Civil War Profiles: In the front line of the attack: Delaware at Cold Harbor


Marching southward from Spotsylvania toward Richmond and avoiding a trap Gen. Robert E. Lee set for the Union army near the North Anna River, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant sent a message to Washington, “Lee’s army is really whipped.”

Grant’s immediate objective was to capture the crossroads town of Cold Harbor that occupied a strategic position some 10 miles northeast of the Confederate capital at Richmond. In his message, Grant confidently added, “I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already ensured.”

Brig. Gen. Alfred T.A. Torbert, who was born in Georgetown and resided in Milford, commanded a division in Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry corps during Grant’s Overland Campaign. Sheridan ordered Torbert to move toward Cold Harbor, because it was “of the utmost importance … that we should possess it.” Torbert’s biographer, A.D. Slade, wrote that “Torbert’s men fought from 2 until 5 p.m. on May 30, and pushed the Confederates back to Cold Harbor.”

However, without infantry support, “it became evident to Gen. Torbert that with our comparatively small force it would be out of the question to stay there, and he accordingly withdrew his division.” Grant would soon learn once again that Lee could not be taken lightly.

Having anticipated the opposing commander’s movements since the campaign began in The Wilderness in early May, Lee discovered the Union army moving around the right of his position. As a result, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia later reported that “corresponding changes were made in our line … [in order to] endeavor to get upon the enemy’s right flank and drive [him] down in front of our line.” The movement was successful.

The evening of the following day, June 3, 1864, Lee succinctly informed Confederate Secretary of War James ­, “About 4:30 a.m. today, the enemy made an attack upon the right of our line.” Lee added, “Our loss today has been small, and our success, under the blessing of God, all that we could expect.”

In truth, this date would go down as one of the darkest in the history of the United States military. Grant’s army suffered some 7,000 casualties in a mere 30 minutes of fighting after unwisely making a frontal attack against Lee’s impregnable position. The losses for Lee’s army were a comparatively small 1,500 men.

The 2nd Delaware Regiment “was once again in the front line of the attack,” according to its regimental history. Significantly, at Cold Harbor, the 2nd Delaware had only 210 men left out of the original nearly 900 who had signed on three years earlier. The constant fighting had taken a merciless toll.

The 1st Delaware was also in the first line deployed for the attack on June 3. The casualties listed in their regimental history include Sgt. William Warren, Cpl. Charles P. Prettyman, Pvt. Robert Thomas, Pvt. James Mick and Pvt. Hudson Carr, who were killed. Pvt. David Guessford and Pvt. Samuel Alexander would later die from wounds sustained in the battle.

As seen in the Official Records, Volume 40, corps commander Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock rewarded the 1st Delaware’s brigade commander, Col. Thomas A. Smyth from Wilmington, with a recommendation for promotion to brigadier general for “distinguished services” and “gallant and meritorious conduct while in the command of a brigade.” Hancock demonstrated his confidence in Smyth by temporarily assigning him as division commander when Maj. Gen. John Gibbon fell ill.

In his memoirs written after the war, General Grant acknowledged, “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made … [because] no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”

Although remorseful over the tragedy that had occurred, Grant was far from discouraged. His plan was to compel the Confederate general to defend Richmond from attack. A year earlier, Lee had predicted the enemy would “strengthen itself to renew its advance upon Richmond and force this army back within the entrenchments of that city … [potentially leading to] a catastrophe.” (OR, Vol. 27, III)

Based on his military experience, Lee knew that when his army fell back into the fortifications around the capital, Grant would place the city under siege. The unanswered question was whether the audacious Confederate commander could devise a response to thwart Grant’s strategy.

Thomas J. Ryan is a Civil War historian, speaker, and author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War: A Political, Military and Social Perspective.” Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com.