- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 15, 2003

On June 3, 1864, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant ordered Union forces to attack Confederate positions at a crossroads east of Richmond called Cold Harbor. In less than an hour, after repeated assaults on entrenched Southern lines, the Union attackers suffered more than 7,000 casualties and gained no ground. In his memoirs, Grant wrote, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.” Confederate Gen. Evander M. Law, reflecting on the carnage, stated, “It was not war, it was murder.”

In the realm of grand strategy, the Battle of Cold Harbor was part of the continuing effort by Union forces to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. This effort began as early as spring 1862 when then-commanding Union Gen. George B. McClellan embarked on his ill-fated Peninsular campaign.

The Union strategy in 1862 was to use its control of the Chesapeake Bay to gain control of the James River and bring superior forces to the Virginia Peninsula to defeat Confederate armies near Richmond, capture the capital and bring a swift end to the war. McClellan, however, repeatedly and mistakenly believed that his army was outnumbered by Southern forces and hesitated to march toward Richmond. This enabled Confederate forces, first under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and then under Gen. Robert E. Lee, to organize for the defense of the capital. At Fair Oaks and in the Seven Days Battles (Gaines’ Mill, Malvern Hill), Confederate forces successfully repulsed Union efforts to break through to Richmond. In December 1862 and May 1863, two more Union attempts to get to Richmond were halted decisively at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

After suffering devastating losses in troops and officers at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, the Confederates stayed on the strategic defensive during the rest of the war. In March 1864, President Lincoln appointed Grant commander in charge of all of the Union forces. Grant, who had earned Lincoln’s confidence by his aggressive generalship in the Western theater of the war, adopted a three-pronged strategy to win the war in the East.

First, he ordered Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to lay waste to the Shenandoah Valley, which had served as a breadbasket for the South and as a base for Confederate invasions of the North (Antietam and Gettysburg) and threats to the Union capital of Washington. Second, he sent Gen. William T. Sherman on his famous and deadly march across Georgia and the Carolinas. Third, Grant instructed Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, to focus on defeating the Army of Northern Virginia. “Lee’s army will be your objective point,” Grant said. “Wherever Lee goes, there you will also go.”

In early May 1864, Grant’s strategy led to bloody and inconclusive conflicts at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania (the scene of especially brutal hand-to-hand combat at a place now known as the Bloody Angle). Under previous commanders in similar circumstances, the Union Army in Virginia would withdraw, regroup and redeploy at a later date. Grant, instead, pushed on, ordering Meade to keep pressing Lee’s army toward Richmond. In late May 1864, the two armies skirmished their way to the next major confrontation at Cold Harbor.

On a recent trip to Williamsburg, I toured the Cold Harbor Battlefield site, a segment of the much larger Richmond National Battlefield Park. Cold Harbor is a short distance from Interstate 295, a highway bypass that connects Interstate 95 and Interstate 64 in Southeastern Virginia. There is a visitors center that includes an electronic map that depicts the positions of the Union and Confederate forces in early June 1864 along a six-mile front east of Richmond. At first glance, the site of the battle appears as an open field adjacent to a quiet, peaceful, wooded, shady area. When you enter that wooded area, however, you see at once the lines of trenches that still scar the battlefield 139 years after the terrible battle was fought.

The deepest, most extensive and most effective of those trenches were dug by Confederate soldiers during June 1 and 2 in the midst of minor skirmishes that occurred along the battlefront. By the time Grant ordered the main assault by Union forces on June 3, the Confederates had dug a network of trenches extending along much of the front.

Adding to the impregnability of the Confederate position was the fact that near the center of the battlefield, the lines of trenches were at the base of a sloping ridge where Confederate cannon and artillery were placed. Walking up that sloping ridge and looking over the trench lines and the open field where Union forces repeatedly charged that day, it is both difficult to comprehend the decisions of Union commanders and impossible not to admire the courage and valor of the Union troops who made the ill-fated charges.

The night before the attacks, many Union soldiers wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper and pinned them to their uniforms so that their bodies would be identified after they were killed. One Union soldier that evening made this last entry into his diary: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed today.”

The descriptions of the fighting on June 3 at Cold Harbor by survivors of the battle are all similar. One soldier described “those volleys of hurtling death” that were “poured from the rebel lines.” A New Hampshire officer recalled his men being exposed to “the full force and fury” of a “dreadful storm of lead and iron” that “seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle … .”

Another Union survivor likened the seemingly unbroken musketry fire from Rebel positions to “one continual crash of thunder.” A Union general recalled his brave troops being met “by a storm of grape, canister and musket-balls.” A Massachusetts soldier remembered a “line of men shoulder to shoulder” being hit with a “solid sheet of fire … and a shower of shell and bullets.”

One Union brigade commander reported that “the ground was swept with canister and rifle-bullets until it was literally covered with the slain.” Men were “falling on top of men,” recalled another Union survivor, “rear rank pushing forward the first rank, only to be swept away like chaff.”

A Confederate artilleryman recalled watching “line after line [of Union troops] melt away, and the field was almost in a moment practically covered with dead and wounded.” “The lines,” he continued, “seemed to wave like wheat in a breeze, then dissolve, with men gathering in bunches and being shot down.”

Even before Grant and Meade signaled an end to the futile Union charges, many officers and soldiers simply refused to continue the attacks. One Union captain reportedly stated that he would not lead his regiment in another charge even if Jesus Christ himself ordered it. When the last charge was repulsed, the field was littered with Union dead and wounded. Tragically, most of the wounded died on the battlefield during the next four days while Grant and Lee argued about the terms of a truce or cease-fire.

“In all the war,” wrote Civil War historian Bruce Catton about Cold Harbor, “no attack had ever been broken up as quickly or as easily as this, nor had men ever before been killed so rapidly.”

“It was,” Ernest B. Furgurson writes in his recent study of the battle, “Grant’s worst defeat, and Lee’s last great victory.” Mr. Furgurson contends that Cold Harbor was a strategic and tactical “turning point” of the Civil War. “After it,” he explains, “the war of maneuver became a war of siege; stand-up attack and defense gave way to digging and trench warfare.” More than 50 years later, at places like Verdun, Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele, the futility of directly attacking well-entrenched positions would be demonstrated on an even greater and more deadly scale.

Not even the slaughter at Cold Harbor, however, could shake Grant’s determination to take Richmond and defeat Lee’s army. The nearly yearlong siege of Petersburg, which began shortly after Cold Harbor, resulted in the Union capture of Petersburg, the Confederate retreat from Richmond and the final pursuit to Appomattox. The Confederate victory at Cold Harbor bought Lee some time, but the end was fated.

Francis P. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century,” and he has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Strategic Review, American Diplomacy, the National Interest, Presidential Studies Quarterly, National Review and The Washington Times.

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