COLD HARBOR, VA.
JUNE 1-3, 1864
Cold Harbor, Va., June 1-3, 1864. Army of the Potomac. This was the last engagement of any consequence in the campaign from the Rapidan to the James, which began with the battle of the Wilderness on May 5-7. The severe losses in the Wilderness, at Spottsylvania Court House and along the North Anna river had made necessary several changes, and the Army of the Potomac on the last day of May was organized as follows:
The 2nd corps, Maj.Gen. Winfield S. Hancock commanding, was composed of the three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gen. Francis C.
Barlow, Brig.Gen. John Gibbon and Brig.-Gen. David B. Birney, and the artillery brigade under Col. John C. Tidball.
The 5th corps, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, included four divisions, respectively commanded by Brig.-Gen. Charles Griffin, Henry H. Lockwood, Samuel W. Crawford and Lysander Cutler, and the artillery brigade of Col. Charles S. Wainwright. (On June 2 Crawford's division was consolidated with Lockwood's.)
The 6th corps, Maj.-Gen. Horatio G. Wright commanding, consisted of three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gens. David A. Russell, Thomas H. Neill and James B. Ricketts, and the artillery brigade of Col. Charles H. Tompkins.
The 9th corps, under command of Maj.-Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, was made up of the four divisions commanded by Maj.-Gen. Thomas L. Crittenden, Brig.-Gen. Robert B. Potter, Brig.-Gen. Orlando B. Willcox and Brig. Gen. Edward Ferrero, and the reserve artil-
lery under Capt. John Edwards. (Ferrero's division was composed of colored troops.)
The cavalry corps under Maj.-Gen. P. Sheridan, consisted of three divisions commanded by Brig.-Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert, David McM. Gregg and James H. Wilson, and a brigade of horse artillery under Capt. James M. Robertson.
The 18th corps, formerly with the Army of the James, commanded by Maj. Gen. William F. Smith, embraced three divisions, respectively commanded by Brig.-Gens. William H. T. Brooks, James H. Martindale and Charles Devens, and
The artillery brigade under command of Capt. Samuel S. Elder. This corps was added to the Army of the Potomac just in time to take part in the battle of Cold Harbor.
The artillery reserve was under command of Brig.-Gen. Henry J. Hunt.
On June 1 Grant's forces numbered "present for duty" 113,875 men of all arms. The Confederate army under command of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was organized practically as it was at the beginning of the campaign, with the exception of some slight changes in commanders
and the accession of the divisions of Breckenridge, Pickett and Hoke. Various estimates have been made of the strength of the Confederate forces at Cold Harbor. Maj. Jed Hotchkiss, topographer for Lee's army states it as being 58,000 men, which is
probably not far from the truth.
Cold Harbor is about 3 miles north of the Chickahominy river and 11 miles from Richmond. Grant considered it an important point as several roads centered there, notably among them those leading to Bethesda Church, White House landing on the Pamunkey, and the several crossings of the Chickahominy, offering facilities for the movement of troops in almost any direction. On the last day of May Sheridan sent Torbert's division to drive away from Cold Harbor the Confederate cavalry under Fitzhugh Lee, which was done with slight loss. Gregg's division reinforced Torbert, but the Confederates were also reinforced and Sheridan sent word to Grant that the enemy was
moving a heavy force against the place and that he did not think it prudent to hold on.
In response to this message Sheridan was instructed to hold on at all hazards, as a force of infantry was on the way to relieve him. This infantry force was the 6th corps, which arrived at Cold Harbor at 9 a. m. on the 1st, just as Sheridan had repulsed the second assault by Kershaw's division, the rapid fire of the retreating carbines and the heavy charges of canister proving too much for the enemy. Wright relieved the cavalry and about 2 p. m. Smith's corps came up from Newcastle and took position on the right of the 6th. Both were under instructions to assault as soon as they were ready but the troops were not properly disposed until 6 o'clock that afternoon. When Lee discovered that Grant was moving some of his force to the left of the Federal line, he decided to meet the maneuver by transferring Anderson's corps from the Confederate left to the right in order to confront Wright. Anderson took position on the left of Hoke, whose
division formed the extreme right of Lee's line.
At 6 p. m. Wright and Smith moved forward to the attack. In their front was an open space, varying in width from 300 to 1,2OO yards,
and the moment the first line debauched from the wood the enemy opened fire. The troops pressed forward, however, with an un-
wavering line until they reached the timber on the farther side of the clearing. Ricketts' division struck the main line of entrenchments at the point where Anderson's and Hoke's commands joined, with such force that the flank of each was rolled back and about 500 prisoners were captured. Smith drove the enemy from a line of rifle-pits in the edge of the wood and captured about 250 prisoners, but when he attempted to advance on the main line he was met by such a galling fire that he was compelled to retire to the woods, holding the first line captured.
