Cold Harbor – A Very Hot Battle Nowhere Near A Harbor

Cold Harbor BattlefieldAfter twenty-six days, of unrelenting battles, from May 6–7, at The Wilderness, May 8–21, at Spotsylvania Court House and May 23–26, at the North Anna River, US Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant pushed his Army of the Potomac, further into the Confederacy.  The Overland Campaign had already created the longest casualty lists, of the three year Civil War, and Grant’s commitment to Abraham Lincoln, “that there will be no turning back,” still held true.(i)  With the brilliant disengagement, from a near Federal disaster, at the North Anna River, Grant continued to press around CS General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.  After cavalry battles at Haw’s Shop (May 28) and Old Church (May 30), and a pitched infantry engagement at Totopotomoy Creek (May 28–30) Grant continued to push towards Richmond, Virginia – the Confederate capital.(ii)  On May 31, the Army of the Potomac reached a sleepy crossroads, near the old Seven Days battlefield at Gaines’s Mills, called Cold Harbor.  The unique name could be confusing.  In June, it was far from cold and no where near a harbor.  Upon arriving at the village of Old Cold Harbor, field commander of the Army of the Potomac, US Major General George Gordon Meade found Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia already firmly entrenched to his southeast, at New Cold Harbor. (For a map of the Cold Harbor Battlefield click here.)  This would set the stage for one of the bloodiest battles of the American Civil War – the Battle of Cold Harbor.  The following overview of battle comes from my other website, BattlefieldPortraits.com.

Battle of Cold Harbor

Location: Cold Harbor, VA
Dates: May 31, 1864 – June 12, 1864
Union Commander:  Ulysses S. Grant, Lieutenant General
Confederate Commander:  Robert E. Lee, General

Battle Summary:
Earlier in May, Grant stated to the administration, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”  Obviously aware of the mood of the country, during George B. McClellan’s days leading the Potomac, Grant was determined to get ahead of Lee, during the Overland Campaign of 1864.

After tangling with Lee in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, Grant met Lee at the North Anna River.  Grant recognized this as a dangerous place for his army.  After performing a daring retreat, back across the North Anna River, he moved his army south, across the Pamunkey River.  After a serious cavalry engagement at Haw’s Shop, Grant finds Lee at a dusty crossroads village called Cold Harbor.  In the time it took Grant to reach Cold Harbor, Lee, on a shorter line from the North Anna River, had time to build earth works and trenches.  He deemed these necessary as his smaller army was now backed up against Richmond.  Grant believed the field better for a battle and moved his army into position.

Believing he could punch through Lee’s army, deliver a lethal blow, and move into Richmond, Grant attacked Lee on June 1.  Throwing two corps (US Major Generals Horatio Wright’s VI Corps and William F (Baldy) Smith’s XVIII Corps) into Lee’s entrenched lines, Grant had some success late in the afternoon.

With both armies up, on June 2, the line of battle was seven miles long.    The armies had throughly entrenched their positions, creating the most elaborate line of trenches used thus far in the war.

In position, on the morning of June 3, Grant had three corps (Winfield Hancock’s II Corps, “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps and Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps) attack the Army of Northern Virginia.  The Union assault was repulsed along the entire line, causing huge casualty lists.  In his memoirs, Grant stated that the second assault at Cold Harbor was the one decision he made, that he later regretted.

The Army of the Potomac stayed in position for another week, before Grant decided he needed to continue his push around Lee’s right flank.  Once again, Grant was able to pull out of his works and leave, unnoticed by Lee.

Campaign: Overland

Outcome: Confederate Victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 117,000
Confederate: 60,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 13,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 5,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
Cold Harbor would mark the end of the Overland Campaign.
Grant would relocate his army south of the James River and settle in for a quasi siege of Petersburg (there were several significant battle beside the siege).  While the siege of Petersburg took place over 10 months, Lee knew his army, and the Confederacy, could not survive a siege south of the James.  While the Union had a huge amount of troops they could feed into the Army of the Potomac, Lee could not replace lost troops.

For additional reading, please refer to the following articles on the Overland Campaign and Cold Harbor.

  1. 2nd Regiment Connecticut Heavy Artillery
  2. The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House – A New Level of Fighting
  3. Battle of the Wilderness – Grant Takes it to Lee

(i) See The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House – A New Level of Fighting at The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House – A New Level of Fighting.
(ii) Refer to the Overland Campaign at Wikipedia.com.

About Michael Noirot

I grew up in the Central Illinois farming community, of Dunlap. Growing up, I played sports, tinkered with cars and enjoyed photography. While I did well in school, I did not become passionate about history until my early 30's. I have built a large library, of books on early America, politics and the Civil War. I am an avid reader. Fortunately, I have had plenty of opportunities to travel, over the years, and have been to most of the Civil War battlefields. I work while I travel, so more often than not, I am up, in the middle of the night, to get sunrise pictures, or I will be out until well after dark, exploring Civil War battlefields. I have other hobbies, and passions, that I really enjoy. Number one on the list would be guitar. I play my guitars on a regular basis, and enjoy the Bluegrass, and Contemporary Christian (CCM) genres. I play a style of guitar, called FLATPICKING, where using a flat pick, you play lead solos, similar to the way a fiddle would have been played during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Laura, my wife, and I also enjoy scuba diving, travel and spending time at our property, in the country. Lastly, we spend as much time with our families, as possible. Thanks for stopping by.
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