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Battle of Cold Harbor

History--Military history--List of battles

The Battle of Cold Harbor, the third and final battle of United States Lieut. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 campaign in central Virginia during the American Civil War, today lives in infamy as one of history's most lopsided battles. Grant, the losing general, described it as the "one attack I always regretted ordering."

The battle began on May 31, 1864, when Union (U.S. Army) cavalry under Maj. Gen. Phillip H. Sheridan occupied the crucial crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, 10 miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond. By outflanking Lee's army three separate times, including twice after battles that were actually Confederate tactical victories, they stood at the gates of Richmond. Grant hoped that one more attack might finally break the outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Over the next two days, the armies of Lee and Grant, having disengaged from a standoff at the North Anna River 10 miles to the north, took up new positions around Cold Harbor. Grant, having received heavy reinforcement, brought 105,000 men onto the field. Lee had also managed to replace many of his 20,000 casualties to that point in the campaign, and his army numbered 59,000. But the disparity in numbers was no longer what it had been--Grant's reinforcements were of questionable quality, while most of Lee's had been veterans moved from inactive fronts, and they were determined to keep Grant from moving any closer to the Confederate capital.

Grant, unaware of the strength of the Confederate earthworks that confronted his army, ordered his II and XVIII Corps, totaling 31,000 men, to attack the Confederate right flank on the morning of June 3. The defenders, consisting mostly of men from the Confederate First and Third Corps, slaughtered them as soon as they moved forward. Grant, not realizing what was happening, threw in the VI Corps, arguably his best fighting unit at that point in the campaign. They were slaughtered as well. The Confederate musket and artillery fire along the XVIII Corps front was so severe that its men were actually pinned to the ground for protection, unable even to retire to their own lines. Grant lost 7,000 men in less than an hour, and the only reason he didn't lose more was that his corps commanders ignored his orders to advance again.

The next day, Grant realized he had made a horrible mistake and launched no more attacks on the Confederate defenses. The Army of the Potomac stayed within its own lines until June 12, when they disengaged to march southwards toward the James River and attack Petersburg, a crucial rail junction south of Richmond.

The Battle of Cold Harbor was the final victory won by Lee's army (part of his forces won the Battle of the Crater before Petersburg later in the year, but not in a general engagement), and its most decisive in terms of casualties. The Union army lost 13,000 men against a loss of only 2,600 for the Confederates. The battle brought the toll in Union casualties since the beginning of May to a total of more than 52,000 as compared to 23,000 for Lee. But the campaign had served Grant's purpose--as foolish as his attack on Cold Harbor was, Lee was trapped. He beat Grant to Petersburg, barely, but spent the remainder of the war save its final week defending Richmond behind a fortified trench line. The end of the Confederacy was just a matter of time.

The battle was fought over the same ground as the Battle of Gaines's Mill during the Seven Days Campaign of 1862. In fact, some accounts refer to the 1862 battle as the First Battle of Cold Harbor, and the 1864 battle as the Second Battle of Cold Harbor. Despite the name, Cold Harbor was not a port city. It was named for a hotel located in the area which provided shelter (harbor), but not hot meals.