Opportunities Lost, The Battle of Cold Harbor
by Patrick McDonald
This summary of the Battle of Cold Harbor comes from Patrick McDonald's "Opportunities Lost, The Battle of Cold Harbor." This is a summary, nothing more, of a very well written book describing in detail the Battle of Cold Harbor. It gets the army from North Anna to Cold Harbor.
This work has not been attempted as a history, but as a venture in military research. It is an effort to lift Cold Harbor from the class of a one-event military affair to its true rank as an "operation", and to describe from that standpoint the great war game played during the last days of May and the first half of June, 1864, in the theater lying between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Rivers, in Eastern Virginia.
Charles Calrow July, 1933 : The student of the Civil War will remember the battle fought at Cold Harbor, Virginia, as one that featured an overwhelming Federal defeat. Generals Grant and Meade had led the Army of the Potomac to the banks of the Chickahominy River near Richmond, and there launched a full-scale assault on General Robert E. Lee's well-entrenched army. The Army of the Potomac was soundly defeated while making that assault.
As the Overland Campaign of 1864 developed, it became clear that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant had no intentions of turning back, no matter what the cost was to his powerful Federal army. General Robert E. Lee had the almost over-bearing task of nullifying the Federal advance. Lee noted early in the campaign that he was worried about being driven into a possible siege. He realized that his army and the government in Richmond would not be able to survive the investment of the Confederate capital. It became apparent that Lee had to do anything to avoid this situation. Extraordinary deeds by extraordinary soldiers had to be the order of the day.
The situation became more desperate as the Federal army began to close on the Confederate capital. Lee, as was the case in most of his battles, was content to rely not only on the abilities of his subordinate officers but also on the lack of ability of his enemy. This philosophy had sustained him early in the war; however, his capable and audacious subordinate officers were gone. General Thomas Jackson had died after being wounded at Chancellorsville, James Longstreet had been seriously wounded in the Wilderness, and J.E.B. Stuart had been mortally wounded at Yellow Tavern.
Though his enemy had shown a lack of ability in the Overland Campaign, Lee was facing a much different adversary in General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, unlike General George McClellan, was not nearly as precise in his movements. He was not as boastful as Generals Joseph Hooker and John Pope. He was not as slow and deliberate as General Ambrose Burnside. His skills in maneuvering were not great. His ability on the battlefield was not extraordinary. His determination for winning no matter what the cost, however, was the primary element that separated him from his predecessors.
There were many mistakes made by the Federal army as it maneuvered across the Pamunkey River into the land of the Chickahominy. General Lee had to take advantage of these errors. He no longer had the time, the men, the supplies, nor the area to maneuver that it would take to defeat the Federal army if the War continued on its present course.
The Cold Harbor campaign presented Lee with three opportunities to strike paralyzing blows to his determined enemy. Had Lee taken advantage of these opportunities, it is entirely possible that the eventual siege at Petersburg (June of 1864 to April of 1865) may not have been realized.
1. May 28, 1864: Confederates missed an opportunity to entrench along the high ridge that overlooked the Pamunkey River near Hawes' Shop which would have forced either an actual engagement where the terrain was completely favorable to the defenders, or would have forced the invaders to find another route for a crossing attempt.
2. June 1, 1864: The fatigued Federal Sixth Corps was marched all night in order to reach Cold Harbor early in the morning. The Corps was stretched out unprotected along the road from Old Church to Old Cold Harbor. Had the Confederate force in that sector launched an assault as ordered by General Lee, the Federal army would have been split with a strong enemy force on Meade's left flank and rear.
3. June 3, 1864: The long thin Federal line launched an assault at daybreak. This assault was repulsed within thirty minutes with heavy casualties inflicted upon the assailing force. General Meade's line featured no reserve force and four flanks with a mile wide gap between the Eighteenth and Fifth Corps. Had this gap been exploited, in light of the bloody repulse on Turkey Hill, it is safe to say that the results of this battle would have nullified any further advance on the part of the Federal army.
The above facts are substantiated in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies and are confirmed in the many biographies and regimental histories associated with the campaign.
A guiding light of Opportunities Lost is a little known composition entitled The Operations of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac from May 26, 1864. This essay was written by one of the first thorough Cold Harbor researchers, a man named Charles Calrow. Calrow had a military background and served on the General Staff with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I. His insight into military reasoning has helped to unravel various mysteries behind the somewhat ambiguous orders concerning the Cold Harbor campaign.
Mr. Calrow had spent a great deal of his research time talking with Walter H. Taylor III, the son of General Lee's Adjutant-General. Much of Calrow's insight to the Cold Harbor campaign comes from these visits with Mr. Taylor. It comes at no surprise that Mr. Taylor had obtained important knowledge of all of the campaigns that the Army of Northern Virginia had been associated with. Calrow is quick to explain some of the hindsight that followed the Cold Harbor campaign. It would appear, from reading his papers, that Adjutant Taylor and other officers such as Charles Venable of Lee's staff, and Edward Porter Alexander, Chief of Artillery for General Anderson's Corps, had discussed the three events listed above at great length either during the war or in the years that followed.
Research reveals that both armies floundered into the valley of the Chickahominy. The Federal army was suffering from exhaustion brought on by ill-conceived lengthy marches in extreme summer heat over dust-choking roads.
Various corps' headquarters were using different maps of the region. The differences in these maps brought about much confusion. Officers had scant knowledge of roads and terrain. The army as a whole wasted an enormous amount of man-power in the mis- application of reconnaissance techniques. Cavalry and infantry seemed to be at odds in attempting to achieve vague goals. Orders were poorly written and were often ambiguous and erroneous.
The Confederate Army was suffering from exacting attrition to its field officers. Many of its capable leaders had become casualties during the fighting of the previous month. General Lee was suffering from a severe bout with diarrhoea which had left him all but incapacitated. Corps' commanders Ewell and Hill were both suffering from failing health. General Richard Anderson had taken command of Longstreet's Corps less than a month earlier. His inexperience at this level of command would lead to the most glaring of the lost opportunities presented to General Lee's Army.
There is no denying that Cold Harbor was an unparalleled Federal disaster. It was also the last chance for General Lee to stop General Grant's relentless drive on the Confederate capital.
Background on Cold Harbor
Between the Pamunkey and the Chickahominy is the Totopotomoy River, marshy like all the other rivers in this territory, and flowing approximately east where it empties into the Pamunkey between Hanovertown and New Castle. This entire region was near a series of ridges which featured roads, sunken roads, and trails. Each ridge presented Lee with a strategic point from where the Confederates could dispute Grant's movement south.
May 27, 1864 The fighting at Hawes' Shop between the two cavalry forces had been intense. Although the Confederate cavalry had suffered many casualties they had completely screened General Lee's infantry movements. This enabled Lee to place his line of battle undisturbed. General Lee lost a perfect opportunity to strike a severe blow to the invading Federal army at Hawes' Shop.
Charles Venable, Lee's Assistant Adjutant General relates that General Early was in position to move to Hawes' Shop with Anderson right behind him. Had these two corps reached the Hawes' Shop ridge they could have thrown the two Union cavalry divisions along with Barlow's division of the II Corps back across the Pamunkey and entrenched along the ridge in a similar position as was held at North Anna. Venable is quick to point out that the reason that this was not done was that his chief was still physically disabled.
It should be remembered that the Army of Northern Virginia was being steadily pushed south. Every river crossing had to be disputed, and disputed with enough force as to discourage further movement to the south. Federal maneuvering space was becoming limited. The Rebel cause was desperate and could not afford the luxury of excuses.
