bravely attempting the futile assault, lost 10–13,000 men over twelve days. The battle brought the toll in Union casualties since the beginning of May to a total of more than 52,000, compared to 33,000 for Lee. Although the cost was horrible, Grant's larger army finished the campaign with lower relative casualties than Lee.
On June 14, the II Corps was ferried across the river at Wilcox's Landing by transports.
On June 15, the rest of the army began crossing on a 2,200-foot long pontoon bridge at Weyanoke. Abandoning the well-defended approaches to Richmond, Grant sought to shift his army quickly south of the river to threaten Petersburg.