In the overland campaign of 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant with the Army of the Potomac battled General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia for six weeks across central Virginia. At the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna and Totopotomoy Creek, Lee repeatedly stalled, but failed to stop, Grant's southward progress toward Richmond. The next logical military objective for Grant was the crossroads styled by locals Old Cold Harbor.
May 31, 1864
After sparring along the Totopotomoy northeast of Richmond, Grant ordered Major General Philip Sheridan's cavalry to move south and capture the crossroads at Old Cold Harbor. Arriving near the intersection, the Union force ran into Major General Fitzhugh Lee's Confederate horsemen.
A sharp contest ensued, soon joined by Confederate infantry under Brigadier General Thomas Clingman of Major General Robert Hoke's division. After a short battle, Union cavalry drove the Confederates beyond the crossroads. The Rebels then started digging new positions a half-mile to the southwest.
June 1, 1864
Lee wished to retake Old Cold Harbor and sent Major General Joseph Kershaw's division to join Hoke in a morning assault. The effort was short and uncoordinated. Hoke failed to press the attack and Sheridan's troopers, armed with Spencer repeating carbines, easily repulsed the assault.
Grant, encouraged by this success, ordered up reinforcements and planned his own attack for later the same day. If the Union frontal assault broke through the Confederate defenses, it would place the Union army between Lee and Richmond. After a hot and dusty night march, Major General Horatio Wright's VI Corps arrived and relieved Sheridan's cavalry, but Grant had to delay the attack Major General William Smith's XVIII Corps, Army of the James, marching in the wrong direction under out-of-date orders, had to retrace its route and arrived late in the afternoon.
The Union attack finally began...