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Civil War Trust

Wright's Assault at Cold Harbor

June 3, 1864
Robert E.L. Krick

The death of Union General John Sedgwick at Spotsylvania Court House elevated Horatio G. Wright to command of the Sixth Corps in the Army of the Potomac. As Wright learned to handle a full corps of infantry, he confronted an unusual problem at Cold Harbor. His three divisions occupied a very short front, one disproportionate to the size of his force. Most of the men crowded into heavy woods and stared across open ground at the Confederate positions. Wright commanded one-fifth of the Union army, but his corps spanned only about one-fourteenth of the army's front. 

Wright's Assault
In a densely wooded section of the Cold Harbor battlefield, Union Gen. Wright's men were unable to span enough of the Union line to mount an strong attack. (Douglas Ullman, Jr. )

At first light on June 3, Wright tried to launch his corps into the attack, in obedience to the army-wide directive. But he had little room to maneuver, and he struggled to coordinate his attacks with Gen. Winfield S. Hancock's forces on his left and especially with Gen. William "Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps on his right. In the end, much of the Sixth Corps did not attack at all. Only Thomas H. Neill's division made a stout attempt. 

Neill & staff
Union General Thomas H. Neill and staff. Only Neill's division made a charge here against the Confederate position. (Library of Congress)

The ground which would be to your left if you were to face the Confederate position was the site of attacks by the various brigades of Neill's division. None charged any great distance, and all fell back in the face of a hurricane of Confederate fire. Small mounds and advanced skirmish positions are visible in advance of the wood line, and probably represent the farthest progress of Neill's veterans on June 3. So small was the attacking force that many Confederates in the works across from the Sixth Corps did not know a major Union assault was underway. "It may sound incredible," wrote one Confederate general, "but it is nevertheless strictly true, that [I] was not aware at the time of any serious assault having been given." The casualties here were substantial, but they were minor in comparison to the enormous slaughter on other parts of the battlefield. 

Sixth Corps Line Support
Captain Greenleaf T. Stevens's battery supporting Gen. Wright's Sixth Corps' line. (Library of Congress)


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