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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

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 attacked.

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 feasible.

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 spell disaster.

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.

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