ECW welcomes guest author Nathan Provost.
On June 3, 1864, Federal soldiers waited anxiously to assault the seven-mile-long Confederate line near Mechanicsville, Virginia. The largest engagement of the battle of Cold Harbor was about to take place. Unbeknownst to them, they attacked at different places at differing times. Only the II Corps managed to briefly break through Confederate lines while others marched a few paces and stopped before the trenches. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General George G. Meade to coordinate a successful offensive against what he thought was a weakened Confederate army. The II, XVIII, and IX Corps began their uncoordinated attack that morning. Regrettably, for these Federal soldiers, their assault failed by noon that day. Federal losses for June 3 amounted to 6,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Conversely, the Army of Northern Virginia lost 1,500 and scored a tactical victory over their Federal foe.
The Army of Northern Virginia once again drove off Federal forces at little to no cost. The Army of the Potomac did not achieve a single objective that morning. General Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, was in charge of coordinating the attack. The coordination was a disaster. The II Corps only briefly broke through Confederate lines on the left while VI Corps did not even make an attempt to break Confederate lines. Despite the failure on the front, he did not suspend his order. It was around noon that General Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief of all Federal armies, personally rode to each corps commander to assess the situation. He found that no further progress could be made. He issued the following order to Meade, “Hold our most advanced positions and strengthen them. Reconnaissances should be made in front of every Corps and advances made to advantageous positions by regular approaches.” Grant wanted to fight by siege tactics rather than sanguinary assaults. The Confederate line was not broken, but their opponent now entrenched themselves in place.
Grant stated, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made….At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”  He recognized the extreme loss of life, and the memory of Cold Harbor reflects deeply on the loss of life. Nonetheless, the casualties did not force Grant to retreat; there was no great Confederate victory. General Grant once again overcame adversity and began planning one of the greatest operations of the war the following day. He shot off a new message to General Henry W. Halleck for a new plan of action,
I will continue to hold substantially the ground now occupied by the Army of the Potomac, taking advantage of any favorable circumstance that may present itself, until the cavalry can be sent west to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad from about Beaver Dam for some 25 or 30 miles west. When this is effected, I will move the army to the south side of James River, either by crossing the Chickahominy and marching near to City Point, or by going to the mouth of the Chickahominy on the north side and crossing there. To provide for this last and most probable contingency six or more ferry-boats of the largest size ought to be immediately provided. Once on the south side of James River I can cut off all sources of supply to the enemy, except what is furnished by the canal.
General Grant used common sense through a thick fog of war. Maneuver was his best option; Lee was stuck in place. Grant understood the significance of Petersburg as a supply center. However, this plan now created new issues and left the Army of the Potomac vulnerable to an assault by the Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier General Adam Badeau served on Ulysses Grant’s staff throughout the Overland Campaign and wrote A Military History of Ulysses S. Grant. He recounts the Army of the Potomac’s disengagement from Cold Harbor and their maneuver across the James River, “it transcended in difficulty and danger any that he had attempted during the campaign.” While Grant looked for ways to disengage from Cold Harbor, Lee looked for new openings in Grant’s lines as Confederate probes continued from June 4-7.
Even though the Federals remained firmly entrenched in front of their enemy, there was still concern that the IX Corps was too far from the main force on June 4. General Grant recommended to General George Meade that he should contract the Federal line from the right flank so General Ambrose Burnside of the IX Corps and the Army of the Potomac would not be separated. Skirmishing took place between the entrenched armies the rest of the day. A few probing attempts by the Confederates that night forced the Federals to stay vigilant. Intelligence was brought to Lee suggesting Grant would move south across the Chickahominy.  On June 5, Lee found an opening in the Federal line. General Warren’s V Corps left the Army of the Potomac’s flank vulnerable as he maneuvered his men out from the trenches. Lee authorized both General Jubal Early and General Richard Anderson to coordinate a probing attempt against his flank. Nonetheless, General Lee failed to pick the right officers to launch this offensive because neither one managed to coordinate their assault with the other. More good news came to General Grant and Meade on June 6. David Hunter, commander of the Army of the Shenandoah, found success in the Shenandoah Valley at the battle of Piedmont. These events caused Lee great concern since he needed to send men to the Valley under Breckinridge, and Grant still stood in front of the Army of Northern Virginia by the end of 6 June. Lee attempted to probe Federal lines on June 7, but it was just as insignificant as the one the previous day. Generals Early and Anderson failed to inflict any type of damage to General Burnside’s IX Corps. Some rifle pits were taken, but the Federal line held.
