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1864 June 18: Battle of Cold Harbor

June 18, 2014

The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought from May 31 to June 12, 1864, with the most significant fighting taking place on Friday, June 3.  The Old Cold Harbor crossroads was only about 10 miles from Richmond, the Confederate capital.  The battle was fought on the same ground as the Battle of Gaines’s Mill (June 27, 1862); Old Cold Harbor being two miles from Gaines’s Mill.  The 1862 battle is also known as the First Battle of Cold Harbor, and this 1864 battle as the Second Battle of Cold Harbor. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War with over 12,000 Union casualties.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant ordered frontal assaults against the Confederates’ elaborate, 7-miles-long fortifications. The following article is from the June 18, 1864, issue of The Prescott Journal.  Although no author is cited, this was written by Orville James Victor (1827-1910), a journalist for the New York Saturday Journal.  This article appeared in his 1864 book, The History, Civil, Political and Military, of the Southern Rebellion, which is digitally available on multiple sites on the Internet.

F R O M   G R A N T ’ S   A R M Y.

The Battle of Friday.


(Correspondence of the N. Y. Times.),



Judging by the severity of the encounter, and the heavy losses we have experienced, the engagement which opened at gray dawn this morning and spent its fury in little over an hour, should take its place among the battles of the war; but viewed in its relations to the whole campaign, it is, perhaps, hardly more than a grand reconnoisance [sic], however, which has cost us not less than five or six thousand killed and wounded.

The object of the action was to force the passage of the Chickahominy, on the north side of which, and covering the roads to Richmond, the rebels had planted themselves in a fortified line.  What we have done is to feel this line by a vigorous attack, in which, though gaining some temporary successes, and at one or two points actually carrying the enemy’s works, we have, on the whole, reached the conclusion that any victory that could here be won must cost too much in its purchase.  I do not say this as speaking with any authority, but only as recording the general conviction of the army.  Such conviction, however, when the common judgment of such men as have to-day led their lines against the enemy, is apt to be of itself authority, and hence I think I may safely predict that there will be no renewal of the assault on the lines of the Chickahominy; then we must look to the resources of strategy to plant this army in a position where, being at less of a disadvantage, its valor will have a better promise of adequate reward.


Coal [sic] Harbor being secured by the action of Wednesday, Gen. Grant determined to give battle the day following, for the purpose of essaying the passage of the Chickahominy.  Accordingly, during the night, Hancock’s [Winfield S. Hancock] corps, which by the previous withdrawal of the Sixth Corps, held the right of the line, was moved and took position on the extreme left ;  and early on Thursday, the headquarters of Gens. Grant and Meade [George G. Meade], which had been in the rear of the right, were transferred to the rear of the left and established a Coal [sic] Harbor.  It had, as I have said, been designed to give battle on Thursday ;  but Hancock was compelled to fight his corps into position, and his formation was not completed until afternoon.  The attack was then ordered for 5 o’clock in the afternoon ;  but a thunder storm as heavy as that which swelled the Chickahominy on the day before Fair Oaks [May 31-June 1, 1862], set in, and the order had to be countermanded.

The hour of attack was then fixed for 4:30 o’clock this morning.  Had Gen. Lee [Robert E. Lee], under these circumstances, emulated the conduct of that Union General whose chief glory is to be thought well of by the rebels, and planted his army astraddle of the Chickahominy, as McClellan [George B. McClellan] did, the storm which swelled that stream yesterday afternoon might have given Gen. Grant an opportunity which you may depend upon it he would have improved.—But while the rebels praise McClellan they do not imitate him.  Lee had his entire force north of the Chickahominy, and the only result of the delay in attack caused by the rise in the river was to give the enemy, who had by this time discovered the disposition of our troops, the hours of night during which to perfect his defensive preparations.


