U.S. Civil War History & Genealogy
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The Perfect Killing Ground
By Tom Gladwell
By 1864, the glory battles of the Civil War were over. The ornamental latticework of chivalry and righteousness had been seared away completely from the iron machines of war. Battles in which winning or losing seemed to be important were no longer a part of the scheme of things. Men would still fight with personal courage and die clutching for bright banners, but the battles they now fought were the means to an end rather than the end itself.
At the beginning of 1864, North and South stood in weary stalemate. In the wake of Union victories that laid claim to the full course of the Mississippi, lifted the siege of Chattanooga, sealed off costal seaports, and seriously damaged an already fragile rail supply system, the Confederacy was bowed but not broken. Despite all this, there were still enough resources available to sustain the Southern armies, and no one doubted that those armies would fight.
That in essence, was what the campaigns of 1864 were about. For the North to end the war, it had to cut even more deeply into the South's resources, both material and psychological. For the South to end the war, it had to stymie the North's plans and count upon a war-weary Northern home to force the conflict to the peace table.
The campaigns of 1864 were filled with hard-fought, desperate battles whose names have never stuck in the popular consciousness. In the end, the places themselves meant nothing. Ground that was fought over with brutal ferocity one day was abandoned shortly thereafter. Victory was no longer measured by the land held, but rather by the continuation of the will to fight again the next day, and the next.
This is my story of one of those battles. A sleepy little crossroads town in Virginia called Cold Harbor.
Since Grant crossed the river into Virginia with the Army of the Potomac, two major battles have taken place, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania, and again Grant tries again to swing around General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The story of what happened:
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1
It was a nerve racking night for Union cavalry men around Cold Harbor. "Our position was anything but satisfactory," remembered a trooper in the 1st Maine cavalry, "we began to dig for our lives." In some places the Federals were able to use breastworks from which they had driven the Confederates during the day. In other places, the fence and wood barriers were moved "to suit the circumstances of the ground" and rebuilt.
Three roads lead into Cold Harbor, from the north, west and south, and Sheridan blocked them all. Even as his men made ready, Phil Sheridan recalled, all along their slim defensive positions "the enemy could be heard giving commands and making preparations to attack in the morning."
Confederate troops moving this night and morning did so with the confidence of history. Nearly two years earlier the newly named Army of Northern Virginia, under its new leader, Robert E. Lee, had gone on the offensive here against McClellan's army. Then the Federals force had been hammered back and stopped. Captain Dickert of Kershaw's Brigade spoke for so many in the Southern ranks when he said, " Now Grant was tempting fate by moving his beaten troops to this ill-fated field, there to try conclusions with McClellan's old antagonist."
Captain Charles Sanders of Georgia limped along with his company, determined to keep up despite a painful blister on his heel. "I told the boys they did not have to run, because if they did the Yankees would get me with my boot off," Sanders remembered afterward. "They all laughed at the idea and told me not to worry."
Between midnight and 1:30 AM, Federal soldiers belonging to Wright's Sixth Corps pulled out of their trenches on the extreme right of the line and began the forced march to Cold Harbor. "It was a most exhausting march," recalled a member of the 10th Vermont. "The night was dark and sultry, the way intricate and the road a part of the distance led through swamps." Officers riding with the columns pulled out their watches and shook their heads. At the rate at which the troops were struggling along the choking, and dusty Virginia roads, it would be well past daylight before the first of them got to Cold Harbor.
Some twelve thousand Confederate troops pressed against Sheridan's sixty-five hundred men around Cold Harbor. Major General Robert F. Hoke's seven thousand man division was dug in less than a mile west of Cold Harbor, across the road that led west through Gain's Mill and then circuitously to Richmond.
Lee expected Hoke's men to take in the Cold Harbor attack, but there was confusion surrounding his orders. Hoke, as Lee's aid Walter Taylor had explained to Anderson late on the thirty-first, "was directed to see you and arrange co-operation tomorrow." But, according to Brigadier General Johnson Hagood, Hoke's directions were to attack once Anderson's assault was full developed. This was something quite different from a simultaneous assault by both Confederate forces.
Sunrise, June 1, came softly to Cold Harbor, Virginia. According to Captain Theodore Rodenbough, of Sheridan's command, "At 5 AM, as things remained quiet in front, coffee was prepared and served to the men as they stood to horse. Officer's packs appeared in an adjoining field and the mess cooks managed to boil a bone, butter, a hoecake, and boil more coffee, and although the command remained massed, the surroundings seemed more peaceful. My fourth cup of coffee was in hand when a few shots were heard in front, causing a general pricking up of ears."
Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw's division was at the head of Anderson's column, closest to the enemy. Anderson decided to push ahead a strong reconnaissance force in order to determine the size, strength, and makeup of the Yankee troops holding on to Cold Harbor. Kershaw got the call and out of habit assigned the task to his old brigade. On paper, it was a good choice. The brigade's thinned ranks had been augmented recently by the 20th South Carolina, a fat regiment fresh from garrison duty around Charleston. Numbering between one thousand and one thousand twelve hundred strong, the soldiers, remembered one of Kershaw's ragged veterans, "were as healthy, well clad, as well fed a body of troops as anybody could wish to see."
There were so many men in the regiment that Kershaw's old-timers called it the "20th Army Corps," Marching proudly at its head was a thirty nine year old, well educated, "silver tongued" lawyer and ex-congressman named Lawrence Massillon Keitt. Keitt had seniority over Colonel John Henagan of Kershaw's Brigade so took command of the whole unit.
There was an aura of past glory about Lawrence Keitt. He reminded one of Kershaw's jaded veterans of a "Knight of old, mounted on his superb iron-gray, and looked the embodiment of the true chevalier that he was." But Keitt was inexperienced in field command, and there was delay and confusion as the men were formed into lines of battle. Kershaw himself compounded the problem by allowing Keitt to put his own raw regiment into the front line; a more prudent officer would have placed it in reserve.
Not until nearly 8:00 AM was Keitt's forces ready. "Across a large old field the brigade swept towards a densely timbered piece of oak-land, studded with undergrowth, crowding and swaying in irregular lines, the enemy's skirmishers pounding away as they advanced."
Sheridan's men facing Keitt numbered only six hundred, but they were all armed with either Sharps breech loading carbines or seven shot Spencer magazine carbines. As Kershaw's Brigade moved into view, the dismounted cavalryman allowed the yelling attackers to come close, then loosened an awesome display of massed firepower. Remembered Captain Rodenbough, "A sheet of flame came from the cavalry line, and for three or four minutes the din was deafening. The repeating carbines raked the flanks of the hostile column while the Sharps single loaders kept up a steady rattle." "They were so badly demoralized," added a trooper from the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, that they took to their heels and skedaddled back to the woods from which they had started their charge.
Colonel Keitt was scythed off his horse by the first volley and killed. His inexperienced regiment stood against the merciless leaden storm for perhaps five minutes. Then the 20th South Carolina regiment broke. Artilleryman Robert Stiles was appalled: "I have never seen a body of troops in such a condition of utter demoralization; they actually groveled upon the ground and attempted to burrow under each other in holes and depressions." Only the battle-harden discipline of the other regiments prevented the rout from becoming a general one.
So quickly was Kershaw's advanced repulsed that the fight was over before Hoke's men on the right, realized it had started. "Hoke did not become engaged," noted the official diary of the First Corps.
The morning was well under way before Grants headquarters staff realized that "Baldy" Smith's men had been marching the wrong way. Old orders directing the corps to move northwest to New Castle had not been corrected to turn the soldiers westward to Cold Harbor. The Eighteenth Corps commander had already suspected that something was wrong. A soldier in the 25th Massachusetts noted in his diary, "We can hear guns off to are left, at a distance, but get no report. Smith is very anxious and say's he don't know what to do or where to go. He thinks there must be a mistake in his orders for there seems to be no good reason why we should be here."
Colonel Bower's of Grant's staff brought Smith his amended instructions late in the morning, but the damage was done. Smith's men, who should have been assisting Sheridan's at Cold Harbor, were instead five or six miles from that place. "The command was therefore marched back to Old church and thence to Cold Harbor," Smith's later recalled. "The day was intensely hot, the dust stifling, and the progress slow, as the head of the column was behind the trains of the Sixth Corps. The ranks were consequently much thinned by the falling out of exhausted men."
A second, far less determined Confederate attack struggled forward before 10:00 AM. Sheridan's riders met it with the same hurricane of fire that had shattered the first, and it was quickly stopped. "After the second failure," Thompson Snyder of the 1st PA Cavalry recalled with weary gratitude, "they left us alone."
At 9:00 AM Sheridan reported the arrival of the Sixth Corps commander, Horatio Wright. By 10:00 AM, the first dust-caked, footsore infantryman began to relieve Sheridan's troopers.
