Cold Harbor to the Crater: The End of the Overland Campaign

By Gary W. Gallagher; Caroline E. Janney | Go to book overview

Introduction

GARY W. GALLAGHER & CAROLINE E. JANNEY

A French diplomat visited the battlefield at Cold Harbor shortly after the armies departed. Federal assaults had failed there on June 3, 1864, leaving a nightmarish landscape. “One sees on this ground,” wrote Alfred Paul to superiors in Paris, “only entrenchments, rifle pits, chevaux-de-frise, scattered tree branches, corpses in putrefaction badly covered with a little ground almost carried away by the latest rains.” Heat and moisture had left the air “foul, polluted by the exhalations of these human remains, and the flies rise from beneath the step of the horses as black clouds that poison the atmosphere.” Two months later, a teenaged girl in Fredericksburg, Virginia, reacted to news of the battle of the Crater, which she called “the Yankees last new plan to exterminate our soldiers lives… by blowing our men high sky.” Confederate counterattacks had sealed the Union breakthrough on July 30 and then restored the line. “In the pit which they had dug for us,” recorded Mary G. Caldwell in her diary, “there were about 300 negroes and whites killed. It is said that our men just closed around this pit and killed them. How little did they think when they made the mine to blow our men open that it would be their own fate.”1

Paul’s and Caldwell’s accounts deal with events that define the chronological framework for Cold Harbor to the Crater. Between the end of May and the beginning of August, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Gen. Robert E. Lee oversaw the transition between the Overland campaign—a remarkable saga of maneuvering, digging, and brutal combat—and what became a grueling, eight-and-one-half-month investment of Petersburg that eventually compelled Confederates to abandon Richmond. We consider the initial assaults at Petersburg on June 15–18 to be the last phase of the Overland campaign, an opportunity to earn a quick Union success that almost certainly would have doomed the Rebel capital. Until the U.S. failure at the Crater almost six weeks later, a protracted siege at Petersburg was far from certain—after it, few observers on either side expected anything else. In choosing this model, we depart from one that sees Grant’s crossing of the James River on June 12–15 as the close of the Overland campaign and

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