After trying in vain to dislodge Ricketts the enemy retired from that part of the works and formed a new line some distance in the rear. Wright and Smith then intrenched the positions they had gained and held them during the night, though repeated attacks were made by the enemy in an endeavor to regain the lost ground. Badeau says: "The ground won, on the 1st of June, was of the highest consequence to the national army; it cost 2,000 men in killed and wounded. but it secured the roads to the James, and almost outflanked Lee."
In the meantime Lee had assumed the offensive on his left. Hancock and Burnside along Swift run and near Bethesda Church were attacked, probably with a view to force Grant to draw troops from Cold Harbor to reinforce his right. Three attacks were also made on Warren, whose corps was extended to cover over 4 miles of the line, but each attack was repulsed by artillery alone. Late in the afternoon Hancock was ordered to withdraw his corps early that night and move to the left of Wright at Cold Harbor, using every effort to reach there by daylight the next morning.
Grant's object was to make a general assault as early as possible on the 2nd, Hancock, Wright and Smith to lead the attack, supported by Warren and Burnside, but the night march of the 2nd corps in the heat and dust had almost completely exhausted the men, so that the assault was first postponed until 5 p. m. and then to 4:30 on the morning of the 3d. The 2nd was therefore spent in forming the lines,
in skirmishing and entrenching. In the afternoon it was discovered that a considerable Confederate force under Early was in front of the Federal right and at midnight the orders to Warren and Burnside were modified by directing them, in case Early was still in their front, to attack at 4:30 "in such manner and by such combinations of the two corps as may in both your judgments be deemed best. If the enemy should appear to be in strongest force on our left, and your attack should in consequence prove successful, you will follow it up, closing in
upon them toward our left; if, on the contrary, the attack on the left should be successful, it will be followed up, moving toward our right."
The battle of June 3 was fought on the same ground as the battle of Gaines' mill in the Peninsular campaign of 1862 except the p positions were exactly reversed. Lee now held the trenches, extended and strengthened, that had been occupied by Porter, who, with a single corps, had held the entire Confederate army at bay and even repulsed its most determined attacks, inflicting severe loss upon its charging columns, while the Union troops were now to assault a position which Lee two years before had found to be impregnable. The Confederate right was extended along a ridge, the crest of which formed a natural parapet, while just in front was a sunken road that could be used as an entrenchment.
Promptly at the designated hour the columns of the 2nd, 6th and 18th corps moved to the attack.
Hancock sent forward the divisions of Barlow and Gibbon, sup- ported by Birney. Barlow advanced in two lines under a heavy
fire of infantry and artillery, until the first line encountered the enemy's line in the sunken road. This was quickly dislodged and as the Confederates retired over the crest Barlow's men followed, capturing several hundred prisoners and 3 pieces of artillery. These guns were turned on the enemy, who broke in confusion, leaving the national forces in possession of a considerable portion of the main line of works. The broken ranks were soon rallied and reinforced, a heavy enfilading artillery fire was brought to bear on the assailants, and as
Barlow's second line had not come up in time to secure the advantage gained he gave the order to fall back to a slight crest about 50 yards in the rear, where rifle-pits were dug under a heavy fire, and this position was held the remainder of the day.
Gibbon's division, on the right of Barlow, was also formed in two lines, Tyler's brigade on the right and Smyth's on the left in the first line, McKeen's and Owen's on the right and left respectively in the second. As the division advanced the line was cut in two by an impassable swamp, but the men pushed bravely on, in spite of this obstacle and the galling fire of cannon and musketry that was poured upon them, until close up to the enemy's works. A portion of Smyth's brigade gained the intrenchments, and Col. McMahon, with part of his regiment, the 164th N. Y., of Tyler's brigade, gained the parapet, where McMahon was killed and those who were with him were either
killed or captured, the regimental colors falling into the hands of the Confederates.
Owen had been directed to push forward in column through Smyth's line, but instead of doing so he deployed on the left as soon as Smyth became engaged, thus losing the opportunity of supporting the lodgment made by that officer and McMahon. The result was the assault of Gibbon was repulsed, and the division fell back, taking advantage of the inequalities of the ground to avoid the murderous fire that followed them on their retreat. Some idea of the intensity of the fighting on this part of the line may be gained from the fact that Gibbon's command lost 65 officers and 1,032 men killed and wounded during the assault.