Fifteen days earlier, the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery had been basking in the pleasures of garrison duty around Washington. Then came the orders for the front. Orders that, as one member of the regiment recalled, "after such long immunity, it had almost ceased to expect." Since joining the Army of the Potomac, the Connecticut troops had yet to participate in a general assault.
The regiment, now part of Russell's division in Wright's Sixth Corps, halted at around noon near the Cold Harbor crossroads, which had been taken by Sheridan's men on May 31. Five dead enemy soldiers lay nearby. Some of the Connecticut boys carefully dug a set of shallow graves, rolled in the bodies and covered them up.
Richard Anderson was still having problems. After the second repulse by Sheridan's rapid-firing carbineers, Anderson's only concern was defense. He let his battle line fall back to the west, taking a north-south direction from Hoke's position. Both George Pickett's and Charles Field's men were up by this time and were busy entrenching.
By mid-afternoon the first elements of "Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps finally began arriving at Cold Harbor and filing into position on Wright's right.
Grant was now more determined than ever to shift the weight of his line down to Cold Harbor. At 3:30 PM, orders went out to Hancock to prepare for a withdrawal from the right of the Union line "as soon as it was dark."
Lee was also shifting troops. They were spotted moving across the front held by Warren's Fifth Corps, and Grant wanted something done to halt them. "Warren fired his artillery at the enemy, but lost so much time in making ready that the enemy got by, and at 3 o'clock he reported the enemy was strongly entrenched in his front, and besides his lines were so long that he had no mass of troops to move with." Grant recalled later, adding sourly, "He seemed to have forgotten that lines in rear of an army hold themselves while their defenders are fighting in their front."
Then, surprisingly, Meade suggested that Wright and Smith go on the offensive. If Grant wants a breakthrough the next day, Meade argued, the chances of success would be markedly improved if the Federals could grab positions closer to the Confederate lines. Grant agreed. There would be fighting yet today at Cold Harbor.
Meade's attack order came down the chain of command, and Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg called the eighteen hundred men of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy artillery together to prepare them for their baptism of fire. The regiment was so large that it was subdivided into three battalions of six hundred men apiece. The troops massed in a hollow area near their encampment and looked expectantly at Kellogg, who climbed up on a log breastwork and called the three battalion commanders to him. Recalled one of his staff officers, "He marked out on the ground the shape of the works to be taken, told the officers what disposition to make to the different battalions, how the charge was to be made, spoke of our reputation as a band-box regiment. Now we are called on to show what we can do at fighting." Kellogg turned to Major Hubbard's First Battalion, which would lead the attack, and declared, "Now men, when you have the order to move, go in steady, keep cool, keep still until I give you the order to charge, and then go at arms a-port, with a yell. Don't a man of you fire a shot until we are within the enemy's breastworks. I shall be with you."
Anderson finally connected with Hoke's Division during the afternoon. The lines came together near the Cold Harbor road. Clingman's brigade of Hoke's Division covered the road, while General William T. Wofford's brigade of Kershaw's Division continued the line north. The adjoining flanks of the two brigades were separated by a stream and a gullied gap of fifty to seventy-five yards, which was thought to be impassable and was not covered by breastworks or troops. Clingman thought otherwise. "I rode over and expressed to the officer in command of the nearest regiment... a wish that he would extend his right to the branch, so as to unite with my command, but he declined to do so. I was about to extend my line across the branch, though contrary to orders I had received, but soon after was informed by Major-General Hoke that this was unnecessary, as General Hagood's Brigade would be stationed in front of my left and cover this interval... About 3 o'clock, however, this brigade, in obedience to General Hoke's orders was moved away to the right without my knowledge."
The Union's assault began at around 5:00 PM, when "Baldy" Smith ordered two of his divisions forward. The Federals had a long way to go. "The battlefield was broad, open, undulating, rising gently towards the front," recalled a New Yorker in the 98th. "A fourth of a mile distance, in the further edge of wood, the Confederates had a line of rifle-pits and a low breastworks of logs and rails, thrown up during the day and the evening before. Behind this first was an opened field, and beyond the field about eighty rods was another woods, in the nearest edge of which was the enemy's second line." "The noise, roar and crash of musketry and artillery firing is tremendous," remembered a soldier in the 13th New Hampshire.
