On the night of May 31, 1864, the First Corps, including the 13th Mississippi Regiment, marched for Cold Harbor. Plans called for getting onto Grant’s left flank and rolling it up while the rest of Lee’s army attacked Grant’s front.
The First Corps was in the middle of Lee’s line, so it was necessary to get around the Second Corps to their right and they had to fall back to do so.
“The whole circuitous march only covered some eight miles, but it took most of the night,” historian Robert K. Krick wrote. “There was much confusion amid the dust and the darkness and the men talked the whole way of their high hopes for a great success.”
Grant, meanwhile, also was preparing to attack on June 1, but on his own left flank, at Cold Harbor, about ten miles northeast of Richmond, which was his destination. When the Rebs got in position, Kershaw’s Division, including the 13th, led the assault, meeting heavy resistance from entrenched Union cavalry with seven-shot Spencer carbines. Kershaw withdrew.
“[A]fter it was determined to give up our glorious hopes of sweeping Grant’s rear,” First Corps artillery chief Edward Porter Alexander wrote after the war, “we were ordered to close up gaps & begin immediately to intrench ourselves.”
The terrain was generally flat with thin stands of pine woods surrounded by many small clearings and the Rebel line of almost seven miles long was just about straight. Cold Harbor was a rural crossroads, and essentially the same ground over which the Battle of Gaines Mill had been fought in 1862.
The Rebel artillery would have pretty much clear fields of fire, and they got their first use of them that evening when two corps of federal infantry surprised the First Corps, and Kershaw’s Division, with a sudden attack.
“Our single line was only 2 deep,” Alexander wrote, “& had no reserves or reinforcements. Their force was very much greater than ours and, moreover from the way in which it was massed, its attack had to be borne by but little more than one half of our line.”
It began at six o’clock “with a sharp increase of fire on our skirmish line,” Alexander continued, “& presently the skirmishers running in , caused a sudden cessation of our digging & everyone stood to his arms.
“Soon a perfect tornado of fire broke out in front of Hoke and Kershaw & everything on their lines turned loose in reply, [artillery] and musketry.”
The Union troops penetrated through a gap of about fifty yards between Hoke’s and Kershaw’s lines. “Here they captured about 500 prisoners & a little of each adjacent end of the breastwork,” Alexander wrote. The Rebel brigades recovered a portion of the line, took their own prisoners and formed a horseshoe connecting the two lines around the gap.
At least two men of the 13th were casualties of the day, according to Jess N. McLean’s history of the regiment. He lists them as Private Gibbert B. O’Neal of the Alamutcha Infantry whose records state that he was “killed mistakenly while in the ditches.” The other man, Private William Thomas White of the Pettus Guards was severely wounded in the shoulder.
It was later discovered that Private Columbus R. Hand, of the Lauderdale Zouaves, had been captured.
Alexander recalled that it rained the next day, June 2 and soon became a downpour. It was thus pretty quiet on the First Corps front “although sharpshooting and ragged artillery exchanges continued almost incessantly,” Krick wrote, “as was habitual by this time” in Grant’s Overland Campaign.
One of the sharpshooters was Private Henry D. Halfacre of the Winston Guards. He may have drawn fire on himself for he was soon killed.
The next morning, June 3, dawned clear. It was the day for which the words Cold Harbor would become synonymous with battlefield butchery—a lopsided, bloody Union defeat.
The same two corps of June 1, joined by a third, moved through a heavy ground fog and attacked the now-concave Rebel lines, suffering something of a crossfire by the end of their advance.
“They came with the dawn and they came pounding,” Shelby Foote wrote in his three-volume history of the war, “three blue corps with better than 60,000 effectives… Never before, in this or perhaps in any other war, had so large a body of troops been exposed to such a concentration of firepower.”
It lasted just eight minutes and about 7,000 Union troops were left dead or dying, according to Foote, “in triangles,” he quoted a defender saying, “of which the apexes were the bravest men who came nearest to the breastworks…”
The right wing corps, composed of Army regulars, and New York and Massachusetts volunteers, was commanded by Union General “Baldy” Smith of Vermont. They were channeled into two ravines as they attacked Kershaw’s Division, “with close-packed ranks,” Foote wrote, and Smith “saw to his amazement that ‘the dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid.’”
Grant, whose tenacity was unlike any Union general who had preceded him in command of the Army of the Potomac, wasn’t through. About 7 a.m., he ordered the Union attack renewed and it was, after a fashion, with many a blind, skyward volley from Union troops prone on their bellies and digging in. Some, according to Foote, were disturbed to unearth the skeletons of troops who had died there in 1862.
But Smith, for one, calling a repetition of the attack a “wanton waste of life,” according to historian Gordon C. Rhea, refused to advance again. By noon, Grant conceded that the day was done. After sundown, the Union troops left their trenches and withdrew.
In his memoirs, written long after the war, as he was dying of cancer, Grant wrote: “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.”
It was the end of Grant’s Overland Campaign, more than forty days of near-continuous fighting, and the final major-battle victory won by Lee’s army in the war. The Rebels lost about 1,500 troops doing it.
The 13th Mississippi, according to independent historian Jess McLean, lost twelve men, five killed and seven wounded at Cold Harbor, of their little more than 100 remaining effectives. McLean identified them as:
Killed: Private Jonathan J. Eldridge, of the Kemper Legion; Private William George Baber of the Spartan Band; and three from the Lauderdale Zouaves: Private E. Obediah Matheny; Private John J. White; and Private John R. Currie.
Wounded: Private George Lafayette Clark of the Minutemen of Attala; Private John J. Golden of the Wayne Rifles; two from the Secessionists: Corporal Thomas Hinson and Private William T. Parks; Second Lieutenant Marcet R. Watkins of the Newton Rifles; Private William Thomas White of the Pettus Guards; and Private Benjamin F. Hollinghead of the Lauderdale Zouaves.
On June 4 and 5 the sharpshooting, cannonading and skirmishing of the previous days continued. On June 8, at Grant’s request Lee agreed to a two-hour truce to bury his dead in front of the Rebel lines.
“It was a novel scene,” a private in the 16th Mississippi Infantry Regiment wrote his mother back home, “to see our boys and the Yankees mixing up and talking together on friendly terms. The boys traded tobacco for coffee. I threw an old dirty Yank a piece of tobacco and he threw me a little sack of coffee…I wish the time would come when we could sit on the gallery [at home] and eat peaches and laugh.”
After the truce the sharpshooting and cannonading resumed. But five days later, on the morning of June 13, the Rebs found that most of their Union enemy had disappeared from their front and were moving south again.