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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

JUNE 3: GRANT ATTACKS AGAIN AT OLD COLD HARBOR

At 4:30 A.M., Federal troops in front of Cold Harbor lunged through a thick ground fog toward Lee's bristling earthworks. In minutes, massed Confederate firepower generated enormous casualties and pinned the attackers in place. Details varied along the line, but overall, the repulse was catastrophic.

Of Grant's forces, Hancock's corps, anchoring the lower Union flank, came closest to succeeding. The corps pushed into the fog toward Turkey Hill, Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow on the left, Gibbon on the right, and Birney in reserve. Barlow overran Breckinridge's picket line, mounted a gentle ridge, and managed to punch through a portion of Breckinridge's front line and repulsed the defenders in a vicious bout of hand-to-hand fighting. "Clubbed muskets, bayonets, and swords got in their deadly work," a Union soldier recalled. Soon the first line of Confederate entrenchments lay in Northern hands, along with several hundred prisoners and at least four cannon. The gain, however, proved short-lived. Brigadier General John R. Brooke, whose brigade had spearheaded the breakthrough, fell seriously wounded, as did his replacement. An unexpected swamp threw Gibbon's division on Brooke's right into confusion, and the supporting troops that Brooke's men had been anticipating never materialized. Concentrated fire from Confederate artillery massed on Brooke's left tore into the brigade. The captured works were quickly becoming a death trap for the Federals.


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A KILLING GROUND: JUNE 3, 4:30-8 A.M.
In the early morning of June 3, Grant's planned assault against Lee's position finally moves forward. Following a thirty-six-hour delay, Grant's attack along Lee's nearly seven miles of entrenchments holds little chance for success. On Lee's right, Hancock's corps manages to penetrate the Confederate line, only to be thrown back by a determined counterattack. In the center, Wright stumbles forward in a lackluster attack that gains little ground, while Smith suffers tremendously from flanking fire resulting from Wright's sluggish advance and a lack of support from Warren, who claims he cannot move forward. On Lee's far left Burnside gets off to a slow start but finally gets within a few yards of the Confederate trenches before being stopped. By 8:00, the Union assault has spent its momentum and Grant's men take shelter wherever they can find it, in some areas within mere yards of the Confederate line.

THE ONLY BRIGHT MOMENT OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC ON JUNE 3 WAS ALONG HANCOCK'S FRONT. IN FIGHTING ITS WAY TO THE CONFEDERATE LINES, THE 7TH NEW YORK HEAVY ARTILLERY BRIEFLY MANAGED TO CAPTURE SOME OF THE REBEL WORKS. (NPS)

The delay proved fatal, Breckinridge had posted Brigadier General Joseph Finegan's Floridians and the 2nd Maryland in reserve. Tucked in a hollow behind Turkey Hill, they witnessed the collapse of the line in their front. Crying, "Get ready men! Fall into line and charge!" the fiery Finegan led them into the fray. Brooke's unsupported troops saw the Floridians and Marylanders coming. "We had lost all semblance of organization—a veritable mob with no means to turn the captured guns upon the enemy," recollected a soldier in the 7th New York Heavy Artillery of Brooke's brigade. "Green soldiers though we were," he added, "our short experience had taught us to know just when to run, and run we did, I assure you." They tumbled back from their lodgment in the Confederate line, sustaining severe casualties.

Gibbon's men meanwhile found themselves in a terrible predicament as the swamp disordered their alignments and made them vulnerable to fire from Confederates on the ridge line ahead. Brigadier General Robert O. Tyler, heading a brigade, fell seriously injured, and Colonel H. Boyd McKeen, commanding another brigade, was killed. A few isolated pockets of Northern men reached the Confederate line but were quickly expelled. Gibbon's advance ground to a halt as his soldiers cursed their superiors for failing to reconnoiter the path of the attack. "We felt it was murder, not war, or at best that a very serious mistake had been made," a New Yorker complained. "There was a marsh in front of our regiment and I doubt if we could have reached the enemy works even if they had not been there to oppose us."

