Please read the overview and complete the time and place assignments to acquire historical context for the battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Some vocabulary is also listed that you will encounter in the sources. Then you will be ready to read the documents and complete the questions designed to go with them.


The Battle of Cold Harbor grew out of Ulysses S. Grant's campaign to take Richmond and, in the process, destroy Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. His goal in 1864 was to destroy the military viability of the Confederacy. To do this, he designed a multifaceted approach: send Franz Sigel with an army to deprive the Confederacy of the valuable Shenandoah Valley, have Benjamin Butler's Army of the James move up to the James River from the east toward Richmond from the north. The result, Grant hoped, would put too much pressure on Lee's limited resources, and final victory would be achieved. Unlike generals McClellan and Hooker who thought of advances on Lee in terms of battles, the outcome of which determined their next move, Grant conceived of battles as means to a larger end. If his Army of the Potomac suffered defeats against Lee, the larger objective could still be achieved if Sigel or Butler scored successes elsewhere. With over 100,000 men, Grant's Army of the Potomac was nearly twice as large as Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Sooner or later the Confederates would have to crack.

Robert E. Lee would of course have to find some way to thwart all three Union advances. His best chance would be to stymie Union advances in the Valley and on the James while drawing few troops away from his own Army of Northern Virginia. Then, await the right moment when the Army of the Potomac became vulnerable, perhaps when they were too strung out while marching south, and inflict on them a devastating defeat. He knew, above all, he had to prevent being forced into defensive positions in Richmond while surrounded by the Union armies. He had to make Grant pay dearly for every mile he gained, avoid being pinned down inside Richmond, and play for time. Time in fact was perhaps Lee's best weapon. The war's cost had deeply reduced President Lincoln's chance for reelection in November of that year. If Lee could make the cost of Grant's offensive too high, Northern voters might accomplish what he could not. A new political environment might allow for southern independence.

The name Cold Harbor apparently comes from the old English usage of the word harbor as a place for travelers to rest; a cold harbor served only cold food. The Union Army's experience at Cold Harbor would be far from hospitable. Cold Harbor was to be Grant's third huge consecutive loss as Union forces slowly locked Lee into defending Richmond in mid-1864. There were an estimated 13,000 Union casualities which vastly overshadowed the estimated 1,500 Confederate casualities. However the Confederacy had only half the manpower of the Union at this point in the war. Both sides would be seriously damaged by this battle, but each would claim some sort of victory.

The Cold Harbor battle was fought between May 31 and June 12, 1864. It is a good example of how mistakes, luck, physical environment, communication and leadership impact both public and private life. The most dramatic examples are supplied by the events of June 2-3, one of the most traumatic days of the war for the Union. Seven thousand Union casualties occurred in thirty minutes on the early morning of June 3, 1864; this led to the cessation of fighting and for Grant to call off further attacks. While the soldiers and those in command were obviously most affected, those who observed, those who read or heard about the results, and those who had relatives there also felt Cold Harbor's impact.

After Cold Harbor, Grant still had the strategic advantage because Lee could not move without exposing Richmond. So Grant moved his entire army around Lee and crossed the James River. There he would meet up with Butler's Army of the James to strike a fatal blow at Petersburg causing a nine month siege. By early April of 1865, the Confederates had lost hold of their last supply line and Richmond surrendered to the Union on April 2; Lee formally surrendered to Grant seven days later in Appomattox. The process of incorporating eleven renegade southern states back into the Union was the next matter at hand.


  1. To gain a sense of time and place to understand the historical context of a Civil War battle by completing preliminary activities.
  2. To work with primary sources related to Cold Harbor by answering questions that spiral in complexity.
  3. To experience history first hand by reading and answering questions using primary sources.
  4. To acquire a more direct and complex sense of history by reading about the experiences of the military leadership, ordinary soldiers, and the home front.


Make sure you know what the following terms mean. Be sure to look up any other words you encounter that you do not know the meanings of.

  1. Army of the Potomac/Generals Meade and Grant
  2. Army of Northern Virginia/General Robert E. Lee
  3. corps, division, brigade, regiment
  4. works, breastworks
  5. reconnaissance
  6. commenced
  7. topographical
  8. casualties


You may encounter misspellings when working with primary sources. For example, Cold Harbor is called Coal Harbor in a Union newspaper account.

Links to Documents:

  • Grant-Lee correspondence on burying the war dead
  • Letters between Grant, Meade, and Halleck
  • Reports from Robert E. Lee to the Secretary of War
  • Report from the medical department concerning the Battle of Cold Harbor
  • "Marching to Cold Harbor, May 4-June 1, 1864" Map
  • Three maps of Cold Harbor dated June 1, June 2, June 3, 1864
  • Clark's Diary, May 28-June 15, 1864
  • Letters from Charles Phelps
  • Diary of Lt. Henry Clay Christiancy
  • Letter from Major General George Meade to his wife
  • Letter of Charles Chase
  • Charles Chase: Report of J.S. Patch
  • Charles Chase: Report of General Stannard
  • Charles Chase: Report of Rev. Z. Thompson
  • Charles Chase: Letter of Preston C.H. West
  • Charles Chase: Poem of Julia Chase Washburn
  • Map Drafted by Union Engineer, page one, page two
  • Report of Major General Winfield S. Hancock
  • Report of N. Michler, Major of Engineers, U.S. Army
  • Diary of Sargeant McCullough
  • The Charleston Mercury, June 4, 1864
  • Richmond Dispatch, June 4, 1864
  • The New York Herald, June 7, 1864
  • The New York Herald, June 8, 1864

  • Related Documents of Interest: Photographs of Confederate fortifications and Federal cemeteries at Cold Harbor can be found in: Alexander Gardner, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War, (New York: Dover Publications, 1959).

    Additional Secondary Source Reading: