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Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor

   

MAY 31: THE ARMIES CONCENTRATE TOWARD OLD COLD HARBOR

On May 31, Lee moved his headquarters from the Clarke house to Shady Grove Church so as to be closer to his army's right wing, where the next bout of combat seemed imminent. Securing Old Cold Harbor remained his priority. Butler, heavily outnumbered, still confronted Torbert. To assist Butler until Hoke could arrive, Lee ordered Major General Fitzhugh Lee's mounted division to Old Cold Harbor.

MAJOR GENERAL ROBERT F. HOKE'S DIVISION ARRIVED JUST IN TIME TO BECOME ENGAGED ON MAY 31, HAVING BEEN DISPATCHED TO REINFORCE LEE BY THE SOMEWHAT RELUCTANT GENERAL PIERRE G. T. BEAUREGARD. (BL)

Torbert began pushing hard, and Fitzhugh Lee urgently requested assistance. General Lee ordered Anderson to pull the First Corps from Totopotomoy Creek and shift it to the Confederate right, in support of the cavalry. Soon afterward, Hoke's lead brigade under Brigadier General Thomas L. Clingman reached Old Cold Harbor and joined Butler and Fitzhugh Lee.

OWNED AND OPERATED BY THE ISAAC BURNETT FAMILY, THE OLD COLD HARBOR TAVERN (THE NAME SUGGESTING SHELTER WITHOUT SUSTENANCE) STOOD AT THE CROSSROADS THAT WAS VITAL TO GRANT'S OPERATIONS IN THE AREA. THIS ESTABLISHMENT WOULD LEND ITS NAME TO THE BATTLE. (LC)

A CIVILIAN'S IMPRESSION OF GRANT'S ARMY

Among the many civilians caught in the path of Grant's campaign through Hanover County was Mrs. Ella More Bassett Washington. Having sought refuge at her parents' home "Clover Lea," two miles east of Old Church, Ella kept a journal that covered the two-week period during which the armies battled around nearby Cold Harbor. A loyal Virginian and staunch defender of the Confederacy, Ella recorded the depredations that her family suffered at the hands of foraging and pillaging Union soldiers. She had little knowledge of the particulars of the battle; however, in the days before and after the battle Ella was a witness to the movement of Grant's army to and from the battlefield and left her impressions of the Northerners she met, particularly two of their leaders.

Monday May 30th

Another eventful day but how differently I feel to night from the anxiety and apprehension in which the last one was spent. I can go to bed in peace with some feeling of security while a guard of faithful men protect us. This morning we had scarcely dressed before the wretches began coming again.


"I felt almost in despair, when one of the children exclaimed 'here are more coming.' I leaned my head on the babies who was [sic] in my lap and shut my eyes in a state of desperation when some one exlaimed 'Its General Cluster.'"

. . . I felt almost in despair, when one of the children exclaimed "here are more coming." I leaned my head on the babies who was [sic] in my lap and shut my eyes in a state of desperation when some one exclaimed "Its General Custer." My heart felt so relieved. I put the baby in Bells's arms and rushed to greet him. With my usual impulsiveness I seized both of his hands, and told him he was almost as welcome as the Confederate army to rescue us. He exclaimed "Mrs. W. I tried to prevent this, and supposed a safeguard was here." How kind he was, and seemed so much troubled to see how we had been treated; told me he had sent a guard, on the day previous but most unfortunately for us, they missed the way, and did not find the house. The men who were here were ordered under arrest, to my great satisfaction. I pointed out the two who had behaved so kindly, and they were overlooked.

The nice General came in and paid us quite a nice visit; when he was taking leave I went out to gather some flowers for him and we had a long talk under the trees. He seemed too honest and high toned, to mingle with the mass of the Abolition army of Lincoln's, truly is he "among them but not of them." They are not kindred spirits for him, in the Yankee army I am sure. He said "if he listened long to me I would make him a rebel." How . wish he was one, and then I could esteem and admire him as . do our own gallant leaders. About an hour after the General left quite a heavy firing began. We were on the porch listening to it when a man rode up and handed in a note from the Genl enclosing his photograph, and one of himself and wife together; his brigade ordered to move off.