In saddle at 4 o’clock in the morning, the gray light of dawn is struggling through a thick envelope of clouds, and a light pattering rain is falling.   Our men still lie behind their breastworks, worn out with the work of the night ;  the rebels, too, lie behind their entrenchments, and only the sleepless pickets peer with wary eyes forward through the dusk of the woods.  All is still as the grave, yet in thirty minutes the storm of battle will burst forth along a stretch of six miles.—There is but time to take a glance at the lines.  Here on the left wing of the army is the corps of Hancock (the 2d,) connecting with him on the right, and forming the left centre, is Wright’s [Horatio G. Wright], (the 6th,) then Smith’s [William F. Smith], (the 18th,) which holds the centre ;  next comes Warren’s [Gouverneur K. Warren], (the 5th,) which forms the right centre, and then Burnside’s [Ambrose E. Burnside], (the 9th,) which holds the extreme right.  Our line runs almost parallel with the Chickahominy, and from one and a half to two and a half miles north of it.  On the left wing we approach nearest the river, on the right we are somewhat refused.  Hancock, holding the left wing, rests across the Dispatch Station road, (that is, the road leading from Coal [sic] Harbor to Dispatch Station;) our right is across the Tolopatomoy [sic].  The rebel front is formed immediately in front of the Chickahominy, in three lines, (two lines of battle and a skirmish line,) on an irregular line to conform with the woods and ridges and swamps of the ground.  Between the two armies is a low, swampy region, whose dark hollows will soon be lit up with the fires of death.  Suddenly from behind the rude parapet there is an upstarting, a noiseless springing to arms, the muffled commands of officers forming the line.  The attack was ordered for 4:30, and it may have been five minutes after that, or it may have been ten minutes, but certainly was not later than 4:45 when the whole line is in motion.  Shirmishers [sic] are thrown out, and presently meet the enemy’s pickets, as we learn by the smart fusilade [sic] you hear ;  our artillery opens, the rebels respond, and in a moment the deadly conflict is joined.


The metaphysicians say that time is naught, is but a category of thought, and I think it must be so, for into ten mortal minutes this morning was crowded an age of action.  Ten minutes of the figment men call time, and yet that scant space decided a battle !  There are a thousand details, ten thousand episodes, but the essential matter is this, that the first rush of advance carried our whole front but up against a line of works, which we were unable to break through, or, breaking through unable to hold.  Conceive of this in the large—the fierce onslaught amid deafening volleys of musketry and the thunder of artillery, and the mad yell of battle, and see the ranks mown down, and the lines break here and there, and the sullen obstinate retreat every inch contested, and we shall then be able to descend to some of the points of action as they individualize themselves along the line.

Battle of Cold Harbor

Battle of Cold Harbor, from the Library of Congress¹


Hancock held the left of the whole line of battle ;  and his three divisions, Barlow [Francis C. Barlow] held the extreme left of the army, that of Gibbon [John Gibbon] was drawn on the right of Barlow’s, while Birney’s [David B. Birney] division was held in reserve.  Of the four brigades of Barlow’s division, Brooks [William T. H. Brooks] had the left and Miles [Alfred A. Miles] the right—each brigade in double line of battle.  Smith, commanding the Irish Brigade, was placed in support.  The left was protected by refusing it—the 3d brigade being disposed some to cover that flank.

The formation of Gibbon’s division on the right of Barlow was similar.  Tyler’s² brigade (heavy artillery) holding the right, Smith’s [sic: Smyth]³ the centre and Owen’s4 the left—McKean [sic: McKeen]5 in rear of Tyler’s centre, in two lines.—On Hancock’s line there were but few places where artillery could be used with effect.

Barlow had directed that his attacking brigade should, previously to the assault, be moved off and formed just in rear of the picket line.  From this point they advanced for half a mile through the woods and over open intervals, under a severe fire, square up to the enemy’s works.  The portion of his front where the right of Miles’ brigade joined with the left of Brooks’—the same brigades that so brilliantly carried the famous salient in the line of Spottsylvania—succeeded in a similar splendid coup here ;  the got over and into the enemy’s parapet, capturing his guns, (four light 12-pounders,) his colors and five or six hundred prisoners, about 800 of whom were secured by promptly passing them to the rear.  The storming column, in fact, were just turning the enemy’s guns on the retreating rebels, when powerful reinforcements from the second rebel line appeared advancing.  The first rebel line was held by Breckinridge’s [John C. Breckinridge] troops and was carried, but Lee is too good a General to leave a point so important thus weakly defended.  Breckinridge’s men were placed in the fore-front to receive the baptism of fire, but behind these lay the veterans of Hill’s corps [A. P. Hill], and it is these we now see dashing forward to retrieve the honors we had snatched.  Barlow’s brigades—stout hearts not used to pale before the greatest odds—could have held their own under conditions the least short of desperation, but the situation in which they now found themselves, o’erleaped its limits.  It was not merely the overwhelming front that came pressing down upon them, of that they had no fear, but the position they had gained placed them in advance of the whole line of battle, and gave the rebel artillery the opportunity for a deadly enfilading fire.  Beside this they had lost the directing heads of two of the chief commanders, Brooks and Byrnes,6 “souls of courage all compact,” fell mortally wounded, and all the organizations had suffered fearfully from an unparalleled loss of officers.  In this state of facts they fell back, bringing with them the prisoners they had taken and a captured color, but not the guns.  They fell back, but not to their original position ;  to a position far in advance of that they had held, and at different points not more than fifty yards from the enemy.  Here they intrenched, and here I leave them to pass on to Gibbons’ [sic: Gibbon’s] division of the same corps on the right, and which was engaged at the same time.

