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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

JUNE 4-11: GRANT PLANS A NEW CAMPAIGN

The next day, soldiers on both sides settled into the numbing routine of trench warfare. At places, the lines stood only a few yards apart. Sharpshooters scanned the flat, open terrain for targets. Raising a head above ground spelled certain death. Men hunkered in their pits, broiling under the late spring sun and digging a network of trenches to the rear for bringing up food and ammunition. The scene reminded a Federal of "colonies of prairie dogs with their burrows and mounds." Grant employed a battery of eight Coehorn mortars which heaved shells in high arcs behind the Confederate works. The rebels retaliated in kind by depressing the trail of a 24-pounder howitzer and arcing shells into the Union position. Life for both sides was hot, dusty, and miserable.

BEGINNING ON JUNE 4, A RELATIVE CALM SETTLED OVER THE BATTLEFIELD, AND FOR THE FOLLOWING WEEK BOTH ARMIES BURROWED INTO THE GROUND, LIVING IN THEIR TRENCHES AND DUGOUTS WHILE THEY KEPT A WARY EYE ON ONE ANOTHER. (NPS)

COLD HARBOR: A UNION PERSPECTIVE

In the disastrous assault on June 3, Colonel Griffin A. Stedman's brigade led the way for "Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps. Advancing on the impenetrable Confederate defenses, the 12th New Hampshire Infantry was at the head of the attack column. The regimental historian later wrote: "In less than ten minutes . . . nearly one half lay dead or disabled on the field, while of the remaining scattered ones, two at least out of every ten were more or less severely wounded." Years after the war, Private George E. Place penned an account of his own personal experience in the battle, vividly remembering the near destruction of his regiment as well as his own wounding.

And now I will pass on to that fateful morning of the third of June. We are in line of battle, "close column by division." We are ordered to take the caps from our guns, and fix bayonet. We are now in the woods, and can see nothing of the rebels. Everything is quiet. Ah! It is such occasions as this which try men's nerves. I made a study of the faces around me. Every face was more or less pale, but all had a determined look, except a New York recruit by the name of Hayes. He was trembling, and his face pale as death. Thus we stood, all ready for the charge; I know not how long, but it seemed a long time to me, for at such a time, with men's nerves strained to their utmost tension, a minute seems an hour. Finally, the Colonel drew his sword.— "Forward, march," and the regiment started, We had not gone ten feet, when a rebel battery on our left flank opened fire. I wondered how the rebels knew so soon that we had started, for being in the woods, they could not see us. The guns were so arranged that the iron storm swept past us about two rods in front. How it crashed and howled through those pine trees! For a moment, the regiment quailed and halted. As it did so, I turned and looked at Colonel Barker. I shall never forget the expression that came into his face as he beheld that halting. His eyes dilated, and it seemed as if I could almost see the fire flash from them. He flung his sword above his head and shouted with a voice that seemed as if the rebels must have heard.—"Forward!" Instantly the regiment started again, yelling as it went. There was no more halting after that, until, swept down in killed and wounded, it lost all semblance of order, and could do no otherwise than fall back. That artillery discharge was immediately followed by the opening of musketry. I passed close by one of the vedettes in a rifle-pit, hugging the ground as close as he could, and trembling like an aspen leaf. Past the vedettes, we immediately enter an open field. It is bare of vegetation. All over the field little puffs of dust are thickly rising, occasioned by the rebel bullets striking the ground. A line of breastworks runs zig-zag; on in front, the other on our left. We cannot see a man in these works, for a dense cloud of battle-smoke rests all along the line. From the works in front, and the works on our left, arose a musketry fire so heavy, it seemed almost like one continual crash of thunder, while artillery on our left poured in the shells. Just as we entered the field, a shell plunged into the ground at the left of our column, and immediately burst, throwing the dirt and pebbles all over us. Some small missile struck me just under the left eye, causing a sharp sting, and I felt the blood trickle down my face.

James Rollins was at my left, Charles Marden next to him, and the next beyond, Charles Bunker. Soon after we got into the field, Rollins threw up both hands, uttered a yell, and fell over on his face. A bullet had gone through the calves of both legs. I looked for Marden and Bunker to "dress" by, but they were missing . . . . We were now so near the breastworks that I could see the flash of their musketry quivering through the bank of smoke that lay above them, like lightning through a cloud; and I was thinking of the hand-to-hand struggle that would come when we reached the breastworks, when a bullet went through my right arm. My hand instantly flew open, and my gun dropped to the ground. All the fingers on that hand turned back to nearly a right angle with the back of my hand, and quivered, caused, probably, by a sudden contraction of the muscles. I thought for a moment, that my arm was broken, and I caught hold of my fingers and straightened them out. About this time, the regiment began to fall back. Just before I reentered the woods a flank bullet grazed the small of my back. As I received the third blow, that old, familiar, "hit 'im agin, blue jacket, he's got no friends," passed across my mind.

