Hurricane From the Heavens

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This is a book by Daniel Davis and Phillip Greenwalt in the Emerging Civil War series published by Savas-Beatie.  It’s an overview of the battle of Cold Harbor.  As with the rest of the books in this series, you can read the book in a day if you want.  It’s well written, and is a good book to bring with you if you go to the battlefield.

They tell us that after being thwarted at the North Anna, “Foremost in Grant’s mind was being able to supply the army.  A move to the west, around Lee’s left would extend his supply lines and leave them vulnerable.  Another march around Lee’s right, to the southeast, would allow Grant to utilize the Virginia rivers to transport supplies.  Additionally, it would place Grant closer to the Union Army of the James, which was actively campaigning against the city of Petersburg.  The maneuver would present Grant the option of using the two forces to operate in concert against Lee.” [p. 7]  Grant issued his orders to move.  Davis and Greenwalt tell us, “Grant’s plan to swing east seemed sound.  However, Grant would limit the one trump card he had played time and again: maneuver.  From the Wilderness to the North Anna, where the armies were currently stalemated, Grant had executed a march around the Confederate right flank to gain a more favorable edge.  It had been the great equalizer.  By shifting to the ground between the Pamunkey and Chickahominy Rivers, Grant would be severely condensing the area of operations.  Grant believed that he would not be able to fight Lee in the open and restricting his movement could potentially limit future maneuvers should Lee be able to counter again.” [pp. 7-8]  Grant was convinced that the failure of Lee to attack him at the North Anna meant that the ANV was just about finished.  Grant wasn’t aware that it was Lee’s illness at the time that prevented an attack.

In discussing the Army of the Potomac’s movement, the authors tell us, “To deceive Lee from his true intentions, Grant decided to send Brig. Gen. James Wilson’s cavalry division west to demonstrate against the Confederate left.  While Wilson kept the Rebels in check, [Brig. Gen. David] Russell’s division [of the VI Corps] would withdraw from their lines below the North Anna River to Chesterfield Station and await nightfall.  With the remainder of the cavalry corps under Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, Russell’s men would march southeast to the Pamunkey, with the remainder of their army following in their wake.  The cavalrymen would forge a crossing and establish a bridgehead on the south bank to allow the infantry to cross.” [p. 13]  Lee began to receive reports of Union movements.  “To determine what the Union forces were up to, Lee directed [Maj. Gen. Richard] Anderson [commanding the ANV’s I Corps] to forward skirmishers and make contact with the enemy.  Anderson chose the division of Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw to undertake the task.  Kershaw directed his skirmishers to ascertain what, if any, Union troops occupied the entrenchments facing them.  The movement brought them into contact with elements of Brig. Gen. Robert B. Potter’s IX Corps Division, temporarily under Winfield Scott Hancock’s charge, and the Northern soldiers responded properly.  A steady skirmish was kept up between the antagonists.  When the news and gunfire trickled back to the Confederate high command, Lee interpreted this as support for his theory that the dogged Federal defense was to mask the movement of men from the Union left flank to the right.” [p. 14]  The Federals marched through the night of May 26 and into May 27.  Lee would react on the 28th of May.

“Though unsure of Grant’s objective, Lee realized he had to act quickly and decisively.  By midmorning the Army of Northern Virginia had abandoned its trenches at the North Anna and was  headed southeast toward the Virginia Central Railroad.  Lee’s mission was to place his army astride this important railroad near a small hamlet called Atlee’s Station.  This would put him in a prime position to block any movement from the Pamunkey.” [p. 17]  By that night they had made it to Hughes’ Crossroads.  “Orders went out that night to resume the movement to Atlee’s Station.  This time, the objective was Totopotomoy Creek where high ground would offer Lee a prime defensive position.  Before the movement could commence, a change in command occurred for the Confederate army.  [Lt. Gen. Richard S.] Ewell [commanding the ANV II Corps], racked with dysentery, relinquished command to Maj. Gen. Jubal Early.  Lee, on May 29, urged Ewell ‘to retire from the field that he may have the benefit of rest and medical treatment’ and he ordered his subordinate to ‘proceed to some place where you can enjoy that repose and proper care.’  With those simple directives, Ewell–the heir-apparent to the late Stonewall Jackson and his former subaltern–left the Army of Northern Virginia, never to command the corps again.” [pp. 17-18]

The authors discuss the battles at Haw’s Shop, the Totopotomoy Creek, and Bethesda Church that preceded the move to and fight at Cold Harbor.  The authors then take us through the initial fighting over the crossroads.

