Fighting on the Same Ground: The 10th New York Infantry at Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor

Civil War soldiers oftentimes found themselves marching and fighting on the same battlefield multiple times. Veteran members of the 10th New York Infantry have a distinction of attacking the exact spot they had defended two years prior, both times as part of two of the more notable assaults in the war.

The 10th New York Infantry mustered immediately into service in late April and early May 1861. New York City and Brooklyn companies composed the regiment, which took its nickname “National Zouaves” from the color uniforms the soldiers wore. The regiment sailed straight for Hampton Roads and disembarked at Camp Hamilton. They saw limited service at Big Bethel before settling into camp for the remainder of the year. After a brief expedition during the capture of Norfolk, the 10th New York joined the Army of the Potomac in early June 1862. The regiment, then under the command of Col. John E. Bendix, reported to Gouverneur Warren’s brigade in Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps. They paired with another Zouave regiment, the 5th New York Infantry, but by that point the Tenth had ditched their fancy outfits and wore the regular fatigue uniform.

Porter’s corps became isolated on the north side of the Chickahominy River as George McClellan advanced the Army of the Potomac toward Richmond,. The 10th New York did not fight at Beaver Dam Creek during the first Confederate attack of the Seven Days Battles. The next morning, June 27, the regiment’s 575 officers and men took their place near the right of Porter’s rear guard line on a ridge between Boatswain Creek and the Chickahominy River and awaited another Confederate attack. “The ground, generally open in front, was bounded on the side of the Confederate approach by a wood with dense and tangled undergrowth, and traversed by the sluggish stream which formed the bed of the ravine on the left,” recalled Sergeant Charles W. Cowtan.[1]

The first Confederate charges that made up the Battle of Gaines’s Mill occurred in the early afternoon. Warren’s brigade, still composed of just two New York Zouave regiments, moved down into the wooded Boatswain Creek valley. There they repulsed spirited charges by Maxcy Gregg’s South Carolinians and Lawrence Branch’s North Carolinians. Sergeant Cowtan afterward wrote in his regimental history:

“The contest in these woods was fierce for a time, each company of our regiment coming in for its full share in the action. It was the first battle for us, and the manner in which the wings of the regiment were doubled and lapped over each other, with utter impossibility of keeping the line intact, in consequence of its peculiar formation and the converging fire of both musketry and artillery, was a novelty to those who had often imagined the command in battle dressed as if on parade.”[2]

With the arrival of reinforcements, Warren took advantage of a brief lull to pull his men back to their original position to support an artillery battery. They remained in reserve as additional Confederate attacks on both flanks began overwhelming Porter’s position. Warren rushed his two regiments forward but the ferocity of the attacks compelled Union high command to abandon the position north of the Chickahominy. The 10th New York suffered eight men killed and two mortally wounded, over forty wounded, and an additional seventy missing.

The final position of the 10th New York at Gaines’s Mill is shown on this excerpt of a Steven Stanley map for the American Battlefield Trust – full version available here.

In reserve through the rest of McClellan’s withdrawal to the James River, the regiment saw hard combat at Second Bull Run and Fredericksburg. In between the two, the 10th New York transferred from the Fifth to the Second Corps. The majority of the regiment had signed up for two years of service, so in the spring of 1863 those remaining consolidated under Col. George F. Hopper into a battalion of four companies. Spared a large role at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, this smaller force saw its numbers boosted with new recruits. The following year it fought again at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. The transfer to the Second Corps meant that when Ulysses S. Grant ordered Winfield Hancock’s corps to Cold Harbor in early June, the 10th New York found themselves facing the position they held at Gaines’s Mill, albeit from a different angle.

