Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Commemorating the 150th of Cold Harbor

The Overland Campaign poses a challenge to even the most ardent Sesquicentennialist. After all, the Union and Confederate armies engaged in almost continuous combat over the course of several weeks. I knew that I would never have the time to attend all of the commemorative events being planned. I went to the 150th of the Bloody Angle at the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield on May 12, but given the craziness of this thing we call life, I wasn't sure if I would make it to any others. This past Saturday, however, I found myself with the opportunity to attend the kick off of the Sesquicentennial of Cold Harbor. So I got up early (for a weekend), jumped in the car, and drove down I-95 to the Cold Harbor Battlefield near Richmond.

The National Park Service (NPS) had arranged for shuttle bus transportation from a nearby church to the battlefield. The crowd was waiting for the bus when a police officer arrived and informed us that we could park at the site itself. Before long, I joined the caravan of cars, trucks, and SUVs driving down Cold Harbor Road.

Entrance to the battlefield, a unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park. The parking on the field next to the park began filling up early. 

I decided to do the two morning tours of the battlefield. The first looked at the soldiers' perspective of Cold Harbor, with a focus on the attack of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery on June 1, 1864. This unit had recently joined the Army of the Potomac from the defenses of Washington. As we hiked over the very ground where the fight occurred, the Park Ranger brought to life the regiment's baptism by fire at Cold Harbor.

Soldiers from the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery halted in this depression before resuming their attack on the Confederate works on June 1. Enemy troops under Gen. Robert Hoke initially beat back the assault, but the 2nd Connecticut regrouped and took the Confederate line.

The tour group stops at the 2nd Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery monument. The regiment lost over 330 killed and wounded during the fighting on June 1. Among those killed was the unit's commander, Col. Elisha Kellogg.

These three reenactors portraying members of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery traveled all the way from Connecticut to commemorate the regiment's sacrifices at Cold Harbor. I talked to them and discovered that they were camping near the regiment's monument for a few nights with the permission of the NPS. The men thanked the tour group for our interest in honoring the 2nd Connecticut on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the regiment's first major engagement.

The tours were scheduled so close together so I had to depart a few minutes early and rush to join the second hike. This tour examined the historical memory, myths, and realities behind the June 3, 1864 fight at Cold Harbor. The Ranger led us to the area of the attack made by Gen. William F. "Baldy" Smith's XVIII Corps, which was one of the bloodiest and most intense parts of the battle on June 3. He helped us to understand the sheer horror of that day and explained the role that poor coordination and fatigue played in the Army of Potomac's loss. The Ranger also dispelled the notion of "Grant the Butcher."

The tour group walks over terrain that featured in the attack of the XVIII Corps on June 3. At the time of the battle an unnamed stream ran where the pond sits today.  Units from the XVIII Corps advanced generally from left to right along the ravine formed by the stream.
Looking just over the park boundary in the direction of Confederate entrenchments that greeted the XVIII Corps on June 3. The earthworks are long gone.

The tour group stops at the edge of hastily dug Union trenches. During the fighting on June 3, soldiers used canteens, tin cups and plates, and frying pans to build temporary protection.
The NPS also featured plenty of living history. The sight of Union and Confederate field encampments under the tall pines transported visitors back to 1864. Reenactors portraying Lee and Grant were even on hand. Every once in a while the sound of cannon fire would echo through the park, a chilling reminder of what was happening here on a grand scale 150 years ago.

Union encampment on the battlefield.

I spotted General Grant himself over in the Union encampment!

Reenactors portraying soldiers from Lee's army march past the remains of  Confederate earthworks on the battlefield. (I assume they were not in any way tramping on the historic entrenchments!)
Stacked arms in the Confederate encampment.
After the tours I went back to the Visitor Center to check out the various activities that were underway. I bought a requisite commemorative cover as I have for other Sesquicentennial events. Although I am far from being a stamp collector, I like having some type of keepsake from these 150th commemorations, and I just can't bring myself to buy those T-shirts they sell! I also had a chance to get my copy of Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26-June 5, 1864 autographed by co-author Daniel T. Davis.

