Who Won the Battle of Cold Harbor?

The final major Confederate victory of the Civil War saw a failed Union attempt to seize Richmond during the second titanic matchup between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

Feb 10, 2024By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

who won battle of cold harbor


In the summer of 1864, the American Civil War finally saw the oft-remember matchup of Union General Ulysses S. Grant versus Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After the inconclusive Battle of the Wilderness a few weeks earlier, Grant re-attacked in an attempt to seize the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia. With both sides receiving reinforcements, the Battle of Cold Harbor turned into a bloodbath.


Victory Goes to the Confederacy

drawing confederate earthworks cold harbor
A drawing of Confederate breastworks, or defensive fortifications made from cut logs and earth, at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Source: American Battlefield Trust


The Battle of Cold Harbor was the final major victory of the Confederacy during the American Civil War (1861-65). Behind defensive fortifications near Cold Harbor, Virginia, the troops of Confederate General Robert E. Lee inflicted tremendous losses on the attacking forces of Union General Ulysses S. Grant. The victory briefly buoyed Southern morale, but the fact that Union troops were so close to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia did not allow for any respite from danger. Additionally, the much larger size of the Union armies meant that the North could handle the high casualties of frontal assault warfare far better than the South.


Cold Harbor exemplified the war of attrition nature of the final half of the Civil War. Despite overwhelming odds, the Confederacy was refusing to yield and seek an armistice. More aggressive Union leadership under General Ulysses S. Grant, however, met this challenge directly. Instead of retreating after the indecisive Battle of the Wilderness just three weeks prior, Grant attacked again at Cold Harbor. Although Grant lost the battle, he showed alarming tenacity that foreshadowed the eventual crumbling of defenses around Richmond.


Timeline of the Battle of Cold Harbor

cold harbor june 7 1864
A map showing the Union and Confederate movements during the middle of the 12-day battle. Source: American Battlefield Trust


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In the spring of 1864, Grant was the newly appointed general-in-chief of all Union armies. He wanted to defeat the South with decisive, aggressive action. In early May, he fought Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Battle of the Wilderness, resulting in a draw. Unlike his predecessors, however, Grant did not disengage. Rather, he remained near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. After additional skirmishes with Lee’s troops during the last days of May, Grant and Lee both ordered their armies to converge on Cold Harbor, Virginia.


On May 31, after an initial engagement with Union troops, Confederate troops began to build defensive fortifications.


Over the next several days, Grant ordered frontal assault attacks on the defensive fortifications as he attempted to break through and make a run for Richmond, the Confederate capital.


The largest attack was during the pre-dawn hours on June 3, and Union troops were decimated while trying to attack Confederate breastworks in the dim, swampy, heavily vegetated terrain.


For the next week, the two armies fired occasionally at each other, but a stalemate remained unbroken.


Finally, on June 12, Grant withdrew, aiming for Petersburg, Virginia.


What Caused the Battle of Cold Harbor?

battle of the wilderness may 1864
Weeks before Cold Harbor, Union and Confederate troops fought in dense forest in the Battle of the Wilderness, after which Grant chose to remain on the offensive. Source: Dickinson College


The Battle of Cold Harbor was the result of Grant’s continued offensive after the Battle of the Wilderness. Grant had embarked on his Overland Campaign to pin down Robert E. Lee in the Eastern Theater while fellow Union general William Tecumseh Sherman pushed through the Confederacy to the south. As the nation passed the three-year mark since the Battle of Fort Sumter that had started the Civil War, Union leaders were eager to end the war and had become more aggressive. Breaking with tradition, Grant tried to outflank Lee after the Wilderness and attack Richmond, potentially ending the war swiftly.


However, Lee was a skilled commander and anticipated Grant’s actions. He blocked Grant’s flanking attempts, and eventually, both armies settled in near Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, at a place called Cold Harbor. The Confederates were dug in with defensive works, and Grant decided to test them. This led to the titanic battle, which inflicted very high casualties on Grant’s forces. Critics of Grant called the battle needless, and Grant himself later considered Cold Harbor his greatest regret.


Why Was the Battle of Cold Harbor Significant?

ulysses s grant cold harbor
A famous photograph of Union General Ulysses S. Grant at his headquarters at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Source: National Public Radio (NPR)


The Battle of Cold Harbor was significant in that it was the last major victory of the Confederacy in battle, as well as Ulysses S. Grant’s greatest regret in his Overland Campaign. As a precursor to World War I, it also revealed the difficulty of attacking entrenched defensive positions in the industrial era of warfare. The high Union casualties, especially from the main attack on June 3, helped further Grant’s reputation as a relatively unskilled commander who allowed his men to be mowed down in battle, only winning through sheer advantage in numbers. Conversely, Lee’s victory with fewer soldiers helped solidify the Confederate’s own reputation as a skilled strategist.


