Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, USA
Grant had around 108,000 men, Lee 62,000.
This was a one-sided bloodbath. Grant lost 13,000 men for Lee’s 2,500.
Since the start of the 1864 campaign Grant had been searching for Lee’s right flank, and Cold Harbor was one more example. Lee had blocked the Union advance on the Totopotomoy Creek, and Grant recognized the strength of the defenses and organized yet another outflanking move. This time he supported it with troops from the Army of the James, which had been intended to operate against Richmond or Petersburg but which the incompetent Ben Butler had led nowhere. To get some use from the men Grant had to take them away from Butler, so “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps came a short distance north to support Sheridan’s cavalry.
On May 31, Sheridan’s cavalry seized the vital crossroads of Old Cold Harbor. In Union hands, they allowed rapid north-south movement toward Petersburg, and offered the opportunity to outflank the Army of Northern Virginia. If the rebels held on to the crossroads, then Grant would have to make substantially longer outflanking marches, giving Lee time to react.
Sheridan’s men sparred with Confederate cavalry, and might have exploited their early victory, because the infantry supporting Fitz Lee’s cavalry fell back when the cavalry fell back. But the Union horsemen felt they’d risked enough, and didn’t feel like pressing the battle against further infantry that was available. Sheridan was still thinking like a raiding cavalry leader, interested in winning one day’s battle at a time rather than as a strategic leader, extracting maximum advantage from every opportunity.
Lee was not discouraged by the events on his flank; rather he hoped to turn the tables and counterattack. He withdrew Richard (Fighting Dick) Anderson’s corps of almost 12,000 (with the troops already around Cold Harbor the total would be 15,000) from his left and marched it opposite Cold Harbor to pounce on the Union advance guard. He was hoping to bag more than the cavalry, because he knew that Grant would send infantry reinforcements. Lee was also betting that his troops would arrive not only sooner than Grant’s men, but less fatigued because their march was shorter. He was right – Anderson had his men in position in time, and the available Union infantry was physically spent after roundabout marches on sandy roads in the heat of a Virginia summer.
But all of that didn’t help the Confederate attack. Anderson picked Joe Kershaw’s division to lead the attack; Kershaw picked his old brigade as spearhead of a reconnaissance in force. Most of the brigade were experienced veterans, but a new and very green regiment (the 20th South Carolina, well drilled but new to battle) had the senior colonel. He mismanaged the attack, personally leading it on horseback waving his saber to encourage the men. This backfired when the Union cavalry shot him – instead of inspiring his men they broke and ran, collapsing the whole attack. The second brigade that was feeling out the Union line also fell back once their flank was unsupported.
Kershaw tried to organize some attacks later in the day, but Anderson was inexperienced as a corps commander and ineffective. There was delay after delay, and the veteran troops could sense the results: the chance of a successful attack was slipping away, so they started digging.
Union reinforcements were on their way. Meade was sending Wright’s VI Corps from the north, and Grant had ordered up Baldy Smith’s XVIII Corps from the opposite direction. (Meade probably should have picked another corps that was closer to Cold Harbor – Wright’s men had to move all the way from the Union right flank to the new left flank.) Wright’s men had been marching hard for two days, and were spent when they arrived in late morning; Smith’s troops were late because of confused orders that sent them down the wrong road (when they discovered the mistake they were stuck behind VI Corps on the right road, and further delayed). But by late afternoon there were two corps of Federals poised to attack. They started at 4:30, and quickly drove back the skirmish line protecting the main defenses. But the Confederates were wizards with their spades, and had an adequate defensive line. The first volley was “a sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood” and the initial rush fell back. In one sector Union troops hit a seam between Rebel units and sent a brigade tumbling back. But the attackers stopped to mop up and secure their prisoners, yielding enough time for a counterattack to seal off the penetration.
June 1 ended with about 2,400 Union casualties (the great majority in the afternoon attack) against a bit over 1,000 Rebel losses (roughly three-quarters in the afternoon). The two Union corps at Cold Harbor needed reinforcements, which were on the way, but it would depend on who got their reinforcements their sooner.
Grant and Lee were both shifting troops rapidly. Grant intended to attack at 5am on the 2nd, all along the line but with the main emphasis against what he judged was Anderson’s shaken corps. Hancock (II Corps) was to make a night march and go around Wright’s VI Corps, but he was late – his men too were suffering from the heat and lack of water in tidewater Virginia. 5am was impossible, and reluctantly Grant postponed it to 5pm – then when he saw the condition of Hancock’s men, sweltering in the Virginia sun which turned steamy thanks to afternoon rain, he delayed it again to dawn on the 3rd.
The main Confederate effort was digging: everywhere looking down at Cold Harbor (the rebels were on slightly higher ground) they dug. But Lee was not a passive general, and probed the Union northern flank (Burnside’s and Warren’s corps) to see if he could swing behind Grant. They drove back the pickets and took some prisoners, but the afternoon rain put an end to the fighting – powder still needed to be dry.
The night of June 2-3 passed quietly. Most Union veterans could not sleep, knowing what dawn would bring. Many sewed their name and address onto the back of their uniforms so that relatives could be notified if they were killed – dogtags were still in the future. The troops sensed what Grant was not seeing: the defenses would be strong, even though (thanks to the lie of the land) they couldn’t be observed.
Dawn arrived, the last for so many of the men, and at 4:30 the signal gun sounded. II, VI, and XVIII Corps made the main attack. It was the costliest single attack the Army of the Potomac ever made, in numbers and morale. Details of the battle make little difference: nowhere did the blueclad troops beak the line; everywhere they attacked there were rows of dead and wounded. Artillery and infantry both did tremendous execution, and in half an hour the attack was stopped dead. Confederate troops were appalled, finding it more who were trying to retreat (something that seldom happened earlier), which kept the Union troops pinned down all day long, with sharpshooters killing individuals.
Yet Grant intended to resume the attack, without even an artillery bombardment. Baldy Smith was livid at how things went, and blamed Meade. Grant in turn thought Smith was attacking him through Meade, and he was a marked man. When next Smith complained (justifiably, about Ben Butler), Grant sacked him, losing a good fighting general.
Grant commented in his memoirs that Cold Harbor was the only attack he wished he had never ordered. He also continued his pattern of not allowing truces to recover wounded and dead. It was four days before stretcher bearers could move freely. Negotiations had taken two days, but Grant had waited two days before writing to Lee. The best that can be said about it is he presumably bought some time for Sheridan to move troops out to the Shenandoah, but he bought it at terrible price for the wounded men who died of lack of water or attention in those 96 hours. What’s more, both armies had to listen to the groans and cries of the wounded for all that time, and Union troops became even more reluctant to attack fortifications.
From 108,000 men, Grant lost about 13,000; Lee had 62,000 and lost a bit over 2,500. Despite the demoralization and the losses, Grant had the strategic edge. It was more than the crumbling Confederacy, Grant had advantages over Lee. Grant could pick where to attack, where to move; Lee had to stay close to Richmond.
The armies confronted each other on the same ground until the night of June 12, when Grant again advanced by his left flank, marching to James River. 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.
Content provided by:
American Battlefield Protection Program, Heritage Preservation Services, National Park Service.
Cold Harbor -- General Martin T. McMahon
The Eighteenth Corps at Cold Harbor -- General Wm. Farrar Smith
Notes on Cold Harbor -- George Cary Eggleston