It is true that General Lee was disabled, but if he was disabled to a point where he could not deliver important decisions, then he needed to be temporarily relieved so as to not handcuff his army. Had the skirmish at Hawes' Shop escalated into a battle, Grant would have been forced into making choices. He could either launch an all out assault on the entrenched troops along the 205 foot high Polly Hundley - Hawes' Shop Ridge or try to find another approach to cross the Pamunkey. Either choice would have meant further delay and more men lost. Lee pondered the day's actions.
With the missed opportunity at Hawes' Shop, Grant now had two corps east of Hawes' Shop and it was certain that his main attack would not be down the Telegraph Road. He had, however, three routes to Richmond from Hawes' Shop. He could march northwestward, avoid the Totopotomoy, and strike for the Central Railroad at Peake's Turnout; he could move directly westward against Atlee's; or he could turn south, across the Totopotomoy, enter the Old Church Road, and make for Mechanicsville.
Lee felt that Grant would try to sever the Army of Northern Virginia's communications with western Virginia by taking control of the Central Railroad. He therefore shifted the left of his line somewhat to the northeast and closer to the Totopotomoy. To cover the entire front he utilized an almost impenetrable area on his right center, between Early's Corps and Breckinridge's command. He left this ground practically unoccupied, though Anderson's corps was within supporting distance. Ewell was on the right along the Shady Grove Road; Anderson was at an angle behind Ewell's left; then came Breckinridge; and on the extreme left was Hill, covering the point where the road from Shady Grove to Hanover Court House crossed the Totopotomoy.
Many rivers had been crossed in the bloody month of May - the Rapidan and the Ny, the North Anna and the Pamunkey. There had been fire in the Wilderness, rain at Spotsylvania, and absolutely no rest. The Army of the Potomac was constantly being pushed to the east, but it was also gaining ground to the south. The Army of Northern Virginia, operating under defensive orders similar to those of the Army of the Potomac, positioned itself between the invading army and its capital in Richmond.
The two armies were now facing each other in a flat, featureless country of little streams and low ridges. Small farms and swamps dotted the forested countryside. Farms and taverns were connected by many narrow winding roads. This was the familiar land of the Peninsula Black Snake, jiggers, lizards and ticks; a land that the veterans of the Northern Army had grown to hate in the Peninsula Campaign of 1862. There was just one more river to cross - the Chickahominy, which ran across the Confederate rear just five miles away. Five miles beyond the Chickahominy was Richmond. The field of maneuver was growing narrow. The Federal army could no longer swing back and forth in wide arcs, going twenty miles to one side in order to get five miles forward.
Any road that was taken now led to Richmond, and all of the roads to Richmond were blocked by Lee's army. The roles of the two armies had changed. By moving toward Lee's flank, Grant had hoped to surprise Lee and force him from his trenches, but by losing contact with the Army of Northern Virginia and because the flank movement was consuming so much time, any chance to surprise Lee had been lost. The Federal generals were operating in an unfamiliar land, with little understanding of the terrain. Their maps were incorrect. Impassable swamps, wooded ridges, and narrow ravines would prove to be Lee's greatest ally against Grant's invading army.
The Confederate general was given ample time to assume new positions to take either an offensive or defensive role. He was in a position to pick the line on which he willed the enemy attack to take place. Meade was forced to proceed against an unknown line using faulty maps. It would be Lee, not Grant, who would dictate the terms of the fighting at Cold Harbor. The situation, however, was critical for Lee's army. Lee had been unable to make up even half the losses he had suffered since the Overland Campaign had begun. Lee's troops were weak both from sickness and from hunger. By the time the Confederates reached the Totopotomoy Valley, some men had gone without rations for two days. It is for these reasons that the lost opportunity at Hawes' Shop plays such an important role in the further developments of this campaign.
Dispositions: General Meade was somewhat satisfied with his line of battle on the evening of May 30. Burnside's Corps had reported that his entire corps was south of the Totopotomoy and had relieved General Griffin of the Fifth Corps. Torbert's Cavalry Division was at Cold Harbor with pickets extended to the Fifth Corps' left. The Eighteenth Corps would be moving into position near Cold Harbor early in the morning. The Federal line extended from the Mechanicsville - Hanover Court House Road on the right along the north side of the Totopotomoy as far as the W. Jones House. Crossing the Totopotomoy at Whitlocks, it extended southeast to the Shady Grove Church Road, thence nearly east to the mill pond at the head of Matadequin Creek. Sheridan was on the left extending the line to Parsley's, and Wilson on the right rear guarding the line of Crump's Creek. The infantry line was six miles in length. The Sixth Corps was on the right, holding one mile with two divisions in line and one in reserve on the right flank.
Next came the Second Corps, holding two miles with all three divisions in line. After the Second Corps came the Ninth Corps, holding one mile with two divisions on the line and one in reserve. Then came the Fifth Corps, holding two miles with three divisions in line and one in reserve on the left. Meade made it clear to his corps commanders that there would be no offensive action scheduled for the 31st. This would change if General Lee tried to force himself into the gap that separated the Fifth Corps from General Smith's contingent from the Army of the James. Meade sent a special assurance to General Warren explaining that if Federal cavalry reported any such movement by General Lee, General Wright would be moved to the left of the Fifth Corps. Together, Wright and Warren would then attack whatever enemy forces they found. It will be these orders that will create the problems associated with the fiasco on June 1.
Meade disregarded or misinterpreted previous communications with Grant which stated that the Sixth Corps should be massed on the Federal right. This would allow for the movement of the Second Corps, which was closer to the Fifth Corps and closer to the left flank of the army. Grant's communication should have been easily understood. Any movement from the Federal right to the left should be made only if and when the cavalry corps felt the situation on the Federal left was out of control. Instructions from Meade to his corps commanders were purely defensive orders. The idea of moving Wright to the left flank seems to have been Meade's and not Grant's.
The orders issued by Grant to Smith cover a plan to move Smith from White House Landing along the south bank of the Pamunkey. Smith would use the same road system which the Army of the Potomac had used in its advance of the 29th. Such a disposition of the march of the Eighteenth Corps would have placed it in position to join the line on the left of the Fifth Corps. It did not admit of a crossing of the Sixth Corps from the Federal right to its left. Grant sent a brigade of cavalry to guide Smith to his destination and to protect the army's left flank. Grant thought that the Confederate force would attempt to interpose between the Eighteenth Corps and the Army of the Potomac. He was hoping that such an attack would be made in order to get Lee out of his entrenchments. Such an attack, with the Federal army massed the way he thought it was at the time of the order, could be easily checked.
No change of any importance took place in the Confederate position on this date. General Early's Corps remained on the right, his front extending from the Shady Grove Church Road over toward Pole Green Church, and the right of Breckinridge, who covered the Atlee - Hawes' Store Road and extended to the left to include the road to Tinsley's house. Anderson's Corps was in the rear of Early and prepared to fill the gap between Early and Breckinridge, or move to support either of them. Hill's Corps held the Shady Grove - Hanover Court House Road, and Mahone's Division was on Breckinridge's right guarding the crossing of the Totopotomoy on that road. Hoke's Division from Beauregard's force was ordered on the night of May 30th, 10:30 p.m., to Richmond and to join Lee as soon as possible. Most of the Confederate cavalry was in the vicinity of Cold Harbor opposing Sheridan's Cavalry.
The Confederate lines on the night of May 30th were about five miles long, as compared with a line of six miles held by the Federal Army. The developments of this day had completely dispelled any lingering doubts that Grant might have had regarding Lee's intentions. He now had nearly all information regarding Lee's position. Lee was not so fortunately placed as was Grant regarding his powers to order up reinforcements. He was not in command of the entire Confederate army, but only of the Army of Northern Virginia, and the defense of Richmond. A brigade of three regiments under General Finnegan had joined him on the 29th, and had been assigned to Hill's Corps. The seeds for the imminent Federal disaster at Cold Harbor had been sown.
