Cold Harbor Campaign - 1864
Overview of the 1864 Richmond Campaign
The Richmond Campaign of 1864
AS soon as apprised of Grant's withdrawal from the North Anna, on the 27th of May, Lee ordered the Second corps, now temporarily under Early, to march southward, between the two railways, then cross the Central at Atlee's, and take position covering the roads to Richmond from the Hanovertown crossing of the Pamunkey, which he was confident Grant would now seek. The First corps followed, by the parallel Telegraph road. The next day, after a march of thirty hours, in which 24 miles of road were covered, these corps were in line of battle between the Totopotomoy and the Chickahominy, covering the roads leading to Richmond that Grant was now seeking. Fitz Lee's cavalry withstood the Federal advance until the entire army of Northern Virginia was in position, in the afternoon of the 28th, having a severe engagement with the Federal cavalry at Haws' shop, north of the Totopotomoy. From the north side of the Totopotomoy, from Hundley's corner, Grant sent dispatch to Halleck, May 30th, saying:
There seems to be some prospect of Lee making a stand north of the Chickahominy, his right near Shady, Grove. I have heard nothing yet of Smith's troops reaching White House. If I can get up to attack, will not await his arrival. I wish you would send all the pontoon bridging you can to City Point to have it ready in case it is wanted.
He was evidently now anticipating defeat in front of Richmond, and that he would need pontoons by which to escape to Butler on the south side of the James, even after a fresh corps, under Smith, should reach his right. On the morning of the 31st, from Haws' shop, Grant reported: "The enemy came out on our left last evening and attacked .... To relieve General Warren, who was on our left, speedily, General Meade ordered an attack by the balance of our line. General Hancock was the only one who received the order in time to make the attack before dark. He drove the enemy from his intrenched skirmish line, and still holds it." Lee now asked that his army might be reinforced with that of Beauregard from south of the James. These two armies held the interior defensive line, while Grant and Butler held the exterior offensive one. Beauregard, in turn, urged the Confederate authorities to send him part of Lee's army, that he might fall upon and capture Butler, while Lee held Grant in check, and that he could then come north of the James and join Lee in forcing Grant to a surrender. Lee did not approve of this suggestion, and again .urged that Beauregard should come to aid him in continuous battle against Grant. Beauregard, persistent in his determination, telegraphed to Richmond: "War department must determine when and what troops to order from here." Lee's prompt response was: "If you cannot determine what troops you can spare, the department cannot. The result of your delay will be disaster. Butler's troops will be with Grant to-morrow." On the 1st of June, Grant made an attack, late in the afternoon, from his left, with the Sixth corps and the corps under Smith, holding Warren, Burnside and Hancock in position to advance, all along his lines, to his right. Attacking at about 5 p. m., and continuing until after dark, he forced back Lee's front lines, under his initial attack, but finding a second line which commanded the one captured, he made no further progress, but repulsed several counterstrokes. During the night of that day he withdrew his right and moved it to his left, beyond the road leading to Cold Harbor, extending his right to defend his own flank in the same direction, now resting his right on the famous Turkey hill, from which McClellan had been routed, after a desperate struggle, in the first battle of Cold Harbor, in 1862. The intense heat of the June days of lowland Virginia, intensified by the clouds of dust raised by every movement, and the want of drinkable water, brought suffering and weariness upon both the contending armies. To these there were added for Lee's men the pangs of hunger. A credible witness, in the artillery, states that his command had received but two issues of rations since leaving Hanover Junction; one of these was three army crackers and a small slice of pork; two days later a cracker was issued to each soldier. This was all that could be done to give physical strength to the grim veterans that stood behind the breastworks they had hurriedly thrown up to meet Grant's last contention for reaching Richmond from the north side of the James. On the morning of the 1st of June, from near Bethesda church, then in front of Lee's center, Dana wrote to Stanton, that, at about 5 of the previous afternoon, Sheridan drove a force of Fitz Lee's cavalry, supported by Clingman's infantry, after a severe fight, from Cold Harbor, and took possession of the place, which the Sixth corps, at 10 p.m., set out to occupy, to be followed by a still larger force. He was in ignorance of the fact that Lee was moving a heavy column in the same direction. Later, he wrote that the Sixth corps reached