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.”
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.”
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.”