Both Wright and Smith, working under separate orders from two different commanders, were heading for the exact same position on the Federal left. No matter how poor the Confederate brain trust was at this stage of the campaign, it would have no problem defeating an army that was bent on defeating itself.
In the region now occupied by Sheridan's Cavalry, on the left of the Federal army, Cold Harbor was the strategic center. It was situated on high ground, and from it roads branched in all directions. The road to Richmond from Cold Harbor was the shortest to that city from the general line now occupied by the two armies.
Cold Harbor was a white-framed tavern in a triangular grove. The name, deriving from the British usage, originally meant "shelter without food." The route to Cold Harbor for the Federal army would be through Old Church. The more direct route from Bethesda Church was blocked by Early's Corps. The Cold Harbor Crossroads was not perceived as an important strategic position by the Federal leaders.
Confederate cavalry, commanded by Butler, were permitted to take and retain possession of the crossroads unmolested. Butler's force was little, not much larger than one cavalry brigade. Sheridan contented himself with covering the roads leading east from Cold Harbor. He made no effort against the crossroads itself until the 31st.
Confederate Disposition: General Early's Corps was in a position to protect Mechanicsville. His troops were one mile west of Bethesda Church, connecting with Anderson's right. This placed him in a position to block any movement from Bethesda Church to Cold Harbor.
The Confederate right flank rested on the Chickahominy Swamp west of Atlees' Station. From Atlees' the line extended seven and a half miles to the north and northwest. The entire Confederate line covered all of the approaches to Richmond from the upper Pamunkey.
Lee's main objective at this stage was to avoid being driven into a siege by the steady maneuvering of the Army of the Potomac. Lee extended his right flank by moving Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry beyond Early's exposed flank to Old Cold Harbor. To support Fitzhugh Lee, the commanding general directed Hoke's Division to move to Cold Harbor. Hoke had been sent to Richmond from the Petersburg defenses.
General Warren received orders to send the Pennsylvania Reserves to White House Landing to be mustered out, as their term of service had expired. This depleted the Fifth Corps by ten regiments, which constituted nearly the entire Third Division.
This was a strange system which would allow such an event at a crucial period of a campaign. It reduced the Fifth Corps to three divisions, as the Third Division was not reorganized until June 6th. At 7:30 a.m. Meade issued orders to his corps commanders to press their skirmishers up against the enemy's works and to report any change in Lee's disposition.
On the right, Griffin found a heavy skirmish line confronting him. His men reported that they had heard the sound of chopping behind the Confederate lines during the night. This indicated the construction of strong breastworks behind these skirmishers.
Cavalry Action at Cold Harbor At 3:15 p.m. Hoke's advance Brigade, (Clingman's) was about two miles from Gaines Mill, and four miles from Cold Harbor where Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry held the Confederate right. The pickets of Torbert's First Cavalry Division held the extreme Federal left. They were within a half mile of Old Cold Harbor. The main body of the Federal cavalry was one mile further to the rear along the Old Church road moving toward Cold Harbor. Fitzhugh Lee reported the position of the Federal cavalry to General Lee. He explained that he intended to dispute the Federal's advance.
Torbert's Division, led by Merritt's Reserve Brigade followed by Custer's Brigade, advanced to Cold Harbor via the Old Church Road. Torbert's Second Brigade (Devin) took a farm road from Cold Harbor to Black Creek Church, and then on northwest to Cold Harbor. This action by the Federal cavalry was immediately disputed by Fitzhugh Lee's troopers.
Torbert, looking forward to a fight, sent his brigades into action. Merritt and Custer led the assault on Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry and drove the Confederates back to a barricade near Cold Harbor. Merritt followed the Confederate cavalry closely and after a severe fight, was able to turn the Rebel left flank and take the crossroads. Quickly reorganizing his brigade, Merritt surveyed the Confederate position. He found that the Rebels had thrown up breastworks consisting of rails, logs, and earth. Believing that the Rebel position was somewhat disorganized he ordered a frontal assault. This assault was immediately dispersed by a hail of Confederate musketry. Merritt now realized that the Rebel works could not be taken from that direction without great loss.
Infantry, consisting of three regiments of Thomas Clingman's Brigade, had been rushed to Cold Harbor to help the Confederate cavalry defend the crossroads. They had been hurried forward and placed in line on Fitzhugh Lee's left. According to General Clingman, he was there on orders from General Hoke, who directed him to take the position on the left of that occupied by the main body of the cavalry.
As soon as Clingman positioned his men, General Hoke moved a portion of Clingman's North Carolinians forward nearly five hundred yards to act as a support to the left flank of the cavalry. This portion of the Confederate line came under a devastating fire which eventually caused the cavalry to withdraw. Clingman's men, unnerved by the sight of the cavalry retreat, maintained their position as Clingman's officers tried desperately to hold the line. Forty-five minutes later the cavalry on the right gave way, alleging that their ammunition had given out. Seeing that the Federal cavalry was about envelope his brigade, Clingman ordered his men to fall back to a fence line a few hundred yards to the rear.
|NOTE: Fitzhugh Lee claimed that his cavalry troopers had tried to fall back on the support of Clingman's brigade. When the two cavalry brigades fell back, the infantrymen were inclined to continue the backward movement.|
After this action, the Federal cavalry took position along the road leading from Old Cold Harbor to Bottom's Bridge and the Bethesda Church Road, and entrenched. The arrival of Clingman's infantry on his front had its effect on General Sheridan. He reported to General Meade that he didn't feel able to hold the road and had ordered General Torbert to resume his morning position. He further noted that, with Lee's line of battle in front of Mechanicsville and the heavy odds against him, he didn't think it prudent to hold on.
Sheridan immediately began withdrawing his force from Cold Harbor. Cold Harbor was an important crossroads to hold because it was on the line of the Federal extension to the left. The roads that joined there came from Bethesda Church, Old Church, and White House Landing. These were important roads for the joint movement of the Army of the Potomac. The roads leaving Cold Harbor to the south and southwest eventually cross the Chickahominy. On the proposed move, the roads leaving Cold Harbor for the Chickahominy would place the Federal Army in a strong position for their movement against Lee's right flank and the Confederate capital. Meade, upon receipt of Sheridan's plan to leave Cold Harbor, immediately sent word to his cavalry chief to hold the crossroads at all hazards.
Grant: Grant's plans had now changed. The possession of Cold Harbor gave him an excellent place from which to make an enveloping attack on Lee's right. This would place the Federal army between the Confederate army and Richmond, covering the road to the Rebel base. Grant expected the Eighteenth Corps to arrive at the crossroads the next morning. Smith would then immediately launch an attack before Lee would have time to securely entrench to meet him on the new ground.
Lee: While the cavalry fight was in progress, General Lee readjusted his line. Lee was almost certain that Smith's Eighteenth Corps was moving from White House Landing to join Grant. He reasoned that Grant's army would be strung out on the march. He now saw an opportunity for striking the blow he had so long wished to deliver. He realized that a strong attack at the head of the Federal column as it was advancing toward Cold Harbor could destroy Grant's advance. This planned assault would also limit Grant's ability to maneuver further to the Federal left. This represented the first planned counteroffensive since the Wilderness.
Rodes' Division, which had been on the right of Early's Corps, was moved to the west side of Beaver Dam Creek. Anderson was taken from his position between Breckinridge and Early and shifted into the area near Beulah Church (approximately one mile northwest of Old Cold Harbor) where it would join with Hoke's Division. Anderson's leading division (Kershaw) would turn northward to get into position for an attack on the left of the Cold Harbor intersection. Hoke would form on Kershaw's right, aim directly at the intersection, and move in conjunction with Kershaw. The united forces of Hoke and Anderson would then sweep behind Grant's lines at Cold Harbor. Hill and Early would press the rest of Federal line to keep Grant from reinforcing his hard-hit left flank.