Smith watched his men go in. "Under a severe fire they crossed the opened field, and, entering the woods, made their way through slashings and interlaced treetops, and carried the rifle-pits, capturing 250 prisoners... Beyond the woods, in another opened field, was a second line of works, from which the troops received so heavy a fire that they fell back under cover, and held the line of the captured rifle-pits."
Now was the time for Wright's men to advance. Two full divisions and portions of a third took part. The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, in the front of Upton's division, stood poised to move. The men had piled their knapsacks behind them and aligned themselves with the Cold Harbor road to their left. Then Colonel Kellogg appeared in front of the first battalion and gave the commands: "Forward! Guide Center! March!"
Each of the battalions was in its own lines, the lines being positioned one hundred paces apart. Recalled Theodore Vaill, an adjutant, "The 1st Battalion, with the colors in the center, moved directly forward through the scattering woods, crossed the opened field at a double quick, and entered another pine wood, of younger and thicker growth, where it came upon the first line of the Rebel rifle-pits." A New York soldier watching from the rear remembered that as "soon as the heavies began the charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast... We could see them fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would throw up their arms and fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped."
A Connecticut soldier named States B. Flandreau later recollected that the Rebels "had cut the young pine trees down about three feet from the ground, and let the tops fall over and form an entanglement, all along the line for about fifty feet out... Before we reached the entanglement, our Colonel discovered the enemy was about to give us a volley and he ordered us to lie down. Down we went on our faces, and the volley went over our heads... How I ever got through the tangled brush I do not know, all I know is that I was on top of their works with the regiment right close to Old Flag and the Johnnies running to beat the band."
The main Confederate breastwork lay beyond this line of rifle-pits and was screened by a heavier abatis. Here the enemy did not run but rather stood and delivered systematic volleys that stunned the war heavies: "A sheet of flame, sudden as lighting, red as blood, and so near it seemed to singe the men's faces, burst along the rebel breastworks; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men," remembered adjutant Vaill.
Kellogg's Connecticut troops had just come face to face with Clingman's North Carolina brigade. As the Yankees surged up the abatis, Clingman's aide Captain Fred R. Blake called out. " Here they are, as thick as they can be!" Clingman later recalled that the Federals "had on apparently new blue uniforms, and were marching at a quick step." Turning to his line, Clingman shouted, "Aim low and aim well." He later said, "The discharge from my line at once knocked down the front ranks of the column, while the oblique fire along the right and left cut down men rapidly all along the column towards the rear. In a few minutes the whole column either acting under orders or from panic, lay down."
With his men pinned down, Colonel Kellogg now realizes that his regiment had advanced further than the supporting units on either side. "Our right was nobody's left, and are left nobody's right," one Connecticut soldier later observed. Suddenly a killing fire began to rip along the crouching lines from the left flank. Kellogg tried to order his men back but was shot in the head and killed. His body pitched into the abatis and lay dangling there, bloody and lifeless. According to Theodore Vaill, the first line of Connecticut soldiers was near panic: "Wild and blind with wounds, bruises, noise, smoke, and conflicting orders, the men staggered in every direction, some of them falling upon the very top of the rebel parapet, where they were completely riddled with bullets--others wandering off into the woods on the right and front, to find their way to death by starvation at Andersonville, or never to be heard from again." A New York officer who was watching from the support line later noted in his diary, "The enemy's fire being too severe for the 2nd Connecticut, they broke up in great confusion."
Remembered General Clingman of North Carolina, "The men of my command continued to reload and discharge their pieces into the thick, dark mass. The officers fired their pistols , while such as had none occasionally borrowed muskets from privates and discharged them at particular individuals.....After some fifteen or twenty rounds had been fired into the prostrate mass, I directed the firing to cease. Upon this occurring, a portion of the column arose and fled to the rear, many of these, however, were shot down as they attempted to escape.
Like a mighty wind, Emory Upton came among the frantic Connecticut soldiers. " Lie down!" he yelled, and men all around him tumbled to cover. Somehow he kneaded a defensive line out of the mob and prowled along it, beating out panic as a fireman might stamp out small flares in the wake of a brushfire. To a wide-eyed officer brandishing his sword, Upton snarled, "Put up your saber. I never draw mine until we get into closer quarters than this." Pointing to some Confederates who were running in to surrender, Upton yelled, "See the Johnnies! See the Johnnies! Boys, we'll have these fellows yet!"