On June 7, both Grant and Lee agreed to a ceasefire in order for the Federals to collect their dead after two days of negotiations. There were delays and genuine concerns between both men, but these delays only caused more suffering. Skirmishing continued to take place after the ceasefire, but the Federals continued to withdraw from the battlefield. Lee’s cavalry force decisively beat Major General Philip Sheridan on June 11-12 at Trevilian Station. Without a cavalry force to reconnoiter the Army of the Potomac’s movements, the Federals began to move past Lee’s forces. Finally, on the night of June 11, Grant successfully disengaged from Cold Harbor without any detection by the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee faced a dire situation by June 12. Hunter was moving in on his supply lines in the Valley and Lee did not know the location of the Army of the Potomac. The Federal juggernaut was free to take Petersburg. Lee’s best move was to send General Early to the Shenandoah Valley in order to prevent Hunter from taking Lynchburg. This detachment only weakened his army further. All Lee could do was wait until he knew the location of the Federal forces. Brigadier General Edward Alexander reflected on the conclusion of Cold Harbor well after the war, “Grant had devised a piece of strategy all his own, which seems to me the most brilliant stroke in all Federal campaigns in the entire war.”
This Federal success came at a high price to the Army of the Potomac, but not any worse than that of the battles of Spotsylvania Courthouse or the Wilderness. However, casualties seem to define the battle of Cold Harbor. The numbers differ according to each source; Federal casualties range from 12,000-14,000 while Confederate casualties range from 1500-6000 soldiers. In Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee written by Gordon Rhea, he stipulates that “Totopotomoy Creek and Cold Harbor (up until June 3) had cost Lee about 6,000 soldiers, slightly less than ten percent of his army.”  However, even these numbers do not take into account the 2,287 casualties sustained during the events of June 4-12. Therefore, the total Confederate casualties amount to 8,287 (13%) while Federal casualties amount to around 13,000 (12%) between May 28 to June 12. The casualty figures are comparable by the percentage of men lost. General Grant’s innovative tactic of “Continuous Contact” took a devastating toll on both armies, but Grant continued to fill his ranks with raw recruits. Alfred Young III, a public historian, spent the last decade researching Confederate casualties during the Overland Campaign. In his book, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study, he concedes that “By the close of the Battle of Cold Harbor in mid-June 1864, it is apparent that the condition of the (Confederate) army was changing. Fractures started forming in the standards of success and unit pride.” His evidence relies heavily on the number of Rebel desertions within this new command structure.
It is equally important to interpret how the Federal soldiers viewed the results of the battle. Meade wrote home to his wife after the assault on June 3, “The battle ended without any decided results, we repulsing all attacks of the enemy and they doing the same.” Another Federal private wrote home, “We have faith to believe we will enter Richmond soon….The entire army have unlimited confidence in Gen. Grant, and do not doubt the triumphant results of the campaign.” Meade’s aide had a more jaded view of events. “The rebel army fight desperately and have contested heroically every inch of ground. They have fallen back because they have been outflanked, but in no case has it been a disorderly retreat with our army on their heels.” All the military actions and operations that took place between June 4 and June 12 are essential to understanding how Grant successfully maneuvered an army of 100,000 out of an ongoing battle. The events of June 3 further caused a change in tactics and operations, but it did not inflict lasting damage on the morale of Federal soldiers with many still confident in victory. Lee and a few other Confederate officers recognized the danger they faced as the Army of the Potomac disengaged.