Breckinridge extended his position to the right. Early adjusted to the left to fill the gap made by Anderson's departure. There were high hopes in the Confederate headquarters as Anderson's Corps with all its artillery marched to Cold Harbor during the night of May 31st. Kershaw was in position north of Cold Harbor early in the night. Pickett and Field were on the road behind Kershaw moving to the right (south). Rodes was now in position near Hundley's Corners. Lee had risked his entire army by pulling Anderson from the line in the face of Grant's shifting army.
At 7:00 p.m. General Anderson reported that he and General Hoke were now in position near the Cold Harbor Crossroads. Hoke reported some skirmishing along his front, but believed that it was only cavalry. Early reported he was satisfied that the Federals had no infantry south of the Matadequin.31 Anderson decided that he would send a strong force at daylight on the road from Beulah Church to Mrs. Allen's on the other side of the Matadequin, and another along the Old Cold Harbor/Old Church Road to find out exactly what was in front of him. He reported that two prisoners taken by General Ramseur's skirmishers told of the Fifth Corps entrenching on both of these roads.
When Hoke and Kershaw formed in position at daylight of June 1st, the nearest Federal infantry was four hours away. Fifteen thousand Confederate infantry were in the Cold Harbor region, enough men to turn Grant's left flank. Heth's Division had been shifted in to close the gap between Breckinridge's command and Hundley's Corner. These shifts placed the right of Anderson's Corps just north of a ravine running almost directly eastward from Gaines Mill Pond. Anderson's left was across the road to Bethesda Church. Kershaw was on the right, Pickett in the center, and Field on the left.
Early's Corps was located on Anderson's left. Rodes was on the right of the corps connecting with Anderson. Gordon was in the center, with Ramseur on the left. Breckinridge and Hill were on the Confederate left flank. The Confederates now had all their troops in position. General Lee issued a circular order to troop commanders to round up all stragglers and see that every man in the hospitals capable of performing the duties of a soldier be sent to the ranks.
Lee took the precaution of placing Hoke under Anderson, and directed that Hoke's rear brigades be hurried to Cold Harbor.28 Lee would have preferred to have gone to Cold Harbor himself to direct the turning movement, but he was still so weak that he was confined to a carriage. The most he felt justified in doing was to advance his headquarters to Shady Grove, where he would be nearer the center of operations.
This movement shows the state of affairs within the Army of Northern Virginia, and the physical problems associated with its commander. It seems incredible that the offensive-minded Lee would defer an all-important assault to a relatively untested corps' commander.
Lee realized the significance of the proposed assault. His extraordinary ability to place his outnumbered army in a position to overwhelm his opponent was uncanny. His present subordinate commanders, however, had no such ability and would not supply the extraordinary deeds that were necessary in implementing Lee's strategy.
Lee's army was desperate for a decisive victory. Lee's proposed assault on the Federal troops marching to Cold Harbor would provide such a victory. It is arguable that an impaired Robert E. Lee riding in a carriage would provide more decisive and offensive leadership than a healthy Richard Anderson. As a division commander, Anderson had few equals in the Army of Northern Virginia. He had shown occasional spurts of audacity and effective leadership. The audacity and boldness that had been Anderson's forte as a division commander was now lost on Anderson, the corps' commander.
Meade: General Meade was undoubtedly impressed by the continued reports of movements of Confederate troops to his left. This strengthened his belief in the necessity for a transfer of his forces from right to left.
At 9:45 p.m. Meade sent Wright the order to immediately withdraw his corps from its present position and move to Cold Harbor, about two and a half miles east of Bethesda Church. Federal cavalry had possession of Cold Harbor, having driven off the Confederate cavalry and infantry. Meade further directed Wright that it was extremely important for him to reach Cold Harbor as soon after daylight as possible. He was to take the Hawes' Shop/Old Church route and notify the cavalry of his withdrawal. Meade's final order was that Wright should notify General Hancock when the last of Wright's troops were moving.
Meade, worried by Sheridan's alarming reports, was trying to find a shorter route for the Sixth Corps. He suggested that Wright might be able to use the Bethesda Church Road. General Warren explained that the road to Cold Harbor from Bethesda Church was not only a poor road, it was also held by a strong Confederate force. In so far as the Bethesda Church Road was concerned, General Warren was correct. A night march past Burnside's rear and through the Fifth Corps would have led to serious, if not disastrous confusion.
It is hard to understand why Meade should have ordered the Sixth Corps directly to Cold Harbor. This corps was on the extreme right of the Federal line. Smith, with the newly arrived Eighteenth Corps, was located at Bassett's. Bassett's is less than two miles beyond Old Church and along the Cold Harbor Road. The Eighteenth Corps was much closer to Cold Harbor than was the Sixth Corps, however, Smith's command had dwindled somewhat during the move from City Point to White House Landing. Only parts of his three small divisions had arrived at White House Landing along with the wagons of only one brigade. He was now located at Bassett's with ten thousand men and his artillery, but was without wagons to carry supplies or ammunition.
Smith reported the arrival of the head of his column at Bassett's and his plan for camping near that point for the night. During the march to Bassett's, Smith received Grant's letter of May 30th, discussed in the preceding chapter. From Bassett's to Cold Harbor is a distance of about nine miles over a well-marked road. Smith was unencumbered with baggage and transport wagons. The Eighteenth Corps was in far better position and condition to make a relief march than were Wright's weary troops. The Sixth Corps had been skirmishing and marching throughout the day. Wright was now located nine to twelve miles west of Old Church and was burdened with his supply trains.
The road leading to Cold Harbor from Old Church was held by two divisions of Sheridan's dismounted cavalry. This force numbered approximately 6,500 men on the firing line supported by horse artillery. Opposed to them would be Kershaw and Hoke who would be able to muster almost twice that number, with almost ten thousand more men coming up with Generals Pickett and Field.
Conclusion: The Federal movement from the North Anna to Cold Harbor had been conducted in the slowest and most costly manner. The entire infantry force was employed in searching for the Confederate line. The cavalry was guarding trains and protecting the left flank. Sheridan was having great difficulty in fulfilling his mission to secure the left flank. Butler's small Confederate brigade was allowed to not only drive in Sheridan's pickets, but to contain both divisions of cavalry that were presently near Cold Harbor. This containment had assisted Early's assault at Bethesda Church on the 30th. For three days Wilson's Division was across the Pamunkey River guarding trains, and not until the 31st was his entire division with the army again.
Grant needed information, and he needed it quickly in order to strike before Lee had time to securely entrench. The cavalry was the proper arm to use for that purpose. Sheridan had started out on such a mission on the 28th, but was blocked by Hampton. After a successful engagement at Hawes' Shop, Sheridan seems to have considered his object accomplished.
In his report of operations, Sheridan said it was difficult to overcome the established custom of wasting cavalry for the protection of trains, and for the establishment of cordons around a sleeping infantry force.
Sheridan was charged with protecting the flanks of the infantry. He was also expected to use his initiative to benefit the invading army. This meant that he was to seek out strategic ground and hold it for Meade. To do this would ensure that Lee would be unable to use the ground for defensive purposes.
Sheridan was primarily interested in "hit and run" tactics rather than seeking strategic ground. The crossroads at Cold Harbor was an important piece of real estate that was completely ignored by the cavalry chief. Sheridan had been issued no orders that would have hand- cuffed the cavalry, until Meade insisted that he hold Cold Harbor. In defense of Sheridan, it will be remembered that on the 29th the Second Corps was pushed toward the north on a wild goose chase, trying to find Breckinridge. This work could have best been performed by cavalry. The result of this movement was a wasted day on the 30th trying to get Hancock's men back into a position.
The actions of this day on the Federal side were, therefore, merely to keep in touch with the Confederate force. Wright had massed his Sixth Corps on the night of the 30th. Russell's Division had skirmished a little on the 31st. The main body of the corps had been held ready to move in support of Hancock or Burnside.
