The Battle of Cold Harbor: The Civil War Begins to Change

Grant at Cold Harbor

The Battle of Cold Harbor is not like any other battle in the American Civil War. In one hour, on June 3, 1864, over 7,000 Union forces were killed or wounded in an attack on entrenched Confederate positions. Historian Ernest B. Ferguson called it “mindless slaughter” and “not war but murder”. Grant later acknowledged it was the only attack he wished he had not ordered. But this battle, despite its devastation and carnage, marked a turning point in battle strategy for both Union and Confederate commanders.

At the beginning of 1864, the Union had undergone significant changes in its command structures. Lincoln, after having gone through George McClellan (twice) Joseph Hooker, Irvin McDowell, Ambrose Burnside, and George Meade as heads of the Army of the Potomac, took a different approach towards catching and destroying Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Ulysses S. Grant, former commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was placed in charge of all Union forces. Later, after criticism of Grant surfaced over Grant’s use of force and large loss of life, Lincoln would say of Grant, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

And fight Lee is what Grant would do in 1864. Grant’s pursuit of Lee began at the Battle of the Wilderness. With over 100,000 men, Grant’s pursuit of the 62,000 Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began on May 5, 1864. Over three days, Grant’s forces tussled with Lee’s. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. On May 7, Grant pulled away from the battle and began a surprise move toward the south, toward Richmond. Lee, although the military victor at the Wilderness, was now playing second fiddle. Grant forced Lee to pursue him. Grant was on the offensive and Lee and the Confederacy were on the defensive. The two sides next engaged that May at Spotsylvania Court House, just a few miles from the Wilderness. From May 8 through May 21, 1864, Grant attacked Lee at will, but yet Grant was unable to defeat Lee. Casualties were heavy for the two week battle with over 32,000 killed or wounded. The Confederates held. However, Grant’s intended tactics of constant war was beginning to have an effect on the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s numbers were dropping.

The two sides next met at North Anna from May 23–26, 1864. Grant wasted no time in being the aggressor while Lee was able to defend his positions with light casualties. However, Grant still was able to move around the flank of Lee at the end of the battle to continue the Union march toward Richmond. Just as at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Grant withdrew his forces to begin the offensive anew. This time, the battle would be much different.

Most people tend to think of a battle as happening over 1-2, maybe even three days during the Civil War. The Battle of Cold Harbor would take place over a two week period from May 31 to June 12. However, the greatest loss of life would be on June 3 for which the battle is mostly known. Lee, although having been given 7,000 more men through the arrival of P.G.T. Beauregard, was wearing down. Grant’s persistent attacks forced Lee to use every available man. If the lines ever broke, then the Army of Northern Virginia would be finished. For Lee, this meant no reserve forces would be available and Lee had to use new tactics.

What had made the American Civil War so deadly up to this point had been a combination of technology and tactics.
The Technology
1. New rifles – the barrels of the rifles had grooves bored in them to spin the bullet through the rifle. This spin created not only more accurate weapons, but also created more distance
2. The Mini Ball – manufactured at the Springfield, Illinois Armory, the .56 caliber bullet did not just kill soldiers on contact, it destroyed and shattered bones. The shattering, along with the trace of the bullet, created infection throughout the surrounding tissue. Thus, amputation became the common surgery to avoid infection. A wound in the stomach was often considered fatal.
3. Fuses – Artillery commanders could now adjust their shells to explode after short intervals or long intervals giving the commanders a variety of methods in which to kill advancing troops or troops in entrenched positions at a distance.
The Tactics
1. Formations – Both sides used the standard formation of marching abreast toward enemy positions. Combined with the new weapons, this meant high casualty rates for both sides – but mainly the aggressor. The defensive positions held the advantage throughout the war except in sieges.
2. Lee often split his army – For one reason, Lee was always outnumbered. Lee would then use these smaller force to out maneuver the Union at almost every battle (except Gettysburg and Antietam). With his numbers wearing thin as a result of constant warfare, Lee would have to come up with a new defensive plan. He no longer had the numbers or reserves to divide his army in the face a superior foe.

The resulting change in tactics at Cold Harbor was to build earthworks, a.k.a. trenches. Although this type of warfare would become popular in World War I, Lee used it to his advantage at Cold Harbor. The forest provided cover and terrain suitable for defensive positions to ensure that the Army of Northern Virginia could defend and hold them.

On the morning of June 3, Grant had his forces move on two of the entrenched positions around Cold Harbor. Attacks began as early as 4 a.m. By noon, over 7,000 (some reports say 10,000) Union casualties laid on the battlefield. Grant would say of the attack,

I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered. I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it would bring compensating results; but it has proved, no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered. (Ferguson, 2000, p. 178)

Over the next nine days, the two sides continued to hammer away at each other. Newspapers hammered away at Grant, calling him a “Butcher.” Lincoln was not dissuaded. He knew, like Grant, that Lee was starting to wear thin. Had the attack succeeded, the Army of Northern Virginia would have been destroyed. Lincoln had the man he wanted to end the war in command. Grant, above all else, had taken control of the war. It was Grant who decided the terms of battle. Lee was in no position to do so.

After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant made another swing around Lee’s line, and instead of heading for nearby Richmond, the capital, Grant swung towards Petersburg. Using the lessons of Cold Harbor and Vicksburg, Grant laid siege to Petersburg for nine months. Lee, once again, built massive earthworks and trenches to defend against an attack and to place himself between Grant and Richmond. The tactics had changed. Cold Harbor made sure of it.

With most of Lee’s army hungry, and some shoeless, it would only be a matter of time for Lee and Grant knew it – thus the siege. A Captain in the Army of Northern Virginia stated after the Battle of Cold Harbor, “We are being conquered by the splendor of our own victories, and Grant accepts defeat with that consolation” (Ferguson, 2000, p.256). It was only a matter of time now before Lee surrendered, only a matter of time.

My Great-Grandfather, Albert Tell Slusher, was 14 during this campaign. A bit young for battle, he still was one of thousands of young boys who enlisted in the Army of Northern Virginia to hold off Grant. He would be at Cold Harbor. He would be at Petersburg, Richmond, and Appomattox Court House, too. He helped fire artillery according to his pension records. I never met the man. He died some 40+ years before I was born. Luckily, it was not 100 years.

Cleaning up one of the battlefields at Cold Harbor

For Further Reading
Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 by Ernest B. Ferguson

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