On this day in 1864, Confederates attack Union troops at the strategic crossroads of Cold Harbor, Virginia, less than a dozen miles from Richmond.
Since the beginning of May 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had doggedly pursued Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia along an arc around Richmond. The massive offensive was costly to Grant’s Army of the Potomac, which racked up 60,000 casualties before reaching the crossroads. After battling along the North Anna River and at Bethesda Church in late May, the armies engaged in a familiar race to the next strategic point. The Union troops arrived at Cold Harbor to find that the Confederates were already there.
On May 30, Union troops under Philip Sheridan encountered Confederates led by Fitzhugh Lee around the tavern for which the crossroads was named. The Yankees attacked and took control of the intersection but could not advance toward Richmond any further. Additional troops from each army continued to arrive through the evening of May 31.
Determined to retake the crossroads, Lee ordered a Confederate attack shortly after dawn, before more Northern troops arrived. The spirited assault was led by an inexperienced colonel named Lawrence Keitt from South Carolina, who was mortally wounded in the first Yankee volley. Soon after, the 20th South Carolina, a green regiment at the head of the attack, broke into a frantic retreat. The panic spread to other units, and the Confederate attack wilted. Sheridan’s troops held the crossroads.
Grant attacked the Confederates in the late afternoon, after more Union troops had arrived. But the Yankees could not break through the Rebels’ newly constructed fortifications, and so they decided to wait until the bulk of the Army of the Potomac had arrived before launching another attack. This delay proved costly. The Rebels used the time to dig trenches and construct breastworks. When the attack came on June 3, it turned into one of the biggest Union disasters of the war.