150 Years Ago This Week: 7,000 killed in 20 minutes

May/June 1864

Another race was on between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia after the two days of fighting at the North Anna River north of Richmond. Staying ahead of Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant’s troops, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army was protecting the capital at Richmond.

Gen. Lee had reason to share his concern with President Jefferson Davis; despite Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard’s troops just south of Richmond receiving some reinforcements, the Confederates were outnumbered by more than two to one. As May drew to a close, the armies of Lee and Grant were shifting about for positions, with skirmishes and engagements being fought every day.

The Army of the Potomac was as close to Richmond now as it had been under Maj. Gen. George McClellan in June 1862, but Gen. Lee’s men still barred the way to the capital. Around Dallas, Ga., the armies of Gen. Joseph E. Johnson and Maj. Gen. William Sherman were also shifting about, fighting small engagements and skirmishes every day in the piney Georgia countryside.

In Kentucky, John Hunt Morgan and his Confederate raiders were on the loose again, now attacking the distant communication lines of Gen. Sherman, hoping to take some pressure off Gen. Johnston’s troops. Gen. Morgan had escaped from the Ohio Penitentiary after he and some of his men had been captured, and after regrouping and rearming, he and his troopers were back again raiding the Union lines.

On May 31, a group of dissident Radical Republicans — dissatisfied with President Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation policies and lack of vindictiveness against the South — met in Cleveland and nominated Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont for president in the 1864 election and Brig. Gen. John Cochrane of New York for vice president. In June, a combination of Republicans and War Democrats was set to meet in Baltimore to nominate a ticket for the 1864 election.

On Wednesday, June 1, Gen. Lee’s Confederates began entrenching at Cold Harbor, northeast of Richmond. That evening, the Union Sixth Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright arrived and assaulted the Confederate lines. The Union advances were repulsed with about 5,000 Federal casualties, while Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan clashed with Confederate horse soldiers.

The next day, the Union offensive against the Confederates was not organized until about 5 p.m.; when the Federals were ready to go, the beastly hot weather of the morning was cut by a violent thunderstorm, and the attack was postponed until the morning of June 3. Sensing what was to happen the next day, many Union soldiers fashioned crude identification or “dog” tags and attached them to their uniforms so that they might be identified when found dead or severely wounded on the battlefield.

The rain ceased as dawn approached on June 3; the day was to be hot and clear. At 4:30 a.m., the Union attack opened against the Confederate lines. Three futile frontal assaults were made that morning. The entrenched Confederate infantry and artillery pounded the Federal onslaught again and again; the Union dead piled up in heaps, much like the failed Union assaults at Fredericksburg in December 1862 — but far worse.

In 20 minutes, an estimated 7,000 Union soldiers were killed and thousands more were severely wounded. At noon, Gen. Grant called off the attack, saying he regretted he had ever ordered it. The two days of fighting at Cold Harbor resulted in about 12,000 Union casualties.

In the following weeks, the names of the dead, wounded and missing filled entire pages in Northern newspapers; “Butcher” Grant was among the kindest names the commanding general was labeled by the Northern press. He was doing what no other Union general had done since the war began, but at what cost? The vacancies in the Union regiments would be filled from the population of the United States, but for the Confederacy, the 1,500 casualties sustained at Cold Harbor could not be replaced.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.