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Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor Tour

06/23/2010

Gaines' Mill battlefield, near the Watt house.

As part of the recent Society of Civil War Historians conference in Richmond, Va., on 17–19 June 2010, members were given a tour of the Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor battlefields in Hanover County. I was one of the lucky people who took part. The tour provided a wonderful glimpse into the history of our country’s bloodiest war.

I’ve read about the battles of Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor many times, but I’d never visited those sites. In previous trips to Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, and the Crater, walking in the steps of long-dead Union and Confederates soldiers gave me new perspective on what happened at those famous struggles. Gaines’ Mill and Cold Harbor were no exception.

Only a few minutes’ drive separate these two killing fields. But the two battles were fought two years apart and had very different outcomes. At Gaines’ Mill on June 27, 1862, Robert E. Lee launched his largest attack of the Civil War, throwing nearly 60,000 men at a Union force under Fitz John Porter. Porter, the commander of George B. McClellan’s 5th Corps, had a force that numbered roughly 35,000 men and 100 cannon. Unlike later battles, Lee had a large numerical advantage over the Federals.

Gaines' Mill.

Most of the Confederate bloodshed at Gaines’ Mill was spent crossing a small stream that separated the two armies. As our tour guide National Park Service historian R. E. L. Krick informed us, an infant could easily cross the stream. But on that day, it took the Confederates hours to stomp through it and take the hill. Lee’s men eventually did so at great cost, suffering 8,000 casualties. The Union lost 7,000 men, roughly half of them captured after John Bell Hood’s men successfully charged across the stream. It was the bloodiest fight in the Seven Days’ Battles.

At Cold Harbor, we explored a very different battlefield. In June 1864, unlike at Gaines’ Mill, it was the North that was attacking well-entrenched Confederates. Ulysses S. Grant, like Lee two years before, had recently taken command in the East. At Cold Harbor, his forces suffered horrendous casualties in a series of ill-planned attacks. The worst day for the Union was June 3rd, when Grant launched his infamous frontal assault on the southern line.

Cannon at the Cold Harbor battlefield.

It was a slaughter. While Lee had spent most of the day trying to take the hill at Gaines’ Mill, the main thrust of Grant’s attack at Cold Harbor was over by 5:30 a.m. In the assaults, Grant lost 6,000 men (the park service’s estimate) and was unable to drive the Confederates from their positions. It was one of the most lopsided battles of the Civil War. Union men pinned down by murderous fire were forced to dig-in where they had fallen. We could still see the holes that Grant’s men had made as they sought cover, and there was also much evidence remaining of the far more defensible Confederate positions. Unfortunately, we had to drive through most of the Cold Harbor battlefield and were not able to visit the cemetery nearby.

Remnants of Confederate entrenchments at Cold Harbor. This portion of the Rebel lines did not bear the brunt of the 3 June attack.

The tours were very informative and revealed the challenges preservationists face. As good a job as the park service has done in maintaining the battlefields, there is a constant tension between the forces of modernity and preservation. Man has claimed some portions of the battlefield, while nature has claimed others. At Gaines’ Mill, we heard a plane pass overheard; at Cold Harbor, a lawnmower whirred as we walked along the entrenchments. And at both battlefields, trees obscure what were once open fields. Nevertheless, even if it is impossible to see any battlefield “as it actually was,” tours are a great way to learn more about the Civil War.

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