One of my goals while at Cold Harbor was to locate the general area where my ancestor, Pvt. William Baumgarten, fought on June 3. William was with Co. K of the 102nd Pennsylvania, which belonged to Gen. Frank Wheaton's brigade, Gen. Thomas Neill's division of Gen. Horatio Wright's VI Corps. Generally speaking, the VI Corps saw little fighting on June 3, but Neill's men made a run at the Confederate line. The 102nd Pennsylvania held the far right of the VI Corps line, and moved along with rest of Wheaton's brigade towards Confederate works held by Gen. G. T. Anderson's brigade. As Wheaton described in his after-action report:
The troops advanced with spirit, carrying the first and imperfect line of rifle-pits of the rebels running diagonally with our front; in the attempt to take the second line, however, they were repulsed with heavy loss. The One hundred and second and One hundred and thirty-ninth Pennsylvania Volunteers found cover under the rifle-pit taken, which extended over their front. (OR, 1:36:1, 689.)
The 102nd Pennsylvania and other regiments remained at the converted entrenchment until relieved by soldiers from the Vermont Brigade. Overall, the 102nd Pennsylvania lost six killed, 39 wounded, and two missing. Lt. Col. William McIlwaine, the regiment's commander, was mortally wounded, and Maj.Thomas McLaughlin suffered severe wounds. (OR, 1:36:1, 693.)

The NPS staff assisted me in trying to figure out the site where the 102nd Pennsylvania fought. After digging around and looking at a few maps, they finally determined that the 102nd Pennsylvania more than likely entered the fray a little to the south of the unnamed stream along which the XVIII Corps advanced, not far from the battlefield's Tour Stop 3. (This stream is the same one marked by the pond seen in the picture above.)

I walked out to the approximate position of the 102nd  Pennsylvania's attack and looked around. I tried to image what William was feeling at that time. Enlisting only in March 1864, he had arrived just in time for the hellacious fighting at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. And now here  he was, once again facing the enemy. I took a moment to pause and remember my ancestor and the sacrifices he made for his country. (Note that since my visit, additional research has shed some light on a more accurate and precise position of the 102nd Pennsylvania. I will need to go back and walk around some more!)

The surviving entrenchments are one of the most striking and memorable aspects of the Cold Harbor Battlefield. I had never before seen such an extensive network of well-preserved earthworks. I took several pictures, but nothing can capture the sense of being there and seeing them for yourself. The earthen remains of the desperate struggles of June 1 and June 3 are a true national treasure.

Example of the preserved Confederate trenches at Cold Harbor.

Following my tour at Cold Harbor, I drove up the road to the Garthright House, which was used as a Union hospital during the battle. The NPS owns the house, but the surrounding land forms part of Hanover County's Cold Harbor Battlefield Park. The marker at the home tells the horrific story of how Mrs. Garthright took shelter in her basement as blood dripped through the floorboards. Around 97 soldiers were buried in the front yard and later interred at the Cold Harbor National Cemetery in 1866.

As my last stop, I crossed the road and visited the national cemetery. This small, sobering place is a reminder of the sacrifices made by the men in blue at Cold Harbor and other area battles. I checked out the Pennsylvania Monument, which is dedicated to the regiments who participated in the June 1864 battle at Cold Harbor, including the 102nd Pennsylvania. The cemetery also contains a monument to the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is dedicated to 889 unidentified Union war dead buried nearby.

The only downside of the day had nothing to do with program or sites at all. My iPhone lost power pretty fast as I downloaded photos to Twitter. I tried to recharge in my car while eating lunch, but I never got enough juice. Unlucky for me, the phone died completely just as I began to take pictures of the area where William Baumgarten and 102nd advanced and fought. If I learned one lesson, it is to take my digital camera the next time!

Overall I had a very meaningful day at Cold Harbor. Along with fellow Civil War enthusiasts, I had a chance to study and ponder the fighting that took place on this hallowed ground 150 years ago. I also explored my own personal connection to the battle and honored my ancestor who fought there. As birds sang and the scent of pine filled the air, I could hardly imagine the bloodshed that had occurred in such a tranquil and beautiful setting. But then I would look down at one of those entrenchments from so long ago and remember all too well that "it was not war, but murder."


Aside from the OR, the following sources were useful in compiling this post:

Daniel T. Davis & Philip S. Greenwalt, Hurricane from the Heavens: The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 26-June 5, 1864 (2014); Gordon C. Rhea, Cold Harbor, Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 (2002).

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