As part of Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864 the Union army was once again making a push for the Confederate capital of Richmond. Grant’s army pushed south and was positioned more or less east of Richmond. Grant was relentless in his push and all the while kept Lee away from his supply lines.
May 31, 1864 Union cavalry under the command of Philip Sheridan took control of the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. These crossroads put Grant’s army in a magnificent position to attack Lee and push on Richmond from multiple directions. Lee recognized this and needed to remove this threat.
After a failed attempt to retake the crossroads, the Confederate army began to dig in on the evening of June 1st. One reason for their lack of success was because Sheridan’s cavalry were outfitted with repeating rifles. For the next 24 hours both armies sized each other up and brought in more reinforcements.
Grant ordered a Union assault across the line at 4:30 a.m. on June 3rd. The assault was a slaughter- poorly executed, lack of communication and coordination, with little pre-assault reconnaissance against the Confederate line. By 5:00 a.m. 7,000 Union casualties had already amassed. Soon thereafter, the assault was called off; Union casualties at Cold Harbor were 13,000 while the Confederates had 5,000 casualties.
Grant in his memoirs said later that he always regretted “that last assault at Cold Harbor.” An aide also witnessed Grant weeping as a result of the failed assault became clear. In a month’s time Grant had amassed well over 50,000 casualties, earning the nickname “the Butcher” by his critics in the North.
Cold Harbor showcased the utter human destruction that resulted from the Civil War. It also forced Grant to use his numerical troop advantage in a new way; the Union army headed south to Petersburg where it would lay siege for the remainder of the war. At the same time Sherman began his grand “marched to the sea.”