Gibbons [sic: no “s”] advanced simultaneous with Barlow, but in moving forward, he came upon one of the swamps of the Chickahominy, which had to be turned or overpassed, in the process of which it became very difficult to establish the connection between different parts of his line.  This overcome, however, his troops pressed forward with the same vigor that marked the conduct of their companion division on the left.  Parts of the brigades of Tyler and Owen gained the rebel works, but for reasons identical with those that forced back Barlow’s troops, they also were compelled to give up what they had won.  Gibbon’s division, too, lost very heavily.  In giving way, it also was far from losing all the ground it had gained.  It took up an advanced position, close to the enemy, and just over the crest, the rearward slope of which was held by the rebels.  This position it has retained during the day, and McKean’s [sic] brigade has held all day a position within fifteen yards of the enemy’s works.


Not until the splendid attack of Hancock’s corps had been made, not till after its blood-bought victory had been wrested from our hands, was he or any man in this army aware of the supreme importance of the position this morning carried and lost.  The key-point in the battle of Gaines’ Mills [sic], two years ago,it is strange and mortifying that no one should have appreciated its value.  This position is a bald hill named “Watts’ Hill,” dominating the whole battle-ground, and covering the angle of the “Dispatch Road.”—Along this ridge the rebel works formed a salient, and in front of it was a sunken road.  Of this road Hancock got possession, and the brigades of Miles and Brooks actually struck and carried the work directly on the salient !  Had we held this point, we should have had a position whence the entire rebel line might have been enfiladed ;  and I think it is not too much to say that that [sic] the day would have been ours, and Lee pushed across the Chickahominy.  Had we even known in advance its commanding importance, very different dispositions for attack would have have been made ;  we would have massed on the left, and made this victory a certainty.  These considerations certainly inspire bitter regrets; but who do [sic] does not know that it is on precisely such contingencies that the fate of a battle often hangs?


Simultaneously with the attack of the Second Corps, the Sixth, under Wright, connecting on the left with Hancock, made a general advance at a quarter before five o’clock—each division assaulting on the entire line.  Of this corps, the Second Division (McNeill [sic: Thomas H. Neill]) held the right, the Third Division (Ricketts [James B. Ricketts]) the centre, and the First Division (Russell [David A. Russell]) the left.  Five batteries, under charge of the Chief of Artillery of the Second Corps, Col. Tompkius [sic]7—namely Adams’ First Rhode Island Battery, Cowan’s First New York, (Independent,) Hahn’s [sic] Third New York, (Independent,) McMartin’s [sic] First Massachusetts, and Rhode’s First Rhode Island,8 were planted in good positions and did effective service in covering the advance.  The assault of the Sixth Corps was made with the utmost vigor and succeeded in carrying the first line of rebel rifle-pits along its entire front, and got up within two hundred and fifty yards of the main works.  Smith’s Corps, connecting on the right with the 6th, had advanced in conjunction with it ;  but the left division, that under Martindale [John H. Martindale], got disarranged and was repulsed.  Gen. Smith made three different attacks to relieve Martindale, but his last supports did not get up in time to allow him to hold on.  The effect of this repulse on the left of Smith had a disastrous effect on the position of Wright.  It uncovered the right flank of the 6th, and exposed Rickett’s division, which was stoutly holding the advance position, to a savage fire on the prolongation of its line.  In this state of facts, to retain possession of a position somewhat in advance of his point of starting was the utmost Gen. Wright could posibly [sic] do.


Operations along the fronts of Warren and Burnside were of an importance quite subordinate to that of operations on the left.  No results were achieved except the carrying of the line of rifle-pits occupied by the rebel skirmishers.  The Fifth and Ninth Corps nowhere struck the enemy’s main work.  Burnside kept up a furious cannonade for some hours ;  but it was nothing—vox et preterea [sic] nihil.9  From the tenor of one of Burnside’s morning dispatches, it was at one time hoped that he would be able to turn the enemy’s left ;  but this hope also was doomed to disappointment.

1.  “Battle of Cold Harbor, June 1′ to 12′ 1864.” This digital image is from an original 1888 Kurz & Allison print, available at the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. The UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center has in its Special Collections a copy of Battles of the Civil War: The Complete Kurz & Allison Prints, 1861-1865, Birmingham, Ala.: Oxmoor House, 1976 (Oversized E 468.7 .B3 1976), which includes a copy of this print.

