Saturday, May 31, 2014

150-years-ago -- THE BATTLE OF COLD HARBOR

Battle of Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864
(National Park Service)

[Excerpted from Confederate States Rangers by Michael Dan Jones ( 2013)

General Grant received 40,000 reserves to replace the men he had lost in his futile frontal assaults [at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House] and then shifted his army again to try to outflank the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, as usual, was able to keep one step ahead of his opponent. The Confederate chieftain had his army in place at the next important strategic point first, Hanover Junction, which was the intersection of the Fredericksburg, Richmond and Central railroads. Lee and his men arrived there May 22 and were waiting for Grant and his men, who arrived May 23. Rather than once again batter his army against these strong Confederate fortifications, the Federal chieftain headed his army down the North Ana River to the Pamunkey River, and then by his left flank to the Chickahominy River. Lee kept up his blocking movements every step of the way. By June 1, both armies were at Cold Harbor, which was the site of the bloody Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862. Fortunately for the diminished  Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, they approximately held the part of the battlefield held by the Federals in the prior battle, while the Federals had to fight from the old Confederate position. This time Grant decided to make a fight at this position and massed his army there.
All the remaining soldiers of the 10th Louisiana knew was that they were having to do a lot of hard, fast marching. Colonel Monier noted they had to march and  entrench about seven miles from Fredericksburg. Then they reached Hanover Junction May 22 and the next day headed out to the North Ana River. They next returned to their camp at Hanover Junction and worked on fortifying that line until May 28 when they headed for the South Ana River. Over the next few days they came within eight miles of Richmond, passed through Mechanicsville, and had arrived at the old Cold Harbor battlefield by May 29. They began shifting positions until June 1, when heavy skirmishing began. The regiment was also occupied with digging in as strongly as possible.
            The Confederate position was a good one, running from Totopotomy Creek on the left flank to the Chickahominy River on the right. Early’s corps, which included the 10th Louisiana now in Gordon’s division, held the left flank; Anderson’s corps the center and Hill’s corps the right flank. The  Federal corps positions were Burnside (9th) and Warren (5th) in front of the Confederate left flank, Smith (18th) in the center and Wright (6th) and Hancock (2nd) facing the Confederate right flank. On Early’s part of the line, Heth was positioned on the left flank, then Rodes, Gordon and Ramseur on the right. Confederate engineers and soldiers had become skilled at quickly throwing up formidable breastworks. Trenches and rifle pits were reinforced with dirt thrown up on top and reinforced with logs and, in front of the trench line, sharpened stakes slanted outward to impale charging enemies. The Federals did the same and the lines remained stationary on June 1 and 2, with heavy skirmishing all up and down opposing positions.
   Grant had planned to attack  Lee’s position on the morning of June 2, but had to postpone it until the morning of June 3 because of the slowness in getting his units into position. The main thrust of the assault would be made at the center and left of the Confederate line by Smith and Hancock. Grant planned to destroy Lee’s army with a massive frontal assault and then capture Richmond and end the war. The Federal general apparently had learned nothing from this costly frontal assaults at Vicksburg, The Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House. On Early’s front, Warren and Burnside were to make heavy demonstrations to keep those troops from reinforcing Lee’s center and right. While Grant had confidence in his strategy, many of his men didn’t. Some of them wrote their names on pieces of cloth and pinned them to their clothing so their dead bodies could be identified after their lives were wasted in futile charges against the Confederate entrenchments. General Smith of the 18th  Corps noted that Grant’s order to attack was “simply an order to slaughter my best troops.”
            When the bugles sounded at 4:30 o’clock that morning, 50,000 bluecoats of the three army corps  stepped out, or as they would say in World War I, went “over the top” to meet their fate. In the Confederate center and right, the veteran infantrymen in the trenches calmly fired volley after volley at the exposed  enemies rushing toward them. Confederate artillery swept the fields with grapeshot and canister rounds to mow down the Federals. It was a bloodbath perhaps not equaled in scope, scale or intensity in the entire war. On Hill’s corps’ front on the right, at Major General John C. Breckenridge’s part of the line, there was a low, swampy place that had only a picket line along a Sunken Road. The Federals found this weak spot and Federal Colonel John Brooke’s brigade punched through it. Another breach was made by Colonel Nelson Miles’ brigade, but Confederate reinforcements from Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan’s brigade and Confederate artillery soon closed those breaches. The surviving Federals fell back to the safety of a low place in  the ground. Some Yankees came relatively close to the Confederate line, but few returned unscathed. Lee’s engineers had built the defenses in a zig-zag pattern, enabling the Confederates to pour in enfilading fire on the charging Federals, adding to the slaughter.
Brigadier General James Martindale’s division of the 18th Corps hit the Confederate center hard. Among Martindale’s brigades was Colonel Griffin Steadman’s, which included the 11th Connecticut Infantry. This is important to the 10th Louisiana’s story because this was nowhere near Early’s corps or Gordon’s division, to which the Louisiana brigade belonged. They were charging Anderson’s First Corps. Stedman later wrote, “We reached a point within thirty yards of the enemy’s main works; but the fire was too murderous, and my men were repulsed. We left the woods with two thousand men; in
Gen. Evander Law
       (Confederate Veteran)
five minutes we returned, six hundred less.” Stedman led four regiment, the 12th New Hampshire, 11th Connecticut, 8th Maine and 2nd New Hampshire, but within less than 10 minutes it was wiped out as an effective fighting force. Confederate General Evander Law said he had never seen anything to exceed it. He added, “. . . It was not war; it was murder.”
On the Confederate left, there were no serious attacks at all on Warren’s 5th  Corps front, and Burnside’s 9th Corps made only two diversionary attacks on the Heth’s and Rode’s divisions. All attacks on the right were over by 5 o’clock that morning. The battle casualties on the Confederate center and left were horrifying enough. Within the first 20 minutes, some 7,000 men had been killed wounded or missing. Confederate casualties were around 1,000. Lee’s aide Colonel Charles Venable, said that Cold Harbor was the easiest victory the Army of North Virginia had been handed by a Federal commander. 

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