June 12, 1864 (Sunday)
While a defeated Philip Sheridan wandered his way back to the Army of the Potomac, General Grant made the final preparations for yet another slip around Robert E. Lee’s right flank. But due to Sheridan and word from the Shenandoah Valley, Lee was conflicted.
General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah had by now grown to around 20,000. Lee’s incredibly small force in the Valley numbered only a fraction of that total. Dispatching John Breckinridge’s column did little to help the cause, as he had no more than 3,000 under his command.
In a letter to Jefferson Davis written the day previous, Lee expressed his desire to drive the enemy out of the Shenandoah, but admitted that it would take an entire corps from his already thin army to do it. The larger question was, however, Grant. Lee believed that Grant was about to stab toward the James River, getting around his right flank. He was correct in this, but seemed fairly certain that he could do little to prevent it, even with three corps – what to speak of two.
Wheels within wheel began to turn in Lee’s head. He might not be able to strike a blow against Grant just yet, but perhaps he could keep Grant from crossing the James and threatening Richmond if a force could be dispatched to threaten Washington. This might encourage President Lincoln to demand that Grant either send a fair amount of troops north or keep the entire Army of the Potomac between Washington and Lee’s own army.
And so it was decided, even without Davis’ approval, that Jubal Early’s Corps (formerly Richard Ewell’s) would leave the main force and march with haste to the Shenandoah Valley. Lee road over to Early’s headquarters and verbally ordered him to ready his 8,000 men. This he did, and later received written instructions. He was to leave at 3am the next morning, “to strike Hunter’s force in the rear, and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the Valley [north], cross the Potomac near Leesburg in Loudon County, or at or above Harper’s Ferry… and threaten Washington City.”
For some time now, communication into the Shenandoah Valley had been severed as the telegraph lines were cut by Northern cavalry. Lee did not know that Hunter had moved from Staunton to Lexington, and had no idea where Breckenridge’s small column was now located. But believing that Hunter was indeed at Staunton, he directed Early to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains at Swift Run Gap or Brown’s Gap – both to the north of Staunton. They would tramp over eighty miles in four days.
General Grant was now ready to move. The first to make their egress would be Baldy Smith’s Eighteenth Corps, which secretively pried itself away from the embattlements and began the march to White House on the Pamunkey River. There, they would board steamers and rejoin Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred.
That night, Grant sat down to take his last meal before setting off on the march to the James. Perhaps not the best dinner conversation, the talk soon turned to losses. According to Horace Porter, Grant’s staff officer: “The figures then known did not differ much from those contained in the accurate official reports afterward compiled. From the opening of the campaign, May 4, to the movement across the James, June 12, the total casualties in the Army of the Potomac, including Sheridan’s cavalry and Burnside’s command, had been: killed, 7621; wounded, 38,339; captured or missing, 8966; total, 54,926.”
It wasn’t until dark that the march began. Few apart from Grant knew the true meaning of it. While Smith’s corps made its way north to the river, the cavalry not with Sheridan held a crossing on the Chickahominy, fifteen miles downriver from Cold Harbor, at Long Bridge. What pickets were at the crossing were scattered and a pontoon bridge swiftly laid (as the Long Bridge itself had fallen victim to the torch). Gouverneur K. Warren’s Fifth Corps held close to the cavalry, and come morning would cross the Chickahominy. Then would come Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps. Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps and Horatio Wright’s Sixth would use a parallel road, taking them five miles farther down the river to Jone’s Bridge.
Warren’s objective was to watch the roads leading to Richmond and to make some threatening stabs here and there. This, it was hoped, would deceive Lee into thinking the Army of the Potomac was about to move on to Richmond.
But that was all in the future. After diner, Grant rode through the darkness, and by morning was himself at Long Bridge and ready to cross.