Civil War Series

The Battle of Cold Harbor



By sunup on June 1, Torbert had improvised earthworks across the roads converging at Old Cold Harbor, Merritt faced Anderson at Beulah Church, Custer faced Hoke at New Cold Harbor, and Devin guarded the road running south toward the Chickahominy River. Davies's brigade of Gregg's division pulled up in reserve on the road threading back to Old Church.

The Union cavalrymen glanced anxiously toward Old Church, hoping for the promised infantry reinforcements—Wright's Sixth Corps and Smith's Eighteenth Corps. The road remained empty.

The Union cavalrymen glanced anxiously toward Old Church, hoping for the promised infantry reinforcements—Wright's Sixth Corps and Smith's Eighteenth Corps. The road remained empty. Wright's men, it developed, had not started until midnight and were trudging laboriously along a circuitous, fifteen-mile route past Haw's Shop and Old Church on roads ankle deep in dust. And Smith had been sent the wrong way! His orders mistakenly directed him to New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey, several miles from Cold Harbor. Smith discovered the error after reaching New Castle Ferry, too late to arrive in time to assist Torbert.

The nervous Federal cavalrymen would have rested easier had they been privy to the state of affairs among the rebels. For one thing, Anderson had failed to coordinate Hoke's division with his own corps. A joint attack would have been effective, but Anderson left Hoke with the understanding that he was not to assault until the First Corps' attack was well under way. Anderson selected a battle-hardened brigade formerly commanded by Brigadier General Joseph B. Kershaw to lead the charge. Kershaw, however, had been elevated to division command, and fate on this day placed the fine outfit in the unfortunate hands of Colonel Lawrence M. Keitt, a flamboyant politician who had recently joined the brigade as colonel of the 20th South Carolina, a regiment so huge that Kershaw's veterans laughingly dubbed it the Twentieth Army Corps. The South Carolinians were veterans of the brutal bombardment at Battery Wagner, but they had no experience in warfare as Lee and Grant practiced it in Virginia.



Keitt positioned the 20th South Carolina in the fore of his assault column. Sometime around 8:00 A.M., mounted grandly on a "superb iron-gray," Keitt led the brigade toward Merritt's entrenched cavalrymen. Armed with seven-shot Spencer carbines, the Federals waited until Keitt came within range and opened fire. The action smacked more of murder than civilized combat. A blaze of bullets riddled Keitt and his front line, and the 20th South Carolina ceased functioning as an organized unit. "I have never seen any body of troops in such a condition of utter demoralization," an observer remarked. "They actually groveled upon the ground and attempted to burrow under each other in holes and depressions." Hoke, pursuant to his understanding of his orders, did not join in. Stunned by the unexpected ferocity of Merritt's firepower, Anderson canceled the attack. Noted one of Merritt's troopers: "The whole thing was over in less than five minutes." Responsibility for the debacle rested squarely on Anderson, whose deficiencies as a successor to the wounded Longstreet were becoming painfully apparent.

Elated at their success, the Union cavalrymen were nonetheless relieved when at 9:00 A.M. Wright's lead elements tramped up to Old Cold Harbor, "Never were reinforcements more cordially welcomed," a trooper confessed. Within hours the Sixth Corps was ensconced behind earthworks covering the converging roads. Grant had intended for Wright to attack immediately, but Wright's soldiers were exhausted from their march, and the strength of the opposing Confederates remained in question. Wright decided to wait until Smith arrived. During the afternoon, Smith's corps pulled up and began entrenching on the Sixth Corps' right. The Union horsemen retired east toward Parsley's Mill and Mount Prospect Church for a well-deserved rest.

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