The Civil War Connections Blog

I-295, Exit 31: Cold Harbor

When driving to and from school, I always note the number of battlefields I pass. There’s Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville up along I-95 in Northern Virginia, and when I hit I-295 outside of Richmond, I always note the sign for Cold Harbor. Due to its central location and the fact that Washington D.C. was caught between a southern state, and a border state, much of the fighting that took place in the Eastern Theater of the Civil War occurred in Virginia. Similarly, the Confederate capital was located in Richmond, which is only about 108 miles from D.C. The first major battle following the attack on Fort Sumter was the First Battle of Bull Run, which is only about 30 miles outside of D.C. Cold Harbor, which took place in the summer of 1864, occurred a mere ten miles outside of Richmond. This battle, which was part of the Overland Campaign by the Union Army, produced horrendous amount of casualties and reduced the morale of the Union Army. However, it was the last victory Robert E. Lee would have over the Union prior to his surrender at Appomattox Court House.


Map of the Overland Campaign,  by Hal Jespersen, Accessed through Wikimedia.

Map of the Overland Campaign, by Hal Jespersen, Accessed through Wikimedia.


The Overland Campaign itself was a series of battles in which Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant’s armies clashed on the battlefield continuously as the generals played a strategic game of cat and mouse. Grant had intended to push south towards Richmond, in an attempt to capture the capital. Lee countered aggressively at the Battle of the Wilderness, resulting in massive casualty losses on both sides. However, while Lee expected Grant to pull back, Grant instead continued to push his armies southeast. For the months of May and June, the two armies met at a number of battles after which Grant continuously refused to turn around and instead pushed south. The battle of Cold Harbor, which took place from May 31 until June 12, was the final battle out of this campaign prior to the Union siege of Petersburg.


Ulysses S. Grant, outside of his tent at Cold Harbor. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Ulysses S. Grant, outside of his tent at Cold Harbor. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.


During the actual battle, the Union troops were stalled by the delayed arrival of support that provided the Confederate troops with extra time to create better fortifications and entrenchments that would protect them against attacks. On June 1st, Major General William Smith’s Army of the James had to turn around after marching in the wrong direction due to a failure to receive updated orders, and arrived late in the afternoon for an attack only went until night fall. On the following day, Grant had planned for a 5am attack, but the troops of Major General Winfield Hancock didn’t arrive until 6:30am, after being exhausted from their march the night before. Both of these delays allowed the Confederates time to prepare for the attacks, and when the Union troops finally attacked on June 4th, they couldn’t advance against the Confederates. With neither army able to advance, and Grant and Lee negotiated a cease fire, and it is determined a Union loss. After the battle, Grant gave up his campaign towards Richmond, and instead moved to besiege Petersburg.


The casualties of Cold Harbor and the Overland Campaign were outrageously high for both armies. At just Cold Harbor, the Union army lost 12,000 men that were killed, wounded, missing or captured, while the Confederates lost about 4,000 casualties.[1] In total, the Overland Campaign produced about 55,000 casualties for the Union troops, with about 7,600 deaths. The Confederates suffered 32,600 casualties, with about 4,200 killed.[2] While it was seen as a loss for the Union because of the sheer number of casualties, it could actually be considered a tactical success for engaging Lee, and drawing the army down to Petersburg to be tied up in a siege. It diverted Confederate attention away from the capital, and ensured that they wouldn’t be disengaging for an extended period of time. The siege gave the Union army a chance to wear down the Confederacy, which arguably benefitted them in the long run. However, the sheer number of men that were lost did prove to be an issue, as both Confederate and Union troops lost morale as the war dragged on.

[1] “Richmond: Cold Harbor,” National Park Service, Accessed April 4, 2013.

[2] Gordon C Rhea. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26 – June 3, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002, p. 393.