At 9:45 p.m. the Sixth Corps was ordered to move to Cold Harbor. Smith's Eighteenth Corps was to come into line between Warren and Wright. Hancock's Second Corps was ordered to defend the right wing of the army. No special task was assigned to Burnside.
Grant had wanted Wright to remained massed on the right flank in order to watch that flank or support the Second Corps in case it became engaged. Any flanking movement from that portion of the field would be made by the Second Corps. Since the Sixth Corps was massed on the right flank, they could easily shift to fill the possible gap if the Second Corps should be ordered to another position. In an emergency situation, the Second Corps could move faster to the Federal left than the Sixth Corps.
The Ninth Corps held a position near the Confederate force. Burnside's left connected with Warren's right, making it nearly impossible for these two corps to move in either direction without opening a major gap within the line. In his communication with Meade on the 30th, Grant had mentioned that Smith's Corps would soon arrive in position on the Federal left.
Sending the Sixth Corps from the Federal right on a night march over unfamiliar roads was inviting disaster. Possible explanations for the shift in the Sixth Corps are: (1) Meade had misinterpreted the communication delivered by Grant on May 30, or (2) Meade understood the importance of the Cold Harbor Crossroads. He realized that the Second and Ninth Corps had made contact with the enemy forces in their fronts. He believed that the Sixth Corps could move from its point in the line without seriously jeopardizing the army. Moving the Second Corps may have created a gap that might have been exploited by a watchful enemy. In any case, the seeds were sewn for Lee to take control of the campaign. A true student of Napoleonic thought, Lee with his numerically inferior army, would concentrate a larger force from which to defend the all-important crossroads at Cold Harbor. It was his purpose to then go on the offensive against any enemy force that might move down the Old Church Road to Old Cold Harbor.
Wright: The last day of May had been hot, and the roads dusty. The night which followed afforded little relief. All through the night the Sixth Corps moved eastward to Old Church. The assembly of the corps for marching had consumed time which had not been considered in the Army command's march order. At midnight Ricketts' Third Division, the nearest to the Second Corps, began to march from the banks of the Totopotomoy. The Second Brigade, under Colonel Keifer, was in the advance and was able to reach Old Church by 8:00 a.m. Russell's First Division followed closely behind the Third. Neill's Second Division had been covering the right and was some distance to the rear. The First Brigade (Wheaton) of the Second Division began the march at 4:30 a.m.
Lee: The withdrawal of the Sixth Corps from the Federal right left the Confederate Third Corps (Hill) without an opponent. This gave General Lee a relatively generous reserve to move to any threatened point. At 8:30 a.m. General Lee wrote Generals Hill and Breckinridge concerning movements to the right. Although Lee's note of the morning was not found, it may be reasonably inferred that it contemplated the movement of Breckinridge to the right of the army and the closing in of Hill's Corps on the left of Early's Second Corps.
The activity of Wilson's Cavalry at Ashland undoubtedly had its effect in the postponement of shifts to the right. General Lee's hopes to stop the characteristic maneuver of the Federal army in sliding to its left, is shown by his message to General Anderson on May 30:
. . . Anderson - Hoke - Kershaw at Cold Harbor
Sheridan's Cavalry had abandoned the strategic crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. Meade later ordered them to reoccupy this position, which they did before daylight of June 1st.2 Sheridan then quickly dug in behind light works, and was supported by his horse artillery. Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry had by this time completely withdrawn from the Cold Harbor lines. These positions were taken over by Hoke's Division. Hoke's men were deployed across the road that led from the tavern and circled to the southwest. His front was generally flat land, either under cultivation or lightly wooded. There was open ground around the Garthright House on his right. On his left was the road to New Cold Harbor and a wide ravine which sliced past his flank. This wooded ravine runs west to the Gaines' Mill Pond. Clingman's Brigade held the left of Hoke's Division on the right side (south) of the ravine. On the other side of the ravine, Kershaw's Division faced a vine-shrouded stand of woods. His right flank rested on the road near A. Ellyson's House. The positions of Kershaw's and Hoke's commands were not picked for their value to the defense. This selection of ground was chosen as a result of fighting initiated by Colonel Lawrence Keitt's assault, to be described later. The Confederate leadership on this field was far from being effective. Although all of the commanders (Anderson, Hoke, and Kershaw) had shown past greatness, they were now not communicating with each other.
Anderson did not impose his authority on Hoke. Hoke would not risk an assault against an unknown force on his own, and did nothing to establish cooperation with Anderson. Not knowing that the Cold Harbor Crossroads was held only by cavalry, Anderson opened his actions on the 1st with a reconnaissance-in-force on the heavily vined woods in his front. In this movement, Anderson gave Kershaw the responsibility of leading the troops. Kershaw showed a preference for using his old brigade as a spearhead. His South Carolinians had been recently strengthened by the Twentieth South Carolina, a large yet inexperienced regiment. The Twentieth was so large in comparison with the veteran units that Kershaw's old-timers called it the "20th Army Corps."
The Twentieth were parade-ground soldiers, thoroughly drilled by company but wholly unfamiliar with maneuver-by-brigade. The tragedy which was about to happen lay in the coincidence by which dates of rank made the Twentieth's commanding officer the senior colonel in the brigade. Since Kershaw had been promoted to division command, Anderson had procrastinated in recommending a new commander for the brigade. The clear choice and temporary commander had been John Henagan of the Second South Carolina. Now with the Twentieth in the brigade, their commander, Colonel Lawrence Keitt, who had no experience on the battlefield, was the senior colonel in the brigade.(break) Merritt's Cavalry Brigade was entrenched along the crest of a ravine, with timber in front and rear. Their right rested on a swamp and their left was opposite a clearing in the woods. The Confederate assault was preceded by a desultory fire until 8:00 a.m. At that time Colonel Keitt led his compact mass of silent infantry through the timber toward the awaiting cavalry. Keitt, mounted upon his gray charger rode ahead of his brigade. They crossed a field toward the heavy timber of oak and thick underbrush, where General Merritt's dismounted cavalry brigade was entrenched.
The Rebel skirmishers closed on the entrenched cavalry force and the firing gained in magnitude. As Keitt's force emerged from the scrubby underbrush, Keitt screamed his orders to charge. The rebel yell rang through the forest as the company front column leaped forward at the double quick.
A sheet of flame exploded from the cavalry line, and for three or four minutes the din was deafening.6 Flashing his sword in the early morning light, Keitt became a target for thousands of repeating carbines firing from behind their works. Keitt dashed forward and was killed in the first volley. The engagement was over within five minutes. Keitt's green regiment broke and ran. A gunner in a supporting battery described the battle as the, "most abject rout ever committed by men in Confederate uniform. Some were so scared they could not run, but groveled on the ground, trying to burrow into the earth." This break carried the veteran regiments of the brigade helplessly along in the tide.
When Kershaw ordered the Keitt attack, the remainder of the Confederate column halted on the road, expecting the march to be resumed. When the delay was prolonged, and a few random bullets began to reach the line, the Confederate veterans began to dig dirt with their bayonets and pile it with their tin cups to get a little cover. Others followed suit, and gradually the whole column was at work entrenching the line along which they had halted. Orders were given to close up the column and adopt its line as the line of battle. Artillery was distributed along the lines at suitable points.
Kershaw's Second Brigade (Bryan), its flank exposed and its line unanchored, could only retire out of range of the concentrated fire of the Federal carbines in the woods. Keitt's reconnaissance, which discovered nothing, comprised the daylight attack Lee designed as a flanking movement for two divisions.
The attack failed, and with it perhaps the greatest opportunity presented to Lee's army since the Wilderness. Anderson had nearly 13,000 men at his disposal with at least another 10,000 men (Pickett and Field) moving to his support against Sheridan's 6,500 dismounted cavalry. Though Kershaw tried to mount another attack later in the morning, the day had been decided by the succession of events which placed Lawrence Keitt in command of a reconnaissance-in-force.
The major portion of the Confederate column now became a line facing southeasterly. To the south of the Gaines Mill ravine, Clingman's line was readjusted. His left rested on the bank of the ravine. His right united with General Colquitt's left. General Wofford's Brigade took position on a hill to left (north) of the ravine about seventy-five yards to the right of Clingman's left flank. Clingman, studying the situation, became concerned about the gap between the two forces. Clingman asked the commander of Kershaw's nearest regiment to extend his line across the ravine. Not having orders to do so, the regimental commander declined. Clingman then made his concerns known to General Hoke, who assured him that his worries were unnecessary. General Hagood's Brigade would be stationed in front of his left and would cover this interval. At 9:00 a.m. Hagood's Brigade took position about one hundred and fifty yards in front of Clingman's line with his right regiment in front of Clingman's left regiment.
The right of Hoke's Division, Martin's Brigade, advanced the skirmishers of its center regiment, the Forty-Second North Carolina. This regiment drove back the Federal cavalry skirmishers and entrenched the crest of the spur running south of the road between the Cold Harbors.
A Lost Opportunity: The situation could not have been more favorable for the Confederates. Their troops had been on the ground for some time, and were well-rested. Wright's Sixth Corps had marched all night after a day's fighting, and at 6:00 a.m., was still some distance from Old Church. Wright reported that many of his horses and mules died of thirst on the grueling march. Captain Mark Penrose of the Ninety-third regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers reported that "the march was a hard one, the day was sultry and dust ankle deep, which raised clouds almost suffocating."
At 1:00 p.m. General Anderson wrote to Lee: "...General Hoke reports that a column of about 15,000 men with artillery has been observed passing to our right...I will march at once to attack them." General Anderson, unsure of himself, decided not to attack the Federal column. Here we see a monumental missed opportunity. The results of a vigorous attack on the Federal Sixth Corps as it approached Cold Harbor would have provided enormous consequences to Grant's campaign.
Wright's Sixth Corps had been marching for at least nine continuous hours at this point. They had been marched almost the same distance on the previous day. Wright's men, by their own accounts and substantiated in numerous biographies and unit histories, were utterly exhausted. They were in no physical condition to deliver or receive an attack. James L. Bowen of the Thirty-seventh Massachusetts gives an illuminating account of the grueling march.
"Then the march was taken up and steadily pursued, and seldom had the brave men struggled through a more sever ordeal. The day proved intensely hot, the sun burning down with a lurid, brassy glare that seemed to broil the human flesh on which it fell; the way led through sandy plains, heated to the intensity of a vast furnace, from which the most terrible clouds of dust arose, not only high into the air, disclosing every movement to the watchful enemy, but as well choking the breath and blinding the vision of the gasping men who were marching through them. Everywhere the sun-stroke did its deadly work-men fell blinded and gasping from the ranks, strong, brave men who on a dozen deadly fields had looked death in the face without quailing, conquered now by the long, unceasing strain to which they had been subject and the might power of the elements."
It is possible that had Anderson launched an assault on the weary Sixth Corps while it was strung out in column along the road between Old Cold Harbor and Old Church, the results would have been the probable complete rout of the Sixth Corps. Anderson would have been interposed between Warren and Smith, putting incredible pressure on Sheridan's force and at least temporarily isolating Smith's Corps. Smith, who had brought a limited supply of ammunition, could not have withstood a long, drawn-out fight without being resupplied. Lee would have gone into action up and down the Confederate line to make sure that relief could not be sent to the Federal left.
Sheridan would not have been able to help in the fight against Anderson because he would have had to deal with Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry which was presently on his left. By turning to face a hard-charging Anderson he would have had Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry squarely on his rear.
Once the Sixth Corps rout would have occurred, and after interposing between Warren and Smith, Anderson would have had only to wheel his force to the left to be squarely on Warren's exposed left flank.
It is important to view other aspects of this little known juncture of Cold Harbor history. It has been pointed out that Lee put his army in jeopardy by moving Anderson across the front of the Federal army on the 31st. A Federal assault initiated by Warren would have possibly had similarly disastrous affects to the Confederate army.
Arguments from Grant biographers would be that neither he nor members of his staff mention in their memoirs the fact that the Federal army was in a position to be injured in such a way on the movement to Cold Harbor. There are many separate and distinct aspects of this campaign that neither Grant, Meade, nor any of the corps and division commanders were aware of during their life times. The various events explored in this section of the controversy did not emerge until the Official Records were compiled in 1902. These events are substantiated in the works of E.P. Alexander, Walter Taylor, and C.S. Venable, as well as statements made by Anderson. Also, the Sixth Corps regimentals give clear evidence of the problems being faced during this arduous march.
It is clear that the Confederate command structure had suffered dearly. It would be hard to imagine a Thomas Jackson, James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, or a healthy A.P. Hill passing up such a tempting target as was presented to Anderson, Hoke, and Kershaw on the morning of June 1st.
Anderson did not follow Lee's orders of the preceding day. He failed to take control of the portion of the field assigned to his command. Hoke was not interested in leaving the safety of his trenches to make a daring move. Kershaw had tried two assaults in the morning and had no intentions of trying another. Anderson did mention this event in his memoirs. He understood that by not attacking, he had missed a great opportunity.
To summarize this portion of the battle we will note that Lee had taken great pains to rest his army at every opportunity in the retreat to the Chickahominy. His personal physical condition had suffered throughout the campaign and as a result, he was not able to direct the offensive against the Federal left flank.
The Federal army was greatly fatigued due to the continuous marches. The Sixth Corps, in particular, had been marched for longer periods than had any other corps or unit in either army.
The Federal cavalry, as directed by General Meade, fulfilled its mission. Two divisions, minus one brigade, succeeded in containing Anderson's Corps, Hoke's Division, and Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry Division. General Alexander wrote about this event, calling it a "rare opportunity." He bemoaned the fact that it was most unfortunate for the southern cause that Lee was not present to see that his plans were carried out. This was the occasion that could have possibly prevented Grant from reaching the Chickahominy. It is hard to say what would have been the results of such an attack. Critics argue that Civil War armies possessed an amazing ability to respond to local disasters, and execution of Lee's orders likely would have fallen short of the desired affects.
It is possible, and highly probable, that had the Sixth Corps been hit by a substantial force of Confederates while enroute to Cold Harbor, they would have been injured severely. Sixth Corps' regimental histories and other diaries confirm the belief that this was the hardest march in the history of the corps, and they were in a most fatigued state. Understanding this, and coupled with the fact that the Eighteenth Corps had not brought enough ammunition to either attack or defend, it is clear that this wing of the Federal army was in danger of being routed. Anderson's force had been in position since early morning, and their march to the Confederate right had not been long or of a fatiguing nature.
Confederate General E.P. Alexander states: "With Hoke's large division on its right flank, Longstreet's (Anderson) corps should have been able to quickly clear the way of three brigades of cavalry. It would have had then the opportunity to meet the 6th corps scattered along the road for many miles and in an exhausted condition...Lee was not upon the ground in the early hours of the day, and Longstreet was absent, wounded. No effort worthy the name was used to carry out Lee's plan of attack..."
. . . Federal Disposition : At 9:00 a.m. General Wright reported his arrival at Cold Harbor, and the position of the head of his column as "not far behind". The arrival of the Sixth Corps at Cold Harbor relieved the cavalry. At 1:00 p.m. Torbert moved his division of cavalry to a position near Parsley's Mill.
