The Battle of Cold Harbor was the last engagement of Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign. While the battle would end as a victory for Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, it would also usher in another form of warfare in the Eastern Theater.
After beginning the Overland Campaign in May 1864, Grant and Lee clashed at the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, North Anna and Cold Harbor. Each of these was marked by desperate frontal attacks by the Federals against Lee's defensive positions.
Each time, Grant suffered enormous casualties but continued the fight. Some people at home and members of the press began to call Grant a butcher because of the high casualty count.
By late May, Grant ordered Phil Sheridan's cavalry to advance south and capture the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. Sheridan clashed with Fitzhugh Lee's Confederate horsemen. Confederate infantry joined in the fray but were pushed back by Sheridan.
On June 1, 1864, Lee ordered Joseph Kershaw's division to retake Old Cold Harbor. Once again, Sheridan repulsed the attack. Encouraged by Sheridan's success, Grant called for reinforcements and planned for his own frontal assault. If the Federals could break Lee's lines, the Union army would be between the Army of Northern Virginia and Richmond.
Delays pushed back the Federal assault until 5 p.m. This allowed the Confederates to strengthen their lines. Horatio Wright's corps exploited a gap between Kershaw and Hoke's divisions. A Confederate counterattack sealed the breach. The Confederates strengthened their lines that night and waited for the battle to begin next morning.
Grant planned a 5 a.m., attack but this was delayed by as Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps' long night march. Grant delayed the attack allowing Hancock's men to get some rest. Meanwhile, Lee personally supervised the strengthening of Confederate entrenchments. With these improvements, Lee now had interlocking trenches with overlapping fields of fire.
On June 3, 1864, 50,000 Federals troops launched a massive assault. In less than an hour, thousands of Federal soldiers lay dead or dying between the lines. Grant's fallen soldiers were pinned down. They could neither advance nor retreat. Using cups, plates and bayonets, the Federal soldiers tried their best to dig their own trench for protection.
Although the fighting was over, hundreds of wounded Federal soldiers remained on the field for four days. Grant was hesitant to ask for a cease-fire as this would be an admission of a Union defeat.
When the cease-fire was eventually agreed upon by Grant and Lee, most of the wounded Union soldiers caught in no man's land were now dead. They had cooked under the Virginia sun. Their bodies were buried where the lay as they were bloated and black from four days of exposure.
In the Battle of Cold Harbor, the Union army suffered 12,000 casualties compared to 4,000 by the Confederates. The number of casualties was shocking to the Federal soldiers. One of John Gibbon's soldiers said of Cold Harbor, "We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made."
One of those wounded was Joseph T. Jones of the 91st Pennsylvania. Jones, who was a driving force in the founding Gulfport, in 1898, was wounded when a shell exploded at his feet. Severely wounded, Jones lay in a trench for 24 hours before aid reached him. He would never fully recover from his wounds and this would be the reason for his discharge from the Army of the Potomac.
Grant later wrote 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."
Grant would order no more attacks on the Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor. Instead, Grant began a siege of the Confederate position. This was something in which Grant had experience.
In 1863, Grant launched two failed frontal assaults at Vicksburg before deciding to "out camp" his foe. Ultimately, his siege at Vicksburg defeated the Confederates. Now, it was time to lay siege in Virginia.