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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

JUNE 2: GRANT DELAYS

Despite his displeasure over Grant's fondness for assaults, Meade concluded that an attack early on the morning of June 2 at Old Cold Harbor stood a fair chance of success. The trick was to concentrate sufficient firepower before Lee could bring up reinforcements. Meade articulated his thoughts in a message to Wright. "I do not like extending too much," he began, referring to the miles of Union trenches stretching from Totopotomoy Creek cross-country to Cold Harbor, "It is the trouble we have had all along of occupying too long lines and not massing enough." To remedy this deficiency, Meade proposed shifting Hancock from the northern end of the Union line to Wright's left flank. As soon as Hancock moved into place, the three Union corps at Cold Harbor—Smith, Wright, and Hancock—were to attack in unison.


During the night of June 1-2, Hancock undertook a fatiguing march to the lower end of the Union line. His men reached their destination long after dawn and I were too weary to participate in an attack.

During the night of June 1-2, Hancock undertook a fatiguing march to the lower end of the Union line. His men reached their destination long after dawn and were too weary to participate in an attack. Bowing to the inevitable, Grant postponed the assault until 5:00 P.M., then put it off again until 4:30 the next morning. He directed his generals to "employ the interim in making examination of the ground in their fronts, and perfecting their arrangements for the assault."

Grant's delay gave Lee time to counter. With Hancock gone from Totopotomoy Creek, Lee was free to shift Breckinridge to the far Confederate right, where he would once again confront Hancock. For several uneasy hours, Hoke's lower flank was vulnerable to attack by Hancock, but finally Breckinridge moved into place. A stretch of high ground called Turkey Hill dominated the battlefield's southern sector. Realizing Turkey Hill's importance, Lee had Breckinridge drive off the small Federal force holding the ridge and deploy his troops along it. Lee also moved two of Hill's divisions—Mahone's and Wilcox's—south to support Breckinridge and stationed Fitzhugh Lee's cavalry to patrol below the army's lower flank. This extended Lee's formation almost to the Chickahominy. The movement of Breckinridge, Wilcox, and Mahone opposite Hancock left Heth's division of Hill's corps facing Burnside on Totopotomoy Creek and Early confronting Warren near Bethesda Church.

During the afternoon, Grant tidied up his lines. Under cover of a thunderstorm, Warren extended his left to connect with Smith, and Burnside sidestepped to Bethesda Church, keeping his connection with Warren. Early rushed to attack and managed to capture a considerable number of Warren's skirmishers. As Early muscled forward, Burnside and Warren went on the defensive near Bethesda Church. One of Warren's aides discovered Early's unprotected flank on Shady Grove Road and recognized an opportunity to counterattack. He advised Burnside, who was positioned to exploit the discovery, but the Ninth Corps' commander, in the frustrated aide's words, "took no notice of it." Fighting in the battlefield's northern sector continued into the night with little impact on the overall strategic situation.

By evening on June 2, thanks to the respite afforded by Grant, Lee had shifted his army south and nullified any advantage the Federals had gained by their deployments. Lee's engineers cleared fields of fire and constructed barricades of earth and logs. Confederate artillerists posted their guns for greatest effect, establishing converging fields of fire and driving stakes in the ground to give the gunners measured ranges to enhance their accuracy. Skirmishers kept the Federals ignorant of the precise location and strength of Lee's works. The next morning, Grant would march blindly against the most ingenious defensive configuration the war had yet witnessed.

UNION HIGH COMMAND HOPED THAT HANCOCK (SEATED), SHOWN HERE WITH HIS DIVISION COMMANDERS FRANCIS C. BARLOW, DAVID B. BIRNEY, AND JOHN GIBBON (L-R), WOULD LEND THE NEEDED SUPPORT TO CRACK LEE'S LINE ON JUNE 2, BUT A FATIGUING MARCH DELAYS, AND CONFEDERATE PROBES RESULTED IN THE DAY PASSING WITHOUT THE INTENDED ASSAULT. (LC)

NO STRANGER TO THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC, MAJOR GENERAL WILLIAM F. "BALDY" SMITH HAD COMMANDED ONE OF ITS DIVISIONS AND CORPS IN 1862. AT COLD HARBOR, HIS EIGHTEENTH CORPS WOULD ENDURE SOME OF THE HEAVIEST FIGHTING. (USAMHI)

Critics have censured Grant for delaying on June 2. Had he attacked with Hancock before Breckinridge arrived, goes the argument, he might have won a resounding victory. Grant's delay departed from the aggressive pattern of conduct that usually characterized his fighting. Hancock's men, however, were incredibly weary. Grant probably felt comfortable waiting because he believed that Lee's army was tottering on the brink of collapse. After all, Lee had failed to attack at North Anna and had assaulted feebly at Bethesda Church. A single Union cavalry division had sufficed to seize Old Cold Harbor on May 31, and on June 1, cavalry alone had repulsed Anderson's and Hoke's conmbined might. June 1's evening assaults had failed, but Grant doubtless saw confirmation of Lee's weakness there as well. Truex had breached the Confederate defenses and might have done more if adequately supported. Now Hancock's corps, the Federal army's best combat unit, was up. In Grant's estimation, a concerted attack ought to break Lee's line once and for all. Since Lee had no reinforcements to draw upon, Grant was not concerned that waiting until June 3 might affect the outcome.

A string of partial successes had dimmed Grant's memory of the lessons of Spotsylvania Court House. Troops positioned behind well-sited earthworks and supported by well-placed artillery batteries were virtually invulnerable to direct attack. Grant's soldiers, however, had not forgotten the cost of charging those frowning battlements. During the night, Grant's staffer Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter noticed men pinning names and addresses on their coats to aid in identifying their bodies. This was not the behavior of men expecting to confront a broken and defeated foe.

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