Cold Harbor also marked the beginning of the “endgame” of the American Civil War, as the Union’s Army of the Potomac was now at the gates of Richmond, the Confederate capital. There was nowhere else for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to maneuver. Essentially after Cold Harbor, the Confederacy had no hope of a military victory. Only the Union’s desire to end the mounting casualties had any hope of calling off the war and allowing the Confederacy to be recognized as an independent nation.


5 Facts About the Battle of Cold Harbor

confederate trenches civil war
A Confederate defensive trench in April 1865, similar to those used at Cold Harbor ten months prior. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


1. Casualties

Casualties at Cold Harbor were the most lopsided of any major battle during the Civil War. The Union suffered almost 13,000 casualties to the Confederacy’s mere 4,500. Only 83 Confederate soldiers were confirmed killed in the battle, thanks to the defensive breastworks. Confirmed Union deaths, however, numbered almost 2,000! The high Union casualties led to Grant’s reputation among critics as a “butcher” of his own men.


2. Commanders

Union forces were led by Ulysses S. Grant, who had been named general-in-chief of all Union armies only three months before. Previously, Grant had been the leader of Union forces in the Western Theater, with his path to leadership kicking into high gear after the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. Although critics had protested Grant’s high casualties in the Union victory at Shiloh, President Abraham Lincoln famously defended the general: “I can’t spare this man – he fights.”


Confederate forces were led by Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had been on the defensive since the Battle of Gettysburg the previous July but had won multiple defensive victories. However, lacking the manpower and industrial might of the North, Lee had little hope of preventing Grant’s drive to Richmond indefinitely. Both Lee and Grant were West Point graduates and veterans of the Mexican-American War, though Lee had been in far higher military esteem before the Civil War.


3. Number of Forces Involved

battle cold harbor 1864
A map showing the location of Union (blue) and Confederate (red) armies leading up to the Battle of Cold Harbor in early June of 1864. Source: PBS Learning Media


Up to 108,000 Union soldiers were at Cold Harbor, facing off against 62,000 or so Confederate defenders. By this point in the war, the South could not hope to match the North’s tremendous manpower advantage. The previous September had seen perhaps the final Confederate attempt in a major battle to outnumber the Union troops at the Pyrrhic victory in the Battle of Chickamauga. Despite being heavily outnumbered, Lee’s use of defensive entrenchments nullified the Union’s manpower advantage.


4. Visiting Cold Harbor Battlefield Today

Today, the battlefield can be seen as part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. As the Civil War had wound down to its “endgame” by June of 1864, a tremendous number of battles took place near the Confederate capital city of Richmond, Virginia. As part of the Battlefield Park, there is a specific Cold Harbor Battlefield Visitor Center. However, unlike many National Park Service facilities, it is not open seven days a week – it is closed on Monday and Tuesday. During the summer season, it has daily activities related to the battle led by park rangers.


Visitors to the Cold Harbor Battlefield and many others nearby can stay in the nearby city of Richmond, Virginia. As a state capital and city of almost 230,000 people, Richmond has many places to stay and many things to do besides Civil War tourism. For museum-goers, the former capital of the Confederacy has many Civil War museums!


5. Trivia: Last Major Confederate Victory

Although Robert E. Lee secured a handy victory at Cold Harbor, defeating an army almost twice the size of his own, it was to be his final major triumph. The Union’s Army of the Potomac was now close to Richmond, forcing Lee to embark on major defensive works. Only days after Cold Harbor, Grant tried to take Petersburg, Virginia, a major rail hub. This attempt failed and resulted in the lengthy Siege of Petersburg. Despite Lee’s stoppage of Grant at both Cold Harbor and Petersburg, Richmond was now mostly isolated from the rest of the Confederacy.


Aftermath of Cold Harbor: Presidential Election Hope

1864 presidential election
In the 1864 election, Republican incumbent Abraham Lincoln (left) wanted to continue the war more than Democratic nominee George McClellan (right). Source: Wisconsin Veterans Museum, Madison


The victory at Cold Harbor held a glimmer of hope for the South. Not militarily, as the South was hopelessly outmatched in terms of manpower and equipment, but politically. The 1864 presidential election held the potential to replace the aggressive Union president Abraham Lincoln with a less aggressive man who might agree to peace talks. If Lincoln lost in November, the Confederacy had a slim chance of securing recognition and remaining an independent nation.


Lincoln’s opponent in 1864 was Democratic nominee George McClellan, who had commanded the Union’s Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Antietam. McClellan had lost Lincoln’s confidence after failing to pursue Robert E. Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia and ran to replace his commander-in-chief on an anti-war platform. McClellan advocated ending the war quickly, which meant negotiating with the South. Ultimately, however, additional Union victories in the autumn of 1864 diminished Northerners’ support for a negotiated end to the conflict, giving Abraham Lincoln a solid re-election victory.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.