The Battle of Cold Harbor

Cold Harbor Two

Nell Leonardson
History 121
Professor Lyn Rainard

December 3, 1999

    Cold Harbor, a white-framed tavern sitting in a triangular shaped grove seems like an unlikely place for a battle. The name had originally meant “shelter without food.”  For hungry, fatigued soldiers dying upon an open, marshy  field, there was neither shelter nor food.  The region was occupied by Sheridan’s Cavalry, located on high ground with roads branching out in all directions, making it a strategic center (McDonald).

     Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, was a graduate of West Point, had served in the army and seen battle in the Mexican War.  On April 12, 1861, Jefferson issued a proclamation stating that Abraham Lincoln had announced the intention of invading the South with armed troops in order to subvert the independence of the Confederacy and subject people to domination, so he was also proclaiming war (Richardson).

     General Robert E. Lee was in charge of the Confederate troops although he was suffering from an illness and often could not leave his carriage.   McDonald’s, “Opportunities Lost, The Battle of Cold Harbor” states that Lee realized that a strong attack at Cold Harbor could stop Grant’s advance toward Richmond.  He knew that with his smaller army, he would have to commit a large portion of his troops to defend the crossroads at Cold Harbor.  Taking an offensive stance would derail the Union army in their quest for Richmond and would hopefully, give the Rebels a long awaited and much needed victory.  Lee recognized and accepted the fact that he had to do whatever was necessary to keep the northern troops from advancing.

    Abraham Lincoln, the President of the United States, had no military experience as he had been a civilian all of his life  As President, he also carried the title and responsibilities of the Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces of the country.  He had the ability to plan strategy, not just for the moment but also for the long term.  Lincoln made bold and imaginative moves, was skilled at managing people as well as situations.  Due to this ability, Lincoln did more than any of his generals to win the war for the Union.  Lincoln was determined to restore the union of the United States, even if force had to be used in that restoration.  During the winter of 1863 -1864, the Union created a modern command system with the President at the helm, delegating duties to those he trusted to carry them out.  Central to this command system was a strong military figure, Ulysses S. Grant.

     Lincoln allowed Grant to have great strategic authority as he believed him to be a great soldier and had the ability to do his job without Lincoln having to direct him in everything, a problem with previous generals.  After fighting in Chattanooga, Grant started planning a long term strategy to capture Richmond and thus force the Confederacy to surrender.  He had not planned a showdown battle but Lee forced Grant into that battle at Cold Harbor (Williams). These two impressive generals had fought battles before, constantly trying to achieve an advantage over the other.  Now they were to face each other again.  Lee’s troops had gained their position first and there they waited for what they had to know was to follow (Eisert).  The federal troops, after a day of battle, embarked upon the all-night  march to Cold Harbor.  Many of the animals died of thirst, not even having been allowed to stop to drink as they were crossing streams of water (Retreat).  A hot, dusty, grueling march which left the troops exhausted in contrast to the southern troops who had been in camp for a couple of days and were well rested.  Grant had overlooked the fact that men should be in good condition in order to fight.

     Cold Harbor was a vital crossroads, supplies were routed along the roads that branched off from it and it was the final barrier to cross on the road to Richmond.  Sheridan’s troops seized the cross roads on June 1, 1864, throwing back an attack by the Confederate infantry.  If Grant’s troops could bring about the destruction of Lee’s army then Richmond would fall, taking the Confederacy down with it (McPherson).  General Lee had correctly assumed that the Union troops would head for Richmond, and converged on Cold Harbor.  Here the Confederate troops were ordered to construct a strong line of fortifications.  The Confederate cavalry acted as a barrier behind which Lee was able to place his forces whom recognized the value of  protection and using their own initiative adapted the elements needed to quickly engineer the fundamentals of earthwork construction.  Lee’s army had blocked all of the roads to Richmond, forcing Grant’s army to abandon any chance of a surprise attack.  The two armies were now facing each other in a flat, swampy country with streams and ridges.  The Union troops were operating with inaccurate maps and were unfamiliar with the area, the Rebels  now had the home field advantage.

