The Battle of Cold Harbor: Events & Significance

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  • 0:07 A Long String of Battles
  • 1:23 Clashes and Trenches
  • 3:09 The Heat of the Battle
  • 4:37 The Aftermath
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the Battle of Cold Harbor. At this little Virginia town, Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant clashed with Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee.

A Long String of Battles

Ever since May 4, 1864, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had been moving his army south toward the Confederate capitol of Richmond. His goal was to capture Richmond and, along the way, engage Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee as much as possible, striking over and over to wear them down and eventually force them to surrender.

Both sides had already experienced heavy casualties at the Battle of the Wilderness in early May and the twelve-day Battle of Spotsylvania later in the month. Smaller clashes and skirmishes filled the days in between and afterward, depriving both armies of more men. Grant continued to push his forces southeast around Lee's right flank and ever closer to Richmond.

By May 31, Grant had received reinforcements and was close to the town of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Small as it was, Cold Harbor was the meeting place of five main roads. If Grant could capture and hold it, he had a straight shot to Richmond, which was only about ten miles to the southwest. Grant may not have realized that the Confederates, also recently reinforced, were already there, waiting for him.

Clashes and Trenches

The Battle of Cold Harbor began with a cavalry clash on May 31 between Union and Confederate horsemen. After battling back and forth over the crossroads, the Union prevailed, forcing the Confederates back. That afternoon, infantry from both sides joined the fight with the Confederates making a sharp charge to regain control. The assault failed, and both sides began to dig in around Cold Harbor. The battle was just beginning.

June 1 was a day filled with Union attacks on the Confederate battle line. The Confederates almost gave way, but they managed to hold out. Each side lost about 2,000 soldiers, dead, wounded, or missing.

Grant planned a major attack for June 2, but the charge was delayed when various Union divisions experienced some difficulties moving into their assigned positions. The delay gave the Confederates ample time to firmly entrench themselves and build a strong line of fortifications. In fact, the new defenses were quite a marvel of engineering. One newspaper correspondent described them as follows: 'Intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines, lines built to enfilade an opposing line...a maze and labyrinth of works within works.'

Union soldiers did not realize the extent of the Confederates' efforts, but they sensed that something was up, something that could be very dangerous for them. After Grant moved his planned attack to June 3, many Union men spent part of the evening before writing their names on scraps of paper and sewing them to their uniforms. At least if they died in battle the next day, survivors would be able to identify them and send word to their families.

The Heat of the Battle

At 4:30 a.m. on June 3, 50,000 Union soldiers advanced on the Confederates' fortifications. They met with intense, withering fire. One Union soldier described the experience, 'That dreadful storm of lead and iron seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle.'

Even the Confederates, hiding securely behind their defense works, were shocked at the scope of the slaughter. Wave after wave of Union troops moved forward and was mowed down, but more waves followed. One Confederate general remarked, 'It was not war. It was murder.'

After only an hour, approximately 7,000 Union men were killed or wounded while only 1,500 Confederates had become casualties. By this time, most surviving Union soldiers were lying on the ground, trying to dig their own trenches, using whatever they could, from cups to bayonets. They would do anything to escape the horrible enemy fire.

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