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Civil War Trust

Battle of Cold Harbor: The Folly and Horror

From Civil War Times Magazine (historynet.com)

BY ROBERT N. THOMPSON 

U.S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant (Library of Congress)
Shortly after dawn on June 3, 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac launched a massive frontal assault against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Cold Harbor, Virginia. Intended to break the battered Confederate army and open the road to Richmond, the attack would serve as the conclusion and climax of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland campaign against General Robert E. Lee. The main part of the assault would take slightly less than an hour and, according to some accounts, would cost nearly 7,000 Union casualties. In a war that had seen more than its share of uncompromising slaughter, Cold Harbor would stand alone.

Over the last few years, there has been renewed interest in this tragic engagement that seems to have been overlooked compared to other major battles of Grant’s campaign. But few analysts have focused attention on what may have been the root cause for this military disaster — the command process within the Army of the Potomac. In human terms, Cold Harbor was an utter catastrophe, the direct result of a flawed command process that finally broke under the strain of battle.

Grant’s campaign during the summer of 1864 was distinguished by almost constant hard and desperate fighting. This style of warfare not only made incredible demands on the average soldier but it also had a severe impact on those in the chain of command and as a result the entire command process. The decision to make the attack was based on poor information and invalid assumptions about the morale and military capabilities of the enemy. More important, the decision to launch the fateful assault and its delayed execution reflected a total lack of command cohesion.

In March 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant general, a rank that had been newly reactivated by Congress, and assumed the position of general-in-chief of the armies of the United States. Almost immediately, Grant moved to execute a new grand strategy for defeating the Confederacy. For the first time, all Union armies would move in a coordinated fashion on all fronts. This was both to prevent the Confederates from using their interior lines of communication to reinforce one another and at the same time put unrelenting military pressure on them. Essentially, Union forces would pound and hammer the Confederate armies, inflicting losses in both men and supplies that they could ill-afford to sustain, while attacking the economic and social infrastructure of the South.

While Grant initially considered returning to the West to oversee the execution of his strategy, he eventually decided to conduct his command of the war from the field, alongside the Army of the Potomac. In Grant’s strategy, his army would have a vital mission: to draw the Army of Northern Virginia into the open and destroy it. In Grant’s view, if Lee’s army was crushed, Richmond would fall by default and the war would end.

George Gordon Meade
Major General George G. Meade (Library of Congress)
The Army of the Potomac posed many problems for Grant in terms of command, however. First, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the army’s commander and the victor at Gettysburg, had chafed under criticism from the administration and the press, as well as congressional investigations, because he had failed to pursue and destroy Lee’s army in the days following Gettysburg. Meade was seen as irritable, slow, overly cautious and best when on the defensive — not the sort of man to execute Grant’s aggressive strategy. The men who would be Meade’s four infantry corps commanders during the coming campaign were also somewhat suspect. The best of them, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, was a tenacious and talented fighter, but the wounds he received at Gettysburg had not yet healed, and his poor health affected his ability to command.

Given this unsettling picture, and the Army of the Potomac’s reputation for being commanded by gentlemen politicians, it is little wonder that Grant elected to ride into his grand campaign firmly joined at its hip. The army’s part in Grant’s strategy was vital, and he could ill-afford its slowness and tendency to turn back to regroup, rest and resupply as soon as the first engagement was concluded. So when Grant arrived at Meade’s headquarters near Brandy Station on March 10, 1864, everyone including Meade expected the army’s commander to be replaced. But Meade came across to the new general-in-chief as a man of modesty, honesty and true patriotism, and Grant elected to retain him in command.

For his part, Meade was publicly supportive, courteous and subordinate to Grant. Privately, he was not a happy man. His letters to his wife showed his disappointment with Grant’s decision to remain in the field with the Army of the Potomac. His wife urged him to resign and return home. Meade responded that she should be careful not to criticize Grant in public or indicate that there was any problem. He was, after all, retaining his command of a major army, and he would do his duty.

