On June 12, 1864, the Battle of Cold Harbor ended when General Ulysses S. Grant withdrew his Union troops following a failed attempt to break through Confederate lines to push on to Richmond. Though the battle had resulted in high Union casualties, it would essentially prove to be Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s final victory of the war.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was actually a series of skirmishes and battles that occurred between May 31 and June 12. Grant and Lee had been clashing the entire month of May in the battles of the Wilderness (May 5–7), Spotsylvania Court House (May 8–21), and North Anna (May 23–26), as Grant worked his way southeast to try to take Richmond. Finally, the two armies neared Cold Harbor, Virginia, just 10 miles from the Confederate capital.
The first action of the Battle of Cold Harbor occurred on May 31, when Union and Confederate cavalry fought for possession of Cold Harbor. The Union cavalry emerged the victors of that clash as well of the fight the following morning, when the Confederates—reinforced by the arrival of infantry—attacked again. The Union cavalry also shortly received reinforcements of infantry, and both sides began digging in and making entrenchments, creating a line 7 miles long. That same evening, June 1, the Union launched a partial attack to allow them to get in a better position for the battle planned for the following day, June 2.
However, due to the late arrival of a portion of his troops following an exhausting night march, Grant decided to let them rest, and the attack was postponed until the following day. However, this gave Lee’s troops time to get firmly entrenched, and the Union failed to reconnoiter the Confederate position and learn of the well-executed Confederate defenses.
Three Union corps attacked the Confederate entrenchments at dawn on June 3, and the result was one of the bloodiest battles of the war for the Union, despite the total number of available Union troops being nearly twice that of the Confederates. Caught in concentrated and overlapping fields of fire, Grant’s troops suffered high casualty rates. Although the battle would last until 1:30 that afternoon, the majority of the damage was done in the opening minutes of the fighting. Casualties for the Federal troops just for that day were estimated at around 7,000, while Confederate troops lost about 1,500.
Following the loss at Cold Harbor, Grant decided not to try for Richmond again but instead headed for the rail center of Petersburg, where both armies would become entrenched for most of the remainder of the war.
Did you have ancestors who fought at Cold Harbor? Tell us about it! Or search for more records about the battle on Fold3.