Battle of Cold Harbor

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The Battle of Cold Harbor, one of the final battles of Union Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's 1864 Overland Campaign during the American Civil War, is remembered as one of American history's bloodiest, most lopsided battles. Thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded in a hopeless frontal assault against the fortified troops of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Grant said of the battle in his memoirs "I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained."

Contents

Location

The battle was fought in central Virginia, in what is now Mechanicsville, over the same ground as the Battle of Gaines' Mill during the Seven Days Battles of 1862. In fact, some accounts refer to the 1862 battle as the First Battle of Cold Harbor, and the 1864 battle as the Second Battle of Cold Harbor. Union soldiers were disturbed to discover skeletal remains from the first battle while entrenching. Despite its name, Cold Harbor was not a port city. It described two rural crossroads named for a hotel located in the area (Cold Harbor Tavern, owned by the Isaac Burnett family), which provided shelter (harbor) but not hot meals. Old Cold Harbor stood two miles east of Gaines' Mill, New Cold Harbor a mile southeast. Both were approximately 10 miles (16 km) northeast of the Confederate capital of Richmond.

Background and opposing forces

Grant's Overland Campaign had been underway since May 4, 1864. The battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House were bloody stalemates. The Battle of North Anna represented a trap set by Lee, which Grant avoided. After each of these major engagements, Grant maneuvered the Army of the Potomac (formally under the command of Maj. Gen. George G. Meade but under Grant's direct supervision) around Lee's right flank and headed to the southeast. As the Union Army crossed the Pamunkey River and Lee attempted to determine Grant's position and intentions, three smaller engagements occurred at Haw's Shop, Totopotomoy Creek (Bethesda Church), and Old Church. (Some historians classify these three engagements as part of the greater Cold Harbor battle.) From the Old Church engagement, Lee determined that Union cavalry had designs on the Old Cold Harbor crossroads, which led to a road network that would allow easy access to Richmond, which was Lee's base of supply and the capital of the Confederacy.

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