Tuesday, June 3, 2014

150 Years Ago Today - Cold Harbor, June 3

After repulse on June 1, and a relative day of stalemate on June 2, Gen. Grant resumed attacks on June 3. Just before daybreak the Union II Corps under the command of Gen. Winfield S. Hancock set off for the Confederate earthworks, hoping to break the line.

Observing the attack was Frank Wilkeson of the 11th New York Artillery Battery. A mere youth not yet 20 years old, Wilkeson wrote about his war experiences less than 25 years after the war. The 11th was in the artillery brigade of the II Corps under command of Col. John C. Tidball (pictured above third from right).

Of the day Wilkeson wrote:
"To our left, to our right, other batteries opened; and along the Confederate line cannon sent forth their balls searching for the range. Then their guns were silent. It was daylight. We, the light artillerymen, were heated with battle. The strain on our nerves were over. In our front were two line of Union infantry. One well in advance of the other, and both lying down. We were firing over them. The Confederate pickets sprang out of their rifle pits and ran back to their main line of works. Then they turned and warmed the battery with long-range rifle practice, knocking over a man here, killing another there, breaking the leg of a horse yonder, and generally behaving in an exasperating manner. The Confederate infantry was always much more effective than their artillery, and the battery that got under the fire of their cool infantry always suffered severely. The air began to grow hazy with powder smoke. We saw the line of slouch-hatted heads had disappeared from the Confederate earthworks, leaving heads exposed only at long intervals. Out of the powder smoke came an officer from the battle-lines of infantry. He told us to stop firing, as the soldiers were about to charge. He disappeared to carry the message to the other batteries. Our cannon became silent. The smoke drifted off the field. I noticed that the sun was not yet up. Suddenly the foremost line of our troops,which were lying on the ground in front of us, sprang to their feet and dashed at the Confederate earthworks at a run. Instantly those works were manned. Cannon belched forth a torrent of canister, the works glowed brightly with musketry, a storm of lead and iron struck the blue line, cutting gaps in it. Still they pushed on, and on, and on. But, how many of them fell! They drew near the earthworks, firing as they went, and then, with a cheer, the first line of the Red Division of the Second Corps (Barlow's) swept over it. And there in our front lay, sat, and stood the second line, the supports; why did they not go forward and make good the victory? They did not. Intensely excited, I watched the portion of the Confederate line which our men had captured. I was faintly conscious of terrific firing to our right and of heavy and continuous cheering on that portion of our line which was held by the Fifth and Sixth Corps. For once the several corps had delivered a simultaneous assault, and I knew that it was to be now or never. The powder smoke curled lowly in thin clouds above the captured works. Then the firing became more and more thunderous. The tops of many battle-flags could be seen indistinctly, and then there was a heavy and fierce yell, and the thrilling battle-cry of the Confederate infantry floated to us. "Can our men withstand the charge?" I asked myself. Quickly I was answered. They came into sight clambering over the parapet of the captured works. All organization was lost. They fled wildly for the protection of their second line and the Union guns, and they were shot by scores as they ran. The Confederate infantry appeared behind their works and nimbly climbed over, as though intent on following up their success, and their fire was the fury of hell. We manned the guns and drove them to cover by bursting shell. How they yelled! How they swung their hats! And how quickly their pickets ran forward to their rifle pits and sank out of sight! The swift, brave assault had been bravely met and most bloodily repulsed. Twenty minutes had not passed since the infantry sprung to their feet, and ten-thousand of men lay dead or wounded on the ground."

After June 3, no more attacks occurred at Cold Harbor. Instead, Grant chose to once again maneuver around Lee and headed south across the James River for the vital railroad town of Petersburg where more hellish fighting would occur for the next nine months.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.    

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