In keeping Meade in his position and by placing himself so close to the Army of the Potomac, Grant was creating a command problem that would eventually result in calamity. The questions that naturally arose revolved around Meade’s actual role and how far Grant would go in directing the army’s activities. Grant would later write that his concept was to make Meade’s position seem as much as possible as though Grant were in Washington and Meade were in the field — Grant issuing the orders for the movement of the army to Meade, and Meade executing them. In other words, Grant would issue broad directives for the maneuvering and conduct of the Army of the Potomac, as well as the armies in other theaters, leaving the detailed tactical execution to Meade.

But Grant’s actual words and conduct at the time indicated something entirely different. Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter, one of Grant’s staff officers, wrote that, when speaking to his staff, Grant indicated he would take a more hands-on approach. Porter said that Grant referred to the practice of sending his staff to ‘critical points of the line to keep me promptly advised of what is taking place’ and that when emergencies dictated, he wanted them to communicate his ‘views to commanders, and urge immediate action’ without awaiting specific orders from himself. Further, Grant told them he would place his headquarters near Meade’s and ‘communicate his instructions through that officer.’ This seemed to indicate a role unrestricted to mere broad strategic direction. As a result, the Army of the Potomac appeared to have two heads.

The initial fighting of the campaign, in the Wilderness, demonstrated how much Grant became involved in the details of battle. For example, on the evening of May 5, Grant ordered an attack all along the line to be carried out at 4:30 a.m. on May 6. Meade responded that he had ordered the attack take place at that time, but suggested 6 a.m. instead, adding, ‘Should you permit this change, I will advise the corps commanders.’ Grant replied through his staff that Meade could change the attack to 5 but not 6. It should have seemed obvious to the most casual of observers that this ridiculous process, wherein the general-in-chief and one of his major army commanders were trading dispatches on minor time adjustments, could not continue. But continue it did, from the Wilderness to Spotsylvania and on to the North Anna River.

In fact, some did see the absurdity of the situation — but not as one might expect. Grant’s staff quickly began to lobby for the general to simply ignore Meade’s position and bypass him entirely in directing the campaign. Porter recalled a heated discussion that took place among Grant’s staff after the Wilderness regarding Meade’s’somewhat anomalous position.’ With Grant listening intently, they argued that vital time was being lost in transmitting field orders through an intermediary whose position was essentially ‘a false one.’ Some stated that they believed Meade and his staff were modifying Grant’s instructions or that they were ‘elaborated as to change their spirit.’ Finally, as the discussion became more heated, they characterized Meade as having an irascible temper that ‘often irritated officers who came in contact with him.’

Grant waited until the arguments were completed and said that, while the present situation was not totally satisfactory, Meade’s presence relieved him of many duties he would otherwise have to undertake if he assumed a more active role. Porter noted, however, that while Grant maintained his view throughout the war, after those discussions he began to give even ‘closer personal direction in battle to the movements of the subdivisions of the army.’

On the other side of the coin, Meade, though always calm and cooperative in Grant’s presence, read the newspaper accounts of the campaign, which gave every credit to Grant, and began to resent the control that Grant and his staff were exercising. His temper became increasingly foul, and he grew more abrasive with each day. On one occasion Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana made the mistake of reading a dispatch to Meade from Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, informing Grant that his army had engaged the enemy successfully, could now maneuver and, if Grant could inspire the Army of the Potomac to do its share, success would be assured. Meade flew into a rage, telling Dana: ‘Sir! I consider that dispatch an insult to the army I command and to me personally. The Army of the Potomac does not require General Grant’s inspiration or anybody else’s inspiration to make it fight!’

