While we were in Virginia, our friend / local-in-the-know took us on a day trip, exploring towards Richmond, Virginia. We visited Colonial Williamsburg, a 17-18th century-period town complete with Governor’s Residence, working farm, gunsmith, shoesmith, hatmakers, armory, and much much more. In the afternoon, we headed north-east of Richmond to the site of the Battle of Cold Harbor. There is far more qualified people to give a summary of the American Civil War… however, a little background history is probably needed to make some sense of this battle. At this stage of the war (May-June 1864), the war had been going on for nearly 4 years. While the early battles of the war had been very much in favour of the Confederacy, by 1864, the Confederacy was exhausted – both in terms of manpower (which it couldn’t replenish like the Union north could) and finances. Union Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant had led a very successful ‘Overland Campaign’, and by May 1864, was only 10 miles from Richmond. This was very important, as Richmond was the capital city of the Confederacy. If Grant could push through the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, war would surely come to an end. However, the proximity to their capital made the Confederate army, who were very much on the defensive, all that much more desperate to hold against the Union onslaught.
Late May 1864 saw the Union army led by Grant (which had a strength of over 100,000 men) fighting a series of running battles with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by Robert E. Lee (of over 59,000 men). On May 31, the armies met again, this time near by a crossroads with a tavern which offered harbor for the night, but only cold food – the ‘Cold Harbor Tavern’. What followed was 13 days of fighting; one of American’s bloodiest and most lopsided battles – The Battle of Cold Harbor.
Maybe due to overconfidence, the Union leaders ordered their troops, many of whom were untested replacements, to charge headlong at extremely seasoned, and very well entrenched Confederate lines. For some reason, the beginning of the battle was postponed several days, and the Confederates were able to entrench themselves – they dug 6 foot deep trenches, covered them above and placed raised logs along the lip which allowed them to fire out but covered their heads from incoming fire. This battle was one of the biggest uses of deep trenches and supporting tactics yet. I suppose it was a pointer towards the way that warfare would evolve – some 50 years later over 15 million people would die in warfare which would be almost defined by trenches – the ‘trench warfare’ of World War I.
Each day the Union soldiers were ordered to launch themselves at the lines. By the June 12, the Union army had lost over 13,000 killed, wounded or captured… while the Confederate army had lost approximately 2,500 men.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stated of the battle in his memoirs:
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. … No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained”.
Walking around the battlefield today, it is hard to comprehend what happened there. I didn’t have a spiritual moment like the kids that visit Gettysburg in Remember the Titans, but it wasn’t far off of it. The trenches are still there – they’re the most well preserved of any Civil War trenches. You can stand behind them and look down at the field, and boy does it look like a vast field to sprint across with artillery and hot lead flying past. The whole thing does seem a little futile, considering the Union and Confederate losses and almost very small strategic gain. This was the last Confederate victory of the war.
In any case, it is an impressive site to visit, especially on a cool Virginian afternoon, where you can stand in the shade under the Pine trees and look out across the trenches. I highly recommend that if you’re interested, you visit some of these websites (or the battlefield itself!):