Battle at Cold Harbor: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
The Battle of Cold Harbor was a Confederate victory in June 1864. Over 15,000 combined casualties fell during the nearly two-week fight. It was the last major battle of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign.

On the morning of June 3, 1864, three Union corps lunged forward in a massive frontal attack against Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, Virginia. By noon that day, as many as 7,000 Union troops were killed, wounded, or missing. This fight was the most costly assault of the Battle of Cold Harbor, fought in early June 1864 just outside of Richmond. Why were these armies here and how did the battle end? Let's find out.

The Overland Campaign

In May 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Federal armies, began a push toward Richmond, which is now called the Overland Campaign. Grant's goal was to drive directly through the heart of Virginia, advancing toward the Confederate capital and battering Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia along the way. At Grant's disposal was Major General George Meade and the Union Army of the Potomac.

Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant during the Overland Campaign
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At the outset of the campaign, Grant had a numerical advantage over Lee's army. While Lee had just over 60,000 men, Grant's army numbered over 100,000. Grant knew something very important from the start: he could better afford to sustain battlefield losses than could his opponent. The campaign would, thus, feature frontal assaults, heavy losses, and the onset of trench warfare. In many ways, it was a war of attrition, meaning a war where two armies gradually weaken each other through numerous, smaller-scale actions.

In the first week of May, Grant's advance began by crossing the Rapidan River. On May 5, Lee struck at Grant with a bold offensive in a dense forest several miles west of Fredericksburg. This fight is known as the Battle of the Wilderness. Over the span of three days, there were nearly 26,000 casualties in these heavy woods. By May 7, Grant attempted to disengage from Lee's forces, pushing south around the Confederate flank toward Spotsylvania Court House. His intention was to get behind Lee's army and cut him off from Richmond.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee
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Lee beat Grant to the punch, arriving at Spotsylvania first. Thus began the two-week long Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, resulting in nearly 30,000 more combined casualties. On May 12, a massive Union attack against a salient in the Confederate line, known as the Mule Shoe salient, saw nearly 24 hours of continuous fighting, accounting for roughly 17,000 casualties alone.

By late May, Grant disengaged once again, pushing around the Confederate flank toward the North Anna River, where several more days of fighting occurred. By May 31, Union forces reached Cold Harbor. Grant had neared his goal, but at a tremendous cost. And yet, the fighting was far from over.

The Battle of Cold Harbor

The name Cold Harbor itself is misleading. The battle was not fought at a harbor at all. Cold Harbor was the name of a tavern at a crossroads ten miles northeast of Richmond. That is where these two armies found themselves at the end of May 1864.

On May 31, Union cavalry under the command of Major General Phil Sheridan reached Cold Harbor, taking possession of the important crossroads. For the next two days, Sheridan's cavalry held the position against Confederate infantry, using their new repeating carbine rifles to stop the Southern attacks until Federal infantry began arriving on June 1. Later that day, Union and Confederate infantry were engaged with slight Federal gains, but neither side gained a noticeable advantage.

The following day, on June 2, Grant wanted to launch another assault against Lee's positions. He wanted to rely heavily upon the Second Corps, led by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock. Yet, after long marches and significant weariness, Hancock's men were simply too tired for the attack. Grant was forced to wait until June 3, giving the Confederates an entire day to strengthen their position. This would prove fatal for many Union troops.

On June 3, the Federal assault began at daybreak. This would prove the bloodiest day of the Battle of Cold Harbor. Approximately 50,000 Union soldiers in three corps began advancing toward Confederate lines that morning. The Southerners were well prepared. With trenches allowing for maximum infantry and artillery fire power, the Confederates met the waves of Union soldiers with a flurry of musket and cannon fire, slaughtering thousands of Union troops. Many Federal soldiers found themselves trapped between the opposing lines because of heavy Confederate fire, forcing the men to dig for protection with whatever they had on hand. Various accounts say that anywhere from 3,000 to 7,000 Federal soldiers fell as casualties that morning. For the rest of his life, Grant regretted making the assault that day because it resulted in the death of so many soldiers.

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