Cold Harbor at 9 a.m. of that day, closely followed by Smith's; that these maneuvered, and at 2 p.m. found that there was no longer any enemy before them, except a few holding part of the road between Bethesda church and Cold Harbor. Warren, who had been ordered to attack the Confederate column marching toward Cold Harbor, had only opened on it with artillery, and, "at 3 p.m., reported that the intrenchments of the enemy were exceedingly strong, and that his own lines were so long that he had no mass of troops to attack with." Dana added that Wright had blundered in executing his order to attack Cold Harbor, and Warren had failed to execute his orders, and "both Generals Grant and Meade are so intensely disgusted with these failures of Wright and Warren, that a change has been made in the disposition of the corps, which will give us a heavy, movable column, for attack or defense, under a general who obeys orders without excessive reconnoitering;" and concluded by saying: "Sheridan, with Gregg's and Torbert's divisions, has moved around Lee's right flank to attack him in the rear. We are now (6 p.m.) waiting to hear Sheridan's guns. General Grant's present design is to crowd the rebel army south of the Chickahominy, then he means thoroughly to destroy both the railroads, up to the North Anna, before he moves from here; besides, he wishes to keep the enemy so engaged here that he can detach no troops to interfere with the operations of Hunter." Two hours later, Dana dispatched: "At about 5 o'clock we heard the cannon of Sheridan, and soon after Wright and Smith attacked Lee's right wing with their whole force. They moved from Cold Harbor in the direction of Mechanicsville. Judging from the sounds of artillery and musketry, the fight was furious ... At about 6 o'clock Warren attacked in the center, but apparently not with much force. His firing is that of a lively skirmish. Immediately upon Wright's attack, the enemy moved out on his left against Hancock, as if to try what strength we had in that direction. He was decisively repulsed. Hancock followed up the repulse, but was not able to get over the rebel works, and fell back to his own lines." At 6 a.m., of the 2d, Dana again wrote, of the contests of the 1st:
"It appears that the rebels three times assaulted the lines of Griffin, and they came up in three lines. They were terribly slaughtered by canister, and went back in disorder every time. Wright carried the rebel works before him, but withdrew afterward on account of an enfilading fire. It appears that Sheridan did not attack, his order not having reached in time, and his troops being scattered. He will go in the morning Hancock moved during the night to Cold Harbor, where his advance arrived about daylight. His rear is now (6 a.m.) marching past these headquarters. In conjunction with Wright and Smith, he will this morning fall upon Lee's right. .... Warren and Burnside are ordered to open as soon as they hear that the three corps on our left have begun the battle .... Our line now extends from near the Chickahominy to Totopotomoy creek, but Burnside is ordered to withdraw from the right to the center, as rapidly as possible."
In a dispatch to the secretary of war, June 1st, Lee wrote:
"There has been skirmishing along the lines to-day. General Anderson and General Hoke attacked the enemy, in their front, this afternoon, and drove them to their intrenchments. This afternoon the enemy attacked General Heth and were handsomely repulsed by Cooke's and Kirkland's brigades. Generals Breckinridge and Mahone drove the enemy from their front."
On the 2d, Lee again wrote:
"Yesterday afternoon the enemy's cavalry were reported to be advancing, by the left of our line, toward Hanover Court House and Ashland. General Hampton, with Rosser's brigade, proceeded to meet them. Rosser fell upon their rear, and charged down the road toward Ashland, bearing everything before him. His progress was arrested, at Ashland, by the intrenchments of the enemy, when he changed his direction and advanced up the Fredericksburg railroad. Gen. W. H. F. Lee came up at this time, with part of his division, and a joint attack was made. The enemy was quickly driven from his place and pursued toward Hanover Court House until dark."
General Lee added that Fitz Lee was forced to retire from Old Cold Harbor, and that he had extended his own lines in that direction, placing Hoke on the extreme right; and as the enemy's movements were still continuing to his right, on the morning of the 2d, he had moved Breckinridge's corps and two divisions of Hill's to the right. In concluding he said:
"General Early, with Ewell's corps and Heth's division, occupied our left, and was directed to get upon the enemy's right flank and drive him down in front of our line. General Early made the movement in the forenoon, and drove the enemy from his intrenchments, following him until dark. While this attack was progressing, General Hill reinforced Breckinridge with two brigades of Wilcox's division, and dislodged the enemy from Turkey hill, in front of our extreme right."
