After taking command of the Army of the Potomac’s cavalry corps in April 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan was determined to expand the duties of his troopers. Traditionally, the primary role of cavalry was that of scouting, screening and intelligence gathering. But throughout 1863, beginning at Kelly’s Ford and Brandy Station, the role of the blue horsemen had transitioned into one of a mounted strike force. Sheridan hoped to build on this hard earned reputation. His horsemen, he believed, “ought to be kept concentrated to fight the enemy’s cavalry.” Sheridan’s ambition, however, often came to the detriment of the operational objectives. The Union cavalry failed to secure the main route to Spotsylvania Court House following the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 12, following the Battle of Yellow Tavern, in a bid to threaten the Outer Defenses of Richmond, Sheridan became ensnared and nearly cut off outside the Confederate capital. Quick and determined action by subordinates George Custer and Alfred Gibbs opened the way to safety and saved the corps. His mistakes continued for on the evening of May 31, 1864, he prepared to abandon a road junction critical to the Potomac army.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Haw’s Shop, Sheridan withdrew to the vicinity of Old Church with Brig. Gen. Alfred Torbert’s division. Brigadier General David Gregg’s division was ordered to patrol the crossings along the Pamunkey while Brig. Gen. James Wilson’s division remained north of the river. On May 30, Confederate cavalry under Matthew C. Butler and Martin Gary attacked Torbert south of Old Church along Matadequin Creek. Torbert eventually pushed the enemy horsemen back to a crossroads known as Old Cold Harbor.
The next morning, his dander up, Sheridan dispatched Torbert to capture the intersection. Torbert ran into Maj. Gen. Fitzhugh Lee’s division, who had relieved Butler and Gary. Supporting Lee was a brigade of Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division, recently arrived from Bermuda Hundred, under Brig. Gen. Thomas Clingman. Despite Clingman’s added weight Torbert was able to capture Cold Harbor.
Sheridan, however, remained uneasy after encountering gray infantry. “I felt convinced that the enemy would attempt to regain the place.” Isolated with only Torbert’s three brigades, Sheridan decided to abandon Cold Harbor and notified his superiors. Unfortunately, and nearly detrimental to the Federals, Sheridan did not fully appreciate the importance of the junction. One road led directly to the Confederate capital of Richmond, another to the Union supply depot at White House Landing. When Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Maj. Gen. George Meade received Sheridan’s message at army headquarters, they immediately sent a courier galloping off to direct Sheridan to return to Cold Harbor and hold it until reinforcements arrived. Sheridan received the message late that night and reoccupied Cold Harbor under the cover of darkness. To support the cavalry, Grant and Meade decided to pull Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright’s VI Corps from the Union line on Totopotomoy Creek and send it to Cold Harbor. Robert E. Lee was also troubled by Sheridan’s presence at Cold Harbor. Late on the afternoon of May 31, he decided to shift Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s First Corps to the area to reinforce Hoke.
Shortly after daylight on June 1, Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s division from Anderson’s corps approached Cold Harbor where Sheridan waited. Torbert had positioned Brig. Gen. Wesley Merritt’s brigade on the right. Brigadier General George A. Custer held the left. Colonel Thomas Devin backstopped Custer. Leading Kershaw’s advance was his old brigade, under the command of Col. Lawrence Keitt. “As soon as the line was formed the order of advance was given, with never so much as a skirmish line in front” wrote a member of the 3rd South Carolina. “Keitt led his men like a knight of old-mounted upon his superb iron gray…across a large old field the brigade swept towards a densely timbered piece of oak-land…Colonel Keitt was a fine target for the sharpshooters, and fell before the troops reached the timber.”
Behind makeshift barricades, the Union cavalry unleashed a “furious” volley recalled Maj. James Kidd of the 6th Michigan in Custer’s brigade. Like Keitt, Custer also made a conspicuous target, riding up and down the line observing the engagement. On Custer’s right, a member of the 1st New York Dragoons in Merritt’s brigade wrote “that those brave Confederates…were literally piled in heaps from the effects from our destructive fire.” “The woods took fire from exploding shells” wrote one of the regiment’s officers, “and the shrieks of the rebel wounded were first heightened, then stifled by the flames.” “Two severe charges were made” Merritt wrote in his official report, “but each time they were repulsed with considerable loss. The First New York Dragoons and Second Cavalry did great good service in this fight.”
Around 10 a.m. Wright’s infantry arrived to relieve Sheridan’s troopers. Although Cold Harbor was secure, Sheridan’s lack of foresight nearly cost the intersection to the Confederates. Its loss to the Confederates would have opened the road to Grant and Meade’s supply base and effectively cut off further Union movement to the southeast. But for the second time in two days, Sheridan’s troopers had bested enemy infantry. His transformation of the corps was proving successful and would continue in the weeks and months ahead.