Battle of Cold Harbor: Confederates Mow Down Union Assault
As the gray light of dawn broke at 4:30 on June 3, 1864, Union troops under General Ulysses S. Grant marched through morning fog to assault General Robert E. Lee’s entrenched Confederates at Cold Harbor, Virginia. What followed was one of the worst slaughters of a horrifically bloody war, as the attackers were mowed down by the concentrated rifle and cannon fire of their fortified foe. In less than one hour the Union army suffered more than 7,000 casualties, as opposed to less than 1,500 for the Confederates.
It was an audacious, daring and perhaps reckless frontal assault that Grant afterward bitterly regretted, and later in his memoirs admitted had been a mistake: “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made…At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side. Before that, the Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have acquired a wholesome regard for the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities generally of the Army of the Potomac. They no longer wanted to fight them ‘one Confederate to five Yanks.’ Indeed, they seemed to have given up any idea of gaining any advantage of their antagonist in the open field. They had come to much prefer breastworks in their front to the Army of the Potomac. This charge seemed to revive their hopes temporarily; but it was of short duration. The effect upon the Army of the Potomac was the reverse. When we reached the James River, however, all effects of the battle of Cold Harbor seemed to have disappeared.”
It was an astonishing victory for Lee, whose army was outnumbered at Cold Harbor 108,000 to 59,000, and unquestionably a setback for Grant—but only temporarily. Stunned by the loss, the Union army dug in, and the two opponents engaged in trench warfare for the next nine days. On the night of June 12, Grant decided to abandon his strategy of annihilating Lee’s army, and instead marched to the James River to begin the long, arduous campaign to capture the Confederate capital at Richmond, concentrating first on a siege of nearby Petersburg, a major railroad hub south of Richmond.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was Lee’s last major victory in the war. He spent the next nine months grimly trying to resist the siege of Petersburg, before surrendering on April 9, 1865.
The following two newspaper reports, one from a Northern paper and one from a Southern, take the expected tone when describing the Confederate victory at the Battle of Cold Harbor: the first expressing disappointment, the second satisfaction.
This article was published by the Army and Navy Journal and reprinted by the Boston Daily Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts) on June 13, 1864:
The First Move before Richmond
…On Friday (June 3) the terrific and momentous conflict, two days prepared for, was opened at gray dawn. The enemy’s right proved, as expected, the point of attack. The detailed conduct and the issue of the battle are elsewhere particularized. In brief, it was a temporary success, but a final repulse. Regarding it in the indistinct and blurred light which falls upon it at so recent a date as this after its occurrence, it shows at least that the enemy’s position in front of Cold Harbor is quite as formidable as anything he has yet presented to us. Some augury of better fortune in the future, however, may be derived, perhaps, from the fact that our strength does not seem to have been entirely economized and expended against his stronghold on that day.
…The battle at Cold Harbor was possibly designed to be rather tentative that decisive. Its aim may have been to find out whether the enemy’s line could be cut by heroic assault, and a way thus laid open to the control of the passage of the Chickahominy, or whether resort must be had to a more laborious process of campaigning. That it was a disappointment may be admitted. It was the disappointment, however, of a general who tries his favorite plan first, but has not exhausted his reserve of ingenuity. Our faith in final success continues strong.
This article was published by the Richmond Dispatch and reprinted by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on June 11, 1864. It notes that these two armies fought on the same ground in 1862 during the Seven Days Battles, when General Lee first took command of the Army of Northern Virginia and pushed back the Army of the Potomac, then under the command of Union General George B. McClellan, in its failed Peninsula Campaign—the North’s first major attempt to capture Richmond:
The Virginia Front
The Richmond Dispatch of the 6th has the following:
Yesterday was an uncommonly quiet day, undisturbed, as far as we could learn, by more than a single rumor, which, however, if there is any truth in it, is of more importance than the generality of rumors. It bore that one of Grant’s couriers had been intercepted with a note from Grant himself to his Chief of Commissary, instructing him to use his stores with the utmost economy, and saying that he could get no more until he reach James River. The impression was very general that Grant is trying to force his way to that river, and that impression may have given rise to the rumor. If there be any truth in it, he must feel some doubt about the policy or possibility of establishing his base at the White House [a house in Virginia, not Lincoln’s residence in Washington, D.C.—ed.]. Of this we know nothing; but from appearances, he is evidently trying to reach the James, either to establish his base there, or to cross over to the opposite side. This, we suppose, is the secret of his further attacks upon the positions at Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill, and their neighborhood, and of his having assembled a large force at Bottom’s Bridge. If he can get over this side, he hopes to get possession of White Oak Swamp and Malvern Hill, as McClellan did, and thus to open the way to the river. These positions are both in our hands, and we hardly think they will be abandoned without a struggle. How capable they are of defense McClellan made appear upon his retreat.
Being now in our possession, we shall be in the position that McClellan was then, and Grant will be in the position that Gen. Lee then occupied. Now, in 1862, our men carried the positions of Cold Harbor and Gaines’ Mill, which McClellan held then as we do now, while we occupied the position now held by Grant. Thus far Grant has been unable to make the slightest impression upon these positions. On the contrary, he has been repulsed in every attack he has made, most signally and most murderously. The affair of Friday was a mere massacre, and the attack of Friday night was repulsed with heavy loss on the part of the enemy and scarcely any loss on our part. If we could take the same positions when they held them, which they cannot take while we hold them, the inference is, that ours are the best troops. We have, therefore, no great fears for White Oak Swamp or Malvern Hill, even if Grant should cross the Chickahominy, which he has not done yet. Meanwhile we congratulate our brave soldiers, and their officers, upon being able to pass one Sabbath without losing or shedding blood. We scarcely heard the sound of a cannon yesterday—a circumstance which, just at this time, may be regarded as somewhat remarkable.
…As for the excellence of Grant’s army, we have nothing to say. All we know is, that our men beat them whenever they meet them, and that in the last four or five days, without losing a thousand men, they have already inflicted on them a loss of certainly ten, most people say at least twenty, thousand.
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