The results of Cold Harbor are more mixed if the events from June 4-12 are taken into account. Grant once again used common sense after the uncoordinated assault on June 3, 1864. Unlike Lee after Gettysburg, Grant held the initiative and found no need to retreat as his men entrenched in front of Confederate lines. Meade and other Federal soldiers recognized this as another setback, just like the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and North Anna. J.F.C. Fuller, a British military historian and military theorist, analyzed the generalship of both Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee in the early 20th century. He states that Cold Harbor was “a battle which in the history of the Civil War has been given the prominence it does not deserve. It was not a great battle or a decisive one, Lee’s losses were slight and Grant’s not excessive.” Even the northern press recognized the final result of June 3. The Detroit Press described the outcome: “no decisive result was achieved.” The reporters did not believe Cold Harbor meant defeat for the Army of the Potomac. By June 4, Grant determined it futile to try and destroy Lee’s entrenched army, but he adjusted his objective by targeting the Army of Northern Virginia’s supply center, Petersburg. Lee continued to probe for openings between June 4-7 as Grant continued to contract his line. Lee failed to find an opening, and Sheridan’s cavalry drove away Confederate cavalry which allowed the Army of the Potomac to slip past the Army of Northern Virginia the night of June 11. Neither Grant nor Lee achieved a major objective after the assault on June 3, but Grant was closer to his overall goal by eliminating Lee’s offensive capabilities. The public remembers how General Lee inflicted a significant loss to the Federal juggernaut on June 3, but memory omits how General Grant left Lee blind at the battlefield of Cold Harbor on June 12, 1864.
 Hess, Earl, Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007), p. 162
 Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 588.
 U.S. War Department, The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington DC: Government Printing Press), 1884, p. 30.
 Gordon Rhea, Onto Petersburg: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2017), 183.
 Ibid 46
 Ibid 60
 Ibid 92
 Ibid 81
 Ibid 110
 Gordon Rhea, “On a House Divided,” Author’s Voice, 9:00, Youtube.
 Gordon Rhea, Onto Petersburg: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2017), 196
 Ibid 188
 Gordon Rhea,. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2002), 393.
 Alfred Young, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2013), 240.
 Alfred Young, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study, 2.
 Ibid, 224.
 Ibid, 387.
 J.F.C. Fuller, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 220.
 “FROM GRANT’S ARMY: The Second Battle of Cold Harbor A SHARP AND BLOODY CONFLICT.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), June 9, 1864.
American Battlefield Trust. Cold Harbor – June 7, 1864. Scale Not Given. Washington, DC: Self-Published, 2020.
Forbes, Edwin. The battle of Cold Harbor (Bomb proofs). 1864. One drawing. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, Washington D.C., https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004661435/.
“FROM GRANT’S ARMY: The Second Battle of Cold Harbor A SHARP AND BLOODY CONFLICT.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), June 9, 1864.
Fuller, J.F.C. Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.
Grant, Ulysses. Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. New York: The Library of America, 1990.
Hess, Earl. Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Rhea, Gordon. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2002.
Rhea, Gordon. “June 1864.” Cold Harbor. 12:31. American Battlefield Trust.
Rhea, Gordon. “On a House Divided.” Author’s Voice. 29:00. Youtube.
Rhea, Gordon. Onto Petersburg: Grant and Lee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2017.
Rhea, Gordon. To the North Anna River: Grant and Lee. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2005.
U.S. War Department. The War of Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington DC: Government Printing Press, 1884.
Young, Alfred. Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2013.
Nathan Provost is a US History Teacher at Crossroads Preparatory Academy in Missouri. Currently, he is working towards a doctorate in history through Liberty University. Before that he received a Masters in Teaching from the University of Central Missouri and worked as an Assistant Instructor in the Fort Leavenworth School District.
Nathan has always had a passion for military history and education because his grandfather was a Korean War veteran and professor. He first discovered his interest in the Civil War when he visited Grant’s headquarters in Florida, Missouri.
Since then, Nathan has travelled to various battlefields across the United States. Nonetheless, his focus lies in the eastern theatre because he plans on writing more about the Overland and Petersburg Campaigns.