Gen. Grant's Cold Harbor Regret
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” wrote Ulysses S. Grant in his memoirs. Grant was referring to a Union assault launched on June 3, 1864, against entrenched Confederate positions. In less than an hour, about 7,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was part of the Overland campaign that had already resulted in massive casualties on both sides at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the North Anna River. Grant, with President Lincoln’s blessing, was determined to fight a battle of attrition against General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, knowing that Union losses could more easily be replaced than those of Lee’s army.
Cold Harbor was situated between Totopotomoy Creek to the north and the Chickahominy River to the south. Its name derived from a British inn that offered overnight lodging but no hot meals. A short distance away was the old Gaines Mill battlefield of 1862 (which some called “First Cold Harbor”). The town’s main building was a tavern that was located at the intersection of five roads. The Confederate capitol of Richmond was only about 10 miles away.
Grant over confident
In the days leading up to June 3, Confederate forces established well-entrenched defensive positions (that can be viewed even today). The great Civil War historian Shelby Foote describes the scene:
Crouched in the dripping blackness after sundown, with both
flanks securely anchored on rising streams and Richmond scarcely
ten miles in their rear, the defenders asked for nothing better, in
the way of reward for their craftsmanship and labor, than that
their adversaries would advance into the meshed and overlapping
fields of fire they had established, unit by unit, along their seven
miles of front.
Grant was over confident. A week before, he had written to Washington, “I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured.” The Union troops on the line that had seen the strong Confederate position were far less confident. One of Grant’s aides observed some soldiers writing their names and addresses on small sheets of paper and pinning them to their uniforms so that they would not die as unknowns. It was discovered after the battle that one Union soldier had written in his diary the evening before: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”
Grant ordered the attack, but Union General George Meade was in direct command. Gordon Rhea, whose multi-volume history of the Overland campaign includes the most comprehensive study of the Cold Harbor battle, notes that Meade took “no steps to reconnoiter the ground, coordinate the army’s elements, or tend to things that diligent generals ordinarily do before sending soldiers against fortified enemy lines.”
Union taken by surprise, exposed
Union soldiers attacked at dawn, and as they advanced Confederate troops opened fire from their trenches. “A heavy bank of smoke rolled out, alive with muzzle flashes, and the air was suddenly full of screaming lead,” Shelby Foote wrote. One Union soldier described it as a “volcanic blast, and just about as destructive.” Never before, in this or perhaps in any other war,” Foote wrote, “had so large a body of troops been exposed to such a concentration of firepower.”
The terrain allowed for no cover for the Union troops. Only once did Union forces penetrate the Confederate line, and only for a moment. “[W]herever the range became pointblank the attack dissolved in horror,” Foote noted. One Southern soldier observed “the dead and dying in front of the Confederate line in triangles.”
After the initial attack was bloodily repulsed, orders to renew the assault arrived at the front lines, but unit commanders simply ordered their troops to continue to fire from their present positions. They had seen enough slaughter for one day. Lee had won, a Confederate staffer said, “perhaps the easiest victory ever granted to Confederate arms by the folly of Federal commanders.”
Cold Harbor failed, but Overland Campaign a success
A day after the fateful assault, one West Point graduate and Union engineer, wrote to his sister: “I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed . . . Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill.” “For sheer butchery,” wrote Allan Nevins in his multi-volume history of the Civil War, “Cold Harbor . . . can stand beside Fredericksburg.”
The debacle at Cold Harbor forced Grant to alter his strategy. Instead of continuously confronting Lee at close quarters, he would cross the James River and cut off Lee’s sources of supply. Grant’s army crossed the James River in mid June. His next target would be Petersburg, and the fighting there would eventually transform into a lengthy siege.
Overall, the Overland campaign, though costly, wore down Lee’s army and strained Confederate resources. Grant’s detractors called him a “butcher,” but Lincoln saw in Grant the determination to defeat Lee’s army however long it would take and however costly it would be. But even Grant regretted Cold Harbor.