2.  Robert Ogden Tyler (1831-1874) graduated from West Point in 1853 and was a career military officer who served as an artilleryman in the Utah Territory during the Mormon disputes. “He is best known as the commander of the Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac, including at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, where many of his batteries played important role in the Union victory. Tyler later led a division of heavy artillery turned infantry during the Overland Campaign of 1864, when he was badly wounded and relegated to administrative duties for the duration of the war.” (Wikipedia, accessed 23 June 2014.) 3.  Thomas Alfred Smyth (1832-1865) was born in Ireland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1854. He enlisted in 1861 in the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry and was quickly promoted to captain. Next he was commissioned major in the 1st Delaware Infantry. He participated in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, being promoted to lieutenant colonel and then colonel after the former. During the Gettysburg Campaign, he commanded the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division of the II Corps, and was wounded on the final day of Gettysburg. He retained a brigade command through the Overland Campaign. In October 1864 he was promoted to brigadier general during the Siege of Petersburg. On April 7, 1865, during the Appomattox Campaign, Smyth was shot through the mouth by a sniper. The bullet shattered his cervical vertebra and paralyzed him; he died two days later. 4.  Joshua Thomas Owen (1822-1887) was born in Wales and immigrated to the U.S. in 1830. Before the Civil War, he was a professor at the Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, and was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature (1857 to 1869). He entered the Civil War as commander of the 25th Pennsylvania Infantry (3 months) and then the 69th Pennsylvania Infantry, a mainly Irish regiment. He eventually rose to the command of the Philadelphia Brigade in the II Corps, Army of the Potomac, which he led at Chancellorsville, “but was relieved of duty for alleged cowardice during battle. Owen later returned to his brigade after Gettysburg and led it at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor, where he failed to support another brigade in the famed assault. He was arrested by Maj. Gen. John Gibbon on the charges of cowardice and was discharged from the army.” (Wikipedia, accessed 23 June 2014.) 5.  H. Boyd McKeen (1835-1864) was a lumber merchant in Camden, New Jersey, at the beginning of the War. He entered service as first lieutenant and adjutant of the 81st Pennsylvania Infantry and was promoted to major in June 1862. As major, he led the regiment in the Battle of Antietam and was promoted to colonel in November. McKeen commanded the regiment at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and was wounded in both battles. When the commander of his brigade at the Battle of Gettysburg was mortally wounded, McKeen became the acting brigade commander. He then led the 81st Pennsylvania in the battles of Bristoe Station, Mine Run, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania. McKeen was mortally wounded on June 3, 1864, at the Battle of Cold Harbor, leading a brigade charge. 6.  Richard Byrnes (1832-1864) commanded the Irish Brigade during the Civil War. He was born in Ireland, immigrated in 1844, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1851, joining the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. He fought Indians in Florida and Oregon. When the Civil War started, he severed for two years in the U.S. Army regulars before being appointed colonel of the 28th Massachusetts Infantry, an Irish regiment, which was attached to Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade. He participated in the battles of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. In May 1864 he took command of the Irish Brigade. Two weeks later Byrnes was mortally wounded in the June 3 fighting at Cold Harbor. His commission as a brigadier general had been made out but he died before it could be presented to him.

Charles Henry Tompkins

Charles Henry Tompkins

7.  Charles Henry Tompkins (1834-1895) enlisted at the beginning of the Civil War and was commissioned an officer in the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. He participated with the 1st Rhode Island  in the battles of the Shenandoah Valley, Second Bull Run, and Cedar Creek. During the Fredericksburg Campaign, he served as Left Division Chief of Artillery. Promoted to colonel, he served as Chief of the Artillery Brigade of the VI Corps for the remainder of the war. For conspicuous services, he was brevetted brigadier general of U.S. Volunteers on March 13, 1865.

8.  The component batteries of the VI Corps’ Artillery Brigade listed in this article are:

  • 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Battery G—Captain George W. Adams
  • 1st Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery—Captain Andrew Cowan
  • 3rd Independent Battery, New York Light Artillery—Captain William A. Harn
  • 1st Battery, Massachusetts Volunteer Light Artillery—Captain William H. McCarthey
  • 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, Battery E—Captain William B. Rhodes.

9.  Vox et praeterea nihil is a Latin phrase meaning “voice and nothing more.”  In this case the author is saying that Burnside’s cannon made noise but did not hit much.

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