By Colin Woodward
Cold Harbor has always been one of my favorite battles to study. For those who know about the war, 1864 June 3 is a day that lives in infamy. For on that day, Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all the Union armies and accompanying and overseeing the Army of Potomac as it battled Robert E. Lee in Virginia, launched his own personal Pickett’s Charge. And like Lee’s charge at Gettysburg the previous year, it was a grand and bloody failure.
I had visited Cold Harbor ten years ago during a history conference in Richmond. I wanted to revisit the place on or near the anniversary of the battle (but not at 5:30 a.m., when Grant’s June 3 charge took place!). In early June, however, I was too busy and put off making my return visit.
Thankfully, the weather for my trip last week was summery. The sky was clear and temperatures hovered in the upper 80s. It was a nice day to be out and at a park, even one with such a dark history. With me was my daughter, who I hope is a budding Civil War scholar.
7,000 Men in 7 Minutes?
My fascination with Cold Harbor began in high school in the early 90s. When I watched Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary for the first time, I was shocked to learn that 7,000 Union men fell in 10 minutes on 1864 June 3. Since then, I’ve learned from Cold Harbor scholars that the first ten minutes of June 3 were not that bloody. But it was a mess. Grant certainly lost about 7,000 men by lunch time. And he wrote in his memoirs that he regretted that he ordered the fateful charge of June 3.
By June 1864, Grant was gaining an undeserved reputation as a butcher. Whatever the exact butcher’s bill for June 3, the battle of Cold Harbor has come to epitomize the violence of the Overland Campaign. Frontal assaults in the Civil War were always costly, and never more so at Cold Harbor.
The assaults of three Union corps on June 3 were born of Grant’s frustrations with Lee’s stubbornness. Grant and Lee had torn each other apart for weeks at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. And at the North Anna, Grant could not lure Lee out of his entrenchments. Grant thought one more all-out attack would succeed. But even with 60,000 men thrown into the fray on June 3, he could not crush Lee’s lines. Some Federal troops managed to break through the Rebel defenses, but they were not well supported and could not hold their ground.
The Union’s failure did not lie with its combat troops. Grant and George Gordon Meade, who was commander of the Army of the Potomac and Grant’s tactician, failed to reconnoiter Lee’s position in detail. Lee’s defenses were formidable, and the fighting at Cold Harbor resulted in one of the most lopsided Confederate victories of the war, and it was the last such lopsided victory for the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant suffered 12,700 casualties. Lee suffered 5,300. For the Union, it was the battle of Fredericksburg all over again.
Most of the casualties at the battle did not occur on June 3. Fighting at Cold Harbor began on May 31 and last until the 12th of June. After Grant’s botched attack of June 3, the opposing armies lay low. The killing fields of Cold Harbor became a sniper’s heaven, and mortars rained death from the sky.
By the time the battle began, the Union and Confederate armies had been engaged constantly for nearly a month. Both sides were battered and bloody and scrambling to find replacements. Some units barely survived Cold Harbor. Engaged on June 1 were hundreds of “heavies,” troops who had previously manned heavy artillery defenses outside Washington. Grant had pulled the “heavies” from the capital’s defenses and put them in the Army of the Potomac’s front lines. Men from Connecticut suffered heavily on June 1, and they are honored with monument, located not far from no man’s land.
“The Name Alone Sounds Bad”
After visiting the battlefield, I told my brother about it in an email. He lives far from Virginia and is not a Civil War buff. “I don’t think I ever heard of that battle,” he told me, “but the name alone sounds bad.” Indeed, it was bad. Civil War scholars have long known about the carnage at Cold Harbor. But what does the park offer for those interested in Civil War battlefields?
Well, for one, the park is relatively compact. The Confederate line stretched seven miles around Cold Harbor. But a walk through the park today would not cover nearly that much distance. Privately owned homes are within view of the park’s core. One can get off the beaten path, but the trails are not exhausting.
What is most noticeable about Cold Harbor is the large amount of entrenchments that are still visible. In contrast to the parts of the North Anna battlefield that I visited earlier in the summer, many of the earthworks at Cold Harbor are not obscured by heavy woods.
The battle went on for nearly two weeks, and most of it involved trench warfare. By walking the park, it is easy to see how close the Federal and Confederate lines were to one another. The area between the lines is dotted with many trees, but no earthworks: this was the no man’s land that separated the two armies, which were, in some cases, only yards apart.
Lee offered a vicious resistance to Grant’s attempts to break through his lines at Cold Harbor. And the battle exemplified Grant and Lee at their most stubborn. After Grant’s bloody assault of June 3, Grant, the Union’s top general, would not ask for a formal truce so that he could bury his dead and recover his wounded. To do so would admit he had lost the battle. Lee, furthermore, was intentionally slow to respond to Grant’s efforts to arrange a truce, knowing that the Federals were suffering worse than he was.After Grant’s failed attack, Lee was on guard for another major Union offensive, and he issued a circular to that effect.
Not until June 7 did Lee allow for a truce so that the Union could recover men still suffering between the lines. During the truce, Union soldiers found only two men still alive between the lines. The rest had died or managed to get to safety.
One could spend a good amount of time at the battlefield. But for those interested in a quick tour of several battlefields in a day, Cold Harbor is close to other important Civil War sites. The entrance to the Gaines’ Mill battlefield, the bloodiest of the Seven Days battles, fought two years before, is only about a mile away. Also nearby is the Beaver Dam battlefield in Mechanicsville, also the scene of fighting during the Seven Days.
Battlefields serve as a grim reminder of the horrible moments in our nation’s past. But if you can put aside the details of what happened there, they are enjoyable place. As I drove out of the park, I saw a deer. And at the gift shop, I made sure I bought my daughter a souvenir. It was her first bag of toy soldiers. The package featured some interesting artwork, including a Confederate cavalryman who looked like Robert E. Lee (who certainly never hacked at any Yankees with his sword).
For those concerned about “erasing history” in Virginia and elsewhere, one way to assure that history is not erased is to support our national parks. Visit them, and spend some money. It is one of the best ways we can learn, preserve, and relive history.