MAY 30: THE BATTLE OF BETHESDA CHURCH
Static lines were anathema to Grant. On May 30, he decided to venture
another general advance. Wright was to move south against the northern
Confederate flank, held by Hill, while Hancock attacked across
Totopotomoy Creek, against Breckinridge, and Warren pressed west along
Shady Grove Road, against Early.
No sooner had Wright started south than he became snared in swampy
land near Crump's Creek, a winding stream flanked by vicious little
marshes. The terrain, Meade's aide Humphreys noted, presented a
"tangle of the worst character" and delayed the Sixth Corps until late
in the day. Hancock opened with artillery from the Shelton place and
advanced his skirmishers, who managed to capture some of Breckinridge's
forward rifle pits. The main rebel line, however, remained strongly
entrenched. Meade ordered up support in the form of Burnside's corps,
but it arrived too late to contribute to the fight.
MAJOR GENERAL HORATIO G. WRIGHT ASCENDED TO COMMAND OF THE SIXTH CORPS
FOLLOWING MAJOR GENERAL JOHN SEDGWICK'S DEATH AT SPOTSYLVANIA. (LC)|
HAVING REPLACED LIEUTENANT GENERAL RICHARD S. EWELL ON MAY 29, MAJOR
GENERAL JUBAL A. EARLY ORCHESTRATED THE CONFEDERATE ASSAULT ON THE UNION
FIFTH CORPS AT BETHESDA CHURCH. (LC)|
An incident at the Shelton house, where Hancock had his headquarters,
enlivened the afternoon. A servant, apparently distressed by the
artillery duels, shoveled hot kitchen coals near an ammunition chest,
which exploded, killing two soldiers and blinding several others.
On Grant's left flank, Warren pressed the rest of his corps across
Totopotomoy Creek and deployed on Shady Grove Road. Meade considered
moving the Fifth Corps east toward Old Church but rejected the idea out
of concern that Warren's departure would expose Hancock's lower flank.
Warren followed the original plan and began probing west along Shady
Grove Road, Griffin leading, followed by Crawford and Cutler.
Wright's movement southward and Warren's concentration below
Totopomoy Creek piqued Lee's interest. Grant seemed once again to be
shifting to the left, establishing a front stretching several miles
from Crump's Creek to Shady Grove Road. "This is just a repetition of
their former movements," Lee pointed out to his First Corps commander
Anderson in an 11:00 A.M. communique. To thwart Grant, Lee instructed
Early, who was entrenched across Warren's path, to attack the Union
Fifth Corps. Anderson was to cooperate with Early, and time was of the
essence. "Whatever is determined on should be done as soon as
practicable," Lee urged.
Early hit upon an ingenious scheme to snag Warren. While part of his
corps remained ensconced on Shady Grove Road to pin the Fifth Corps in
place, the rest, led by Major General Robert E. Rodes's division, would
march a mile south along woodland paths and emerge on Old Church Road.
Advancing east along Old Church Road, Rodes was to move past the lower
edge of Warren's column, then sweep north and burst into the enemy's
flank and rear.
THE PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES OF COLONEL MARTIN D. HARDIN'S BRIGADE BORE THE
BRUNT OF EARLY'S ASSAULT ON MAY 30. DUE TO BE MUSTERED OUT THE FOLLOWING
DAY, THIS WAS THEIR LAST ENGAGEMENT. (NPS)|
During the afternoon, as the Fifth Corps crept west along Shady Grove
Road, battling Early's skirmishers, Warren became increasingly worried
about his left flank. To protect his moving column, he sent Crawford's
division south along a farm track to Old Church Road. Crawford erected
makeshift works near Bethesda Church and directed Colonel Martin Hardin
to start his brigade west along Old Church Road, paralleling Griffin and
Cutler to the north. The terms of service for Hardin's men were about to
expire, and his troops hoped desperately to avoid battle.
Rodes's Confederates meanwhile filed onto Old Church Road and marched
east, directly into Hardin's brigade. The rout was complete as they
drove Hardin back on Crawford's supports at Bethesda Church. Overrun by
stampeding compatriots and Rodes's jubilant rebels, Crawford's formation
folded. At least two of his brigades fled "rather indiscriminately" back
up the country lane toward Shady Grove Road.
