Lee’s Last Great Field Victory: A Reassessment of Cold Harbor

ECW welcomes guest author Nathan Provost.

Between June 4-7, the incessant bombardments by both sides forced the soldiers to create bomb shelters that brought some peace of mind. (Library of Congress)

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.”[1] 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.” [2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] 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. [6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.”[12]

One last Confederate probing attempt would take place before the agreed upon ceasefire between Grant and Lee. (American Battlefield Trust)

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.” [13] However, even these numbers do not take into account the 2,287 casualties sustained during the events of June 4-12.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16]

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.”[17] 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.”[18] Even the northern press recognized the final result of June 3. The Detroit Press described the outcome: “no decisive result was achieved.”[19] 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.

References

[1] 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

[2] Ulysses Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: The Library of America, 1990), 588.

[3] 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.

[4] Gordon Rhea, Onto Petersburg: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2017), 183.

[5] Ibid 46

[6] Ibid 60

[7] Ibid 92

[8] Ibid 81

[9] Ibid 110

[10] Gordon Rhea, “On a House Divided,” Author’s Voice, 9:00, Youtube.

[11] Gordon Rhea, Onto Petersburg: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2017), 196

[12] Ibid 188

[13] Gordon Rhea,. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2002), 393.

[14] Alfred Young, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 2013), 240.

[15] Alfred Young, Lee’s Army During the Overland Campaign: A Numerical Study, 2.

[16] Ibid, 224.

[17] Ibid, 387.

[18] J.F.C. Fuller, Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), 220.

[19] “FROM GRANT’S ARMY: The Second Battle of Cold Harbor A SHARP AND BLOODY CONFLICT.” Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan), June 9, 1864.

Bibliography

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.

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8 Responses to Lee’s Last Great Field Victory: A Reassessment of Cold Harbor

  1. John Pryor says:

    Nathan is a first class researcher and writer, always civil to those that might disagree with some of his conclusions. As he knows, I find him too tender on Grant’s management style, given what he should have evaluated from Meade’s previous shortcomings. The tragedy for the Union was that Grant repeated the error in the weeks after Cold Harbor, negating his brilliant move South of the James with appalling follow up and supervision. But Lee did end up stuck in place, save for Early’s roving boys.

    • Nathan Provost says:

      I really appreciate your comment John. It means a lot; I have no doubt we will continue to have our debates for some time. Always appreciate your feedback.

      • John Pryor says:

        My pleasure! Just saw your reply, I’ve been getting busy with our house move. Are you able to come east for the Symposium, assuming they hold it?

      • Nathan Provost says:

        John,

        I hope your move is going well. As much as I would love to attend the symposium this year, I cannot due to my current job. I am required to attend meetings around that time. Nonetheless, I will attend in 2021 rest assured.

        I wish you all the best and stay healthy.

  2. Reactions in the North and a a decline in the Army of the Potomoc’s fighting edge were the real consequences of Cold Harbor. Although a march was stole on Lee on June 12-15, the army was incapable of exploiting that success. Nor was it strong enough to take Petersburg in the ensueing months, thereby leading to war weariness. Lee was not even fully pinned down, as he sent a decent portion of his army to the Valley.

    By contrast, Sherman did not launch attacks such as those seen at Cold Harbor save at Kennesaw Mountain, which he called off before it got any worse. That is why he could take Atlanta in time to secure Lincoln’s election while Grant and Meade could not.

    I find it hard to view Cold Harbor, and indeed Wilderness and Spotsylvania, as anything save Union defeats. The difference is, Grant had the full backing of Lincoln, Stanton, and Halleck so he could press on. No other commander in Virginia ever enjoyed such support. Sadly, Grant and Meade did not change their tactics until after June 18, 1864 but by that time the damage to the army and the North’s will to win had been done. Thankfully for the North, Sherman, Sheridan, Farragut, Rosecrans, and Curtis were able to win enough victories to ensure Lincoln’s reelection.

    • Nathan Provost says:

      I have to respectfully disagree. Morale remained high in the AotP during much of the Overland Campaign. As I mentioned in my article the majority of soldiers at Cold Harbor still believed in final victory. However, the II Corps was basically a skeleton of what it was previously. It was overused during the Overland Campaign. It contributed in their inability to take Petersburg. Alfred Young III talks about the decline of the the Army of Northern Virginia in his work on a statistical analysis of the ANV. Furthermore, Grant changed the tactics immediately after the 3 June assault. He believed that he should use siege tactics on a battlefield to press the Confederate forces which pinned the Confederates in their current position at Cold Harbor. This is noted well by Dr. Earl Hess who is mentioned in my notes. It is not necessarily about the events after June 12. It was a great move by Lee to send Early out into the valley, but Grant’s response was just as successful in August. Finally, keep in mind Grant was general-in-chief. All the campaigns in the US was all Grant’s. For the most part he planned much of the operations themselves. He could care less where the war was won, but he did hold Lee in Petersburg. It is significant to point out that Lee was known for changing northern public opinion by scoring huge victories. However, after the victories at Atlanta and Shenandoah, Lee was unable to do anything to offset these victories. But this is my own interpretation, and I do appreciate the comment.

  3. Henry Fleming says:

    Caveat – If any of what I say is in error, please pull down my post, as I work from memory & haven’t time to research on my lunch break.

    Although Lee was ailing so much he couldn’t bring the hammer down on a divided Grant army at North Anna, North Anna led to Grant’s Cold Harbor disaster, losing 7,000 brave experienced soldiers who followed orders, in less than an hour, which was June 3, 1864. Per Shelby Foote, a dead union soldier’s diary entry for June 3 read: “June 3, 1864. I was killed.” Unlike many of his comrades, this Union soldier didn’t pin a piece of paper to his uniform with his name on it so his dead body could be identified, as did many boys in blue when they realized they were going to charge fixed Confederate positions. Earlier at North Anna, the easy taking of the bridge over the North Anna by Union soldiers and failure of Lee to attack either isolated wing of Grant’s army at North Anna led the Union high command to misperceive that Lee was weak, and thus the battle of North Anna which would have likely been an expensive Confederate victory became the battle of Cold Harbor which was a clear Confederate victory and one which altered Union tactics during the election year. In the march to Petersburg, I haven’t confirmed this but read somewhere that one reason Hancock’s army was delayed en route to Petersburg is that some smart person decided that an army crossing a bridge was the perfect place to issue monthly pay, and that one by one each person had to stop, count his money, and sign for it before he could cross to the other side of the Chickahominy. I don’t score this as Grant’s fault but one of his people failed him.

    • Nathan Provost says:

      That is very interesting. Do you remember where you read that occurred in the II Coprs? Also, it is a common error, but the Federals did not lose 7000 men in less than an hour. They lost roughly 3500 in about 7 hours and another 2500 the rest of the day.

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