‘A Sheet of Flame, Sudden as Lightening, Red as Blood’ – Cold Harbor

June 1, 1864 (Wednesday)

We last left the two armies in more or less of a stalemate along Totopotomoy Creek, fifteen miles northeast of Richmond. It was on May 30th that elements of Lee’s and Grant’s cavalry clashed at Old Cold Harbor. Lee was fearful that the newly-arrived Eighteenth Corps under “Baldy” Smith would slip around his flank into his rear, and so sent cavalry to prevent this catastrophe. The next day, the battle escalated, and both Lee and Grant sent infantry to bolster their numbers. Lee, too, had reinforcements – a division under Robert Hoke had arrived from Petersburg that day and was thrown together with Longstreet’s Corps, helmed temporarily by Richard Anderson.


The movement of Anderson’s Corps was easily detected by General Grant, who ordered Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps to attack. And though their artillery made the best of it, Warren never gathered his wits or his troops enough to launch the assault, and Anderson’s Rebels arrived only a little worse for wear.

For a time, the Federal cavalry pushed their Rebel counterparts back, but as the latter’s numbers increased, the Northern troops were ordered to retire. But General Grant grew concerned about the intersection, wishing to use to be utilized by Smith’s Corps. To match the Rebels, he ordered Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps, then holding his right, to march with speed to his left and Old Cold Harbor, but would not reach this place until 9am on this date. It was fortunate then that the Confederates seemed not to notice the vacant crossroads and never occupied it after the skirmish.

But this fortune would not last long for the Federal cavalry. As both Wright and Smith continued to approach Old Cold Harbor, Confederates under Anderson and Hoke, 12,000-strong, were to attack the 6,500 Northern troopers, under the command of Sheridan, but Anderson threw only 5,000 of his own at the line. Hoke’s men merely dug trenches and waited for nothing. Hoke maintained that he was to attack only when Anderson’s assault was fully underway.

Anderson, however, ordered only a brigade forward near dawn, as more of a reconnaissance in force than anything resembling an attack. They did not step off until 8am. And though their target seemed well selected, the Yankees were armed with fast-loading carbines. The Rebels, who came screaming with ferocity were scattered with loss. If this was all Anderson had to give, it was hardly a wonder why Hoke never saw it.

This is sort of a horrible map - there oddly aren't any good, historical maps for this day.
This is sort of a horrible map – there oddly aren’t any good, historical maps for this day.

Soon after the Rebel brigade fell back broken upon their main strength, the Federal Army’s Fourth Corps began arriving, stiffening the cavalry with their mass. An hour later, around 10am, Anderson attempted to assail the enemy lines once more, but it too sputtered out in the face of the Federal repeating rifles.


When Anderson first made his attack, his entire corps was not yet up. Now, however, it was mostly arrived on the battlefield, but the newly-come divisions under George Pickett and Charles Fields immediately began entrenching as his lead division, under Joseph Kershaw, faded off to General Hoke’s left. This created a formidable embattled line stretching far across the road to Cold Harbor on the right, and attaching to Lee’s main body and the Totopotomoy on the left.

Through the afternoon the lines held their shape as the troops near Cold Harbor, both North and South, improved the entrenchments. Augmenting the Federal left, and as a counter to Anderson’s Corps, Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth Corps joined the cavalry and Wright’s Sixth Corps.

While Grant tried to urge Warren onward, General Meade, immediate commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Wright and Smith to launch an evening assault. Fearing that the two corps might not be adequate, he too urged Warren to help out. Warren eventually acquiesced, but not in time for any of his Fifth Corps regiments to take part.

The Confederate rifle pits had been dug at the edge of a woodlot, only a quarter of a mile away from the Federal lines, separated by an open field. Through the woods, and to their rear was another open field and another, greater line of rifle pits, should the first line fail.

Smith's Corps attacks.
Smith’s Corps attacks.

Around 5pm, Baldy Smith hurled forward two divisions, which stormed the first line of Confederate works, taking them and 250 prisoners in bloody triumph. They then advanced toward the second, but the hail of bullets turned them back.

At length the battle was joined by two divisions from Wright’s Corps. On Smith’s left they marched, charging the first line of Rebel rifle pits, sending the enemy fleeing for the rear. And like their comrades, Wright’s Federals continued, pushing hard for the main Confederate line.

This line was a work of art – deeper and wreathed in thick abatis. The Southerners firing behind such embrasures did not turn, but let fly volley upon volley into the faces of the coming Yankees.

Lt. Theodore Vaill, of a large Connecticut regiment described the fray:

The commander of the rebel battalion directly in our front, whoever he was, had his men under excellent control, and his fire was held until our line had reached the abbattis, and then systematically delivered —first by his rear rank, and then by his front rank. A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastworks ; and the ground and trees close behind our line were ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men.

The battalion dropped flat on the ground, and the second volley, like the first, nearly all went over. Several men were struck, but not a large number. It is more than probable that if there had been no other than this front fire, the rebel breastworks would have been ours, notwithstanding the pine boughs. But at that moment a long line of rebels on our left, extending all the way to the Richmond road, having nothing in their own front to engage their attention, and having unobstructed range on the battalion, opened a fire which no human valor could withstand, and which no pen can adequately describe.


The air was filled with sulphurous smoke, and the shrieks and howls of more than two hundred and fifty mangled men rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry. About Face! shouted Colonel Kellogg,—but it was his last command. He had already been struck in the arm, and the words had scarcely passed his lips, when another shot pierced his head, and he fell dead upon the interlacing pine boughs. Wild, and blind with wounds, bruises, noise, smoke, and conflicting orders, the men staggered in every direction, some of them falling upon the very top of the rebel parapet, where they were completely riddled with bullets,— others wandering off into the woods on the right and front, to find their way to death by starvation at Andersonville, or never to be heard from again.

LIE DOWN! said a voice that rose above the horrible din. It was the voice of Colonel Upton, whose large bay horse was dancing with a bullet in his bowels. The rest of the brigade, i. e., the One Hundred and Twenty-first and Sixtyfifth New York, Ninety fifth Pennsylvania, and Fifth Maine, were formed in three lines immediately on our left, and advanced when we did. But they received a heavy fire and advanced but part of the way. Indeed, the first battalion of our regiment went up to the enemy’s breastwork alone. Our right was nobody’s left, and our left nobody’s right.

It was dark that brought an overdue end to the battle. The Sixth Corps lost near 1,200, the Eighteenth, 1,000. During the attack, the Federals had exploited a gap in the Rebel lines. The night would be spent in mending. And John Breckinridge’s division was ordered now to the left.

For the Federals, General Meade believed Grant to be spreading too thin his Army of the Potomac. Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps was hurried at an exhausting pace to Cold Harbor. The next morning, Grant wished to attack.1

	Photograph shows Pvt. William M. Smith, Co. D, 8th Kentucky Vols. at U.S. General Hospital, Div. No. 1, Annapolis, Maryland, June 1, 1864. He was returned from either Andersonville or Belle Isle.
Photograph shows Pvt. William M. Smith, Co. D, 8th Kentucky Vols. at U.S. General Hospital, Div. No. 1, Annapolis, Maryland, June 1, 1864. He was returned from either Andersonville or Belle Isle.

  1. Sources: History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut by William Cothren; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; Campaigning with Grant by Horace Porter; Three Years in the Bloody Eleventh by Joseph Gibbs; Not War But Murder by Ernest B. Furgurson; Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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