Lee's center under Anderson, the First corps and Hoke's division, were now in line across the River road between New Cold Harbor and Old Cold Harbor, facing eastward and covering a highway to Richmond. The corps of Breckinridge and Hill extended the right to the Chickahominy, while the Second corps, under Early, extended Lee's line to the left, covering the roads leading from the northeast, strengthened on the left by Heth's division of the Third corps. In the afternoon of the 2d, Lee took the offensive, by ordering Early to assail Grant's right and sweep down toward his left; but he found Grant's right returned with formidable works, and, as his offer of open battle was not accepted, he built strong earthworks in front of Grant's, where he spent the night of the 2d. At 4 p.m. of the 2d, Dana dispatched Stanton:
"There has been no battle to-day. Hancock's men were so tired with their night march, of nearly 12 miles, from their previous position on our extreme right, and the heat and dust so oppressive, that at 2 p.m. to-day, General Grant ordered the attack to be postponed till 4:30 a.m. to-morrow. The weather is now changed, and we are having a violent rainstorm. Our entire losses yesterday were, in round numbers, 2,500 killed and wounded ... The right of our lines is now at Bethesda church, and on the left the cavalry hold, down to the Chickahominy. [Of Rosser's fight, he said:] Wilson fought his way out without great loss, but was obliged to leave his dead on the field. There joined this army, yesterday, ten old and new regiments, making an additional force of 2,327 men. [A postscript reads] I omitted to state, in cipher, that Sheridan had a smart fight this morning, near Gaines' mill, but was unable to force the line of the enemy, owing to the commanding position of their batteries."
On the morning of June 3d, at half past four, Grant opened the culminating battle of his "on to Richmond" campaign by direct roads. Lee's veterans had, by this time, all become skillful military engineers, and of their own impulse had thrown up lines of defense, abounding in salients whence heavy guns could send forth searching cross-fires, at short range, against every portion of an attacking enemy. The infantry were well provided with loop-holes, and crevices between logs, from which to fire, also at short range, with deliberate aim. Hunger but made them fiercer combatants, and as Grant's great host advanced, it was met all along the line by a furious fire from artillery and infantry that no body of soldiers, no matter how brave and determined, could long withstand. Hancock assailed Lee's right with double line of battle, followed by supports. His daring men, rushing forward, captured one of Lee's salients, which Breckinridge recovered, by a prompt fire of artillery, under which 3,000 of Hancock's men fell upon the field. The equally bold assaults upon Lee's center and left met with the same fate, and within ten minutes the whole front of Grant's line of assault was shattered, and his troops, in dismay, fled to cover. At 9 o'clock Grant ordered another attack. Hancock refused to even give it to his men. Smith, with the Eighteenth corps, writes, "That order I refused to obey." McMahon, chief of staff of the Sixth corps, says that Grant sent a second, and then a third order for renewed attack, and when it "came to corps head. quarters, it was transmitted to the division headquarters, and to the brigades and the regiments without comment. To move that army farther, except by regular approaches, was a simple and absolute impossibility, known to be such by every officer and man of the three corps engaged. The order was obeyed by simply renewing the fire from the men as they lay in position." Unable to force his men to again attack Lee's position, Grant ordered the construction of regular approaches, as if he would lay siege to the Confederate position, professing that he did this to keep Lee from sending troops against Hunter, who had now entered the Shenandoah valley and was advancing on Staunton, there to meet an army coming from the westward, and follow out Grant's orders to advance to Charlottesville and Lynchburg to destroy railways and canals--an expedition which came to grief, through the operations of General Early, as related in a subsequent chapter. In these two Cold Harbor battles, of June 1st and 3d, Grant lost fully 10,000 men, of his 110,000, the larger portion of them in the assault on the 3d. From the time of his crossing the Pamunkey up to the date of his retreat to the James, on the night of the 12th, he had lost over 14,000 men, besides the 3,000 sick that he had sent to the North, reducing his numbers by over 17,000. Lee's losses were about 1,700 of his 58,000, but 3 per cent. In fleeing from Lee's front, on the 3d, Grant left the ground intervening between Lee's and his own intrenchments, strewn with wounded, who lay exposed to intense heat and the glare of a June sun, enduring suffering that cannot be described, until the 5th; Grant, unwilling, thinking it a confession of defeat, as it really was, to send a flag of truce and ask permission to remove them. When he did send, it was with the remarkable proposition, "that hereafter, when no battle