Accessibility links

Breaking News

American History Series: The Battle of Cold Harbor

The final Union campaign of the Civil War began on May 3, 1864. General Ulysses Grant had kept the details as secret as possible. Transcript of radio broadcast:

Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION -- American history in VOA Special English.

On July fourth, eighteen sixty-three, a huge Confederate army surrendered at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Union forces had surrounded the city for forty-seven days. Food was gone. The situation was hopeless. The Confederate commander gave up.

The terms of surrender were simple. The Confederate soldiers promised not to fight anymore. In return for this promise, they were released on parole and sent home to their families.

Never had Union forces won such a victory. Thirty thousand Confederate soldiers were now out of the war. Sixty thousand guns and one hundred seventy cannon were now in Union hands. The Mississippi River was now under Union control.

This week in our series, Larry West and Maurice Joyce continue our story of the American Civil War.


The victory at Vicksburg went to General Ulysses Grant. He was named commander of all Union armies in the west. Then he was sent to Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The Union army there had just been defeated in a battle along a little river called the Chickamauga. Now the Union soldiers were resting and re-organizing in Chattanooga. The Confederate line stretched halfway around the city.

The Confederates had artillery on Lookout Mountain. They controlled every road into the city except a rough one through the mountains. They had blocked the Tennessee River above and below the city. And they had cut the railroad. The Confederate general said he would let hunger force the Union Army to surrender.


Grant arrived in Chattanooga late in October. The city was full of hungry Union soldiers. They had been without supplies for almost a month.

Grant wasted no time. He quickly sent troops to fight the Confederate force blocking the Tennessee River. He sent others to fight the Confederates blocking the road to the nearest Union supply center. Within one week, supply wagons were rolling into Chattanooga. Within a few weeks, the defeated Union army was ready to fight again.


General Grant sent his men against the middle and ends of the Confederate line at the same time.

There were few Confederate soldiers at Lookout Mountain. That end of the line fell easily. The center of the line was along a low hill called Missionary Ridge. It held for a while. Then Union soldiers -- acting without orders -- forced their way to the top of the hill. The Confederate line broke. Southern soldiers threw down their guns and ran for their lives.

The Confederate army withdrew south into the state of Georgia. Tennessee was completely in Union hands. The way was now open for the armies of the North to march into the heart of the Confederacy.



It was clear that the South could not win the war. Too many Confederate soldiers had fallen in battle. None were left to take their place. Supplies were very low. There was not enough food to eat, no shoes to wear, and little left to fight with.

No one held any hope of getting supplies from outside the Confederacy. The South was circled by Union troops and warships. All seemed lost.

Yet Confederate soldiers refused to stop fighting. They would not surrender. The war would not end until the Confederate armies were defeated by military force.


There was no question that the North had the military strength. Supplies were no problem. Factories were producing more than ever before. Manpower was no problem. Men continued to join the Union army. Fewer than before, but still enough to make it a powerful force.

The problem with the Union army was its generals. Some were too careful. Some were unwilling to fight. Some did not know how to fight.

The only general who seemed able to win victories was Ulysses Grant. That is why President Abraham Lincoln named Grant commander of all Union armies. Lincoln depended on him to end the Civil War.



Grant went east in March eighteen sixty-four, five months after the battle at Chattanooga. He decided to make his headquarters in the field with the Army of the Potomac. He said he would not command from an office in Washington. But he went to the city to explain his plans to President Lincoln.

Grant noted that, in the past, the separate Union armies had moved and fought independently. He said they were like a poorly trained team of horses. No two of them ever pulled at the same time in the same direction.

Under his command, Grant said, the Union armies would pull together. They would hit the Confederates with so much strength in so many places that the rebels could not stop them.

Grant said all the armies would attack at the same time.


Grant spent the month of April preparing for the big campaign. The main target, once again, was the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia.

The Army of the Potomac had one hundred twenty thousand men. It would move against Richmond from the north. General Ben Butler had fifty thousand men. He would move against Richmond from the east. General Franz Sigel would bring thousands more through the Shenandoah Valley to the northwest.

These forces were three times the size of Robert E. Lee's army near Richmond.

In the west, William Sherman had three armies with more than one hundred thousand men. His opponent, Joe Johnston, had just sixty thousand.


General Grant kept details of the campaign as secret as possible. Reporters asked President Lincoln when Grant would move.

The president answered, "Ask General Grant."

"General Grant will not tell us," said the reporters. Said Lincoln, "He will not tell me, either."

The final Union campaign of the Civil War began on May third, eighteen sixty-four.

After two days of marching, the Army of the Potomac reached the wilderness. It was a thickly wooded area west of Fredericksburg, Virginia. That was where the Union army had lost a battle to the Confederates one year before. That was where the two armies would fight again.


The battle quickly became a blind struggle. The woods were thick. The smoke was heavy. The soldiers could not see each other until they were very close. Shells set the trees on fire. The wounded could not escape the flames. Their screams filled the air.

After two days, General Grant decided that the wilderness was not the place to fight Robert E. Lee. He wanted to get around the end of Lee's army. He wanted to fight in the open, where he could use his artillery. So he began to march his men toward a place called Spotsylvania Court House.


Lee moved his men as fast as Grant. When the Union army got to Spotsylvania, the Confederates were waiting behind walls of earth and stone.

For several more days, the two armies fought. At times, they were so close they had no time to load and fire their guns. So they used their guns to hit each other.

The Confederate line bent. But it never broke. Once again, Lee had stopped the Union army.

Grant refused to accept defeat. He said he would fight to the finish, if it took all summer. Once again, he ordered his men to march around the end of Lee's line. Lee quickly pulled his men back to a place called Cold Harbor, not far from Richmond. There they waited.


As he had done in the wilderness and at Spotsylvania, Grant ordered his men to attack hard. It was a slaughter. In less than an hour, seven thousand Union soldiers fell dead or wounded.

Grant finally stopped the attack. The Union soldiers returned to their lines. They left behind hundreds of wounded men.

For four days, the wounded lay on the battlefield crying for help, for water. Men who tried to rescue them were shot down. Finally, Grant and Lee agreed on a ceasefire to take care of the wounded and bury the dead. It was too late for most of the wounded. They had died.


The battle at Cold Harbor ended one month of fighting for the Army of the Potomac. The campaign had brought it almost to the edge of Richmond, the Confederate capital. But Grant had paid a terrible price: more than fifty thousand dead and wounded.

Confederate losses were much lighter: about twenty thousand.

General Grant was beginning to learn an important lesson of the war. The methods of defense had improved much more than the methods of attack.



Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Larry West and Maurice Joyce. You can find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts of our programs, along with historical images, at And you can follow us on Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #112 of THE MAKING OF A NATION