Not surprisingly, the staffs that surrounded Grant and Meade felt even stronger about the situation, and they would be a primary obstruction to command cohesion. Each staff had little respect for the other or its respective commander. Colonel Theodore Lyman wrote at length in his journal about the relationship between the two headquarters’ staffs, and his biggest concern was not so much Grant’s treatment of Meade but the disrespect Grant and his staff showed toward their opponent. Lyman said that from the very beginning, he sensed an air of overconfidence among Grant’s staff, which ‘talked and laughed flippantly about Lee and his army.’ To be certain, Grant fostered some of this attitude in an effort to remove the seemingly mystic spell Lee had cast on the Army of the Potomac. What was most troubling about this kind of talk was that, as the campaign continued and the army fought one bloody engagement after another, the big talk evolved into genuine overconfidence that began to affect Grant’s official assessments and command decisions.

Following the brutal and inconclusive fighting at Spotsylvania, Dana reported to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that the ‘Rebels have lost all confidence and are already mortally defeated,’ and that Stanton could be certain ‘the end is near as well as sure.’ Meanwhile, Grant told Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck that the Confederate army was ‘really whipped’ and added, ‘I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already insured.’ This miscalculation of Lee’s strength by Grant and his staff would prove to be a critical ingredient in the Cold Harbor disaster.

In the days immediately following Grant and Dana’s pronouncements that Lee’s army was near its end, Grant continued to shift the Army of the Potomac to the left, forcing Lee to remain between the Federal forces and Richmond while still trying to get Lee to come out and fight the final climactic battle. Lee, however, would not take the bait. Meanwhile four weeks of continuous marching and brutal fighting were wearing everyone down. From the soldiers on the line to the generals in command, the emotional and physical strain was quietly and insidiously taking a heavy toll.

Phil Sheridan
Maj. Gen. Phil Sheridan (Library of Congress)
On May 29, Grant ordered Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan to reconnoiter to the left and probe for Lee’s right, as he suspected Lee might be trying to move past the Federal left flank. Two days later, Sheridan discovered Lee had indeed moved far to his right and had entrenched infantry and cavalry at the Cold Harbor crossing. Sheridan engaged the enemy forces and, after a hard fight, drove them out. His scouts told him that heavier Confederate forces were moving in, however, so he elected to withdraw. But when Grant heard this news, he understood how important that move was. Lee was indeed extending to his right, trying to cut Grant off from the shortest route to the James River and, perhaps more important, his base of supply in Washington, D.C. Grant would later write, ‘The enemy knew the importance of Cold Harbor to us, and seemed determined that we should not hold it.’ Grant immediately ordered Sheridan to return to the crossing and ‘to hold the place at all hazards, until reinforcements could be sent to him.’

With the news from Sheridan, Grant immediately began to issue a series of orders that Meade acted upon with great energy. While it is difficult to place a finger on the precise moment of change, it is apparent Meade then tried to play the role of the proactive tactical commander and that Grant let him do it. The strategic decisions would be Grant’s, but Meade would now attend to the details. Perhaps Grant realized the system he had been using was terribly cumbersome, or perhaps he thought Meade was now capable of tactically executing the campaign as Grant wanted it done. Whatever the reason, Meade was now tactically in control of his army. But things got off to a terrible start.

Major General Horatio Wright’s VI Corps was ordered to pull out of the line and begin marching toward Cold Harbor to relieve Sheridan, but bad roads and slow delivery of orders delayed its arrival. Things were even more confusing for the men of the XVIII Corps, led by Maj. Gen. William F. ‘Baldy’ Smith. His corps was also ordered to move to Cold Harbor, but Grant’s staff made an error in the orders and told Smith to move to the New Castle Ferry, not to Cold Harbor. Smith hurried his corps forward, and it had already arrived at New Castle Ferry, some five or six miles away from Cold Harbor, before an officer from Grant’s staff arrived and told him of the error. Smith moved his men out quickly, but they did not arrive at Cold Harbor until the early afternoon of June 1.

