Disaster at Cold Harbor

Sep 13, 2013

Connecticut’s response to the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for three-month volunteer troops was immediate and significant. Throughout the state, men of military age enlisted for what most people thought was going to be simply a show of strength that would dissuade southerners from supporting secession.

In the months following the sobering Union defeat at the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861, additional units were recruited.  In the summer of 1862, yet another infantry regiment was organized—the Nineteenth Connecticut Volunteer Infantry. Some 815 men, drawn primarily from Litchfield County, trained for a few weeks under the stern guidance of Major Elisha S. Kellogg from Derby before the unit was whisked off to the Washington area for additional training and guard duty. In November 1863, the War Department ordered the Nineteenth to be reorganized as the Second Connecticut Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment, and officers were sent back to Connecticut to recruit new members to bring the unit up to proper strength.

In May 1864 the regiment traveled to Fredericksburg, thence on to the area near Cold Harbor, Virginia, about ten miles northeast of Richmond. There they encountered stiff opposition from Lee’s forces. With General Grant now in command, a new, more aggressive Union strategy sought to crush Confederate forces in Virginia and capture Richmond. Though effective, Grant’s tactics resulted in higher casualty rates.

On June 1 the regiment, which thus far had seen little action, found itself on the front lines, facing seasoned Confederate forces that were well entrenched behind an elaborate complex of earthworks. In what Grant later admitted was a mistake, a full frontal assault of the Confederate line was made, and the Second Connecticut Heavies, once again operating as an infantry unit, found themselves in the thick of the fight. The physically imposing Elisha Kellogg, now commanding the unit, led the charge across open ground toward the enemy. A hurricane of lead cut down scores of the attackers and when the unit pulled back, Colonel Kellogg lay dead on the field, one of some 118 men killed in the assault. In all, 323 men from the regiment were killed or wounded. The survivors were stunned by this slaughter, but continued to serve in the campaign.

By the fall of 1864 the Second found itself supporting Sheridan’s operations in the Shenandoah Valley before rejoining Grant in the Petersburg campaign. In April 1865 the regiment marched north through the ruins of Richmond, and on September 5, 1865, the men of the Second mustered out. For many veterans of the Second, the assault at Cold Harbor would be the most terrible memory of the conflict.

The Connecticut Historical Society has a large collection of photographs, manuscripts and objects related to Connecticut’s Civil War soldiers and sailors which may be viewed by visiting the Waterman Research Center at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, Connecticut. The Research Center is open Thursday from 12-5 and Friday and Saturday from 9-5. For more information, go to www.chs.org. Selected photographs may be viewed in Connecticut History Online at www.cthistoryonline.org.