Grant intended for Hancock to attack on June 2, but the exhausting march to get into place prevented the fulfillment of those orders. As the Second Corps marched from the far right to far left end of the Union line, the 10th New York passed well to the rear behind their former comrades in the Fifth Corps who maintained a position near Bethesda Church. As the Second Corps reached its position south of Burnett’s Tavern at the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, the 10th New York recognized the landscape. Cowtan, now a company adjutant, afterward noted:

“The tavern by the roadside, and the antiquated well hard by, recalled fast trooping memories to the minds of those who had braved the Seven Days battles and the campaigns following, and who were now enabled to again look upon some of the scenes of their earlier military experience. Many members of the regiment, sanguine in their expectation of a speedy close of the struggle, then but just begun, had since that time given up their lives for the cause they deemed just. Such thoughts were hardly calculated to brighten the minds of our soldiers, already overtaxed by want of rest, and they were glad to recall their senses to present surroundings.”[3]

Undaunted by the delay, Grant expected Hancock, alongside the Sixth and Eighteenth Corps, to attack westward from the Old Cold Harbor crossroads into a heavily entrenched Confederate position the following morning. Hopper’s soldiers recognized a house where they had supported the artillery in 1862 as an objective of their assault. The infamous attack on June 3, 1864 proved highly costly and unsuccessful across the entire front. Cowtan vividly described the 10th New York’s experience:

“At the appointed moment our brigade advanced with its full front, passing its vidette posts and entering the woods without a sound being emitted by the men. A scattering volley from the enemy’s pickets was followed by a discharge of artillery from their lines—the shot sweeping and crashing amid the trees and the shrapnel doing execution in all directions. Silence was now useless and our line swept forward with a cheer, capturing the opposing pickets and striving at the same time to retain connection between the regiments—broken by the swampy ground and natural obstructions, which caused portions of the line a considerable detour.

“The brigade swung along on its forward course, regardless of the missiles of death which decimated the ranks, until the woods were cleared by the Tenth and the enemy’s intrenchments broke into full and unobstructed view across an open space completely swept by cannon and musketry. The fire at this instant was murderous—the men of the brigade falling as thick as forest leaves.

“Our little battalion made a brave attempt to breast the storm, but it threatened inevitable death to all, and the scattered regiments at this point of the line threw themselves flat on the earth for protection. No troops followed us, and it would have been a sheer impossibility to have crossed the open ground which intervened and captured the intrenchments with our thin and straggling line.”[4]

The 10th New York’s charge at Cold Harbor on June 3, 1864 is shown on this excerpt of a Steven Stanley map for the American Battlefield Trust – see full version here.

Whereas the Gaines’s Mill attacks in 1862 spanned all afternoon and into the evening, the Union charge went to ground just after it began that 1864 morning and did not budge for the remainder of the day. The construction of field fortifications altered the tactics of the assault as well as the willingness of the men to make those attacks. Strategic goals also mattered. While Robert E. Lee needed to drive the Army of the Potomac away from Richmond in 1862 and personally desired to achieve a decisive battlefield victory, even at high cost to the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant disengaged from lost battles and focused on continuing the campaign. Thus, in addition to being a neat trivia piece as what appears to be the only Army of the Potomac infantry regiment fighting at the same place in those two battles, the 10th New York’s experience on the same ground at both Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor demonstrated the evolving nature of Civil War strategy and combat.

 

The hallowed ground upon which the 10th New York Infantry fought twice is currently a preservation priority for the American Battlefield Trust – learn more here.

 

[1] Charles W. Cowtan, Services of the Tenth New York Volunteers (National Zouaves,) in the War of the Rebellion (New York, NY: Charles H. Ludwig, 1882), 90.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Ibid., 280.

[4] Ibid., 281-282.

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3 Responses to Fighting on the Same Ground: The 10th New York Infantry at Gaines’s Mill and Cold Harbor

  1. Jon Tracey says:

    Cool find!

  2. John Pryor says:

    Great post. I had followed the tragic 5th before, but never the 10th. Both deserved more intelligent use.

    The other major strategic difference between 1862 and 1864 was that Lee had to physically displace McClellan’s Army away from Richmond, with its implied threat to his logistics and lines of supply. Grant never faced this logistical concern, he essentially had Lee pinned in place, but could never quite do more than exhaust him. His tactical options were severely limited by the damaged condition of the AOP.

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