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NPS History E-Library

Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor



By morning on May 25, Lee's opportunity had passed. Grant stood behind strong earthworks, and seven pontoon bridges spanned the North Anna like sutures closing a wound. Warren probed Hill's leg of the inverted V and found it too strong to attack. Wright attempted to cross Little River and slip behind the rebel formation, only to discover Confederate cavalrymen controlling the fords. Hancock, on the eastern side of Lee's V, faced two Confederate corps and decided to leave well enough alone. The Federals contented themselves with tearing up five miles of the Virginia Central Railroad. Sharpshooters exchanged fire, but neither side dared assault.

Grant pondered his next move. The lessons of Spotsylvania Court House remained fresh. "To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify," he advised Washington the next day. And flanking Lee was not promising. An impenetrable swamp protected Lee's right, and turning the Confederate left would require the Federals to traverse three sizable streams—the Little River, New River, and South Anna—all the while separated from their supply line. The solution, Grant concluded, was to withdraw, shift east, then slice south across the Pamunkey. From there, he could draw provisions from the Chesapeake—White House Landing on the Pamunkey would supplant Port Royal on the Rappahannock as the supply depot—and he would have but one river to cross. Once again, Grant would maneuver around Lee's right flank, as he had done after the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House.

Lee's failure to attack at the North Anna persuaded Grant that the Army of Northern Virginia's days were numbered. "Lee's army is really whipped," he crowed to Washington.

Lee's failure to attack at the North Anna persuaded Grant that the Army of Northern Virginia's days were numbered. "Lee's army is really whipped," he crowed to Washington. "A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had." He added, "I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee's army is already ensured." A few days hence, Grant's overconfidence was to cost the Federals dearly. Lee might have lost his capacity to launch offensive operations, but he could still administer painful stings while acting defensively.

After dark on May 26, muffled treads from Warren's and Wright's men sounded hollow tattoos on pontoon bridges. Boughs silenced the steps of Hancock's corps traversing Chesterfield Bridge. "Night intensely dark and roads very muddy," noted an aide of the crossing. By morning, the Union army stood united on the river's northern shore, thankful for deliverance. "How we longed to get away from the North Anna" a Federal reminisced, "where we had not the slightest chance of success."


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Realizing the weakness of his position, on May 26 Grant pulls back to the north bank of the North Anna and begins to move east and south toward the Pamunkey River. Lee falls back along the vital railroads and takes up a position along Totopotomoy Creek, The next day, Sheridan's cavalry fords the Pamunkey at Nelson's Ferry and Hanovertown, thus opening the way for Grant's columns to cross early on the twenty-eighth. Cavalry from both sides scouts the country between the armies in search of evidence as to the other's movements.

On May 27, Grant started east on a long march around Lee's right flank. Burnside and Hancock lingered behind to guard the North Anna fords while Warren and Wright headed for the Pamunkey River crossings above Hanovertown, thirty-four miles distant. Major General Philip H. Sheridan's cavalry, recently returned from its foray to Richmond, led the way, patrolling side roads to screen the army's advance. Grant pitched his tent for the night at Mangohick Church, three miles above the Pamunkey. He suffered from a migraine headache so severe that he took chloroform to relieve it. His army—"tired and hot," according to an aide—sprawled across the countryside for miles around.


Lee reacted swiftly and sent a fought-out brigade of three North Carolina cavalry regiments along the Pamunkey's southern bank to scout Grant's movement and harass the Federals where possible. His infantry meanwhile drew south along the railways, putting the Army of Northern Virginia southwest of Grant, where it could shift to counter the Federals' likely moves. If Grant made west for the rail lines, Lee would be there to meet him. If he began another crablike movement south, then dashed for Richmond, Lee could follow along a smaller interior arc and parry his thrust. Most important, Lee's move put another river between himself and the enemy. Meandering diagonally betwixt the antagonists ran Totopotomoy Creek, an obscure, high-banked Virginia waterway destined to lend its name to history.

Late on May 27, Torbert's Union cavalry crossed the Pamunkey near Hanovertown and engaged the North Carolina troopers, who offered stout resistance as they retired before Torbert's superior numbers. Word of the engagement confirmed for Lee his hunch that Grant intended to cross the Pamunkey near Hanovertown.

Lee spent the night puzzling through his options. He was a mere nine miles from Richmond. Backed against the Confederate capital, his mobility was severely restricted. A single misstep could spell disaster. Early on the morning of May 28, he described his thinking in a letter to the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis. Grant clearly meant to advance on Richmond, but it was too soon to determine his line of march. "The want of information leads me to doubt whether the enemy is pursuing the route [through Mechanicsville] or whether, now that he finds the road open by Ashland, he may not prefer to take it," Lee wrote. "Should he proceed on the road to Mechanicsville, the army will be placed on the Totopotomoy. Should he on the other hand take the Telegraph Road, I shall try to intercept him as near Ashland as I can." To perfect his dispositions, Lee put Ewell's corps on his far right, touching Totopotomoy Creek at Pole Green Church and closing Shady Grove Road to Grant; Anderson formed west of Ewell, behind Hundley's Corner; Breckinridge deployed across the Richmond-Hanovertown Road near Totopotomoy Creek; and Hill secured the Confederate left, east of the Virginia Central Railroad near Atlee's Station. Whichever approach to Richmond Grant chose, Lee was confident that he could shift to meet him.

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