With Sheridan’s troopers replaced by Wright’s and Smith’s exhausted infantry, Meade also ordered Hancock’s II Corps to pull out of the line and march toward Cold Harbor. Shortly thereafter, to the surprise of many, Meade decided to order a frontal assault on the Confederate forces digging in opposite Smith and Wright. Perhaps Meade was trying to prove that if Grant wanted a big push against Lee here, he would be aggressive enough to give him one. The infantrymen, however, were tired from their forced marches, and there had only been time for a ‘hasty reconnaissance’ of the ground in front of the Federal lines. At 4:30 p.m. the infantry attacked and after fierce fighting managed to sweep over the Confederate rifle pits and seize their main trenches, but a strong Southern counterattack forced them back. It had been a useless bloodletting that accomplished little except to provide reconnaissance on enemy strength and positions.

With nightfall, things in the Army of the Potomac became even more unsettled, and Meade began to show signs of stress and fatigue. Theodore Lyman recorded that Meade ‘was in one of his irascible fits to-night.’ Meade complained that Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren and his V Corps had pushed too far forward without orders, adding that Wright was too slow, and that he wished the corps commanders would act for themselves and stop leaning on him. In the midst of all this ranting, an aide to General Smith arrived to report that his commanding officer was in serious need of ammunition and transportation, and that Smith ‘considered his position precarious.’ Using profanity he seldom indulged in, a clearly exasperated Meade roared, ‘Then, why in Hell did he come at all for?’

Winfield Scott Hancock
Winfield Scott Hancock (Library of Congress)

Meade later instructed Smith to be ready for an early morning assault. But Smith cautioned him that his command was not up to such an attack, calling the prospect ’simply preposterous.’ Meade soon discovered he had more problems than Smith’s concerns. He had been counting on the presence of the hardened veterans of Hancock’s II Corps to mount the early morning attack, but their night march to Cold Harbor was going worse than Wright’s had the previous evening. The II Corps had become hopelessly lost and would not arrive until 6:30 a.m.

Learning of Hancock’s lack of progress, Meade issued an order at 12:30 a.m. that the attack would be postponed until 5 p.m. on June 2. All those delays, however, were giving Lee time to shift his forces and dig in. Despite these setbacks, after discussing the issue with his key commanders, Grant still believed that attacking Lee in his present position was the best course of action. Concerned that Hancock’s men were not up to an attack that afternoon, Grant advised Meade to delay the assault until the early morning hours of June 3.

While the decision provided Lee’s army with even more time to entrench and reinforce, Meade’s order to postpone until the next morning did direct commanders to conduct a reconnaissance of the ground in front of their positions. This not only would tell them the nature of the terrain between the Union and Confederate lines but it would also aid in determining the makeup of the enemy’s fortifications. Why no such reconnaissance ever took place is one of the great mysteries surrounding Cold Harbor. It seems inconceivable that experienced commanders would violate what any soldier then or now would see as a crucial element of battlefield preparation.

Hancock’s adjutant, Francis Walker, later wrote that there had been no opportunity to ‘make an adequate reconnaissance of the enemy’s line…it was, beyond question, the most unfortunate decision made during that bloody campaign.’ The fact that Hancock’s adjutant made this comment is telling. Meade’s circular had been clear in that it stated commanders should use the additional time to examine the ground in front of them. So why did Walker state that there had been no opportunity, and why did no other commander make any effort at a reconnaissance? Time should not have been a problem, since the circular went out at 2:30 p.m., which meant there was more than enough daylight left before nightfall to probe the Confederate positions.

The only real reconnaissance was made during the fighting late on June 1, and much had probably changed. The heavy woods between the Union and Confederate positions limited the troops’ ability to see the enemy positions. There was certainly evidence that field fortifications had been prepared, but their nature, their orientation and the enemy strength were totally unknown. All the Union troops could see was some turned earth, and that was what they would attack. Unfortunately for the Army of the Potomac, the freshly dug earth they could see included rifle pits and not just one main line of trenches, but two and even three in some places. Lee and his men had skillfully placed their fortifications so that they followed the uneven terrain and made maximum use of its natural characteristics.

