Saturday, March 2, 2013

Cold Harbor: A Soldier's View

See Part One

As the sun rose in the east on June 1st, 1864, Sergeant John L. Hoster and the men of Company A, 148th New York began their final march to link up with the Army of the Potomac. Their trip by river and land was all part of Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant's plans to deliver a knock out blow against the Army of Northern Virginia.

So far, Grant's efforts had shed much blood, but had failed to gain a clear cut victory over Robert E. Lee. And yet, with the two armies stalemated along the North Anna River, the Lieutenant General believed that victory was near at hand. "Lee's army is really whipped," he wired to Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck in Washington on May 26, "... I may be mistaken but I believe our success over Lee's army is already insured." Grant planned to break the deadlock by swinging the Army of the Potomac eastward again and establishing it on the south side of the Pamunkey River. Meanwhile, he would reinforce Maj. Gen. George Meade's army by pulling forces from the Army of the James. These troops would land at White House on the Pamunkey, move overland to link up with Meade's army, and the combined force would hopefully defeat Lee's army east of Richmond.

For Sergeant Hoster and the men of Company A, June 1st would prove a hot, fatiguing, and frustrating day. The 18th Corps had stopped at 11 p.m. the evening before, some two miles short of its objective - New Castle Ferry on the Pamunkey. Late that evening, Maj. Gen. Baldy Smith received updated instructions from Grant's headquarters - move to New Castle Ferry and take position on the right of the 6th Corps in the morning. Smith determined that the orders indicated a need for haste, and so at dawn he set his men in motion without even allowing time for breakfast. Sergeant Hoster's entry for June 1st began:
Moved early in the morning, proceeded eastward 2 miles more, stopped in a cornfield (any amount of mulberries at old church nearby). We rested a while, putting up our shelters to shield us from the sun. Here we saw a large wagon train consisting of army wagons and ambulances. 
Unfortunately, there had been a mistake. While Hoster and his fellow soldiers rested in the fields around New Castle Ferry, Smith searched in vain for the 6th Corps, which was nowhere to be found. The morning hours melted away and the sun rose higher. Eventually the mistake was discovered. The day before (May 31), a cavalry engagement at a small crossroads called Cold Harbor - less than ten miles distant from New Castle Ferry - had drawn the attention of both commanders, and sent infantry in motion. On the evening of the 31st, the 6th Corps received orders to move to Cold Harbor during the night, and army headquarters intended also to direct the 18th Corps there to form on the 6th Corps right. Unfortunately, the aide writing the order had accidentally written "New Castle Ferry" instead of Cold Harbor. The slip up would cost the Army of the Potomac hours, and cause traffic jams on the roads on June 1st. It also meant that John Hoster and his comrades would have to retrace their steps and then march for Cold Harbor during the broiling heat of a  summer afternoon. His June 1st entry continued:
Sometime during the forenoon we started for the Army of the Potomac where we arrived before sundown. A sharp artillery battle came off immediately upon our arrival. We halted at noon at Old Church. Our wagon train moved to the front with us but were obliged to retire on account of shells. A shell struck in B Company. We moved a little to the right and formed in line of battle, marching a short distance through the woods. The rebs threw shells all around us. A little after dark we formed line perpendicular to the rear and halted in the edge of the woods. I feel very much fatigued, not having had a chance to make coffee since morning.
Though it had served since September of 1862, the hard march of a campaign was a relatively new experience for the 148th. After marching some 15 miles on May 31, their activities on June 1 would have tested the unit. The march was accompanied by many delays as the 18th Corps waited for the 6th Corps to clear the roads in front of it. In his history of the 12th Hew Hampshire, another regiment brigaded with the 148th, Asa W. Bartlett recalled:
The memory of that day's march will exist as long as any man who was in it continues to live. The temperature, even in the shade, must have been close up to, if not above, blood heat, and following much of the time, as the troops had to, directly in rear of the baggage train of the 6th Corp, the dust was worse, if possible, than the heat.
"Cold Harbor Tavern, June 3, 1864." Sketch by Edwin Forbes. Library of Congress.
As his diary mentions, Hoster and the 148th arrived on the field in early evening, just as things began to heat up. The 6th and 18th Corps had been ordered to assault Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, and the bombardment Hoster experienced was an artillery duel that erupted before the assault. The 148th and the rest of John H. Martindale's division of the 18th Corps did not participate, instead forming at a right angle to the assaulting columns to protect the northern flank of the assault force, which did not have enough troops to connect to the rest of the army. The assault that went forward that evening did not ultimately succeed, though it did find weak points in the Confederate line. Meade and Grant, encouraged by the progress made, decided to order more troops to Cold Harbor for an assault the next day, June 2nd.

These plans did not come to fruition, as delays and snafus prevented the army from moving into position until late in the day, tired and worn out. Grant decided to postpone any further actions, but sent out orders for an army-wide assault to begin at dawn on June 3rd. He believed Lee's army, with its back to the Chickahominy River, was on its last legs. He also knew that the Republican National Convention would soon meet in Baltimore, and that President Lincoln needed a victory. One final push might finish the affair.

For Hoster - June 2nd passed off quietly, though Company A was in the presence of the enemy throughout the day:
"The Battle of Cold Harbor, Throwing up Breastworks." Sketch by Edwin Forbes. Library of Congress.
Thursday, June 2nd
Very warm. Moved a little to the left early this morning and constructed breastworks. About 8 o'clock
[Private Francis L.] Crawford brought us a little coffee, which revived us greatly. After it was served we turned in our salt pork and Frank boiled it. Mat Carol was struck in the side with a spent ball this forenoon, bruising the skin. [Private Marvin] Burroughs was shot through the hand about noon and stray shot flies over our head occasionally. Coffee again about 3 P.M. I made some in my cup about noon. Several prisoners were taken last evening, also this morning. The 40th Mass. sharp shooters are skirmishing. A lively fire has been kept up all day, considerable artillery firing. An order came about dark to move, but was immediately countermanded. A severe shower came up about 4 P.M. [John C.] Appleby and I pitched our tent about 6 P.M. I made some coffee. Sergt. [Charles H.] Travers issued two days rations of hardtack. A whiskey ration was issued to us at dark. Just after I had turned in the Col. [George M. Guion] came by and told me to caution the men to keep their guns dry. They would not use them tonight, but would want them in the morning.
Source Note: For background on the overall operations of the army, I am drawing on Gordon C. Rhea's excellent book, Cold Harbor: Grand and Lee, May 26 - June 3, 1864, as well as the Official Records.

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