By now, the first battalion had become thoroughly intermingled with the second and third. Night was coming on, and with it, new waves of fear. Upton made a point of fearlessness. Standing behind a tree in the extreme front, he fired shot after shot at the enemy, as fast as loaded rifles were handed to him. Occasionally, sensing that a portion of the line was beginning to waver, he would pounce on it and bellow, "Men of Connecticut, stand by me! We must hold this line!"
Even as the right of Clingman's line was beating down the attack of the Connecticut heavies, other Federal troops were funneling into the gullied gap on his left. As the Confederate officer later remembered it, "Favored by the thick bushes and smoke... the Yankees had gotten within fifty yards of the rear and left of my line, and suddenly, just as our men had ceased to cheer, they opened on them a heavy fire at short range against their backs and from their left simultaneously."
"Took the Rebs by surprise" a New Yorker later noted in his diary. A Pennsylvanian in the 87th claimed afterward that his outfit "was among the first to bound over the earth-works where in a few minutes they captured and sent to the rear a large part of Hoke's North Carolina troops."
The Union penetration also unhinged Wofford's Brigade, on Clingman's left. Up until that instant, the Georgian soldiers had been easily holding their own. Recalled the foot blistered Captain Charles Sanders, "We were fighting away, when all at once, a perfect shower of bullets came from behind... There was only one thing to do too... We all saw that we had to get out of that place, and that quick too... I always thought I could run pretty fast, but I didn't know until then how fast I could run."
Richard Anderson, whose actions so far this day had been several notches, his work at Spotsylvania on May 7, now rose to the moment. Promptly detaching General John Gregg's brigade from Field's Division and General Eppa Hunton's from Pickett's, he sent them forward in a counterattack. Portions of Kershaw's old South Carolina brigade and General Alfred H. Colquitt's all Georgia command also pitched in.
"It was a plucky fight," recalled a Vermont soldier in the gap. The sun was down by now, and the men fought in an eerie twilight. One of Hunton's soldiers remembered that "It was pitch dark, only the light of burning powder to shoot at." Hunton pushed part of his brigade across the gap and another portion along the left shoulder of the gully, while Gregg's men steadied Wofford's line. Hunton and Clingman had a testy exchange while attempting to coordinate their movements, but finally they were able to push the Federals out of the gap, even though, according to artilleryman Robert Stiles, "We did not quite regain all we had lost, and our lines were left in very bad shape. "
Major John Hubbard, who had taken command of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy artillery after Colonel Kellogg's death, sent word to Emory Upton that his men were out of ammunition and might not be able to hold if attacked. Upton was hearing no talk of defeat. "If they come there," he growled, "catch them on your bayonets, and pitch them over your heads."
The intense fighting finally died away by 10:00 PM. Emory Upton later put the loss to the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery at "53 killed, 187 wounded, 146 missing; total 386." He was bitter about the hasty decision to attack late in the day. Describing the affair to his sister as a murderous engagement, Upton went on to explain, "I say murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy's entrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities."
During the night, Major General Charles Field supervised a readjustment of the Confederate lines near the spot where the Yankees had penetrated the gap between Clingman and Wofford. Recalled Field, "I laid out and made breastworks in the rear of the one taken from Kershaw and connected it with the old one."
George Meade was feeling the pressure. Theodore Lyman remembered that the army commander "was in one of his irascible fits tonight." "Baldy" Smith was emerging as Meade's newest headache. Smith and Grant were old friends, and Meade may have suspected that the Eighteenth Corps leader was trying to bypass the chain of command. At 10:15 PM, Meade was complaining to Grant, "I have heard nothing from Smith... He is aware of the telegraph from Wright's headquarters, but does not report," When the reports finally did come in, they were filled with complaints and dire predictions of defeat should the enemy attack vigorously. The last straw came around midnight, when Captain Farquhar of Smith's staff found Meade and reported that the Eighteenth Corps commander had brought with him little ammunition and no supply wagons, and that "he considered his position precarious." Lyman was standing nearby when Meade roared, "Then, why in hell did he come at all?"
Hancock's division commander John Gibbon put his finger on a problem that was moving along with the Army of the Potomac like a bothersome boil that might fester at any moment into something dangerous. As Gibbon later noted, "Gen. Meade occupied a peculiar position at the head of the army. He was a commander directly under a commander, a position at best and under the most favorable circumstances, not a very satisfactory one to fill... With the best and most patriotic intentions on the part of both, clashings are almost certain to occur."