May 31st

A day of comparative quiet as far as regards the straggling scamps who have before worried us. I was nursing my baby to sleep, suddenly a large party of cavalry dashed up to the house, one or two jumped from their horses, ran up the steps and asked if they could stay all night. Mama said no she could not permit it, when a very polite gentlemanly person came up, and said Genl [William F.] Smith wished to be accomodated for the night, all he desired was a room. Of course Mama could do nothing but say yes most unwillingly. About twenty officers came in, the parlor and portico were soon filled. Genl S asked for a candle to look at his map. I had one brought, he walked in the parlor and spread out the map on the piano. I took a look at him by the bright light; he did not improve at all upon inspection, looked very much like a stall fed beef, heavy in the face and figure, sandy hair and beard, worn pointed on the chin. Dull eyes, and a stupid expression. I can't think he is smart or be much of an officer unless appearances lie greatly. The whole party were the most unmitigated Yankees in manner and appearance I ever saw.

June 12

Two weeks to day since we were first visited by the Yankees . . . it seems more like two years, the days have been so long so dreary. A visit from Genl C. and a little pleasant social talk made sometimes a bright spot, but otherwise, it is all alike a weary monotony. There is really a Sabbath stillness prevailing to day, nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees, and some random shot[s] from the idlers straggling by discharging their guns for mischief. A wagon train passed this evening and some nondescript affairs, Mama and I took for caissons, but the soldiers told us they were black smiths forges. Came up stairs very early to night, and was suddenly roused by a noise in the road; went to the window, and discovered a large body of troops passing. It was too dim in the moonlight to distinguish objects well. They were about three hours in passing, must have been a considerable force. The guards say it was the 18th corps moving to the left. The servants say they were retreating, going over towards James river to Harrisons landing. This is no doubt the truth. Grants again changing his base "one of McClellan's amusements."

MRS. ELLA MORE BASSETT WASHINGTON AS SHE APPEARED ABOUT 1890. (MOUNT VERNON LADIES' ASSOCIATION)

Clingman arrived not a moment too soon, At 4:00 P.M., Torbert, backed by elements from Gregg's division, launched a concerted drive toward Old Cold Harbor. The Confederate line folded, relinquishing the coveted road junction to the Federals. Clingman retired a short distance west toward New Cold Harbor and began entrenching. During the afternoon, the rest of Hoke's division pulled up and formed to extend Clingman's line. Torbert's men also began digging in, facing west toward the Confederates. Sheridan questioned whether his troopers could hold the crossroads, and his concern deepened as Hoke's troops arrived in increasing numbers. Then Union scouts reported that Anderson was also approaching the intersection. Confronting a burgeoning force of rebel infantry, Sheridan concluded that he faced "heavy odds" and ordered Torbert to pull back toward Old Church.

HAVING ASSUMED COMMAND OF THE CONFEDERATE FIRST CORPS FOLLOWING LIEUTENANT GENERAL JAMES LONGSTREET'S WOUNDING IN THE WILDERNESS, MAJOR GENERAL RICHARD H. ANDERSON WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR INITIATING THE BATTLE ON JUNE 1. (LC)

Old Cold Harbor, however, still figured importantly in Grant's plans. Smith had disembarked at White House Landing and was presumably on his way there. To support Smith, Grant ordered Wright down from the upper reaches of Totopotomoy Creek. In the meantime, Old Cold Harbor had to be held, and orders went out for Sheridan to secure the intersection at "all hazards." Torbert returned to Old Cold Harbor around 1:00 A.M. He was relieved to discover that the Confederates had failed to notice his withdrawal.

Lee, too, sensed opportunity at Old Cold Harbor. Only Union cavalry occupied the junction. Directly opposing them was Hoke's division, now up from Richmond in its entirety. Anderson's veteran First Corps stood poised about a mile north of Old Cold Harbor, in fields west of Beulah Church. Here was a chance to crush the Federal cavalry in a gray-clad vise and throw a force across Grant's new path toward Richmond. Lee placed Hoke temporarily under Anderson and ordered an attack early the next morning.

Once again, Lee had an opportunity to catch a portion of Grant's army at a disadvantage. He intended to make the most of the windfall.

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