CAPTAIN NATHANIEL SHACKFORD WAS ONE OF THE 114 MEN OF THE 12TH NEW HAMPSHIRE WHO FELL AT COLD HARBOR. HE CARRIED INTO BATTLE THE PHYSICAL REMINDER OF THREE WOUNDS HE HAD RECEIVED THE PREVIOUS YEAR AT CHANCELLORSVILLE AND GETTYSBURG. ON JUNE 3 HE WAS THRICE MORE WOUNDED: A ROUND OF GRAPESHOT SHATTERED HIS ELBOW, A SHELL FRAGMENT BRUISED HIS HIP, AND ANOTHER STRUCK ACROSS HIS BACK NEARLY CUTTING HIM IN TWO. MIRACULOUSLY, HE RETURNED TO DUTY THAT OCTOBER AND ULTIMATELY SURVIVED THE WAR. (USAMHI)

Thousands of wounded Federals between the armies suffered horribly. They lay under the scorching sun among putrefying corpses, bereft of food, water, or medical assistance. Grant was reluctant to ask for a truce to recover his wounded because doing so amounted to a concession that he had lost the battle. Urged by Hancock to do something, Grant on June 5 penned a note to Lee proposing that "when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men bearing litters to pick up their dead and wounded without being fired upon by the other party." He made no mention of a truce. Lee rejected Grant's proposal as conducive to "misunderstanding and difficulty" and asked for the customary flag of truce. Grant's reply ignored Lee's letter and instead proposed that both sides collect their dead and wounded between noon and 3:00 P.M. Lee again insisted on a flag of truce, and Grant finally requested a formal suspension of hostilities for two hours. Lee agreed, but misunderstandings delayed the removals until the evening of June 7. Not surprisingly, after lying exposed for four days, most of the wounded men had become bloated corpses. Very few remained alive.


Grant came under criticism for his attack at Cold Harbor. Meade assured his wife that "Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee's army is not Tennessee and Bragg's army."

Grant came under criticism for his attack at Cold Harbor. Meade assured his wife that "Grant has had his eyes opened, and is willing to admit now that Virginia and Lee's army is not Tennessee and Bragg's army." The army's provost marshal reported dissatisfaction over Grant's "murderous and foolish system of assaulting, without supports, reserves, or any adequate force to hold the works that may be carried." The Confederates took hope. Lee's artillery chief, Major General William N. Pendleton, speculated that Grant had become "so shaken in the nerves of his army, if not in his own, that apparently he must get some rest."

The front remained relatively quiet for several days as both sides reshuffled their combat elements. On June 4, Lee drew Early back and sent Heth south to rejoin Hill's corps. Grant also tightened his lines, shuttling Burnside behind Matedequin Creek as a reserve and shifting Warren leftward to connect with Smith. These movements shortened Grant's lines about three miles. On June 6, Early probed the new Union position along Matedequin Creek but was thwarted by impassable swamps.

Realizing that Lee had stymied him once again, Grant began searching for ways to break the stalemate. Developments in the Shenandoah Valley provided him inspiration. On June 5, David Hunter's Federals defeated William E. "Grumble" Jones's Confederates at Piedmont. The next day, Hunter marched on Staunton. Perhaps, Grant reasoned, the key to defeating Lee involved cutting off his supplies. Hunter could move on Lynchburg and close the James River Canal, Sheridan could launch an expedition to wreck the Virginia Central Railroad west of Lee, and Meade could cross the James River and sever Lee's supply lines from the south. Grant decided to implement portions of the plan right away. On June 7, Sheridan left with Gregg's and Merritt's divisions to begin tearing up the Virginia Central Railway near Charlottesville.

ON JUNE 5, GRANT OPENED DISCUSSIONS WITH LEE IN AN EFFORT TO RETRIEVE HIS DEAD AND WOUNDED FROM BETWEEN THE LINES. BECAUSE OF MISUNDERSTANDING AND MISCOMMUNICATION, THE FLAG OF TRUCE WAS NOT ACCEPTED UNTIL JUNE 7. (SNITE MUSEUM OF ART, NOTRE DAME, INDIANA)

Once again, Lee found himself scurrying to oppose Grant's offensives. First he pulled Breckinridge from the Cold Harbor defenses and sent him toward Lynchburg to fend off Hunter's expected thrust in that direction. Then, on learning of Sheridan's departure, he dispatched two of his three cavalry divisions in pursuit.

Grant also began laying plans to shift Meade across the James. He sent two aides to find acceptable crossings and directed the quartermaster general to round up sufficient boats and pontoons. "Everything is progressing favorably but slowly," Grant advised Washington on June 9. "All the fight except defensive and behind breast works is taken out of Lee's army," he added, and predicted: "Unless my next move brings on a battle the balance of the campaign will settle down to a siege."

Lee anticipated Grant's intended shift across the James, predicting that he would most likely combine with Butler and attack Petersburg, twenty miles below Richmond and the junction of several important roads and rail lines. Lee recommended that as soon as Grant started south, "the best course for us to pursue, in my opinion, would be to move down and attack him with our whole force, provided we could catch him in the act of crossing." Detaching forces to counter Hunter and Sheridan had further gutted Lee's offensive capacity. He could only await Grant's initiative.

AS THE BATTLE SETTLED INTO STAGNANT TRENCH WARFARE, GRANT MADE EFFECTIVE USE OF HIS COEHORN, MORTARS, WHICH RAINED SHELLS DOWN UPON THE CONFEDERATES HIDDEN BEHIND THEIR EXTENSIVE EARTHWORKS. (NPS)

"We must destroy this army of Grant's before he gets to James River," the Confederate commander remarked in expressing his concern to Early. "If he gets there, it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time."

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