Cold Harbor: Grant at His Worst and His Best

This article follows up on “Bloody May,” an earlier article about Union General U.S. Grant’s campaign to destroy Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

With losses considerably reduced in the second half of May when compared to the first half of the month, Grant succumbed to battlefield hubris. Lee by necessity had refused to fight Grant out in the open where he would be crushed by superior numbers and artillery. Lee’s men had become experts with the shovel, entrenching as they retreated. Lee now hoped an overly eager Grant would attempt an assault on his lines.

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

Battle at Cold Harbor (History.com)

On Wednesday, June 1, General Sheridan’s cavalry, with infantry support from General Wright’s Sixth Corps and General Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth, held Cold Harbor, a place so named for an inn that offered travelers a place to rest but no hot food. Hancock’s men arrived at 6:30 the next morning, exhausted from an overnight launch.

Grant wanted to launch an attack against Lee upon the arrival of Hancock’s troops, but decided the soldiers required rest. The lull allowed Lee additional time to entrench. Along a seven-mile line, Lee’s men dug trenches and laid log and earth barriers. They stacked logs with openings at eye level every few feet, such that a soldier could stand and fire his rifle with little danger of being struck by return fire. The Federals would have to cross open fields or boggy terrain and then up a hill to reach the rebels. If Grant dared order an attack, he could expect the same fate as Pickett’s men at Gettysburg.

Grant ordered an attack, to begin the next morning at 4:30. Sixty thousand Union soldiers would charge the entrenched Confederates. While Meade had issued a circular requiring commanders to examine “the ground on their front and perfect the arrangements for the assault,” the commanding officers made no effort to reconnoiter the enemy’s position to gain information about the strength of their defenses.

The slaughter took only eight minutes. Hancock’s men caught enemy fire directly ahead and on their left. Confederates poured cannon and musket fire on Smith’s right and straight ahead. Wright’s men suffered most of all, suffering a blistering enfilade on both flanks and directly in front of them. The dead lay in windrows before the enemy. The survivors used cups, spoons, and bayonets in an effort to put earth between them and the rebels. Seventeen hundred men lay dead. Another 9,000 lay wounded on the field, expecting their commander to request a truce so they could be retrieved from the field.

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

Ulysses S. Grant (civilwar.org)

For the next four days, the Union Army witnessed Grant at his worst. “Unconditional Surrender” Grant had never suffered an acknowledged defeat on the battlefield. He was not about to acknowledge one now. Lee had suffered few losses and all of them lay behind his defenses. Only blue uniforms lay on the open field, vulnerable to sharpshooters from the gray ranks.

Grant asked Lee for a truce, implying the battle had been a draw, so that both sides could recover their dead and wounded. Lee would have none of it. Grant persisted, asking that Lee demonstrate humanity toward the “suffering from both sides.” Finally, on Tuesday, June 7, Grant acknowledged the Union defeat and Union soldiers recovered their brethren under a flag of truce. Only two Union soldiers remained alive on the field. Any other survivors had crawled back into Union lines under cover of darkness. For many, the delay had sealed their doom or cost them an arm or a leg from prolonged exposure. For all of them, Grant’s pride had inflicted unnecessary misery.

This was Grant at his worst. He and his army would recover, however, and demonstrate Grant at his best. That is for another article.

Most of this brief account is taken from my Civil War era novel, New Garden (pages 275-276), available on line from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Dog Ear Publishing. The novel is also available in Greensboro, NC, at the Greensboro Historical Museum and Scuppernong Books.

For historical sources about Cold Harbor, I recommend the following:

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cold Harbor: Grant at His Worst and His Best

  1. Always great research in your posts, thank you for maintaining such excellence.

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