is raging, either party be authorized to send, to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men, bearing litters, to pick up their dead or wounded, without being fired upon by the other party." Lee made reply that Grant should follow the regular course and ask for a truce. This he did, but to find his wounded men dead and to blame Lee for the delay. Gen. F. A. Walker, in his history of Hancock's corps, writes: "If it be asked why so simple a duty of humanity as the rescue of the wounded and the burial of the dead had been thus neglected, it is answered that it was due to an unnecessary scruple on the part of the Union commander-in-chief. Grant delayed sending a flag of truce to General Lee for this purpose because it would amount to an admission that he had been beaten on the 3d of June. It now seems incredible that he should, for a moment, have supposed that any other view could be taken of that action." At two of the afternoon of the 3d, Grant dispatched to Halleck:
We assaulted at 4:30 this morning, driving the enemy within his intrenchments at all points, but without gaining any decisive advantage. Our troops now occupy a position close to the enemy, some places within 50 yards, and are .intrenching. 'Our loss was not severe, nor do I suppose the enemy to have lost heavily.
His next dispatch from Old Cold Harbor, on the 5th of June, reads:
A full survey of all the ground satisfies me that it would not be practicable to hold a line northeast of Richmond that would protect the Fredericksburg railroad to enable us to use it for supplying the army ... My idea, from the start, has been to beat Lee's army, if possible, north of Richmond, then, after destroying his lines of communication north of the James river, to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee, in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat. I now find, after more than thirty days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies which they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breastworks, or feebly on the offensive, immediately in front of them, and where, in case of repulse, they can instantly retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make, all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city. I have therefore resolved upon the following plan: I will continue to hold, substantially, the ground now occupied by the army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself, until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central railroad, from about Beaver Dam, for some 25 or 30 miles west. When this is effected, I will move the army to the south side of James river, either by crossing the Chickahominy and marching near to City Point, or by going to the mouth of the Chickahominy on the north side and crossing there. To provide for this last, and most probable contingency, six or more ferryboats, of the largest size, ought to be immediately provided. Once on the south side of James river, I can cut off all sources of supply to the enemy, except what is furnished by the canal. If Hunter succeeds in reaching Lynchburg, that will be lost to him also. Should Hunter not succeed, I will still make the effort to destroy the canal by sending cavalry up the south side of the river with a pontoon train to cross wherever they can. The feeling of the two armies now seems to be that the rebels can protect themselves only by strong intrenchments, while our army is not only confident of protecting itself without intrenchments, but that it can beat and drive the enemy whenever and wherever he can be found without this protection.
The preceding was Grant's last dispatch from north of the James. Notwithstanding Grant's assertion that his army was "confident of protecting itself without intrenchments," he had been making intrenchments of the strongest character, during his whole campaign, whenever he had halted, or wherever he had taken position after crossing the Rapidan, as the writer personally knows from having sketched them, from the Rapidan to the Chickahominy, immediately after they were evacuated. Dana reported on July 3d: "The working parties of each of those three corps (Hancock's, Wright's and Smith's) carried forward their approaches. Hancock's lines were thus brought within some 40 yards of the rebel works;" and again at 4 p.m. of the 9th: "Our engineers, under General Barnard, are now at work on an inner line of intrenchments to cover the withdrawal of the army from this position." Informed of Hunter's progress up the Valley and the results of the battle of Piedmont, on the 5th of June, and of Hunter's junction with Crook, from the Kanawha region, at Staunton, on the 8th, Lee detached Breckinridge's division on the 10th, to prevent Hunter from crossing the Blue ridge toward Charlottesville and destroying the Virginia Central railroad, thus again anticipating and interfering with Grant's plan of campaign. On the 8th, Butler sent a body of cavalry and infantry to capture Petersburg and destroy the bridges across the Appomattox. Grant says of this movement, in his official report: "The cavalry carried the works on the south side and penetrated well in toward the town, but were forced to retire. General