One was occurring at that moment. Meade was not happy with Grant's tactics. In a 10:10 PM dispatch to Horatio Wright, Meade complained about Grant's spreading the army too thin. "I do not like extending too much. It is the trouble we have had all along of occupying too long lines and not massing enough." Meade was also growing annoyed at the press coverage Grant was getting. In a letter written today to his wife, he groused, "The papers are giving Grant all the credit for what they call successes. I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong." A dangerous schism was yawning between the two generals, and Meade was perilously close to washing his hands of any responsibility of Grants orders.
Whatever high hopes General Lee may have had for Richard Anderson were thoroughly dashed when he received his First Corps commander's 10:00 PM report on the action at Cold Harbor. Communications between Anderson and Hoke had been severed in the late afternoon Federal attack and had not yet been reestablished. Furthermore, Anderson felt that his men and Hoke's division were not enough to secure the area. "Reinforcements are necessary to enable us to hold this position," he warned. Lee was already acting. General Breckinridge and his troops from the Shenandoah Valley were ordered to Cold Harbor to strengthen and extend the Confederate right.
Remembered Horace Porter, "The night of the first of June was a busy one for both officers and men. Grant, eager as usual to push the advance gained, set about making such dispositions of the troops as would best accomplish this purpose." The unit Grant was now counting upon to launch the decisive attack was Hancock's Second Corps. Grant wanted these dependable shock troops with Smith and Wright at Cold Harbor.
Nothing went right for Hancock's men that night. A soldier in the 116th PA recalled it as being "one of the most trying experiences. It was very dark and very warm, the dust stifling and no water to be had." The road was unknown, and Captain Paine of the Engineers, who was sent to lead the column and show the way, in his efforts to find a short cut, got thru troops entangled in by-paths where artillery could not follow and much time was lost. "The result of all of this," explained Francis Walker, a Second Corps adjutant, was enough to "put it out of General Hancock's power to reach Cold Harbor at daybreak of the 2nd of June."
THURSDAY, JUNE 2
Dawn came to Cold Harbor, but not Breckinridge. Lee, recovering but still weak, mounted up and rode toward Mechanicsville. He covered the full distance before finding the former U.S. Vice President. Breckinridge explained that his men had not been able to leave their trenches on the Confederate left before 10:00 PM, and they had been so weary that he felt compelled to let them rest every half hour. Major McClean, a guide sent by General Lee, had compounded the problem by leading the troops by a long route. Lee gave orders for Breckinridge to hurry the march and rode back toward Cold Harbor, fully expecting to hear the sounds of Grant's guns signaling the attack.
Francis Barlow's division was the first of Hancock's Corp. to arrive at Cold Harbor. Behind it came John Gibbon's men. Among them, John S. Jones of Ohio, who recalled, "We were in a condition of almost utter physical exhaustion, to which was added the feeling of mortification and humiliation at being behind time." It was a hot, sultry day, "The sun being very warm and pouring down its heating torrents," as a private in Company B of the 57th PA wrote in his diary. Theodore Lyman noted, "Getting all the information, General Meade ordered a general assault at 4:00 PM." This was soon changed to 5:00 PM.
When the 12th New Jersey drew to a halt, it was quickly surrounded by smiling slaves, who told the sweat-streaked Federals that the place they had marched to was called Cold Harbor. A lot of Yankee boys wondered about the name. A private in the 2nd NY Heavy Artillery remarked that "'twas no harbor at all, and devil a drop of water. Theodore Lyman was not quite sure what its name was. He narrowed his choices to three: Coal Harbor, Cold Harbor, or Cool Arbor. Lyman finally decided he liked Cool Arbor best "because it is prettiest, and because it is so hideously inappropriate." Horace Porter also at first believed that Cool Arbor was the proper place name, "but it was ascertained afterward that the name Cold Harbor was correct, that it had been taken from the places frequently found along the highways of England, and means shelter without fire."
Ulysses Grant to George Meade - 2:00 P.M.
In view of the want of preparation for an attack this evening, and the heat and want of energy among the men from moving during the night last night, I think it advisable to postpone the assault until early tomorrow morning
George Meade to all Corps commanders - 2:30 P.M.
The attack ordered for 5:00 PM this day is postponed to 4:30 AM tomorrow. Corps commanders will employ the interim in making examination of the ground in their fronts, and perfecting their arrangements for the assault.
It was afternoon before Breckinridge's men moved into position on Hoke's right. By this time General Lee had learned that the Federals appeared to be withdrawing strength from their right. Figuring that this meant more Yankees on the roads to Cold Harbor, Lee ordered Mahone and Wilcox to march their divisions at once to extend Breckinridge's line to the Chickahominy.