Wright's advance with the 6th corps was made with Russell's division on the left, Ricketts' in the center and Neill's on the right. Neill carried the advanced rifle-pits, after which the whole corps assaulted the main line with great vigor, but the attack was repulsed with heavy loss. The only advantage gained - and this a rather dubious one - by the corps was that of being able to occupy a position closer to the Confederate entrenchments than before the attack.
A description of the attack by the 18th corps is perhaps best given by quoting Smith's report. He says: "In front of my right was an open plain, swept by the fire of the enemy, both direct and from our right; on my left the open space was narrower, but equally covered by the artillery of the enemy. Near the center was a ravine, in which the troops would be sheltered from the cross-fire, and through this ravine I determined the main assault should be made. Gen. Devens' division had been placed on the right to protect our flank and hold as much as possible of the lines vacated by the troops moving forward. Gen. Martindale with his division was ordered to move down the
ravine, while Gen. Brooks with his division was to advance on the left, taking care to keep up the connection between Martindale and the Sixth Corps, and if, in the advance, those two commanders should join, he (Gen. Brooks) was ordered to throw his command behind Gen. Martindale ready to operate on the right flank, if necessary.
The troops moved promptly at the time ordered, and, driving in the skirmishers of the enemy, carried his first line of works or rifle- pits. Here the command was halted under a severe fire to readjust the lines. After a personal inspection of Gen. Martindale's front, I found that I had to form a line of battle faced to the right to protect the right flank of the moving column, and also that no farther advance could be made until the Sixth Corps advanced to cover my left from a cross-fire. Martindale was ordered to keep his column covered as much as possible, and to move only when Gen. Brooks moved. I then went to the front of Gen. Brooks, line to reconnoiter there. Gen. Brooks was forming his column when a heavy fire on the right began, which brought so severe a cross-fire on Brooks that I at once ordered him not to move his men farther, but to keep them sheltered until the cross-fire was over. Going back to the right, I found that Martindale had been suffering severely. and having mistaken the firing in front of the Sixth Corps for that of Brooks had de-
termined to make the assault, and that Stannard's brigade had been repulsed in three gallant assaults."
On the right the attacks of Burnside and Warren were attended by no decisive results. The former sent forward the divisions of Potter and Willcox; Crittenden's being held in reserve. Potter sent in Curtin's brigade, which forced back the enemy's skirmishers carried some detached rifle-pits and buildings, and gained a position close up to the main line, from which the Federal artillery silenced the principal battery inside the Confederate works and blew up two of their caissons. Willcox recaptured a line of rifle-pits from which he had been
driven the day before, Hartranft's brigade driving the enemy to his main entrenchments and establishing itself close in their front. In this attack Griffin's division of the 5th corps cooperated with Willcox. Owing to the necessity of placing artillery in position to silence the enemy's guns, active operations were suspended until 1 p. m.
An order was therefore issued to the various division commanders in the two corps to attack at that hour, and Wilson was directed to move with part of his cavalry division across the Totopotomy, with a view of attacking the Confederate position on the flank and rear. The arrangements were all completed by the appointed time and the skirmish line was about to advance for the beginning of the assault, when an order was received from headquarters to cease all offensive movements, on account of the general repulse on the left.
Meade reported his loss in the battle of Cold Harbor as
1,705 killed, 9,042 wounded and 2,042 missing.
As in the other engagements of the campaign from the Rapidan to the James, no detailed report of the Confederate casualties was made, but Lee's loss at Cold Harbor was comparatively slight. Hotchkiss gives it as "about 1,700." Some of the Federal wounded were brought in at night by volunteers from the entrenching parties, but most of them lay on the field, under the hot sun of a Virginia summer, for three days before Grant would consent to ask permission under a flag of truce to bury the dead and care for the injured. By that time the wounded were nearly all beyond the need of medical aid, and the dead had to be interred almost where they fell.
The assault on the 3d has been severely critcised by military men. Gen. Martin T. McMahon, in "Battles and Leaders," begins his article on the battle of Cold Harbor with the following statement: "In the opinion of a majority of its survivors, the battle of Cold Harbor never should have been fought. There was no military reason to justify it. It was the dreary, dismal, bloody, ineffective close of the Lieuten-
ant-General's first campaign with the Army of the Potomac, and corresponded in all its essential features with what had preceded it."
Grant, in his "Personal Memoirs" (Vol. II, page 276), says: "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. Indeed the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side." After the battle Grant turned his attention to the plan of effecting a junction with Butler and approaching Richmond from the south side of the James, along the lines suggested by McClellan two years before. The "hammering" process had proved to be too costly and the army settled down to a regular siege of the Confederate capital. The campaign from the Rapidan to the James began with the battle of the Wilderness on May 5, and from that time until June 10, when the movement to the James was commenced from Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac lost 54,550 men.
Source: The Union Army, vol. 5