On June 1, Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. Alfred T. A. Torbert held the crossroads at Cold Harbor while the VI Corps under Maj. Gen. Horatio G. Wright marched to their support.  Confederate infantry under Anderson were about to attack.  “Anderson’s orders were to launch a two-pronged assault.  Kershaw would begin the action with an advance in the direction of Beulah Church.  When his division stepped off, he was to notify Hoke.  After receiving word, the North Carolinian would send his division toward Old Cold Harbor.  Major Generals George Pickett and Charles Field–commanders of the other two First Corps divisions–would be on hand to provide support when a breakthrough occurred.  Around daybreak, Kershaw launched his attack.  One unique characteristic of the attack was by the brigade of Col. Laurence M. Keitt, formerly Kershaw’s old command.  Keitt had just arrived with the 20th South Carolina from garrison duty in Charleston and reported to Kershaw’s division in late May.  The other South Carolina regiments in the division, all veterans, were shocked to see the sheer number of men the 20th brought to the field–approximately 1,100 men total.  That was the size of Kershaw’s entire brigade, which showed just how much the war had attrited their own numbers by 1864.  Keitt shocked the South Carolinians even further by preparing to lead the charge while sitting atop a horse in front of the command–yet another reminder of the earlier, and more naïve, days of the war. … The Confederate attack had barely begun when Keitt, on his horse, went down with a mortal wound shortly after the command entered the woods that masked the Union lines.  His attack faltered quickly thereafter in front of the amazing firepower of Torbert’s Spencer-carbine-wielding cavalrymen.” [pp. 64-65]  By 10AM the VI Corps began to arrive.  Lee sent more troops, and more Federal troops began to show up.  The two sides began to construct fortifications for their lines.  Then the Federals attacked.

“At 6 p.m. the Federal line rolled forward.  Advancing along the Cold Harbor Road was Brig. Gen. Emory Upton’s brigade.  A surgeon in one of his regiments recalled that Upton was acting particularly ‘wolfish’ that day.  Leading Upton’s assault was the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery.  In preparing for the attack, Upton decided to use the same tactics that had worked so well for him at Spotsylvania.  The feisty brigade commander instructed the regiment’s colonel, Elisha Kellogg, to form his regiment in three lines.  The first line was to move forward against the Rebel works as rapidly as possible and, if luck held, breach the enemy position.  The two succeeding lines of Connecticut soldiers would move up and exploit the breach.  As they crossed the open field toward the enemy works, at no point were the New Englanders to stop and return fire as they made their charge.” [p. 67]  At first, the attack faltered and Kellogg was killed, but Upton personally rode in and inspired his men, even grabbing a musket and firing it himself.  The rest of the VI Corps as well as the XVIII Corps joined in the assault.  “This began a seesaw fight as the Confederate force staggered under the blows delivered against it.  To stem the tide in front of Kershaw and Hoke, Anderson countered by pulling various brigades from Field’s division, which was not engaged, but it wasn’t enough.  Despite the stiff resistance, Wright and Smith forced the Rebels out of their first line of works.  The fighting began to dissipate around dusk.  Without reserves to exploit their success, the Federals could do little but dig in and solidify their lines.  Their newly occupied position would be the jumping off point for their next assault.  In some instances, only 50 yards separated the men wearing the blue from those wearing the gray.  It would not be long before thousands of men would fall either defending or trying to conquer those 50 yards.” [p. 69]