The other odd thing about preparations was that each Federal corps was seemingly left on its own to determine how it was going to attack, with no plans for cooperation. Smith said that the entire concept made it apparent to him that there was no semblance of a military plan involved. So he sent a message to Wright asking him to explain his plan of attack. Smith reasoned that, since Wright’s VI Corps would be on his left, perhaps he could do something to conform to its plan. To Smith’s dismay, Wright replied that his plan was simply to ‘pitch in.’ Therefore Smith realized his only option was to do the same: charge straight ahead and see what happened.

Colonel Charles Wainwright, who served in Sheridan’s cavalry at the time of the campaign, heard about the attack and the lack of planning in the days after the battle. He commented in his diary that ‘there was a still more absurd order issued, for each command to attack without reference to its neighbors, as they saw fit; an order which looked as if the commander, whoever he is, had either lost his head entirely, or wanted to shift the responsibility off his own shoulders.’ Clearly, any remaining semblance of command cohesion was gone.

In the darkness preceding dawn on June 3, all five corps of the Army of the Potomac began to form up in a long, almost unbroken line. The concept for the attack was simple but without any solid military logic. The II, VI and XVIII corps would conduct the main attack on Lee’s right. Meanwhile the V and IX corps under Maj. Gens. Gouverneur Warren and Ambrose Burnside, respectively, would attack the left of the Army of Northern Virginia to hold the units there in place and prevent Lee from transferring them to help hold the right side of his line. The only coordination in this plan was that everyone would attack at 4:30 a.m.

At the appointed time, a signal gun sounded and the Army of the Potomac stepped off in a heavy mist and fog. Within minutes, as the first wave moved forward, the heavy vegetation and previously unseen swamps and wetlands began to break up the neat formations, and any appearance of coordination vanished within the corps. Thus the assault quickly became a collection of isolated, individual actions. Further, as the V Corps advanced and the Confederate fortifications came into view, each Union formation began to square up with the works at its front. Given the configuration of Lee’s lines and because the Federals had not previously reconnoitered the ground, this approach caused their formations to depart off at odd angles from one another, and each corps began to lose contact with the units next to it. As a result, when the Confederates opened fire, they were able to enfilade the Union attackers with devastating effectiveness.

In a war that had seen more than its share of slaughter, Cold Harbor set a new and terrible standard. The Union forces advanced under a storm of rifle and artillery fire, and men went down in large groups under sweeping volleys. In the course of the first hour two waves went forward, and only Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow’s division of Hancock’s corps met with success, managing to seize and hold a portion of Lee’s far right. Here again, however, command cohesion failed. Despite Barlow’s repeated requests, Brig. Gen. David B. Birney’s division, which was in reserve, stayed where it was and was never ordered to move forward to exploit what Barlow’s men had gained. The remaining four Union corps went forward, some getting farther than others, until the overwhelming fire from Lee’s entrenchments slowed, stopped and eventually pinned down the Federals. The embattled troops simply dug in where they were and tried to survive.

Command communications were so extremely confused that there was no control over the attack. Meade and his staff were oddly disconnected from the battle because the woods filtered the noise of battle, making it more difficult for them to get a feel for what was happening. The reports that came into Meade’s headquarters conveyed a confusing picture, and the lack of planning and coordination soon became apparent. Each of the three corps commanders on the Union left complained to Meade that the corps on his right or left had failed to protect him from enfilading fire. Meade’s curious response was to send copies of each corps commander’s complaint to the others. He kept trying to urge his commanders forward, but they became increasingly insistent that, from their particular viewpoint, nothing could be done.

