Coffin: Cold Harbor

May 30, 2014

As June began 150 years ago, the Overland Campaign of 1864 had been grinding its bloody way south through Virginia for nearly a month when May ended, with the battered armies of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant now heading for another collision just six miles north of Richmond.

The place was an inland crossroads strangely called Cold Harbor and Lee got there first, his army promptly digging in. Grant came up within hours and on June 1 launched an attack that failed. But he promptly ordered an assault for the morrow, one that never got underway. All through June 2, heat and dusty roads delayed the march of Union columns to the field, while Lee’s veterans dug more, and deeper, trenches, throwing up higher earthworks.

The Overland Campaign’s great battles to date, at Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse, and the confrontation at the North Anna River, had already cost Vermont more than 2,000 casualties. Then in the June 1 action the 10th Vermont Regiment lost more than 100 men. The big attack would now come at first light June 3, with the 10th, the First Vermont Brigade’s six regiments, and the 17th Vermont engaged.

Vermont private Oscar Waite wrote of that fateful morning: “Some of the men quietly pinned tags to their coats, with the names and addresses of friends at home: but at the same time, all were watching a gray streak of light creeping along the horizon, and were listening for that bugle call which, whatever its military significance, means to us boys, ‘More childless parents, more weeping maidens, widows and orphans, widows and orphans.' At 4:30 we heard it; the brazen-toned order to charge. Far flashed the red artillery and the line moved on.”

The attack came on a six mile front and, within minutes, some 6,000 Union soldiers were shot. The big Cold Harbor assault was a total failure, the only military mistake Ulysses Grant ever admitted making. While Lee and Grant dickered over a truce, the wounded would lie for days between the lines in the scorching Virginia heat.

Among the more than 100 Vermonters who fell was St. Johnsbury’s Capt. Edwin Frost. A brother, army surgeon C. P. Frost, wrote home: “He died at half past one, on the afternoon of the 3d of June... He felt that he was reconciled to his God. He spoke of being through with fighting and going to his rest... We buried him very decently under a large tree... I buried him in his clothes, with two blankets about him and an old coat of his under his head. He rests in a good spot, if he must be away from home. We buried him while the cannon were roaring about him his requiem. His life went out as the sun goes down at evening.”