     A Union officer upon seeing the breastworks made of rails, logs and earth believed that the Rebels were disorganized so ordered a frontal attack, a decision that he must have later regretted.  Grant instead of changing his strategy, acted just as Lee expected him to, a major blunder in any battle. The largest attack in the Civil War took place in a thirty minute assault.  At 4:30 a.m., the Union Army advanced upon the Confederate position (Retreat).  The realization that they could advance no further came quickly, they did not break the line, instead sacrificed their lives for the Union.  Although they were able to capture the Confederate front  line, their attempts to advance further on June 3rd, left more than 5,000 soldiers dead or wounded in an extremely short period of time (Newman).  As sporadic  fighting continued on into the day, 2,000 more Union soldiers fell.  Grant’s advantage in battle was that he had no problem with fighting a war of attrition, replacing his lost troops with new  ones, a luxury that Lee did not have.  The Union troops  dug in for ten days of battle in the trenches.  The breastworks and ravines split
the Union troops and funneled them onto the open fields.  Unable to either advance or retreat, the Union soldiers dug shallow trenches for cover, sometimes finding themselves only yards from the Confederate soldiers (Richmond).  From May  31st to June 12th of 1864, the battle raged.  Cold Harbor was a badly needed victory for the Confederate troops, a crushing defeat for the Union forces and for Grant personally.  He is quoted as having said, “Cold Harbor is, I think, the only battle I ever fought that I would not fight over again under the circumstances.  I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made” (Cullen).  Many brave soldiers died at Cold Harbor, some dying horrible deaths after the actual assault.  Many of these soldiers laid helpless in plain sight of their comrades yet out of their reach in a no-man’s land between the two forces. No rescues could be made and no medical care given.  Cold Harbor was won by the Rebels, Grant, however, did not allow a sound defeat to prevent him from continuing on with his strategy to topple Richmond.

     Cold Harbor was the last victory for the Confederacy and forever changed the state of war for the United States, providing a foretaste of modern trench warfare.  According to Martin T. McMahon, a Union Major-General, the battle of Cold Harbor was not justified and should not have taken place.  He wrote that nothing was gained and much lost (Retreat).  Cold heartedness and no safe harbor was a crossroads named Cold Harbor.


Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, The Struggle Intensifies, Volume II.  pg. 353.
New Jersey: Castle Publishing.  1987.

 Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Retreat with Honor, Volume IV  pg. 213, 225.
New Jersey: Castle Publishing.  1987.

Cullen, Joseph P.  Battle Chronicles of the Civil War, 1864.  pg.44.
New York: Macmillan Publishing,  1989.

Eisert, Kevin.  War For States' Rights, Battles and Campaigns [Online].
December 1999.  Available:

McDonald, Patrick.  Opportunities Lost, The Battle of Cold Harbor [Online].
November 1999.

McPherson, James M.  Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era.  pg. 733.
New York: Oxford University Press.  1988.

Newman, Ralph G. and Eisenschiml, Otto.  The Civil War, An American Iliad.  pg. 580, 581.
New Jersey: The Blue and Grey Press,  1985.

Richardson, James D., ed. The Messages and Papers of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, Volume I.  pg. 60 - 65.
New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1966.

Richmond National Battlefield.  Cold Harbor Battlefield Tour [Online].  November 1999.

U.S. National Park Service.  Cold Harbor [Online].  December 1999.

Williams, T. Harry.  Lincoln and His Generals. pg. 3 - 10.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1952.


     A wealth of information on the Civil War exists in the public library, in TCC’s library and on the internet.  Before beginning research for this paper, I had never heard of Cold Harbor so decided to research it at my local library.  The computer system was down but one of the librarians is a history buff , when asked about Cold Harbor was able to tell me about it and offered what she felt would be the best books to research.  The books were well written and factual,  some actually compilations of letters and documents from the war.  Although these were often difficult to read, I was able to consult my librarian frequently.  Both of the volumes of  Battles and Leaders of the Civil War were easy to read and had an easy to access index as did Cullen’s Battle Chronicles of the Civil War.  McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom was more difficult to find specific information in as it was not indexed as well and the writing style was more difficult to comprehend.  Newman and Eisenschiml’s, An American Iliad seemed to be well  researched and written.  Richard’s Messages and Papers of Jefferson Davis and Williams’ book on Lincoln and His Generals were a contrast to each other, one .letting the reader into the thoughts and actions of Jefferson Davis, the other into Lincoln and the personalities of his generals  Both of these books were found at TCC and were easier acquired.  The internet sources were a bit more difficult.  When researching “breastworks” very few history sites come up, the sites that did were not ones that I would normally visit.  I now receive wonderfully erotic e-mails from these sites, not sure if that is a bonus of my research or an annoyance. . The sites I did use were either a part of a National Battlefield page or was linked
from one. All seemed well documented, the only ones I found to be more opinionated, I chose to not use.