Carl Guarneri, Saint Mary's College History department
Alyssa Sisco Ginn, Saint Mary's College Class of 2008

Battle of Cold Harbor

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   It was General Sheridan who seized Cold Harbor, a dusty, dreary intersection of great strategic importance. If Union forces held it they could use several routes to get to Richmond or to maneuver behind Lee's forces. Once the bulk of the Army of the Potomac arrived at Cold Harbor, Generals Grant and Meade would consider offensive moves. Meanwhile, on May 31 they planned to stay on the defensive unless the Confederates pushed east to divide the main Union divisions that were moving south. The 16th Michigan remained in position north of Cold Harbor, engaged in skirmishing and an advance upon some Confederate forces who were attempting disrupt the Union move. "Advanced in line upon the Rebs right flank," Hill reported, although there was apparently no firing. "I have charge of the left wing of the Regiment. 3 P.M." Enough of a lull occurred for Hill to change his shirt for the first time in a month.

   As both sides began massing troops in the area, a major battle was brewing. Meanwhile, the two armies watched each other and made forays to test each other's strength. On the morning of June 1st, the 16th Michigan was ordered to move west from their position two miles north of Cold Harbor, advancing as skirmishers ahead of their division. The terrain included a bottomland woods called Magnolia Swamp. Captain Hill's job in leading his men was to "press the enemy and draw their fire" to determine their strength and hidden artillery positions. The Michigan men drove the Rebel skirmishers back, captured two lines of their rifle pits, and resisted a fierce counterattack after being resupplied with ammunition. It was an exhausting day of fighting, costing the regiment at least thirteen wounded. One of the casualties was Captain Hill, who described the day's events succinctly in his diary: "I had charge of the Picket line on the left. This morning the 16 ordered to advance, carried the enemies rifle Pitts and advanced to the brow of the Hill, when I was shot in the right thigh."

   Hill referred to the bullet's entry point as his right thigh, but it was somewhat higher up on his hip; medical reports later referred to it as a "gunshot wound of right ilium," or pelvic bone. The wounded captain was placed on a stretcher and taken to a makeshift field hospital, where he was examined and, according to Private Jack Wood, "left to die." Wood was sent to gather Hill's personal effects and take them to regimental headquarters to be returned to his family. The view that Hill was dying was so widespread that Captain Salter of the Sixteenth reported it in a letter to a friend: "Our Regt lost this day Capt Hill mortally wounded." Captain Hill's closing words in his diary made it appear he was of the same opinion. Believing it would be his last entry, Hill recalled his beloved Shakespeare. His entry, "Alas poor Yorick," refers to the churchyard scene in Hamlet where a gravedigger exhumes the skull of a deceased court jester and Hamlet voices a meditation about the fleeting vanity of life on earth.

   Still breathing the next day, Hill knew that his physician expected him to die: "Suffered terribly from my operation yesterday the ball having passed through the flesh of the hip going also entirely through the Ilium bone from this point the surgeon has been unable to trace it but I know what he thinks. He thinks that it has passed into the bowels and that I will die."       

                                               General Grant at Cold HarborMeanwhile, the battle at Cold Harbor continued. Believing the Confederates had not yet fully entrenched, Grant sought to seize the opportunity and attack on June 2nd , but delays in troop movements postponed the assault. The next morning the Union commanders hurled their men against the Confederates awaiting them behind well constructed breastworks. The horrendous fighting of June 3 left 7,000 Union soldiers killed or wounded and disabled only 1,500 Confederates, a ghastly Union defeat. The 16th Michigan, which remained in position near the Bethesda Church, escaped involvement in the main assault at Cold Harbor. Still, the regiment had endured more than thirty fatalities and 120 other casualties since crossing into the Wilderness a month earlier.

Cold Harbor battle map

   While Hill suffered from his wound, Grant's men continued in their quest to wear down Lee's army. After the disastrous losses in Cold Harbor, Grant swung his army south again, this time crossing the James River and moving on Petersburg, a railroad center south of Richmond whose capture would force evacuation of the Confederate capital. Once again, hesitations and confusion in the field delayed a Union attack on lightly manned fortifications, and Grant's troops settled down for a long siege and encirclement of Petersburg. The 16th Michigan, which had been used to screen the James crossing, did not reach the Petersburg area until June 16th. They were engaged in the next two days' assaults on Petersburg's defenses, remained in the Union trenches until late July, and spent the fall fighting to extend the Union lines westward. Grant's siege would last nearly ten months: not until April 1865 would the Union forces finally stretch the Rebel lines to the breaking point and compel Richmond's evacuation.

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