Following the Battle of Haw’s Shop, Philip Sheridan withdrew his blue cavalrymen to the southeast to the vicinity of Old Church. While there he was to protect the approaches to the Federals’ new supply depot at White House Landing on the Pamunkey and to secure a route of advance that would allow reinforcements from the Army of the James to reach the Army of the Potomac.
Robert E. Lee was also interested in this enemy presence beyond his right flank. Lee wondered whether Sheridan’s concentration was a harbinger of a larger movement. To find out, he dispatched two brigades of cavalry under Matthew C. Butler and Martin Gary to the vicinity of Old Church.
A New York trooper later succinctly summarized the action “From Old Church, Sheridan pushed his pickets toward Cold Harbor and the outposts struck each other just north of Matadequin Creek. [Alfred] Torbert at once reinforced his pickets with [Thomas] Devin’s brigade and the fight became general, both sides dismounted, and stubbornly contesting the ground. Finally, Torbert threw [Wesley] Merritt’s and [George] Custer’s brigades inot the action and enemy retired, Torbert’s men pursuing within a mile and a half of Cold Harbor and capturing a number of prisoners”.
Although he was driven from the field, Butler reported back to army headquarters that he did not feel the Yankees were concentrating around the Confederate flank. He would take up a new position around a crossroads known as Old Cold Harbor. That evening, Butler could not have known that his new position around the road junction would become the focal point of operations in the days to come. Indeed, the name itself is synonymous with carnage.