Lee also sent for the errant guide who had led Breckinridge's men the long way around. Major Henry B. McClellan remembered, "The General was seated on a camp stool in front of his tent, an opened map spread out on his knees. When I was in position before him, he traced a road with his index finger and quietly remarked, 'Major this is the road to Cold Harbor.' 'Yes General,' I replied, 'I know it now.' Not another word was spoken, but that reproof sunk deeper and cut more keenly than words of violent vituperation would have done." young McClellan recalled afterward.
Attempts by Union officers to scout the Confederate lines resulted in no useful information. Adjutant Charles Cowtan of the 10th NY noted that "little could be learned of the enemy's main works in front of Gibbon's division, on account of the woods concealing them, and, in front of Barlow's division, knowledge of the Confederate position was equally scant." Hancock's adjutant Francis Walker later added his voice of complaint: "No opportunity had been afforded to make an adequate reconnaissance of the enemy's line... It was, beyond question, the most unfortunate decision made during that bloody campaign."
William Goldsborough, a Marylander in Lee's army, remembered seeing civilians fleeing the area: "There were a large number of children among them who were suffering from hunger, and their appeals to the rough soldiers for a mouthful of food was distressing indeed. Those shared their day's ration with them, and they eagerly devoured the course bacon raw."
During the afternoon, the Union army tightened up on its line near Cold Harbor. Grant later described the actions and counter reactions: "Warren's corps was moved to the left to connect with Smith. Hancock's corps was got into position to the left of Wright's, and Burnside was moved to Bethesda Church in reserve. While Warren and Burnside were making these changes, the enemy came out several times and attacked them, capturing several hundred prisoners. The attacks were repulsed, but not followed up as they should have been. I was so annoyed at this that I directed Meade to instruct his corps commanders they should seize all such opportunities.... and not wait for orders."
In the course of the day, General Lee ordered actions on both Confederate flanks. Lee remembered this ground from 1862, especially a slight eminence near the Chickahominy known as Turkey Hill. Lee's June 1 orders to Hoke and Anderson had urged them to stretch their lines southward and cover this point, but that had not been done, and Union skirmishers now held the position. At 3:00 PM, in response to Lee's orders, troops from Wilcox's and Breckinridge's commands moved forward and, in a sharp fight, cleared the hill. With this minor action, Lee's artillery now ranged the Chickahominy bottoms on the right, securing his forces against a move around that flank.
At the same time, Lee unleashed Jubal Early's corps against the Union right wing, which was slowly withdrawing. Early's men swept over a strong skirmish and then came up against the main body of Union troops, where the response was more effective. "No sooner had the firing and yelling announced the proximity of the enemy," recalled a Pennsylvanian in the 45th regiment, "than our massed troops began to deploy into shape for battle, reminding me instantly of a monstrous blue snake gracefully uncoiling itself after being disturbed... .The attack was easily repulsed with no great loss to us."
Most of the weary Union soldiers around Cold Harbor welcomed the delay in the attack orders, but a few felt otherwise. Theodore Lyman believed that every minute of postponement made the Confederate earthworks that much stronger. Lyman noted, "It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good rifle-pit, the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abatis in front and entrenched batteries behind, Sometimes they put this three-day's work into the first twenty four hours."
John Gibbon, whose men had already charged their share of enemy positions, was even more definite: "A few hours were all that was necessary to render any position so strong by breastworks that the opposite party was unable to carry it and it became a recognized fact among the men themselves that when the enemy had occupied a position six or eight hours ahead of us, it was useless to attempt to take it."
Despite the delays and postponements, Grant remained determined to go ahead with the attack on the morning of June 3. "It was a question of judgment," said Horace Porter. "After discussing the matter thoroughly with his principal officers, and weighing all the chances, he decided to attack Lee's army in its present position. He had succeeded in breaking the enemy's line at other places under circumstances which were not more favorable, and the results to be obtained would be so great in case of success that it seemed wise to make the attempt." Lincoln observer, Charles Dana, agreed: "The breaking of Lee's lines meant his destruction and the collapse of the rebellion."
It began to rain around 5:00 PM. Some Federal regiments, including the 166th PA and others like it, "slept soundly" this night. In the 2nd New Hampshire, the men "grouped in their comfortless bivouac, mid rocks and bushes wet with sudden rain," and discussed their chances of battle. For some, the inexorable regimen of the army system went on no matter what. Around midnight, the men of the 10th Massachusetts were awakened, given two days rations of hardtack, coffee, and sugar, and then allowed to go back to sleep.