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOSEPH FINEGAN, COMMANDING A BRIGADE OF FLORIDIANS, PERSONALLY LED THE COUNTERATTACK THAT SEALED THE BREACH IN THE CONFEDERATE LINES AND THREW BACK HANCOCK'S MEN. (WESTERN RESERVE HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

North of Gibbon a veritable blizzard of lead swept Wright's Sixth Corps and pinned it in place. The Sixth Corps' soldiers were in no mood to repeat their disastrous charge of June 1 and contributed virtually nothing to the Federal effort this bleak morning. From their slightly forward position, many of Wright's men could look to their left and watch the Confederates slice down Hancock's soldiers like "mown grass." Even the bellicose Upton deemed an advance "impracticable." Ricketts, whose division was on Upton's right, sent his men into a "murderous fire" from Kershaw's entrenched line. A Vermonter recounted that on approaching the rebel earthworks, his compatriots were "simply slaughtered." Neill's division, next to Ricketts, suffered a similar fate, being "swept away," in the words of a participant. Many Confederates in front of Wright never realized that a major attack had been made against them. "It may sound incredible," wrote Brigadier General Johnson Hagood, whose South Carolinians occupied much of the works across from the Sixth Corps, "but it is nevertheless strictly true, that [I] was not aware at the time of any serious assault having been given."

BEHIND HANCOCK'S LINES AT COLD HARBOR. (LC)

Elements from Smith's Eighteenth Corps stepped into a killing field of overlapping rebel musketry and artillery. Manning the rebel entrenchments in their front were three brigades of Major General Charles W. Field's division and all of Joseph Kershaw's division. Even the terrain worked to the advantage of the Confederates and channeled the advancing Federals into two ravines. Martindale's division charged through a stretch of woods and emerged into a clearing in front of the rebel works. Volleys of musketry and artillery fire tore into the blue-clad ranks. An Alabamian watched in fascination as heads, arms, and muskets rained down after each discharge. "The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest, and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another," recounted a Union officer. Brooks's division fared no better. Describing the effect of double canister at short range, a Confederate described the slaughter as "deadly, bloody work." Smith rode into the maelstrom and tried to coordinate his units, but his efforts kept his men exposed to the fire and only increased the slaughter. A Southerner recalled watching "dust fog out of a man's clothing in two or three places at once where as many balls would strike him at the same moment."

LIKE HIS COMMANDER GENERAL MEADE, MAJOR GENERAL AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE (SEATED AT RIGHT) FOUND HIMSELF IN AN AWKWARD POSITION IN THE CHAIN OF COMMAND, HAVING LED THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC A YEAR AND A HALF EARLIER AT FREDERICKSBURG. HE WAS NOW SIMPLY IN CHARGE OF THE NINTH CORPS. (LC)

Warren's Fifth Corps, facing Pickett's division, extended the Federal formation north from Smith's right to Old Church Road. Warren had developed a strong aversion to attacking entrenched Confederate positions and did almost nothing. The Confederate First Corps' artillery commander Alexander took advantage of Warren's quiescence to focus his guns on the northern end of Smith's corps during its abortive charges.

Burnside's Ninth Corps anchored the northern end of the Union formation. Pasting onto Warren, Burnside's line bent northeastward above Bethesda Church. Facing Burnside was Early's Second Corps and Henry Heth's division of the Third Corps. Burnside, unlike Warren, stirred to action later in the morning and launched a powerful assault. He overran the Confederate skirmishers but was brought up short in front of the main set of rebel earthworks. Mistakenly believing that he had pierced Early's first line of works, he halted to regroup and prepare to renew his attacks early in the afternoon.

Contradictory reports poured into Union headquarters east of Old Cold Harbor. Uncertainty as to what was happening, in addition to the length of the Union line, rendered coordination impossible. In desperation, Smith wrote that his men were "very much cut up" and could not carry their front unless the Sixth Corps protected their left from a "galling fire." Wright, however, maintained that he could not advance until Smith moved, and Warren, on Smith's other flank, voiced a similar complaint. As coordination dissolved, the Union troops began digging in.

Lee remained at his headquarters near Gaines's Mill, behind New Cold Harbor, leaving the fighting to his subordinates. When Postmaster General John H. Reagan rode over from Richmond and inquired about the severe artillery fire, Lee drew his attention to the musketry, which sounded like the tearing of a sheet. "It is that that kills men," Lee informed him. Reagan then asked what reserves Lee had on hand to repel the Federals if they broke through. "Not a regiment," Lee answered, "And that has been my condition ever since the fighting commenced on the Rappahannock. If I shorten my lines to provide a reserve he will turn me," he observed. "If I weaken my lines to provide a reserve, he will break them."