Gillmore, finding the works which he approached very strong, and deeming an assault impracticable, returned to Bermuda Hundred without attempting one." Thus failed the first Federal attempt to capture the "Cockade City." On the 7th of June, Grant sent, as he reports, "two divisions of cavalry, under General Sheridan, on an expedition against the Virginia Central railroad, with instructions to Hunter, whom I hoped he would meet near Charlottesville, to join his forces to Sheridan's, and, after the work laid out for them was thoroughly done, to join the army of the Potomac by the route laid down in Sheridan's instructions." This raid of Sheridan was met by Hampton's cavalry at Trevilian's station of the Virginia Central (now Chesapeake & Ohio)railroad, on the 12th, and after a hotly-contested battle that lasted several hours, Sheridan was forced to retreat to Grant's rear, without having accomplished the mission on which he was sent. Notwithstanding the assertions of Grant, previously quoted, as to the condition and tactical operations of the army of Northern Virginia, Lee, on the 12th of June, before Grant began drawing back from his front to retreat to the James, ordered his Second corps, now in command of Lieut.-Gen. Jubal Anderson Early (General Ewell having been put in command of the troops in Richmond), to march to Charlottesville and thence by rail to Lynchburg, as expeditiously as possible, to intercept Hunter's advance, which he was making, by way of Lexington, toward that important railway center and depot of supplies. Early, by his energetic movements, was enabled to meet Hunter in front of Lynchburg, on the 17th and 18th, and drive him in disaster across to the Valley, at Salem, and into the Appalachians, in continuous retreat to the Kanawha, while he turned northeast and moved on Washington, as related in detail in a subsequent chapter. After providing a new line of intrenchments, in front of Lee, for his rear guard, Grant, during the night of June 12th, began his retreat; or, as some would call it, his fifth flank movement, but far away from Lee's left, from Cold Harbor to the James. A division of cavalry under Wilson, and his Fifth corps, crossed the Chickahominy at the long bridges and guarded his flank to White Oak swamp, while his other corps, marching farther to the east, reached Wilcox's landing and Charles City Court House on the James, during the night of the 13th, all marching through a country familiar to the army of the Potomac from the operations of McClellan in 1862. On the morning of the 14th, Grant's Second corps began crossing the James, in ferryboats, at Wilcox's wharf, while pontoons were being laid, which were completed by midnight, on which the rest of his army crossed rapidly, and on the 15th, the whole of it was safely concentrated in Butler's rear, on the south side of the James. The impartial historian, having in hand the records of the leaders of the army of the Potomac and of the army of Northern Virginia, with all their detailed statements, made during and after this bloody campaign from the Rapidan to the James, from May 4 to June 14, 1864, is forced to the conclusion, that, in so far as Grant's leadership was concerned, it was a disastrous failure. He had not accomplished one of his strategic plans, unless that be called one which placed his army on the banks of the James, below Harrison's landing, to which McClellan had retreated after his disastrous campaign of 1862, after a loss of more than 42,000 men from the vast army of over 140,000 which was under his command during the campaign, when he might have secured the same position, by moving by water, without the loss of a man. The only claim that he could make for recognition as a capable military leader, based on what he did in these campaigns, is that he had thinned Lee's ranks some 20,000 veterans, by his bulldog method of conducting war, which Lee could not replace, and to that extent had weakened the resisting power of the Confederacy. The condition of Grant's entire army, after this remarkable campaign, may be inferred from what Gen. F. A. Walker, the historian of Hancock's corps, acknowledged to be the best in Grant's army, writes concerning that body of famous veterans:
As the corps turned southward from Cold Harbor to take its part in the second act of the great campaign of 1864, the historian is bound to confess that something of its pristine virtue had departed under the terrific blows that had been showered upon it in the series of fierce encounters which have been recited. Its casualties had averaged more than 400 a day for the whole period since it crossed the Rapidan ... Moreover, the confidence of the troops in their leaders had been severely shaken. They had again and again been ordered to attacks which the very privates in the ranks knew to be hopeless from the start; they had seen the fatal policy of "assaults all along the line" persisted in, even after the most ghastly failures; and they had almost ceased to expect victory when they went into battle. The lamentable story of Petersburg cannot be understood without reference to facts like these.
Source: The Confederate Military History, Volume 3, Chapter XXVII
Posted By: Joe Elia