“Five Days of Awful Fighting”: A Brief Summary of the Cavalry Operations at Cold Harbor

Today, 152 years ago, Union and Confederate cavalry clashed northeast of Richmond at a place called Haw’s Shop. It had been a little over two weeks since the fight at Meadow Bridge, the last time the cavalry had faced each other on the field of battle. Haw’s Shop ushered in a period of the Overland Campaign which culminated on June 3, 1864 at Cold Harbor. Today, the famous Union infantry assaults at Cold Harbor overshadow the mounted engagements that took place between May 28 and June 1. Interestingly enough, but expected in a long campaign, the horse soldiers in ¬†blue and gray were both undergoing a transition when they clashed in the fields, hills and ravines between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Rivers.

On May 11, Maj. Gen. J.E.B Stuart was mortally wounded at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. His death the following day in Richmond had left a void in the Confederate command structure. Even as his army moved away from the North Anna River to counter the next Federal maneuver, Robert E. Lee had yet to name a successor to head his cavalry corps. The two contenders for the position were Lee’s nephew, Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee and South Carolinian Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton. Fitz Lee had been a favorite of Stuart’s but was unimpressive on the battlefield. On the other hand, Hampton had compiled an impressive record. He had fought well the previous spring during the Gettysburg Campaign and was wounded on East Cavalry Field on July 3. ¬†Interestingly, Robert E. Lee chose to retain control over his mounted arm with his divisions receiving their instructions directly from army headquarters. This new structure had the potential to be aggravating and cumbersome as Lee already bore the responsibilities of army commander. Hampton, however, was the cavalry’s senior Major General and thus exercised control on the battlefield.

While Lee waited to name a successor to Stuart, Philip Sheridan’s influence on the cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac continued to take shape. Aggressive by nature, Sheridan had transitioned the corps from its traditional role. Screening and reconnaissance were now secondary; Sheridan believed the primary role of his troopers was to seek out and engage the enemy.

From May 28 to June 1, Sheridan’s divisions under Maj. Gens. Alfred Torbert and David Gregg fought the Confederates in four separate engagements. At Haw’s Shop, Sheridan had been tasked with guarding the Union bridgehead. On May 30, while guarding the approaches to the Union supply depot, the blue troopers clashed with the Confederates along the banks of Matadequin Creek. The following day, Sheridan attacked again and this time captured the strategic crossroads of Old Cold Harbor. His men held off an enemy attack on June 1 until Federal infantry could arrive. Each time, the Yankees emerged victorious.¬†Sheridan’s Third Division under Brig. Gen. James Wilson also saw its share of fighting. In an effort to cover the Union army’s right flank, Wilson drove the Confederates out of and captured Hanover Court House on May 31. Wilson, however, nearly lost three regiments the next day as the Confederates threatened to surround them in a fight at Ashland.

Despite Wilson’s near disaster at Ashland, the Union cavalry continued to triumph in battle throughout the fighting at Cold Harbor. At the same time, however, Hampton’s abilities as a commander continued to grow. This experience would ultimately benefit the Confederates. A little over a week after Cold Harbor, Hampton defeated Sheridan at the Battle of Trevilian’s Station. Hampton continued to perform exceptionally through the remainder of 1864 and in 1865.

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