On this day (June 3) in 1864, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac suffered one of its bloodiest defeats at the hands of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of Cold Harbor.
This battle, fought near Mechanicsville in Hanover County, Va., some 10 miles northeast of the Confederate capital Richmond, was the third of four exceedingly bloody encounters in May and June 1864 between Grant and Lee.
As with the first two battles in this series of bloody conflicts (May 6-7 Battle of the Wilderness and the May 8-12 Battle of Spotsylvania), Union casualties far exceeded those of the always outmanned Confederate army. This sanguinary firefight was one of the final battles of Grant’s Overland Campaign – a series of simultaneous offensives, which he put into effect shortly after his appointment March 12, 1864, as Union Army commander-in-chief.
By late May 1864, the two main coordinated campaigns of Grant’s grandiose scheme to finally win the war were in place: 1. Gen. William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign; and 2. Grant’s plan (he accompanied and directly supervised Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac) to destroy Lee’s formidable Army of Northern Virginia and capture Richmond.
The Battle of Cold Harbor actually started June 1 when Union Gen. Philip Sheridan’s Cavalry Corps occupied the vital crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, which was near the same area as the Battle of Gaines’ Mill during the Seven Days Battles of 1862.
Sheridan’s troopers repulsed an attack by Confederate infantry to recapture the village. The resultant June 1 casualty rate was unusually high. Union casualties exceeded 2,000 versus fewer than an estimated 500 for the Confederates. By the morning of June 2, Grant and Lee had brought up reinforcements and formed a 7-mile battlefront in preparation for the climatic third day of this historic battle.
At 4:30 a.m. June 3rd, Grant ordered three Union corps to attack through thick fog the well-entrenched main units of Lee’s army. The result was a Union disaster, which resulted in the most lopsided casualties since the ill-fated Union assault on Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. By noon June 3, Grant finally called off his futile attack and spent the rest of the day tending to his wounded troops and reassessing his plan to continue attacking the increasingly formidable Confederate trenches.
There followed the June 3 Union defeat a brief cession of hostilities between these two antagonists, which ended with still another bloody battle – the June 15-18 Battle of Petersburg.
At Cold Harbor, the approximate 109,000-man Army of the Potomac was confronted by a Confederate army half its size (approximately 59,000), but suffered an almost inexplicable defeat. After two months of almost continual fighting, the Federals had not been able to destroy Lee’s army and were unable to capture Richmond. The Federal casualties in the three-day Battle of Cold Harbor were almost 15,000 (1,905 killed, 10,570 wounded, and 2,456 missing or captured). Since apparently no official records exist for Confederate losses, the Confederate losses were estimated to be only around 1,700.
The Union army paid a high price for its offensive campaign against well-entrenched, skillfully led Confederate defenders. For his bloody two-month (May-June 1864) offensive campaign against Gen. Lee, Grant was called “Butcher Grant” in northern newspapers.
In his memoirs, Grant wrote that he had “always regretted that last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. ... No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.