‘The Result of this Delay Will be Disaster’ – Lee Pleads for Reinforcements

May 30, 1864 (Monday)

General Grant had discovered the Confederate position. The day previous, he sent his infantry scouring the hillocks and valleys south of the Pamunkey River, probing toward Totopotomoy Creek. It was there that they found the enemy, entrenched as they were on the southern banks. Before long, the Federals followed suit, creating a mirror and mimicking General Lee’s lines. From sprawling across the countryside, they were now concentrated. Two corps, Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps, and Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second, held ground on the north banks of the creek, while two others, Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth and Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth, crossed and took up positions nearly perpendicular to the water. The right came finally to a flank at Bethesda Church.

Slaves escaping into Union lines - drawn by Edwin Forbes, May 29, 1864
Slaves escaping into Union lines – drawn by Edwin Forbes, May 29, 1864

Though Lee’s men were entrenched, they were too few in number. He called upon P.G.T. Beauregard for reinforcements. Lee personally visited the general, whose small force of 12,000 had managed to bottle up two corps under Benjamin Butler at Bermuda Hundred, southwest of Richmond. But Beauregard could spare not a single soldier. Lee returned to his headquarters deflated.

But by noon on this date, at least he knew the Federal location – by this time, Grant’s army of 108,000 was in clear view. Lee immediately focused upon the two corps that were still crossing Totopotomy Creek, realizing that it was “just a repetition of their former movements.” And so he ordered General Jubal Early, now commanding Richard Ewell’s Corps, to do just that. Early could see for himself that the Union left flank was open. In the early afternoon, he was arrayed, poised to strike toward Bethesda Church and the flank of General Warren.

It was more than instinct that caused Warren to worry about his left, as he moved his men south along Old Church Road, which led directly to General Early’s advancing lines. Already Early was outflanking Warren, and was ready to attack. Warren saw them gathering, and sent a brigade to investigate, assuming they were merely cavalry. But they were not, and soon the troops sent forward were tumbling back with Early’s Corps in close pursuit.

Early’s initial success was halted by Early himself, who took thirty minutes to regroup and tramp onward. During this lull, Warren had time to prepare, but Early too had time to request reinforcements from General Richard Anderson, now commanding James Longstreet’s Corps. When Early surged forward again, it was still on his own, and with a single division, under Robert Rodes. The rest of the corps was still coming, but the opportunity was too fine to not attack.

Not a great map. For a much better one of today's action, go here.
Not a great map. For a much better one of today’s action, go here or here.

Rodes attacked, smashing into a brigade or so of Federals, driving them back like cattle. But soon the Rebels in the victory became scattered. Early’s next division, that under Stephen Dodson Ramseur, was yet to come up, and there came another lull, during which the Federals improved their position.

Early was certain that Anderson would send a division in haste, and suggested that it too hit the Federal flank. If successful, Ramseur’s Division, accompanied by the division sent by Anderson would roll up the Federal line, pushing it back to the Totopotomoy. But as the minutes slipped by, nothing – not even a message – arrived from Anderson. As Ramseur came up, he was taken with a great spirit to attack regardless of Anderson’s apparent refusal. Early, however, was uncertain. Peering through field glasses, Early espied the Federal lines strengthening.

But Ramseur pointed to a Union battery, and requested that he be at least allowed to attack it. Early cautioned against it, but Ramseur champed once more, and again until Early acquiesced. There was, of course, more than just a battery exposed and unsupported. General Warren had by this time gathered entrenched men enough to, he hoped, throw back whatever Early might send his way.

They came quickly, but the Federals held back, not firing until the host was upon them. And then hell was unleashed. In one volley, the Rebel assault was met with terrifying destruction.

“Our line melted away as if by magic,” recalled C.B. Christian, Rebel officer, “every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, mostly killed outright in an incredibly short time.” But such a surge could not simply be annihilated with a single volley, and the Rebels came forward, nearer the breastworks. Again came a volley, and more lives were ended. Still they came, and still they died as the iron from artillery rent bloody holes in their lines. After a third charge, there were so few remaining that the Union officers called to the survivors to surrender. This they did, and were ushered into the Federal lines, perhaps not to the cheers of their captors, but to the sincere praise of their reckless courage. The brigade attacking suffered casualties of killed, wounded and captured near 90%.

The battle was over, but for a short Federal counter-charge, which cleared the immediate front. The blame quickly fell upon Ramseur, who had begged for the attack. “Ramseur was to blame for the whole thing,” wrote one Confederate officer, “and ought to have been shot for the part he played in it.” But Early, allowing the assault to begin, wisely made nothing of it, as he would have to share in whatever chastisements might be forthcoming.

Maj Gen Smiths Expedition disembarking at the White House - drawn by William Waud.
Maj Gen Smiths Expedition disembarking at the White House – drawn by William Waud.

That evening, General Lee received news that must have cut him deeply. Grant was being reinforced by troops from Benjamin Butler’s command at Bermuda Hundred – Beauregard’s front, from where he himself could receive no aid. Some had already arrived, disembarking fifteen miles down the Pamunkey River at White House. If there were enough of them, they could easily turn Lee’s right flank. If there were more, they might block his path to Richmond.

So again Lee contacted Beauregard, and again Beauregard refused to send any troops, even though Butler had let loose at least an entire corps under “Baldy” Smith. Lee then went to Davis: “The result of this delay will be disaster. Butler’s troops (Smith’s corps) will be with Grant tomorrow. [Robert] Hoke’s division, at least, should be with me by light tomorrow.”

Three hours later, at 10:30, Braxton Bragg, Davis’ military advisor ordered Beauregard to “send Hoke’s division, which you reported ready, immediately to this point by railroad. […] Move with the utmost expedition, but with as much secrecy as possible.”

To bar “Baldy” Smith’s path behind Lee’s lines, cavalry was dispatched and ordered to hold a crossroads at Cold Harbor, three miles from the Confederate right. But Grant, too, sent a force of cavalry. There they fought, but in the end, the Federals held the intersection.

Grant had anticipated Lee’s move to block at Cold Harbor, but was still unsure what the main Confederate force would do next. “Nothing would please me more,” said Grant to staff member Horace Porter, “than to have the enemy make a movement around our left flank. I would in that case move the whole army to the right, and throw it between Lee and Richmond.” But with Smith coming in on , his right, and Burnside’s Corps held in reserve, Lee might not have to move at a, ll for Grant to attempt this.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 3, p850, 851, 857; 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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