At 7 a.m., with attacks failing up and down the line, Meade sent Grant a message advising him, ‘I should be glad to have your views as to the continuance of these attacks, if unsuccessful.’ This dispatch in some ways seemed to indicate that Meade was surrendering his control back to Grant. Grant quickly replied, ‘The moment it becomes certain that an assault cannot succeed, suspend the offensive, but when one does succeed push it vigorously, and if necessary pile in troops at the successful point from wherever they can be taken.’ With that dispatch sent, Grant moved to Meade’s headquarters and, for all intents and purposes, once again took tactical control of the Army of the Potomac.

Grant had been nearby at his headquarters and was apparently receiving the same reports as Meade. In addition, his staff went out to ride the lines and gather information, which they funneled back to the general-in-chief. However, things were happening faster than they could report them. After moving to Meade’s headquarters, Grant decided to ride out to the lines himself and consult directly with the corps commanders. That action could leave no doubt as to who was now in command. Grant returned to Meade’s headquarters, and at 12:30 p.m. he issued an order suspending the assault.

Later that afternoon an order was sent out to try another assault, but the reaction it received varied. There were some isolated moves forward, but they apparently amounted to nothing more than brief exchanges of rifle fire. For his part, Baldy Smith flatly refused to obey the order. Interestingly, he was never sanctioned for that move. Finally, while some senior officers would deny it ever happened, there were units that simply refused to advance. One soldier who witnessed that phenomenon later wrote: ‘The army to a man refused to obey the order, presumably from General Grant, to renew the assault. I heard the order given, and I saw it disobeyed.’ The common soldier had put in his vote, and the battle for the crossing at Cold Harbor was over.

Grant’s initial report to General Halleck, sent at 2 p.m., was shocking in its understatement. He reported, ‘Our loss was not severe, nor do I suppose the enemy to have lost heavily.’ The magnitude of what had happened and the ghastly cost of this command blunder would soon become apparent, however. While the exact number of casualties has become an item of debate, no matter their total, Cold Harbor had been an unmitigated Federal disaster.

That night Grant finally made his feelings known to his staff: ‘I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered. I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed it would bring compensating results; but, as it has proved, no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered.’ With that said, as was his manner, Grant focused his energies on planning his next moves. He seldom spoke of Cold Harbor again.

Nevertheless, there was a profound change at Grant’s headquarters. Colonel James H. Wilson described it as a sense of despondency. Wilson said that Grant was deeply disappointed that he had not been able to overwhelm Lee, and upset that his subordinates had not properly attended to the detailed planning required to carry out his orders. According to Wilson, Grant was now aware that this was perhaps being done so as to shift responsibility to him. In addition, his staff was now seeing the disastrous effects of the continuous use of frontal assaults and feared the army would come apart if that approach continued. One thing was certain: The cockiness that had been the hallmark of Grant’s staff when the campaign began was now gone, and a sense of harsh reality had set in.

For his part, Meade would take a petulant attitude. In a meeting with Baldy Smith two days after the battle, he told his corps commander that he had worked out every plan for every move since the campaign began. He then complained about the newspapers being full of the activities of ‘Grant’s army’ and that he was tired of it. He finished by saying that he was now ‘determined to let General Grant plan his own battles.’ Smith later wrote that while he had no knowledge of the facts, he believed that Meade simply did not try to execute Grant’s orders at Cold Harbor properly because he was angry about his treatment by Grant and by the press. Whatever Meade’s thinking had been, the result was that at Cold Harbor no one was in effective command of the Army of the Potomac.

The tragedy of Cold Harbor was that it was avoidable. Its leadership failed, and failed miserably. Cold Harbor was a horrible example of what happens when command cohesion breaks down under the weight of an unworkable system, when the stress of battle overcomes professionalism and when otherwise good officers forget the basics of command and their responsibilities as commanders. In the end, their men, average soldiers, paid the ultimate and terrible price.

This article was written by Civil War historian Robert N. Thompson and originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History magazine. Used with permission from historynet.com.

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