The next phase of Early's plan called for Rodes to push north into
the belly of Warren's corps. But Rodes hesitated. His units had become
jumbled in the rush, and Major General Stephen D. Ramseur's division,
which was slated to lead the attack, needed time to deploy. Early's plan
also contemplated Anderson moving onto Shady Grove Road to attack in
tandem with Rodes, but Anderson was delayed, and precious time slipped
by. Alerted to the danger on his flank, Warren began shifting to face
south toward Early. Crawford reformed at the farm lane, Griffin moved to
his support, and Fifth Corps guns began rumbling into place. Colonel
Wainwright positioned Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery, next to
the farm lane to give the Confederates a nasty reception if they
Ramseur's fighting blood was up. Recently promoted to head a
division, he was anxious to prove his mettle. The Union guns on the farm
lane provoked his wrath, and he directed his Virginia brigade to take
the pieces. Recklessly pressing up the road, the Virginians came into
range of Wainwright's artillery. "Our line melted away as if by magic,"
a gray-clad survivor recounted. "Every brigade, staff and field officer
was cut down, (mostly killed outright) in an incredibly short time."
Colonel Edward Willis, a popular former member of Stonewall Jackson's
staff, was mortally wounded leading the Virginians.
(click on image for a PDF version)
REGAINING CONTACT: MAY 30|
On May 30, Grant orders a general advance. Along Totopotomoy Creek,
Hancock spars with Breckinridge and captures some Confederate forward
positions. Warren moves west along Shady Grove and Old Church Roads but
encounters Early's corps seeking the Union flank near Bethesda Church.
Early manages to overrun Crawford's division and turn north but is
stopped by Warren's artillery (inset). On the extreme Union left flank,
Sheridan tangles with Confederate cavalry along Matadequin Creek and
opens the road to the strategic crossroads of Old Cold Harbor.
To help relieve pressure against Warren, Grant directed an attack
across his entire line. Wright, however, was still floundering toward
Hancock's upper flank, Hancock could make no headway against
Breckinridge, and Burnside was busy extending to fill the works vacated
earlier by Warren. Warren proved capable of fending for himself. His
decisive repulse of Ramseur dampened Early's ardor, and the Confederate
Second Corps retired a short distance west along Old Church Road. Early
blamed Anderson for not arriving in time to assist. The soldiers faulted
Ramseur who had ordered the charge without sufficient reconnaissance.
The engagement left nearly 1,200 Confederates killed, wounded, and
captured, as opposed to about 750 Federals. If Bethesda Church held any
lessons, it was that both antagonists had become so worn from constant
campaigning that complex, coordinated operations were no longer
While Grant's and Lee's infantry sparred along Totopotomoy Creek and
at Bethesda Church, their cavalry tangled to the east along little
Matadequin Creek. Grant had positioned Sheridan's cavalry at Old Church,
a few miles east of the infantry, to protect the Union army's supply
line from White House Landing. Early in the afternoon, Torbert
dispatched Colonel Thomas C. Devin's brigade southwest along the road
to Old Cold Harbor. It just so happened that Butler's South Carolina
cavalry was probing the same road from the opposite direction, and the
two forces collided. Butler drove in the head of Devin's column, and
soon both sides were digging in near Matadequin Creek, a steep-banked
stream below Old Church.
To break Butler's stranglehold on the road to Old Cold Harbor,
Torbert brought up his brigades under Merritt and Custer. Outflanked and
heavily outnumbered, Butler tumbled back. By nightfall, Torbert had
pushed Butler to within a mile and a half of Old Cold Harbor.
Lee scanned his evening reports with concern. He had managed to
contain Grant's thrusts along Totopotomoy Creek, but danger was now
brewing beyond the Confederate right. Torbert's determined foray from
Old Church signaled that Grant intended to occupy the critical Old Cold
Harbor junction. From there, roads radiated below Lee's lower flank,
giving Grant a choice of unobstructed routes to Richmond and a chance to
get into Lee's rear. To make matters worse, Confederate intelligence
indicated that Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps
had left Butler's Army of the James and was traveling upriver on
transports to join Grant. Apparently Grant intended to concentrate these
reinforcements, numbering approximately 12,500 men, toward Old Cold
Harbor along the route cleared by Torbert.
THE OLD CHURCH HOTEL SERVED AS SHERIDAN'S HEADQUARTERS ON MAY 30, AND IT
WAS FROM HERE THAT HIS CAVALRY VENTURED SOUTHWARD AND TANGLED WITH
CONFEDERATE TROOPERS ALONG MATADEQUIN CREEK. (LC)|
Lee's infantry, ranging along a line extending six miles from Atlee's
Station to Bethesda Church, was stretched to its limit. Forwarding
troops to Old Cold Harbor to counter Grant would require Lee dangerously
to weaken his Totopotomoy Creek defenses. The answer was for Beauregard
to send troops from below the James River. That evening, Lee urgently
wired Beauregard and President Davis. Smith's corps would reach Grant
the next day, he warned. Delay in sending troops to block Smith would
At 11:00 P.M., Lee received welcome news, Major General Robert F.
Hoke's division, over 7,000 men strong, was departing "with all possible
expedition" for Lee's front. The Confederacy's fate hinged on whether
Hoke could beat Smith to Old Cold Harbor.