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The Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia was part of General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign against Robert E. Lee and the Confederate capitol of Richmond in mid-1864. The battle took place between May 31 and June 12, though fighting reached a peak on June 3. Cold Harbor was a major victory for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and was very costly for the Union Army of the Potomac, which sustained more than 13,000 casualties.

In the spring of 1864, the Army of the Potomac began a campaign to seize Richmond and end the American Civil War. Grant had been given command over all Union forces, and he elected to stay with General George G. Meade and his Army for the remainder of the war. The Overland Campaign began with the horrific Battle of the Wilderness where thousands of wounded were burned alive in a forest fire, followed by the equally bloody Battle of Spotsylvania of May 8 to 19, and the minor battle of North Anna on May 23. In these battles, both Union and Confederate Armies suffered considerable losses without substantial gains. Rather than retreating back into the North to recover, Grant moved east and south, edging closer to Richmond without approaching it directly.

On May 31, Union forces met the Confederate Army near Cold Harbor, Virginia, a few dozen miles east of Richmond. Cold Harbor was the site of a major crossroads for supplying Richmond and other towns in the region. The Confederates built a series of trenches and breastworks around the town to protect it from a direct Union assault. Union cavalry under Major General Philip Henry Sheridan took eastern Old Cold Harbor by the evening of May 31 without excessive losses, and held it against another Confederate assault on June 1. Confederate forces were pushed back into the west side of town where they further reinforced themselves. Grant's forces counterattacked, but made no gains.

Grant planned to assault these positions in the early morning of June 2, but the reinforcements he was hoping for did not arrive in time because they took the wrong road. In fact, these reinforcements arrived exhausted from their march, so Grant postponed the attack until the morning of June 3, giving Lee's Army ample time to reinforce their fortifications. The assault on western New Cold Harbor began on the morning of June 3. A Union force of nearly 50,000 men stormed the trenches head on, and were mowed down by Confederate riflemen and artillery. At one point during the assault, seven thousand Union soldiers died in a twenty minute span, more men than were lost during the entire War of 1812. The Union charge was repulsed, handing Grant one of his bloodiest losses of the war.

One of the saddest things about Cold Harbor was the fate of the Union and Confederate casualties. The two sides were entrenched so close to one another that it was impossible for either side to safely recover the dead and wounded. Grant wrote a series of letters to Lee starting on June 5, asking for a temporary truce so that casualties could be recovered. These letters continued until the evening of June 7, nearly four days after the peak of the fighting. By the time a truce was finally arranged, only two wounded men were found alive on the battlefield.

Cold Harbor was another blow to the confidence of the Union Army, and Grant admits as much in his memoirs:

"I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made... no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages, other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side." (Grant, Ch. 55)

Grant notes that the Confederates gained confidence at Cold Harbor, while the heavy losses made the Union commanders (and soldiers!) reluctant to try a frontal assault again. In fact, it may have been responsible for prolonging the war. After Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac again moved south and east, beyond Richmond to Petersburg, VA. At Petersburg, Union forces again met a heavily entrenched Confederate line. Rather than charging, the Union forces dug themselves in to begin a ten month war of attrition, finally broken by the overwhelming Union assault at Five Forks on April 1, 1865, followed by Lee's surrender on April 9 at Appomattox.

Sources:
Ulysses Simpson Grant, Personal Memoirs, Penguin classics edition, Chapter 55;
Earl Schenck Miers, "The Great American War," in America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty, National Geographic Society Press, 1967;
http://www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/va062.htm
http://www.nps.gov/rich/ri_cold.htm

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