Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor

By Eric, Connor, and Caitlin

The Civil War was one of the deadliest wars in American history. The Battles of Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor are no exceptions; as part of General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign, they cost the Union many lives. Grant and George G. Meade had agreed to destroy General Robert E. Lee's army, and so decided to fight these battles to wear down his army. Unfortunately, General Lee was able to outsmart them at each turn.

The Battle of Spotsylvania

The Battle

The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, or Battle of Spotsylvania, was the second major battle in the Overland Campaign. Grant had wanted to be able to wipe out Lee's army with one blow, and chose to go to battle in Spotsylvania, Virginia on May 8th, 1864 with the Union attacking first.

Spotsylvania followed the Battle of the Wilderness, where Grant had his army disengage and move southeast to lure Lee into an area where Grant's army was more comfortable fighting. However, parts of Lee's army beat Grant to the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House, where they began to entrench themselves. Spontaneous fighting occurred regularly as Grant tried different ways to take down the Confederates. On May 8, the Union's Generals Warren and Sedgwick attempted to gain Laurel Hill, a position that would allow them to access the Spotsylvania Court House. Unfortunately, they didn't succeed.

On May 10, Grant ordered his army to attack Lee's army. The entrenchments extended over 4 miles and included a salient known as Muleshoe. A brilliant assault executed by Union Colonel Emory Upton against the Muleshoe showed promise of breaking through. Grant decided to use Upton's assault technique on a much larger scale. He ordered 15,000 men from General Hancock's corps to attack Muleshoe. General Hancock was successful at first, but the Confederates rallied and pushed him back.

Bloody Angle is the nickname given to Union General Wright's attacks on the western side of Muleshoe. These battles included nearly 24 hours of hand-to-hand combat, and perhaps because the soldiers were desperate, it was some of the most intense fighting of the war. Union Generals Warren and Burnside supported the attacks as much as possible, but were ultimately unsuccessful.

The Aftermath

In the end, the results were inconclusive since neither side had gained or lost any ground in the war. Nearly 32,000 casualties in total, the Union had 2,725 dead, 13,416 wounded, 2,258 captured or missing. The Confederates had 1,515 dead, 5,414 wounded, and 5,758 captured or missing.

Eyewitness Account

"Passing over the ground inside the works the next day I was able to appreciate the full measure of its horrors. I shrink from the attempt to describe the scene. It was a ghastly and horrible example of the organized brutality that we call war. No language can adequately portray the sickening spectacle. Imagine, if you can, a line of intrenchment four hundred yards in length–a solid wall of timber and earth forming eight or ten pen like enclosures half filled with dead and dying men. They lay in piles sometimes five men deep. Often the dead were lying upon the mortally wounded who groaned in their death agony and begged for water and prayed for death. Bodies hung upon the works in every form of mangling. Blood and mangling were everywhere and the sickening stench of the battlefield was over it all." - J.W. Muffly

"In the early morning, just as our line reached the works, Captain Lincoln of the Sixty-fourth New York and another officer, whose face I did not see, sprang upon the works cheering their men on, when a shot struck the officer, whose face was turned from me, killing him instantly. Jackson, a boy from my own company and regiment, not over seventeen years of age, mounting the works at the same time and seeing the shot fired, turned his gun (it being unloaded) bayonet down, and threw it spear fashion with “Take that you Rebel Son of a -----.” striking the man who had fired the shot just above the heart. The force with which he threw it drove the bayonet entirely through his chest, burying at least four inches of the muzzle of the gun in the breast of the Confederate, who uttered the most unearthly yell I ever heard from human lips as he fell over backward with the gun sticking in him. About one o’clock it rained heavily and wounded men dragged themselves about drinking out of the pools and hollows. Those who were so disabled as to be helpless lay with open mouths to cool their parched tongues by catching the few drops as they fell, Back of the salient was a sink-hole; into this rain and blood collected until it was full of red water, and around this were a hundred wounded men drinking and groaning. A schoolmate and intimate friend of Major Church, both belonging to the Twenty-sixth Michigan, fell on top of the works that morning. He was the only son of wealthy and indulgent parents…When volunteers were called for in the hour of the nation’s need, he was amoung the first to step forward and put his name down, saying he was going as a private and try to make a man of himself…We found the remains where they fell. There had been no time to remove them, and they had lain on top of the works during the entire engagement, and, had it not been for some of the comrades who had seen him fall and identified the place, we would never have recognized it as having been a soldier. There was no semblance of humanity about the mass that was lying before us. The only thing I could liken it to was a sponge, I presume five thousand bullets had passed through it…"- Lt. John D. Black

The Battle of Cold Harbor

The Battle

The Battle of Cold Harbor was the third and last major battle in the Overland Campaign. Fighting from May 31 to June 12, 1864, it's remembered as one of the bloodiest battles in American history. General Grant wanted to try and destroy General Lee's forces one last time, which cost him nearly everything.

On May 31, after Grant had disengaged with Lee's army in the Battle of Spotsylvania, he moved his troops to the right flank of Lee's army. The Union seized the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor, which was located about 10 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia; the Confederate capitol. Grant's army was able to hold their position until the Union infantry could arrive.

On June 1, the 6th and 18th Corps attacked Confederates on the western side of the crossroads with success. On June 2, the Confederates built a 7 mile long fortification. On June 3, Union corps attempted to take down Confederate works along the Southern and Northern edge, but were easily deflected. The two armies continued engagements until June 12 when Grant marched to the James River, then fled across Virginia.

The Aftermath

Grant had believed that the Battle of Cold Harbor should've never taken place because of the heavy loss sustained. The Confederates won the battle, suffering 788 dead, 3,376 wounded, and 1,123 captured or missing. The Union suffered even greater losses at 1,844 dead, 9,077 wounded, 1,816 captured or missing. In total, there were almost 18,000 casualties.


The Overland Campaign was unsuccessful, and a major loss for the Union. It was also very impressive for Robert E. Lee, and would be his last major defensive win. For the Union, the battles only brought more anti-war feelings. For the Confederates, this was an important victory because if they had lost, the Union would have been able to cut off a large amount of Southern resources and create a major weak spot in the South.

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