June 2 at Cold Harbor

The initial reports coming back to the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac on the night of June 1 were encouraging: the Federals had carried the first line of Confederate works. At the same time, reinforcements were needed on the Union front. Horatio Wright was reporting that the Confederates were extending their line beyond his left flank. To counter this movement, Grant and Meade decided to send Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps to Cold Harbor. With Hancock shifting to the south, Robert E. Lee decided to send Maj. Gen. John Breckinridge’s troops followed by the Third Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. Henry Heth and Cadmus Wilcox to Cold Harbor. The tiny Virginia crossroads was acting like a magnet for the two armies.

Union artillery bombard enemy lines at Cold Harbor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Union artillery bombard enemy lines at Cold Harbor. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Grant’s expectation was for Hancock to renew the assault in concert with Smith and Wright the following morning. The General-in-Chief, however, did not factor the logistics in moving these veteran soldiers to their new position. Just like the VI Corps had the night of May 31-June 1, the II Corps struggled through the darkness on June 1-June 2. The delay forced Meade to postpone the planned assault that was to take place that morning. Meade sent out new instructions, informing his commanders that they would push forward at 5 p.m.

At dawn, Grant rose and began the short, three mile ride to Cold Harbor. After stopping briefly at Bethesda Church, the party continued on until they reached their destination. Early in the afternoon, it began to rain. This sudden change in the weather forced a sudden change in Grant. It was easily recognized that the Union soldiers were exhausted and in no shape to launch an assault later that afternoon. Even weighing the fact that every minute delayed allowed the Confederates more time to strengthen their entrenchments was not enough to force Grant to assault later in the day. No, he would give the men time to rest and prepare for the next attack.

A new directive was sent out to Meade: the Union assault would be delayed once again. Grant remembered “an assault was ordered for the 3d, to be made mainly by the corps of Hancock, Smith and Wright; but Warren and Burnside were to support it by threatening Lee’s left, and to attack with great earnestness if he should either reinforce more threatened points by drawing from that quarter or if a favorable opportunity presented itself. The corps commanders were to select the points in their respective fronts where they would make their assaults. The move was to commence at half-past four in the morning”.

Horace Porter also recalled “the eve of battle was, as usual, an anxious and tiresome night at headquarters”. This observation is not surprising, either at the time or 150 years later. Just several miles down behind Lee’s lines was the Confederate capital. If the Federals could punch through the next morning, there would be an open road to Richmond.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!