TIME MACHINE: Battle of Cold Harbor




May 31 to June 12, 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the Civil War conflict known as the Battle of Cold Harbor. This conflict, which lasted over a period of 13 days, proved to be one of the last battles of the Virginia Overland Campaign, which occurred between May and June of 1864.

The Battle of Cold Harbor is known as one of the bloodiest and most lopsided battles fought during the Civil War. On May 31, 1864; the Army of the Potomoc, under the command of Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant and Major-GeneralGeorge G. Meade, swung around the right flank of the Army of Northern Virginia, under Robert E. Lee.

The Union cavalry seized the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, situated 10 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy’s capital. The cavalry managed to hold that spot against Confederate attacks, until the arrival of the Union infantry. Following reinforcements for both armies, they clashed again on the evening of June 1. During that evening, the Union’s VI Corps under Major-General Horatio G. Wright and the XVIII Corps under Major-General William Farrar Smith assaulted the Confederate Army to the west of the crossroads with some success. The following day, the remaining troops of both armies built a series of fortifications seven miles long. Then on June 3, three Union corps attacked the Confederate works on the line’s southern end at dawn. They were easily repulsed with heavy casualties.

Further Union attempts to assault the northern end of the line and resume assaults on the southern end between June 4 and June 12 were also futile. Grant sent a telegram to the Defense Department in Washington, warning that he had not“gained no decisive advantage” after four days. He and Lee communicated with each other between June 5 and 7 via notes without coming to an agreement. When Grant formally requested a two-hour cessation of hostilities, it proved to be too late for most of the wounded, who had become bloated corpses. When Grant realized his army was in a stalemate with the Army of Virginia and that frontal assaults were not the answer, he tried the following:

*He sent Major-General David Hunter to cause a commotion with Lee’s supplies in the Shenandoah Valley so that the latter would be forced to dispatch reinforcements in that area.

*He dispatched two divisions from the Union cavalry under “Philip Sheridan to to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad near Charlottesville.

*And he planned a stealthy operation to withdraw from Lee’s front and move across the James River.

As Grant had hoped, Lee reacted by pulling John C. Breckinridge‘s division from Cold Harbor and sent to Lynchburg to deal with Major-General David Hunter. And by June 12, he assigned Jubal Early permanent command of the Confederates’ Second Corp and send the latter to the Shenandoah Valley. Lee also sent two of his three cavalry divisions in pursuit of Sheridan. This pursuit led to the Battle of Trevilian Station. Despite anticipating the Union Army’s shift across the James River, Lee was taken by surprise when it actually happened. And On June 12, the Army of the Potomac finally disengaged to march southeast to cross the James and threaten Petersburg, a crucial rail junction south of Richmond.

The Battle of Cold Harbor proved to be one of the final victories won by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War. The Army of the Potomoc under Ulysses Grant lost 10,000 to 13,000 in attempting the futile assaults over a period of twelve days. Between early May and early-to-mid June 1864, the Union had a total of 52,000 casualties. Lee’s army had a casualty rate of at least 33,000. Unfortunately, the casualty rate affected the Army of Northern Virginia a lot more. The beginning of the Siege of Petersburg more or less signified the beginning of the end for Lee’s army.

If you want to read more detailed information about the Battle of Cold Harbor, please read the following:

*“Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26 – June 5, 1864” (2014) by Daniel Davis

*“Not War But Murder” (2001) by Ernest B. Furgurson

*“The Greatest Civil War Battles: The Battle of Cold Harbor (2013) by Charles River