Grant’s Disengagement from Cold Harbor: June 12–13, 1864
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176 Grant’s Disengagement from Cold Harbor June 12–13, 1864 X Gordon C. Rhea  Z The sun rose over Cold Harbor on June 4, 1864, illuminating a landscape of suffering and death. “Troops yet clung tenaciously to the ground nearest the Confederate works, wherever so much as half-­ cover could be obtained ,” a Union officer recalled. “In some cases our men lay within thirty yards of the enemy,” he added; “at other places, according to the configuration of the ground, the line ran away to fifty, seventy, a hundred, or more.” Blue-­ clad soldiers hunkered low in depressions and stacked corpses for shelter against the deadly fire. One man likened the sandy soil to a “boiling cauldron, from the incessant pattering and plowing of shot, which raised the dirt in geysers and spitting sands.” Wounded soldiers cried out for water. “Under the rays of the hot June sun, the bodies of the fast decomposing dead sent over into our trenches a most sickening and nauseating stench,” a Rebel recalled, “while the helpless and fly-­infested wounded were left to die a most horrible death.”1 A month earlier, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had initiated a campaign to defeat Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and bring the American Civil War to a close. Predicating his campaign on maneuver, Grant attempted to flank Lee out of his defensive position on the Rapidan River; when that failed, he ventured turning movements to break deadlocks at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and the North Anna River. By early June, the military center of gravity had shifted to the nondescript crossroads at Old Cold Harbor, ten miles northeast of Richmond. With Lee’s army backed against the Confederate capital and seemingly on its last legs, Grant ordered a massive frontal assault. On June 3, for the fourth time in as many weeks, the Confederates fought the Union juggernaut to a standstill. Sheltered behind an impregnable wall of earthworks, its flanks anchored on marshy streams, the Rebel force barred the way to Richmond. Remaining at Cold Harbor was unacceptable to the Federal high command . The low-­lying country was notorious for causing fevers, and a pro- 177 Grant’s Disengagement from Cold Harbor X longed stalemate could only sour the Union army’s spirit and the nation’s morale. Bludgeoning was also not the way to go. The June 3 offensive had confirmed that the Army of Northern Virginia’s earthworks could not be successfully breached and that the political price of another costly reverse might well be catastrophic. The Rebels had to eat, however, and their provisions arrived by way of a transportation network that converged in Richmond. By cutting the supply routes to the Confederate capital, Grant might compel Lee to abandon his Cold Harbor bastion and have a chance to engage him on open ground. Another major turning movement was in order, this time geared to disrupt Lee’s source of supplies. Richmond’s arteries included the Virginia Central Railroad, the James River and Kanawha Canal, and most important, the Richmond and Peters­ burg Railroad. In the operation’s first phase, Grant planned to hold Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at Cold Harbor while Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s Union cavalry, in concert with Maj. Gen. David Hunter’s Federal army in the Shenandoah Valley, wrecked the Virginia Central Railroad and the canal. Once that mission was accomplished, the Potomac army would steal from Cold Harbor, cross the James River, advance on Peters­ burg, and amputate Lee’s remaining supply lines from the south. Grant’s proposed movement faced formidable obstacles. The hostile armies stood closely entwined at Cold Harbor, diminishing the Union force’s prospects of stealing away without alerting Lee. And once under way, the Federals would have to cross the Chickahominy River under the enemy’s very nose: if the Virginian learned of the disengagement in time, he might catch the Army of the Potomac astride the boggy stream and inflict serious injury. Grant also worried about the safety of Maj. Gen. Benjamin  F. Butler’s Army of the James, entrenched between the James and Appomattox rivers at Bermuda Hundred. The Potomac army’s departure from Cold Harbor might free Lee to assail Butler and overrun the smaller Union force before Grant could intervene. An attractive option was to slice southwest below Lee’s army to a point near Malvern Hill, cross the James River to Bermuda Hundred...

Subject Headings

  • Overland Campaign, Va., 1864.
  • Cold Harbor, Battle of, Va., 1864.
  • Petersburg Crater, Battle of, Va., 1864.
  • Petersburg (Va.) -- History -- Siege, 1864-1865.
  • United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Campaigns.
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