Battle of Cold Harbor (May 31st-June 12th, 1864)

For some reason Cold Harbor is one of the battles that is most interesting to me, so getting to walk this hallowed ground was great. The more I learn about the Civil War, the more important I realize Cold Harbor was, not just for the Civil War, but future wars. Generals learned that well-manned trenches supported by artillery are almost impossble for infantry to take. The trench warfare I saw at the end of the war is much like the trench warfare that I learned about in the World War One information I have seen. I read about the Battle of Somme in France. The lesson that General Grant learned at Cold Harbor changed his tactics. Later he would say, "I have always regretted that the last assualt at Cold Harbor was ever made..." To me Cold Harbor also is an example of the horror of the war as wounded and dying soldiers lay in the field between the Union and Confederate lines for three days before a formal truce was declared that allowed the Union to retrieve the dead and dying. After three days of lying wounded in an open field in the hot June sun, only two me were found alive. I've learned that politics as much as anything led to that happening. It is sad to have courageous soldier die that way. As a kid, if you ever start thinking war is neat and cool just read about Cold Harbor.

The front at Cold Harbor was almost seven miles long, and while little is left today, what is left is a must see for any Civil War buff.

On June 1, 1864 cavalry units fouhgt for control of the Cold Harbor crossroads. While the Union controlled the crossroads, Lee's soldiers dug in and blcoked the road to Richmond. That evening the Union troops attacked and while most were pushed back easily one, but one group almost broke through. Grant thought a big push might break-through and ordered a full assualt the next morning. Not all of his troops were in place the next day, so he postponed the attack until the next morning. Lee's engineers (I've learned many leaders of both armies were engineers - many graduating from Westpoint, the US Military Academy) used the extra time to dig in strong trenches that were laid out to create fields of crossfire and placed stakes in the ground so their artillery would know the range of the approaching Union troops. Because they could hear the Confederate soldiers digging breastworks many Federal troops knew they might die, so they spent time writing their name on their uniform so the burial parties would know who they were.

Very early in the morning on June 3, at the sound of a cannon fire, 25,000 Union soldiers emerged and headed directly toward hte dug in Confederates. Entire lines of Union troops were cut down and the firing was so loud buildings in Richmond shook and it was 7 miles away. By mid-morning some solderis and their officers refused to continue attacking, while others did and were mowed down. Confederate General Evander McIvor Law said, "I ahve seen nothing to exceed this. It was not war; it was murder." As the Union halted their attacks the wounnded were abandoned in the field between the lines. Confederate soldiers and artillery kept firing and the stranded Union soldiers dug in using their bayonets, tin cups or anything else they could dig with. When you visit Cold Harbor you can understand why soldiers could not go forward without being killed and why they could not retreat without being shot, or digging in and hoping to crawl to safety at night was their only hope. Some soldier tried to help their wounded mates during the night, but in some places the lines are only 150 feet apart so sharpshooters easily picked off survivors or men trying to help others. Finally after three days a truce allowed the Union to look for survivors and retun the dead for burial. After three days in the hot June sun, the bodies were bloated, smelly and decaying. The burial details were given alcohol to drink so they could get through the task.

The Battle of Cold Harbor lasted for nearly two weeks. From June 1 to June 12, 1864. After the initial assualt soldiers on both sides dug in and exchanges rifle, sharpshooter and artillery fire. So bad was the Union defeat that days later the Union soldiers had an opportunity to attack thinly held trenches at Petersburg, but refused to go.

I don't understand how the Generals and officers got their soldier to keep attacking in Napolionic fashion (straight lines against an entrenched line of enemy) after seeing fellow soldiers cut down so easily. Here at Cold Harbor, at Fredericksburg, even at Petersburg it happended over and over. Even the Confederates at places like Franklin paid heavily for this type of warfare. I learned on my trip to Petersburg from National Park Service Ranger, Emmanuel Dabney of the terror of Petersburg's sunken road and soldiers from Maine being wiped out in an attack that should never have happened. Visit and read about Cold Harbor.