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