The march order to General Smith and letter of instructions sent to him from General Grant directed that the Eighteenth Corps be marched to New Castle Ferry. New Castle Ferry is not on the road to Cold Harbor. It is about a mile and a half north of Bassett's and about two and a half miles northeast of Old Church. Any move from Bassett's to Old Church via New Castle Ferry meant an unnecessary detour of about four miles. From White House Landing, Smith could have gone through Bassett's straight to Old Church. General Smith stated in his memoirs that he received orders from Grant at daylight of June 1 to proceed to New Castle Ferry, and there place his command between the Fifth and Sixth Corps.
Considering, by the nature of the order, that the need was urgent, Smith marched his men without breakfast. Upon reaching New Castle Ferry he found no signs of the Fifth Corps, the Sixth Corps, or a battle. He placed his command along the hills south of the Pamunkey and sent Captain Farquhar, an engineer on his staff, to Grant's headquarters.
Captain Farquhar met General Wright, who was then preceding the advance of his corps near Old Church. From this meeting the following message, dated 8:10 a.m., was sent from Wright's adjutant general to General Smith: Captain Farquhar has just met General Wright, and has shown him the order to you to take position on the right of the Sixth Corps at New Castle. General Wright thinks there may be some misapprehension, as he has been ordered to Cold Harbor, and is now on his way there. The head of his column is at this moment passing Old Church.18 Colonel Babcock, of Grant's staff, soon arrived, and explained that the order should have read "Cold Harbor" instead of "New Castle ferry".(break) At 8:10 a.m. the head of the Sixth Corps was passing Old Church, only two miles from Bassett's, where Smith camped. The Eighteenth Corps would not have occupied over four miles of road space, so it would probably have cleared Old Church by 8:00 a.m. at the latest. A simple mistake in logistics on the part of Grant will escalate the brutal comedy of errors that make the battle to be fought on June 1st so interesting. Had Smith been ordered to Cold Harbor instead of New Castle Ferry, he would have arrived early in the day.
Smith's command, retracing its steps, marched back to Old Church only to find itself behind the trains and rear elements of the Sixth Corps, which it followed to Cold Harbor. The day was hot, the dust stifling, and progress slow. The ranks were thinned by the falling out of exhausted men.
During the morning General Grant issued orders placing the Eighteenth Corps under Meade's command. At noon General Meade ordered Smith to follow the Sixth Corps to Cold Harbor. Smith would then position his corps to the right of the Sixth Corps endeavoring to hold the road from Cold Harbor to Bethesda Church. When this was done Smith was to cooperate with Wright in an assault along the Confederate line. It was important, according to Meade, to engage the Confederates as soon as possible so that they would not be able to entrench.
Meade's order, which General Smith says he received while on the march, named two objectives: the holding of the road from Cold Harbor to Bethesda Church, and cooperation in the attack to be made by the Sixth Corps. To do these things, the Eighteenth Corps had to wait until the road was cleared by the Sixth Corps. It would then move to the rear of the Sixth Corps and to the right past Wright's rear (Bethesda Church Road) into the country not yet occupied by Federal troops.
The order afforded an opportunity for deployment, but not a suitable base for an attack. There was no line over which connections could be made or contacts preserved with the Fifth Corps to the north. The Fifth Corps' left was nearly one half mile southwest of Bethesda Church. The distance between the Fifth Corps' left (Bethesda Church) and the right of the Sixth Corps (Cold Harbor) was three miles. Warren had reported that Confederate troops had entrenched a portion of the road between Bethesda Church and Cold Harbor. Even had there not been Confederates along this road, Smith's ten thousand man force was not large enough to effectively fill that space.
To summarize the many opportunities squandered during the day, we will look carefully at the movements of both armies. The Eighteenth Corps fell afoul of an organizational breakdown at Grant's headquarters. Smith had been ordered to march to New Castle Ferry not Cold Harbor. This moved the Eighteenth Corps in an opposite direction of where they were intended to be. These troops were exhausted by the time they reached the Cold Harbor Crossroads.
General Anderson failed to take advantage of the situation at Cold Harbor. The strategic crossroads was held by a thin force of Federal cavalry. A supported assault should have had the desired affect in removing Sheridan's troopers from the tavern. Anderson followed up this mistake by not making the ordered assault on the Sixth Corps as it advanced on the Old Church Road.
General Meade then sent the Sixth and Eighteenth Corps in an assault against the Rebel lines. The hard thrust was mostly contained, with moderately heavy losses in the attacking force. General Lee, realizing that the situation was in doubt, decided to ride to the Cold Harbor area to establish field headquarters and assume personal command in that quarter, a move that should have been executed on the 31st.
The evening reports made by Generals Wright and Smith speak of fears of holding their ground, and of uncertainty of a successful defense against possible counterattacks. These reports show a lack of knowledge of the situation as it existed on their fronts.
With six divisions, the Sixth and Eighteenth Corps had been confronted and substantially held by two Confederate divisions, Hoke's and Kershaw's. This was due to wrongly applied efforts and improper physical condition to launch an assault.
The Sixth Corps listed 1,200 casualties, while Smith reported his losses at 1,000. The two corps captured 750 prisoners. Both armies had made monumental mistakes in placing inexperienced regiments in the vanguard of their respective assaults. Kershaw's assault in the morning was lead by Keitt's Twentieth South Carolina. Upton's assault in the afternoon was lead by Kellogg's Second Connecticut.
These large bodies of men may have been used as spearheads because they had more enthusiasm than the hardened veterans who had grown weary attacking earthworks at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. These new regiments lacked expertise in judgement. Their pace was much quicker than their supporting units, and were quickly isolated in the sights of hidden guns. Their enthusiasm coupled with their lack of expertise could only allow for a bloody and unsuccessful end.
Summary of the Fighting on June 1st
Meade had succeeded in obeying one of the rules of the art of war; but had disobeyed many, and three in particular. He had obtained a preponderance of manpower when he had placed six divisions against the enemy's two. He had marched three of these divisions (Sixth Corps) all night and through the morning. With no sleep and scant opportunity for eating, he had brought them to the battle line physically unfit for the supreme test. The other three divisions (Eighteenth Corps) had slept the night before, but because of the blunder at Grant's headquarters, had been sent on a march in the wrong direction (New Castle Ferry). Later they marched through the blazing heat and in the dust of the Sixth Corps directly to the battlefield. Meade had, indeed, obtained preponderance of numbers, but he had disobeyed the rule which requires that the men shall be in such condition that a superiority in numbers means a superiority of force.
The second rule disobeyed was that which requires a general to avoid doing what his enemy expects him to do. Federal Army headquarters had received a number of reports indicating that Lee was preparing to block any move around his right flank. Anderson relieved the cavalry on the Cold Harbor front. The infantry then began building breastworks which further indicated Lee's intention, yet the order was issued for that action which the enemy had anticipated.
The third rule disobeyed was the ordering of an attack without sufficient knowledge of the terrain. There does not appear to have been any real reconnaissance made of the area over which the attack was made. This lack of information paralyzed the two flank divisions of the two Federal corps involved. These two divisions (Martindale's and Neill's) were placed to ward off dangers which did not exist.
...Seeds for Disaster: The Federal disaster at Cold Harbor was a result of poor or no communication. The following correspondence, taken from the Official Records, provide the dialogue that will eventually spell defeat for Generals Grant and Meade at Cold Harbor:
At 3:30 p.m. General Meade sent General Hancock (Second Corps) the following order: You will make your arrangements to withdraw your corps tonight and move via Haw's Shop to the rear of Bethesda Church. Your corps will be massed somewhere in the vicinity of these headquarters at Via's house. You will begin to withdraw as soon as it is dark. Notify Burnside when the last of your troops move, and when you withdraw your pickets. This order deserves attention because of its contradictions. When it is compared with the information sent later, it shows a change in plans, apparently brought about by the developments on the Sixth Corps' front. A corps massed at Via's House would not be in the rear of Bethesda Church, within the meaning of the term "rear", as it is generally used in a military sense.