STRONG LINES OF ENTRENCHMENTS STRETCHED FOR NEARLY SEVEN MILES THROUGH THE COLD HARBOR AREA. (LC)

Still hopeful of smashing Lee's formation, Grant at 7:00 A.M. advised Meade that if any assault succeeded, "push it vigorously and if necessary pile in troops at the successful point from wherever they can be taken." Meade dutifully ordered Wright to "assault at once ... without reference to [Smith's] advance." He directed Smith to continue his assault "without reference to General Wright's" and requested Hancock to "try to do the same" unless he considered further attacks hopeless. Hancock wrote back advising "against persistence here" and stayed put. Smith denounced another attack as a "wanton waste of life" and refused to move. And Wright's soldiers responded simply by redoubling their musketry. So far as the Union soldiers and field commanders were concerned, the battle was over. At 12:30, Grant conceded the inevitable. "The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered," he wrote to Meade, "you may direct a suspension of farther advance for the present."


As the firing subsided, Confederates peered over their earthworks to view their handiwork. "Men lay in places likes hogs in a pen," a rebel noted in horror, "some side by side, across each other, some two deep, while others with their legs lying across the heaad and body of their dead comrades."

As the firing subsided, Confederates peered over their earthworks to view their handiwork. "Men lay in places likes hogs in a pen," a rebel noted in horror, "some side by side, across each other, some two deep, while others with their legs lying across the head and body of their dead comrades." One of Lee's hardened generals related that he had "seen nothing to exceed this." Grant's casualties surpassed 6,000 men, Lee's approached 1,500. The Federals dug trenches with bayonets and cups, sometimes incorporating bodies into their makeshift earthworks. Any movement provoked flurries of musketry. "I tell you I hugged the ground so close that I was no thicker than your hand," a Union soldier reminisced.

Around 2:00 P.M., Grant wired Washington that his assaults had gained no "decisive advantage." His losses, he added, were "not severe." Years later, however, when penning his memoirs on his deathbed, Grant revealed his true feelings about the debacle. "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made," he wrote, For his part, Lee wrote President Davis that "so far every attack of the enemy has been repulsed." The Confederate loss had been small, he advised, and the army's success "all that we could expect."


Preparation was non-existent. Battle-weariness and the attrition of men and commanders at all levels had a telling effect. Each corps fought its own battle, making no attempt to coordinate with the others.

What had gone wrong? Grant's decision to postpone the attack on June 2 enabled the Confederates to strengthen their defenses. And although Grant had directed the Union corps commanders to examine the ground and perfect their plans, they had done neither. Reconnaissance was woefully lax and failed to disclose important swamps and other terrain features. Preparation was non existent. Battle-weariness and the attrition of men and commanders at all levels had a telling effect. Each corps fought its own battle, making no attempt to coordinate with the others. Grant apparently expected Meade to supervise the assaults, but Meade remained strangely passive, perhaps in a misdirected effort to avoid responsibility for the enterprise. Only the Second Corps and parts of the Eighteenth and Ninth Corps—perhaps twenty thousand Federal troops—were actively engaged. The overall picture was that of an army without a leader.

THEIR ATTACKS HAVING BEEN REPULSED, BUT STILL ATTEMPTING TO HOLD THE GROUND ALREADY GAINED, UNION TROOPS BEGAN CONSTRUCTION OF THEIR OWN TRENCHES. IN MOST CASES USING NOTHING BUT THEIR BAYONETS AND BARE HANDS. (NPS)

AS COMMANDER OK THE ARMY OF THE JAMES, MAJOR GENERAL BENJAMIN F. BUTLER HAD LITTLE IMPACT ON THE BATTLE AT COLD HARBOR, OUTSIDE OF LENDING LOGISTICAL SUPPORT AND THE ASSISTANCE OF ELITE EIGHTEENTH CORPS. (USAMHI)

A Confederate later described Cold Harbor as "perhaps the easiest victory ever granted to the Confederate arms by the folly of the Federal commanders." Lee realized, however, that the victory was only temporary. Noting that Butler had weakened his army by detaching the Eighteenth Corps to Cold Harbor, Lee expressed hope to Davis that Beauregard might be able to spare additional troops. "No time should be lost if reinforcements can be had," Lee emphasized. In response, Richmond ordered Brigadier General Matt W. Ransom's brigade to join Lee.

The armies lay pressed close together during the night, "almost within a stone's throw of each other," noted one of Meade's aides, "and the separating space ploughed by cannon shot, and dotted with dead bodies that neither side dared bury." He concluded: "Nothing can give a greater idea of deathless tenacity of purpose than the picture of these two hosts, after a bloody and nearly continuous struggle of thirty days, thus lying down to sleep with their hands almost on each other's throats."

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