“Dress Upon the Colors!”: The 8th New York Heavy Artillery at the Battle of Cold Harbor

Early on the morning of June 3, 1864, a light mist moistened both armies bunched in their respective earthworks. Private Nelson Armstrong of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery peered above his trench and stared across the open field in his front that led to the Confederate lines. “[W]e could see the gray uniforms, the rows of shining bayonets, and the enemy serenely waiting and watching our movements behind strong fortifications.” It was an imposing sight that required courage to, when the time came, leave the trench and charge against those “strong fortifications.”

The home of Margaret and Miles Garthright still stands on the Cold Harbor battlefield.

Armstrong was far from the only man feeling uneasy that morning among the New Yorkers or even the entire Army of the Potomac. Major James Willett of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery spent the predawn hours under a tree near the home of Miles and Margaret Garthright. The regiment’s colonel, Peter Porter, joined Willett. The two sat on a log and drank coffee while discussing their portending task. Eventually, Porter took his leave. As he began to walk away, Porter suddenly turned towards Willett, “reached out his hand, and with a shake of anxiety and sorrow on his face said, ‘Goodby Major,’ and was gone.”

Col. Peter Porter

At 4:30 a.m., a signal gun fired, announcing the Federal charge. Porter and his men lept from their trenches into the attack. “The first appearance of our heads above our works was the signal for a storm of shot and shell,” said Lt. Henry Swan. Another member of the regiment recalled, “The men began to fall before we got twenty feet from our works.” The Georgians of Alfred Colquitt’s brigade greeted the Heavies. Their shot and shell tore through the ranks. One Georgian wrote afterward, “The open field in front of Colquitt is blue with Yankees. I have never seen as many dead in one place.”

Despite the odds, Col. Porter led his men forward, nearly to Colquitt’s trenches. Just in front of the Confederate line, a bullet struck Porter in the neck, bringing him to the ground. The colonel struggled to rise back to his feet. He tried but, weak from his wound, he crunched down to his knees and yelled: “Dress upon the colors!” He then fell dead, pierced by six bullets.

The charge for the green soldiers of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery did not last long. One survivor believed it lasted only ten minutes. Yet in that short span of time, the regiment lost 475 of the 1,600 men it entered into the battle with. Historian Gordon Rhea notes this loss was “the highest rate for any regiment in the battle and possibly the highest regimental loss in a single engagement during the entire war.” One survivor of the regiment wrote of Cold Harbor, “It could not be called a battle. It was simply a butchery.”

The 8th New York Heavy Artillery’s regimental monument stands in Cold Harbor National Cemetery. The monument was erected in 1909.

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6 Responses to “Dress Upon the Colors!”: The 8th New York Heavy Artillery at the Battle of Cold Harbor

  1. Terrance Yount says:

    One of my favorite units from Western New York. This was certainly a tragedy for them.

  2. NIck Armage says:

    Impressive monument in person…worth the price of admission to the Cold Harbor Cemetery, truly “Hallowed Ground.” I went searching for a relative’s grave marker and figure he is interred with the unknowns. Awesome place to be sure.

  3. Tim Deegan says:

    Captures a lot in very few words.

  4. Todd Berkoff says:

    The quest to recover Porter’s body in no-man’s land deserves another feature length article. The men who recovered the body–at night and under fire–were awarded Tiffany-made medals by the Porter family.

  5. Jeffrey Albanese says:

    My first cousin several generations ago, a sergeant in the 8th NYHA was killed in that charge. I visited that battlefield. He is listed on the family headstone at a cemetery in upstate New York but I believe he is buried with the unknowns at the the National Cemetery at Cold Harbor as his name along with many others is listed on that monument.

  6. Excellent vignette. I’m proud to own the Military Order of the Loyal Legion membership medal of Major James Low of this unit, who was wounded in both leg but survived the battle.

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