Wright's report of a strong enemy concentration on his front and the plea for reinforcements contained in his report of 7:30 p.m., convinced Meade to send Hancock straight through to the left. At 9:00 p.m. Meade sent the following order to Hancock:
Your best route is by Haw's Shop, Via's (headquarters) and Gibson's to Cold Harbor, Captain Paine will meet your column about Haw's Shop, and guide you. You must make every exertion to move promptly, and reach Cold Harbor as soon as possible. At that point you will take position to re-enforce Wright on his left, which is desired to extend to the Chickahominy...
The routing given in this order further shows that army headquarters was unfamiliar with the country in which they were operating. Neither the Campbell map nor the map of Michler and Michie, made from surveys in 1867 show any accessible road from Gibson's to Cold Harbor, except the one passing through the Eighteenth Corps' lines.
At 8:30 p.m. General Hancock notified army headquarters that he was withdrawing from the Totopotomoy front, and by 11:00 p.m. two of his divisions were on the march, with the third just commencing to move. This was the beginning of what is described by one of the participants as one of the most severe marches of the campaign.
General Meade sent Captain Paine, an engineering officer, to guide Hancock to Cold Harbor. Paine, realizing the urgency of moving the corps, had found a narrow shortcut through the woods. After moving for nearly six miles, the road was found to be too narrow. The Second Corps' guns became stuck between trees.
In the darkness, as a result of both fatigue and confusion, the troops became mixed to a point that it took some time to get them straightened out and marched back to the correct road.79 The proposed nine mile march from the Federal right to Cold Harbor now turned into a fifteen mile march. The night had been intensely hot and breathless. The march through roads deep with dust had been exceedingly trying.80 There would be no way that Hancock would be able to reach Cold Harbor at daybreak of the 2nd of June.
This shift of the Second Corps from the right to the left of the Federal army shows the lack of design on the part of Meade's headquarters concerning the offensive operations against Lee's army. The offensive on the left (Sixth and Eighteenth Corps) had failed, and had then become a defensive operation. Troops were then drawn from an active line (Second Corps) to a reserve, then ordered to the defensive left as a support. There was a hint of the possibility of transforming the defensive operation to an offensive. The tactical movements ordered precluded the use of the elements of surprise, mass, and strength, and thus, surrendered those rules which are vital to a successful offensive.
The crossing of the Chickahominy, which General Meade on the night of June 1st says he was desirous of securing, should have been secured a day sooner. The digging in by the Confederate army was to be prevented on June 2nd by the combined assaults of the Sixth, Eighteenth, and Second Corps. This digging in should have been made impossible by Sheridan's Cavalry on the evening of May 31st. Meade's orders for a defensive operation were timely, but those for an offensive were too late.
During the day correspondence passed between Meade, Wright and Sheridan, to show that Sheridan had been ordered to attack to the left of the Sixth Corps. For various reasons, the cavalry remained in the camps to which they had retired. They had met with only slight skirmishing with Fitzhugh Lee's Cavalry.
Wright's message to Meade of 9:30 p.m. had still further impressed General Grant, as well as army headquarters, with the apparent necessity of reinforcing Wright. General Grant explained:
General Hancock had better be advised to get one division of his corps through to Wright before daylight, and the whole corps as soon as possible.
Meade was still uncertain as to the best point at which to employ the Second Corps, and at 10:10 p.m. he wrote Wright, asking the Sixth Corps' commander where to place the Second Corps. He understood that the main problem with the offensive to date had been the fact that the Army of the Potomac was occupying lines that were too long, and not massing enough. Meade explained to Wright that he intended to make an all-out assault early in the morning using the entire line, with the lone exception of Burnside's Corps. Burnside would protect the right flank. Meade believed that a vigorous assault would push Lee's army across the Chickahominy.
At 10:20 p.m. Wright replied by explaining that he felt the Second Corps should be placed on his left flank. He felt sure that Hancock should have no trouble in getting to this position before daylight. If Hancock could arrive in time, Wright felt they would then have enough weight to carry the Confederate works.
Upon receipt of this plea and advice, Meade issued orders to Wright and Hancock at 10:45 p.m. He advised Wright to renew the attack when the Second Corps arrived at Cold Harbor. He explained to Hancock that the Second Corps would take an offensive position on the left of the the Sixth Corps. Hancock's objective was to turn Lee's right flank and to interpose between the Confederate army and the Chickahominy. Hancock was informed that he could expect help from Sheridan's Cavalry, which was then operating in the area.
Meade was concerned that the Second Corps would not be able reach Cold Harbor before daylight. He explained to General Hancock that if he could not get into position to launch the flanking attack by daylight, then he would be expected to support General Wright's frontal assault at Cold Harbor.
The correspondence between Generals Grant and Meade just preceding the final orders for beginning the next day's work, is of interest. At 10:15 p.m. Meade wrote Grant:
What are your views about tomorrow? I think the attack should be renewed as soon as Hancock is within supporting distance, and should be made by Wright, Smith, and Hancock...Hancock has been urged to push forward with dispatch, and guides sent him. I think his advance will be at Cold Harbor early in the morning, say by 6:00 a.m. Warren does not seem to have effected anything, on his front, except repulsing attacks on him. He should, however, be ordered to attack in conjunction with the others. Burnside I would hold ready to re-enforce Warren if necessary.
To this Colonel Comstock, Grant's aide, replied:
Lieutenant-General Grant desires me to say that he thinks the attack should be renewed tomorrow morning by all means, but not till Hancock is within supporting distance of Smith. Warren should attack in connection with Smith and Wright, and Burnside held in readiness to support Warren.
It will easily be recognized that General Grant's picture of the formation for the operation on the next day is not that actually covered by General Meade's orders. Meade obviously had not understood the fatigue factor that had been created by the long and cumbersome marches. He was not viewing the situation in the same way that Grant was.
Grant's perception of the proposed line of battle for June 2nd was a line that included Warren's Fifth Corps on the right, Smith's Eighteenth Corps in the center, and Wright's Sixth Corps on the left. The Ninth Corps was placed on the right to act as a support for the right flank. Grant understood that Hancock's Corps would not be in condition to be a part of the proposed assault, but mentioned that Hancock should be in the vicinity in order to act as a support for the center. Sheridan would support the left flank. This perception of the line gave a short line and a mass formation in depth.
General Meade's perception is different. He proposed that the Federal line be shortened on the right by moving the Second Corps to the left. This would extend the left and leave no support for the center. The supporting action on the wings was indefinitely stated. The Ninth Corps was directed to support Warren. Sheridan had been directed to cooperate with Hancock.
General Meade's unofficial view of the situation is told in a letter to his wife, written at 6:00 p.m. on June 1st:
We are pegging away here, and gradually getting nearer and nearer to Richmond, although its capture is yet far off. Our advance is within two miles of Mechanicsville, which, if you remember, is the place where the fighting commenced in Seven Days. The rebs keep taking up strong positions and entrenching themselves. This compels us to move around their flank, after trying to find some weak points to attack. This operation has now occurred four times, namely, crossing the Rapidan, at Old Wilderness, at Spottsylvania Court House, and recently at North Anna. We shall have to do it once more before we get them into their defenses at Richmond, and then will begin the tedious process of a quasi-siege, like that at Sebastopol; which will last as long, unless we can get hold of their railroads and cut off their supplies, when they must come out and fight.
Whilst I am writing the cannon and musketry are rattling all along our lines, over five miles in extent, but we have become so accustomed to these sounds that we hardly notice them.
The papers are giving Grant all the credit of what they call successes; I hope they will remember this if anything goes wrong.
This page last updated 02/16/02
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