It was also around midnight as the sweating, mud-streaked artillerymen of Captain J. Henry Sleeper's 10th Massachusetts Battery lugged and shoved their six rain-slicked cannons into the rifle-pits they had spent the evening enlarging and strengthening. Sleeper, when ordered to this position by General John Gibbon, had protested the move, as it meant the other Union batteries would be firing directly over his. "Obey your orders, Captain," Gibbon snapped, and rode away.
Along another portion of the Union line, cannoneer Frank Wilkeson passed the time talking with some of the boys from the 7th New York Heavy Artillery who were being used as infantry. Wilkeson found that "they were of sad heart. They knew that they were to go into the fight early in the morning and they dreaded the work."
Two Massachusetts officers in the eighteenth corps had bad feelings about the new day. Lt. James Graham turned to his friend Captain Foss and said, "Captain, I am induced to think that one or both of us will go up tomorrow morning, and if anything happens to me, I want you to take care of me, and if you are hurt and I am not, I will take care of you." Foss thought for a moment, and nodded, saying, "Yea, Jim, I will see to that. If you are hurt I will look out for you, if I am alive."
Grant's aid Lt Colonel Horace Porter saw something curious as he rode through the Federal camps this night. "I noticed that many of the men had taken off their coats and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them." Looking more closely, Porter found that "the men were calmly writing their names and home address on slips of paper and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their bodies might be recognized and their fate made known to their families back home."
The Confederates who were waiting in the trenches across from the Union lines were under no illusion. "The enemy was evidently concentrating in the woods in front," the southern brigadier Evander Law wrote, "and every indication pointed to an early attack."
In John Haskell's battery, the Virginia cannoneers spent the night arguing about the merits of Grant's strategy and griping about the lack of food. Some stood the rain better than others. The situation was especially miserable on John Breckinridge's front, where one brigadier gave in to complaints by his troops and let most of the brigade withdraw a bit to higher ground. This left only a picket force to man the main trenches.
Along another portion of the line, Confederate engineers were bringing a new science to the point of perfection. Lt Colonel William Wills Blackford, a cavalryman turned engineer, was seeing his first campaign in his new capacity. Blackford and his fellow engineers were spending the night laying out entrenchments with a hitherto unrealized accuracy. They used a long cord marked at intervals with small strips of white cotton cloth to mock up the trench lines along positions that had been sited and plotted during the day. The cord enabled the engineers to eye the line before the digging began, in order that any difficult to defend angles might be avoided. This night, Blackford and his engineers were to be successful beyond their wildest imaginings; through a combination of chance and design, Lee's men had created the perfect killing ground.
Colonel William Oates of Alabama, one of Evander Laws regimental commanders, had trouble getting a skirmish line to move out into the marshy area ranged by Union pickets. Major Alexander Lowther, in charge of the skirmishers, declined to lead them out, claiming he was sick. Oates looked the man over, noted that he had presented no certification from the surgeon, and ordered him to command the detail. It was still pitch-dark as the disgruntled officer made his way forward.
FRIDAY JUNE 3
Union before Dawn
General John Gibbon could not believe what he was not seeing. Gibbon's division was one of two from Hancock's Second Corps slated to attack at daylight. The brown haired, serious faced officer was on the move early, anxious to ensure that his troops were all in position and ready for the attack. Gibbon's four brigades would be advancing in two waves of two each: "Paddy" Owens' brigade was supposed to support the left. Years later Gibbon would still recall with incredulity how he found the "whole brigade and its commander sound asleep." Gibbon raised his voice angrily in the damp darkness. It was not an auspicious start.
"Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps held the extreme right flank of the attacking line, so Smith was up early this morning to get his men set for the fight. He had serious reservations about his orders. Grant's plan called for a massive attack by three Union corps across a broad front, something that Smith felt was a bad idea. The goal of any attacking commander should be a concentration of forces at a single point; spreading out went against military logic. Then, too, there was the question of coordination among the three corps that would be carrying the assault. To clarify things, Smith asked Horatio Wright, whose Sixth Corps would be advancing immediately on his left, about his attack plan. Wright's curt reply that he was "going to pitch into them," helped not at all. In Smith's opinion, the assault plan "was simply an order to slaughter" his best troops.
Continued in Part Two:
Copyright © 2001 Tom Gladwell
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