Even casual students of Cold Harbor are familiar with the story of how the Union army was shot down in waves during its June 3 assault. This spot, more than any other, is where that happened. The men attacked here from east to west and belonged to John H. Martindale's division of the Eighteenth Corps. That command had taken boats from the Army of the James's position below Richmond, disembarked along the Pamunkey River, and marched cross-country to join the Army of the Potomac. They drew the worst position along the Federal line.
Because of the fighting on June 1, the Confederates abandoned their advance lines and built a new position immediately to the west, situated to cover the low ground here and the elevated plateau north of the stream. The stream - part of which today is the nearby pond - had no name. Gen. Robert E. Lee's entrenchments north of stream do not survive, but stood not far from the water, running at an acute angle to the stream and field.
Martindale attacked with just two brigades, perhaps 800 men in total, and he advanced on a very narrow front. The configuration of the Confederate lines, when combined with the narrow but deep Union formation, was a terrible combination for the attackers. In an apt analogy used by modern Cold Harbor historian Gordon Rhea, it was like feeding a pencil into a sharpener, with Martindale's division as the pencil.
The Fifth Corps, off to the north, did not attack at al. The Sixth Corps, to the south, made a tepid effort. That allowed the Confederate defenders to concentrate fire from three directions against Martindale's men. Every step took the attackers deeper into a deadly pocket. "The men bent down as they pushed forward, as if trying, as they were, to breast a tempest," one Union officer recalled, "and the files of men went down like rows of blocks or bricks pushed over by striking against one another." Stannard's brigade tried to use the stream for cover, but eventually came under direct fire and was crushed. Stedman's brigade attacked across the flat field directly in front of the Union line, and suffered equally devastating losses.
The attacking Eighteenth Corps funneled into an angle in the Confederate line, visible on this map.
Library of Congress
Join t Fight
Donate today to preserve Civil War battlefields and the nation’s history for generations to come.