That ended the first assault.  “Both Grant and Lee had by now recognized that the epicenter of operations had shifted from the Totopotomoy to Cold Harbor.  Whoever could mass their troops there quickest would likely gain the upper hand in the next round of fighting.  With the two armies in such close proximity, Confederate lookouts began to notice when Grant began shifting men to his left.  Lee responded quickly.  At midnight, Major General Breckenridge [sic] and his division began their march south.  Lee needed Breckinridge to be at Cold Harbor by dawn to support the growing number of Confederates already opposing Wright and Smith.  As June 2 dawned, Lee decided that he needed to bolster his right flank even further.  The Third Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. William Mahone and Cadmus Wilcox would follow in Breckinridge’s wake and then anchor the Confederate line on the Chickahominy River.  Inevitable delays caused Breckenridge [sic] to arrive late.  However, luck was on the Rebel side that day: their Northern counterparts were experiencing frustrations of their own.” [pp. 73-74] Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps marched through the night to get there.  “Hancock’s instructions were to launch an assault as soon as he was able after uniting with Wright and Smith.  Although his men were ‘worn out’ after their ‘hot and dusty night march,’ Meade decided to postpone the assault until 5 p.m. that evening. … Meanwhile, Confederate reinforcements, albeit slowly, were approaching the new area of operations.  As the day wore on, each side set about improving their positions and throwing up earthworks.” [p. 74]  Grant decided to cancel the June 2 attack and told Meade to attack on June 3.  “However formidable those Confederate lines were, Grant could not ignore the chance of one great assault breaking through and opening the road to the Confederate capital.  Since crossing the Pamunkey, it seemed that his fortunes were beginning to turn.  The successful skirmishing at Totopotomoy Creek, the repulse of the Rebels at Bethesda Church, and the minor gains of the assaults on June 1 were encouraging, even emboldening.  Grant’s original objective–to wear Lee down–finally looked as if it was working.  Given the events of the last week, the assault, if properly executed, could spell an end to the fighting and quite possibly, the war.  Grant had to try–and with his characteristic bulldog tenacity, one could expect a great effort in the morning.” [p. 78]

The June 3 assault was the key attack.  “The only bright spot was that some of the Rebel earthworks were near streams and ravines that could provide some protection for the advancing Federals but which would also severely disrupt their coordination.  As the assaults progressed the ravines did not provide as much cover as hoped but provided enough distraction to break up cohesion.  Smith’s Federals attacked across an expanse of a few hundred acres.  The Confederate veterans waited for them, just as they had at the battle of Fredericksburg a year and a half prior.  Firing from a protected position, they dropped the oncoming Union soldiers in rows.  The firing line was so crowded that–again, just as it was behind the stone wall at Marye’s Heights in December of 1862–rifles were handed to the men in the front rank to fire and then passed back to be reloaded even as the men grabbed new rifles and kept firing.  Yet onward the Federals came.” [pp. 85-86]  Union forces did see some success, though.  “Almost miraculously, on Gibbon’s left, elements of Francis Barlow’s division were able to briefly penetrate the Confederate line.  Commencing the assault, the 7th New York Heavy Artillery moved at the double-quick toward the Confederate lines. … Onward the regiment went, up a rise and, upon reaching the enemy works, finally opening with a scathing volley.  Up and over and through the Rebels they went as both sides engaged in hand-to-hand combat.  An onlooker wrote that the ‘grey backs were flying in all directions,’  Joining the New Yorkers was the 5th New Hampshire from Col. Nelson Miles’ brigade.  ‘The rebels were driven from their [e]ntrenchments … leaving the guns and several prisoners in our possession,’ one New Hampshire officer later wrote.” [pp. 88-89]  The results of the attack, though, are well known.  The temporary break in Lee’s line was repaired and Barlow’s men were forced to retreat.  The rest of the confederate line remained unbroken.  “Throughout the morning, dispatches streamed into Meade’s headquarters.  Barlow’s temporary breakthrough had shown some promise.  As the hours wore on, though, it became clear that little headway could be made by the Union divisions.  Unrelenting, Meade continued to send directives to his corps commanders to push the lines forward.  Grant encouraged his conduct, instructing that ‘the moment it becomes certain that an assault cannot succeed, suspend the offensive, but when one does succeed push it vigorously.’  Finally, early in the afternoon, the Federal high command decided to cease offensive operations.” [p. 96]

The book is really well done.  It is copiously illustrated with outstanding maps from Hal Jespersen and with numerous drawings and photographs.  It also contains an annotated driving tour of the battlefields.  In addition, five appendices help place the action in historical context.  Appendix D, by Chris Mackowski and Philip Greenwalt, though, makes the claim, “In less than half an hour, Grant lost as many as seven thousand men.” [p. 143]  Gordon Rhea has shown this is wrong already, and indeed on Page 97 Davis and Greenwalt write, “Casualties attributed for the assault typically rest around 7,000, but this figure may be closer to the losses suffered on both June 1 and June 3.  Somewhere around 4,000 men fell on June 3 alone.  This number is significantly less than the 8,000 Union soldiers who fell in front of Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg or the 6,000-plus Confederate soldiers lost in Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg.”  Rhea’s figures are the best available, and they should probably adhere to them.

If you want to really understand the Battle of Cold Harbor, read Rhea’s treatment of it.  But if you want a quick overview and a book you can take with you to the battlefield and use while you’re there, this is the one for you.  I can highly recommend it.


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