The Shifting of Grant and Lee to Cold Harbor

June 2, 1864 (Thursday)

The night previous, General Grant had called upon Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps to march through the dark, leaving their lines on the Union right to join the proposed attack from the Union left. Hancock was to take up positions on the extreme left. But the march was grueling, and the column lost its way along the tangle of roads. Dawn broke over Cold Harbor, but it was without Hancock.

Union line near Gaines Mill (center) drawn by Alfred Waud, June 2.
Union line near Gaines Mill (center) drawn by Alfred Waud, June 2.

Dawn, or shortly after, was when Grant wanted to spring the assault. He figured that since the Cold Harbor section of Lee’s line had attacked the previous day, it would be the weakest spot along the entire Confederate front. Hancock’s absence wasn’t Grant’s only problem. Baldy Smith, commanding the newly-arrived Eighteenth Corps, had already been complaining that he needed more troops and ammunition. While he ordered Horatio Wright’s Sixth Corps to lend Smith ammunition, he also ordered Hancock to leave one of his divisions with the Eighteenth Corps. This would all take time, and so the attack, originally scheduled for 6am, was postponed until 5pm.

As Hancock troops filed into position, the Union left quickly became the main strength, with three of the five corps clinging to the crossroads. This left Ambrose Burnside’s Ninth Corps hanging in the open. Burnside never received notice that Hancock, who had occupied his right, was leaving.

The lines of the two opposing armies stretched north to south, from Totopotomy Creek to the Chickahominy River. Hancock had been north of the Totopotomy, but also spanned the creek, joining to Burnside’s right flank to the south. Their egress left Burnside’s right flank now resting in the open. Burnside had a choice. He could either shift his right to touch the Totopotomy or shift his left to better link with Gouverneur Warren’s Fifth Corps – he had not enough troops to accomplish both. He chose the latter, refusing his right flank.

The Fifth Corps held the Federal center, stretching its numbers across nearly five miles of improving works. He quickly concluded, even before daylight, that while he could hold off any attack, he could not advance. To Generals Grant and Meade, this sat uneasily. Whether the attack would come in the morning or the late afternoon, it was imperative that the entire army move in concert.

Attempting not to abandon this premise, Meade ordered Warren to contract his lines, shifting his left toward Cold Harbor, while Burnside was to fall back behind Warren’s right near Bethesda Church. It was well over two miles from the church to the Totopotomy, but the lines, felt Meade, would be safer.

Today's map - more approximate than usual, thank you.
Today’s map – more approximate than usual, thank you.

Across the expanse, General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, was mirroring the Northern foes as much as they could. When Hancock moved south to Cold Harbor, Lee dispatched the division of John Breckinridge to the same. And like Hancock’s Corps, the network of roads confounded the Rebels. Of course, a division would hardly be sufficient, and with the wide open expanses left vacant by Burnside’s Corps, Lee took the opportunity to move most of A.P. Hill’s Corps from his left to his right. This would leave the four divisions of Jubal Early’s Corps to hold their own against Burnside and Wright.

While Burnside shifted and Hancock jockeyed for position, Grant began to have further doubts about the day. At 2pm, he decided to postpone the scheduled 5pm assault for the following day. Too much was uncertain. The Confederate lines were well screened, with skirmish lines thick and numerous placed well before them, the entrenchments themselves out of the Federal line of sight. Some officers, such as General Hancock, simply failed to send scouts to reconnoiter the Rebel works.

Though the day was one of movement, there was some action, but it did little but perturb General Grant, who recalled after the war: “Warren’s corps was moved to the left to connect with Smith: Hancock’s corps was got into position to the left of Wright’s, and Burnside was moved to Bethesda Church in reserve. While Warren and Burnside were making these changes the enemy came out several times and attacked them, capturing several hundred prisoners. The attacks were repulsed, but not followed up as they should have been. I was so annoyed at this that I directed Meade to instruct his corps commanders that they should seize all such opportunities when they occurred, and not wait for orders, all of our manoeuvres being made for the very purpose of getting the enemy out of his cover.”

Rebel assaults near Bethesda Church - drawn on June 2 by Edwin Forbes.
Rebel assaults near Bethesda Church – drawn on June 2 by Edwin Forbes.

This soon became the general philosophy. If any of the corps commanders noticed a place they might attack, they were to do so on their own, without prior approval from Grant or Meade. General Lee, however, would adopt no such thought. The attacks Grant addressed were those from Jubal Early’s Corps, which Lee had ordered forward to advance through the void left by Burnside’s withdrawal. More than anything it was a reconnaissance in force.

The true threat, of course, was on the Confederate right, near Cold Harbor. It was here where Lee reinforced and readied his men, certain that an attack would come at any moment. As the day grew long and evening brought rain, all knew that with the following dawn would come the Yankees.

But the Confederate works had become a thing of science and beauty. In some places, the walls, reinforced with logs and mounded with dirt, were five feet hight. The trench itself was, in places, four feet deep. The artillery was placed so that every approach was covered in a deadly enfilading fire.

Grant scheduled the assault for 4:30am, keeping its exact time a secret to all but his officers. But the men, both Northern and Souther, knew it was imminent. One of Grant’s aides recalled the sight of Union soldiers stitching their names on the inside of the jackets. They had attacked Lee’s entrenchments before, at Spotsylvania, and believed it a miracle they survived. One more such assault, and they clearly believed they might not be so fortunate.

Through the night, the Rebels improved their embattlements. “By daylight our work was completed,” wrote a member of the 4th Alabama. “The parapet was five feet high, with a ditch four feet deep in front and a wide shallow ditch on the inside, and a banquette for the men to stand on when firing. […] Before sunrise on the morning of the 3rd a few shots were fired by our pickets, and our videttes on the parapet called out, “Look out, they are coming.”1

  1. Sources: From Huntsville to Appomattox: R. T. Coles’s History of 4th Regiment edited by Jeffrey D. Stocker; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; 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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