To the North Anna and the James

Fighting on 19 May at the Harris Farm, northeast of the old salient position and beyond the Ni river, brought to a close two weeks of steady combat. Grant moved southeast in his continuing efforts to intrude between Lee and Richmond and force battle on his own terms. The two armies clashed across and around the North Anna river, midway between Spotsylvania and Richmond, on 23-27 May. They waged no pitched engagement during that time, but jockeyed steadily for position.

The river, running roughly perpendicular to the Federal line of advance, offered only three usable crossings. The left (northern) bank of the stream at the fords on the eastern and western edges of the battlefield commanded the right bank, making it

Union engineer troops at work on the banks of the North Anna river, where Lee stymied Grant for four days in late May 1864. (Public domain)

possible for Grant to force troops across. At Ox Ford in the middle, ground made the Confederates masters of the locale. Nonchalantly, almost indifferently, Grant pushed his columns across on each flank, giving Lee a golden opportunity to defeat either side in detail. The river and its difficult fords markedly complicated Federal options, to Lee's advantage.

In 1862 or early 1863, such circumstances would have yielded a thorough thrashing for Grant. In May 1864, however, Lee did not have the means to gather in the toothsome prize. All three of his corps commanders were out of action, and a temporary illness had almost prostrated Lee himself. He could only seethe from his cot: 'We must strike them a blow -we must never let them pass us again -we must strike them a blow.'

Grant steered his army southeast once more, from the North Anna river toward Totopotomoy Creek, ever closer to Richmond. Lee's customary interposition kept nudging the Federals eastward even as

Union engineer troops at work on the banks of the North Anna river, where Lee stymied Grant for four days in late May 1864. (Public domain)

General Evander M. Law's Alabama troops slaughtered attacking Federals at Cold Harbor. 'It was not war' Law wrote,'it was murder' (Public domain)

they pressed south. Steady but desultory fighting at Totopotomoy led Grant toward scenes familiar from the earlier campaigns around Richmond.

By 2 June the armies were concentrating around Cold Harbor, where Lee's first great victory had been won on 27 June 1862 in the Battle of Gaines' Mill. The Confederate line that was hurriedly entrenched at the beginning of June 1864 ran right through the old battlefield; some of the 1864 fighting of greatest intensity would rage where the same armies had jousted two years before. A Northern newspaperman described the Southern entrenchments as 'intricate, zig-zagged lines within lines, lines protecting flanks of lines ... a maze and labyrinth of works within works and works without works.'

On 3 June, weary of being blocked at every turn and always inclined toward brutally direct action, Grant simply sent forward tens of thousands of men right into that formidable warren of defenses, and into the muzzles of rifles wielded by toughened veterans. The young Northerners obliged to participate in this disaster at Cold Harbor knew what the result would be. A member of General Grant's staff noticed them pinning to their uniforms pieces of paper bearing their names and home places, so that their bodies would not go unidentified. In very short order on that late-spring morning, 7,000 Union soldiers fell to Confederate musketry without any hope of success.

A Federal from New Hampshire wrote bluntly: 'It was undoubtedly the greatest and most inexcusable slaughter of the whole war ... It seemed more like a volcanic blast than a battle ... The men went down in rows, just as they marched in the ranks, and so many at a time that those in rear of them thought they were lying down.' General Emory Upton, who had been so successful at Rappahannock Station and Spotsylvania with carefully planned attacks, wrote on 4 June that he was 'disgusted' with the generalship displayed. 'Our men have ... been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed,' he wrote bitterly; 'thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill.'

Some Southerners dealing out death from behind their entrenchments around Cold Harbor blanched at the carnage, but a boy from Alabama reflected on what was being inflicted upon his country and admitted that 'an indescribable feeling of pleasure courses through my veins upon surveying these heaps of the slain.' A pronouncement by that Alabamian's brigade commander, General Evander M. Law, has been the most often-cited summary of Cold Harbor. 'It was not war,' Law mused, 'it was murder.'

The bloodshed northeast of Richmond settled into steady, but deadly, trench warfare for the week after 3 June. Rotting corpses from the hopeless assault spread a suffocating stench across both lines; flies and other insects bedeviled the front-line troops; sniping between the lines inflicted steady casualties and made life difficult. Troops who had been scornful of digging earthworks earlier in the war now entrenched eagerly. Soon they had constructed elaborate lines and forts that stretched for miles across the countryside.

By the time of the slaughter at Cold Harbor, troops in both armies had become convinced of the value of field fortifications. They soon constructed elaborate lines that stretched for many miles. This view depicts a fort on the line around Petersburg. (Public domain)

Much of the 10 months of war that remained to be fought in Virginia would feature such horrors, but the site of most of those operations would be south of the James river. On 12 June, Grant began carefully to extract substantial components of his army from the trenches and move them southward toward a crossing of the river. In managing that successful maneuver, Grant skilfully and thoroughly stole a march on General Lee, and achieved his most dramatic large-scale coup of 1864. Soldiers would continue to battle in the outskirts of Richmond for the rest of the war, but the focus of operations henceforth would move below the James to the environs of Petersburg.

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