The Battle of Cold Harbor


Who: Ulysses S Grant and George Meade (Union) vs. Robert E Lee

What: Part of Grant’s Overland Campaign to capture Richmond

Where: Near Mechanicsville, Virginia

Why: Lee hoped to stem Grant’s advance and cause enough anti-war sentiment in the North for Lincoln to lose the upcoming election

When: May 31 – June 12, 1864

I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made” – Ulysses S Grant, in his memoirs

By the end of May, Ulysses S Grant’s Overland Campaign was nearing its end. Despite Union setbacks at the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Grant had not let up; his Army of the Potomac was shrugging off the heavy losses as best it could and marching on toward Richmond. The last major battle, at the same ground as the Lee’s victory over McClellan at Gaines’ Mill, Grant wagered that Lee’s army was exhausted, and attacked. However, the Confederates had strong defensive positions. On June 3, Grant ordered a mass assault. It was a disaster. The Confederates were well dug in, the orders did not specify a target and were uncoordinated. ‘It was more like a volcanic blast than a battle,’ one Federal later said, ‘and just as destructive.’ The Confederates rained fire down on the Union troops. 6,000 fell in twenty minutes. Apparently the Union soldiers had thought it might be suicidal – a blood-stained diary was found on the body of a Union soldier, with the last entry: ‘June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.’ There was no truce; wounded Federals lay where they had been hit for four days before terms were arranged to pick up the wounded, by which time most had died. After the disastrous June 3 attack, Grant and Meade launched no more at Cold Harbor. The casualties were horrific: almost 13,000 Union to 5,000 Confederate. Grant regretted the decision to send in his men for the rest of his life. Instead, he looped around Lee’s army to attack Petersburg instead, starting a ten-month-long siege there. The Battle of Cold Harbor was the last major victory of Lee’s, who would surrender a little over ten months later.

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