Grant at Richmond

Union and Confederate troops face off at Battle of Cold Harbor
Battle of Cold Harbor

Library of Congress

by Frank Kohl

As the summer of 1864 began, Ulysses S. Grant started his Overland Campaign across Virginia to achieve his final goal - capturing Richmond. Despite a series of stalemates, he continued reducing Robert E. Lee’s numbers as he marched towards Richmond. His spirits and confidence soared, and he was certain he could defeat Lee. The Confederates were on the defensive but remained determined even though each battle left them with fewer men and supplies.

"I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured." – Grant, Letter to Chief of Staff Halleck

At the end of May, Grant’s men faced off against the heavily entrenched Confederates in the Battle of Topotomoy Creek. By the end of the day, Grant realized he was fighting yet another stalemate and he continued toward Richmond.

The Assault

He set his sights on Old Cold Harbor, a key strategic area. For three days, the Union attacked. However, disorganization, unfamiliar terrain and battle-weary soldiers prevented them from breaking through the Confederate forces.

On June 3rd, Grant ordered a large-scale assault. As over 60,000 men marched through a deep fog, they were heavily attacked by Confederates firing from trenches and earthworks. By late morning, the assault had failed, and Grant ordered his army to go on the defensive, dig trenches and settle into siege warfare.

Grant sent Lee a ceasefire request to collect their wounded. Lee declined, insisting on a formal flag of truce. After two days of delays and miscommunications, the two sides agreed on a truce. But it was too late and only two of several hundred wounded soldiers survived.

After eight days of skirmishes and tending to the dead and the wounded, Grant moved toward Petersburg’s railroad junction. The high number of Union casualties shocked the North. Many lost faith in Grant and called him a butcher, a label that continues to this day. The nation demanded an end to war. Despite this, Abraham Lincoln continued to support Grant.

“Grant is this a position from whence he will never be dislodged until Richmond is taken.” - Abraham Lincoln.

Battle of Richmond Today

The Battles of Topotomoy Creek and Cold Harbor are now preserved as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Visitors can walk through key battle sites and see preserved Union earthworks and fortifications. In addition to the main visitor center, there is a visitor center at Cold Harbor.

The Odyssey of Ulysses explores the saga of U. S. Grant from his first battle to his final resting place. For information on this Article Series project, contact us.

Part of a series of articles titled The Odyssey of Ulysses.

Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, Richmond National Battlefield Park

Last updated: April 7, 2022