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By the late spring of 1864 Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was advancing on the Confederate capital of Richmond, Va., and relentlessly pressuring Robert E. Lee’s army. With his appointment as commander of the Union forces, Grant had brought a new approach to the war—one of brutal attrition. Knowing he could replace as many men as he lost, even as the Rebel army suffered from a desperate shortage of manpower, Grant had bulldozed his way across Virginia, throwing tens of thousands of men against the Confederate wall. At the end of May, after the bloody but inconclusive confrontations of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, the two armies came together at an obscure crossroads less than 10 miles northeast of the Confederate capital. Described by one historian as little more than “a wide spot on a lonely, dusty road,” it took the name Cold Harbor, after a rundown tavern/inn that offered travelers shelter but no hot meals. Only the Chickahominy River stood between the Army of the Potomac and Richmond.

Since the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union Army had suffered under leaders—many of them political appointees—who had failed in the field, often at a terrific cost in lives, morale and reputation. Its current commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, had faced criticism for allowing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw across the Potomac River after its defeat at Gettysburg, and Meade was chafing under Grant’s leadership. Having experienced continual combat, forced marches, short rations and little sleep, everyone was exhausted, and nerves were raw. Communication between Grant and Meade, and among Meade and his subordinates, was poor, and by the time the Army reached Cold Harbor, there were many broken links in the chain of command and many used-up men.

The Rebels, their backs to the Chickahominy, had dug a series of trenches from which to repulse the enemy. On June 2, the day after an unsuccessful offensive against Lee, Meade prepared to attack the Rebel works. Grant ordered a postponement until the following day, to give the soldiers a respite and to allow for a proper reconnaissance. He also inadvertently gave Lee the opportunity to extend and reinforce his defenses, with rifle pits and trenches 7 feet deep. Believing Lee as good as “whipped,” Grant had badly misread the strength and resolve of his enemy; the Union commander’s soldiers would pay dearly for his overconfidence.

June 3 dawned hot and humid after an all-night rain. Inexplicably, the Union corps commanders had conducted practically no reconnaissance; their troops would be attacking blind. When they received their orders, the soldiers did not panic or run; many simply wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper and pinned those inside their blouses to help burial details identify their bodies. During the first crucial hour of the main attack, as the hapless Federals charged Lee’s entrenched Rebels, the Southern artillery and rifles killed them in waves; as many as 6,000 Union soldiers fell in that terrible initial action.

The rest of the battle went no better. As darkness fell, Grant acknowledged the debacle was his responsibility. “I regret this assault,” he said, “more than any one I have ever ordered.” Yet for nine more days the two armies skirmished. Then, on the night of June 12, Grant’s army quietly slipped away. Leaving the tragedy of Cold Harbor behind him, Grant pressed on to Petersburg to destroy the railroads that fed Richmond and supplied Lee’s army. He would not again underestimate his opponent.

Cold Harbor, one of 10 battlefield sites in the Richmond National Battlefield Park [] system, is surprisingly small, comprising just 280 acres of the original seven-mile line. Most visitors ask to see the single field where the bloody attack occurred, unaware that numerous separate actions took place along much of that front, which now lies mostly on private land.

The site offers some of the best surviving examples of Civil War trenches, both Northern and Southern. Considering they were dug 146 years ago and used for less than two weeks, many of the Rebel trenches remain surprisingly deep and would still require rifle steps to see over the top. Here, in a preview of World War I trench warfare, the soldiers dug in and faced each other across what was once open ground and is now mostly forested.

It is impossible to get a true sense of a battle line that stretched miles across broken terrain. Still, walking the trail past Bloody Run, or gazing across a killing field alongside those rows of deadly trenches, the years fall away and a sense of disaster hangs in the air.


Originally published in the January 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here