Slaughter at Cold Harbor


Disinterring the dead at Cold Harbor, April 1865, National Archives
Disinterring the dead at Cold Harbor, April 1865, National Archives

May of 1864 has seen Grant break winter camp and move steadily south.  After almost a month of continuous combat, the exhausted armies face off on the old battlefield of Gaines Mill, on parallel lines about seven miles long near the villages of Old Cold Harbor and New Cold Harbor, just a few miles east of Richmond.  On June 1st, Lee focuses on Old Cold Harbor, where Custer’s entrenched cavalry hold the village. Confederate infantry under Hoke are nearby, having been detached from Beauregard’s command at Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Lee.

On the morning of June 1st, Confederate infantry assaults the Yankee cavalry at Old Cold Harbor, spearheaded by a fresh regiment of South Carolinians under a Laurence Kiett, a fire-eating congressman notorious for pulling a pistol on the House floor to prevent anyone aiding Charles Sumner as he was nearly caned to death in 1856 and for starting a 50 congressman brawl on the floor in 1858.  Based upon a misunderstanding, Hoke does not join Keitt’s attack.  Custer’s troopers wait behind breastworks with their Spencer repeating carbines and revolvers.  Keitt discovers that Custer’s boys are a little tougher than the sissy abolitionists he is used to bullying on the House floor.  He is shot off his horse, mortally wounded, and his fresh regiment takes so many casualties in the five minute firestorm that it is effectively put out of action.  Prudent Confederate commanders cancel additional attacks for the day.

Toward evening on the 1st, Grant decides to counter-attack the Confederate line near Old Cold Harbor.  His men have to navigate an abattis of fallen pines, then confront entrenched Confederate veterans across open ground.  Disciplined Confederates hold their fire until the advancing Yankees are so close they are practically singed by the muzzle-flashes of the first volley.  No one can stand against this and the Yankees break.  Twenty-four year old general Emory Upton covers his men’s retreat, making a stand behind a tree and firing as quickly as loaded muskets can be passed to him.  When the ammo runs out, Upton bellows: “Catch them on your bayonets and pitch them over your heads.”  Nightfall ends the fighting, though some continue to fire blindly at muzzle-flashes in the darkness.

Amazingly, Upton lives.  He later writes his sister that the fighting on June 1st was “a murderous engagement”, complaining that “twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should today be in our ranks” but for reckless decisions at the corps level to attack without knowing what was in front of them.  Meade, whose sensible reluctance to squander lives against trenches led to his demotion, echoes Upton’s misgivings, only he faults Grant personally for needless losses.

On June 2nd, Grant plans a dawn attack, but troops arrive late and exhausted from a night march.  The attack is postponed until the late afternoon.  But many of Grant’s men are still spent and the assault is pushed forward to 4:30 a.m. on June 3rd.  Lee uses this time to strengthen and improve his trenches.  We often forget that Lee was an engineer by training and fortifications were his specialty.  Having fortified Richmond, he was nick-named “the King of Spades” before his debut as a field commander in 1862.  By the end of the day, his men are behind thick breastworks fronted by abattis, with batteries enfilading the lines of approach with fields of interlocking fire, and aiming stakes set out at predetermined ranges.  Lee has not squandered this time at all.  Then he is reinforced by Breckinridge and Hill.  With Lee’s left anchored on the Totopotomy and his right on the Chickahominy, this seven mile line cannot be flanked, only confronted.

Yankee veterans shudder – fresh from Spotsylvania, they know what these trenches mean.  They spend their night writing letters home and sewing identification in their uniforms so that their graves can be properly marked when relatives come to claim the bones.  One realist named Joseph Hume pens a final diary entry: “June 3.  Cold Harbor.  I was killed.”  Hume is close; he will die of his wounds on the 4th.

At 4:30 a.m. on June 3rd, a signal gun booms and Grant launches one of the largest assaults of the war – across the entire seven mile front 50,000 men step out into the dark and fog.  Grant means to shatter Lee’s exhausted army in one overwhelming assault, then on to Richmond ten miles beyond.  But it is a disaster – 7000 Yankees fall within an hour, most within the first ten or twenty minutes.  As the sun comes up, survivors are pinned down in the open under interlocking fields of fire.  Unable to withdraw, they burrow for their lives with cups and bayonets, some sheltering behind the bodies of the dead.  Confederate snipers are merciless.  Grant suspends the attack at around noon.  He orders new attacks that afternoon; but these orders are ignored (tellingly, without subsequent courts martial).  By nightfall, the Yankees have a new line of trenches, in places within a stone’s throw of the Confederate line.

Between the lines are hundreds of dead and wounded Federals.  The convention of the time is that the first side to ask for a truce is deemed the loser.  It is not until June 5th that a stubborn Grant opens negotiations, suggesting that both sides need a cease-fire to retrieve their wounded.  Lee replies that his wounded have already been tended to.  As the dead bloat and stink, Grant finally humbles himself and asks for a truce, implicitly conceding defeat.  On the 7th, Lee relents and grants the Yankees two hours. Wounded who had not crawled back or been rescued under cover of dark have already perished of shock or thirst under the hot Virginia sun; only two are found alive.  For those who believe in ghosts, one may see some of Cold Harbor’s here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiD_IfrSFXU.

The two armies continue to snipe across no-man’s land under the hot sun for several more days.  Grant knows he can neither flank nor break this line.  On the night of June 12th, he instructs Meade to disengage as quickly and silently as possible, proceed to the James, cross on pontoon bridges, and move on the railheads at Petersburg.  Cold Harbor concludes Grant’s Overland Campaign.  From June 1st through 12th, Grant loses 12,000 men, Lee 4000.  Overall, from the start of the campaign in early May, Grant loses approximately 55,000 of 118,700 men, Lee 33,600 of 64,000.

Lee had previously gone on record as stating that once Grant was across the James, it was only a matter of time.   Grant’s stealth crossing of the James is one of the greatest achievements in military history – brilliantly executed and of huge strategic importance – but what we remember of June 1864 is the hundreds of wounded who die in the sun at Cold Harbor because of Grant’s stubborn pride.  Cold Harbor is Grant’s worst (arguably only) defeat and Lee’s last victory – the siege of Petersburg begins in June of 1864.  In his memoirs Grant writes: “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.”  No doubt Grant’s men would agree.

SOURCES: Jean Edward Smith, Grant; National Park Service, Cold Harbor,
http://www.nps.gov/rich/historyculture/cold-harbor.htm;National Park Services Civil War Series, Battle of Cold Harbor, http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/civil_war_series/11/sec13.htm

Written by: Doug Coleman

Doug Coleman is an attorney and amateur historian in Alexandria; comments and corrections are welcome at dcoleman@cartercoleman.com.

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