Located 10 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, the Cold Harbor battlefield is today owned by the Richmond National Battlefield Park with significant preservation work by The American Battlefield Trust. Notable sites include the Cold Harbor visitor center and preserved earthworks.
This is one of the well-known battles of the American Civil War and the fourth battle of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign. Nearing the gates of Richmond, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant will try to land a decisive blow against Gen. Robert E. Lee resulting in horrific casualties.
After yet another stalemate at the North Anna, on May 25, 1864, Gen. Grant will start to withdraw to the southeast using the Pamunkey River, running north to south, to screen his movements and get closer to the Confederate capital.
Federal cavalry, the vanguard of Gen. Grant’s army, will finally cross the Pamunkey River and run into Gen. Lee’s cavalry at Haw’s Shop on May 27, 1864. A sharp fight would happen there.
Now knowing where Gen. Grant is crossing, Gen. Lee will array his army on a high ridge behind the Totopotomoy Creek to the west blocking the Federals from Richmond. Gen. Grant will engage the Army of Northern Virginia here.
After a series of probes and attacks trying to find a weak point in Gen. Lee’s line, with no clear opportunity fighting will start to shift to the southeast of Gen. Lee’s position.
On May 31, Union cavalry will seize the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor 10 miles northeast of Richmond. The horse soldiers will hold against rebel attacks until Union infantry arrives.
Both sides will receive needed reinforcements, bringing the Union numbers to 110,00 and Confederates to 60,000.
After two Union Corps got in place on June 1, they would attack at the end of the day with an assault against rebel works beyond the crossroads which resulted in limited success.
On June 2, the rest of both armies concentrated their forces and began to construct earthworks resulting in a seven-mile fortified front. While Gen. Grant prepared for a major attack that day, his best Union Corps under Gen. Hancock was not up in time and the plan was postponed until the next day. This delay would prove to be fatal as it gave the Confederates more time to fortify their earthwork positions and prepare to receive a Federal assault.
On June 3, Gen. Grant was still determined and gave the orders to attack the formidable rebel line at dawn. Three Union Corps charged the southern end of the line and were easily beaten back resulting in heavy losses. The northern end of the Union line made attempts with no results and another assault on the southern line was ordered and failed against the strong line of Confederate earthworks with enormous casualties.
Gen. Grant later wrote his memoirs, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made….No advantage whatsoever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
Both sides held their ground and there was firing between the lines resulting in yet another stalemate. Out of options, Gen. Grant will disengage on the night of June 12 and move to the James River to the east. His objective was Petersburg, a major rail hub south of Richmond, resulting in a nine-month siege.
Cold Harbor would result in another bloody lopsided Union defeat and Gen. Robert E. Lee’s last victory of the war. The Union would sustain 12,000 casualties while the Confederates lost 5,000.