Three days prior to this date in Civil War history, June 3rd, 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant marched Union troops into a frontal assault at Cold Harbor, Virginia on entrenched Confederates. The general later believed this attack to be one of his greatest military mistakes. As a result 7,000 Union casualties were lost in less than an hour of fighting.
Prior to this battle, both Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had endured great losses as they wheeled along an arc around Richmond, Virginia. This path covered the Wilderness forest to Spotsylvania, and included numerous smaller battle sites over the previous month.
The collision for Lee and Grant began at Bethesda Church on May 30, 1864. The following day, advance units of both armies arrived 10 miles from Richmond, at the strategic crossroads of Cold Harbor. A Union attack seized this important intersection. Grant prepared for a major assault along the entire Confederate front on June 2, when he sensed he had no chance for a victory over Lee at the outskirts of Richmond.
Unfortunately, Winfield Hancock’s Union corps arrived late and the operation had to be postponed until the following day. The delay hurt the Union plans, allowing General Lee’s troops time to entrench themselves. On June 3, Grant gave his order to attack, but this decision resulted in a disaster. The Yankees met overwhelming fire, and could only reach a few Confederate trenches. 7,000 Union casualties, compared to only 1,500 for the Confederates, were lost in under an hour.
Nine days later, Grant pulled out of Cold Harbor in his pursuit of flanking Lee’s army.
The next stop, south of Richmond, was Petersburg, resulting in a nine-month siege. There would be no more attacks on the scale of Cold Harbor.
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