As the former capital of the Confederate States, Richmond, Va., is ringed by Civil War battlefields. I was determined to visit one of them on a recent road trip to see family. I settled on Cold Harbor, one of several sites that make up the Richmond National Battlefield Park.
The Battle of Cold Harbor, May 31-June 12, 1864, was part of Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, during which Confederate troops defended Richmond with six miles of trenches.
I picked up a brochure and map at the small visitor center, then we drove the short park loop and walked a trail tracing over and around the remains of trenches soldiers dug 150 years ago. (My husband gets props for pushing Leo’s stroller up and down the gravel path in Virginia humidity).
The ground looked like corduroy. Markers explained how for days soldiers would crouch in misery in the trenches. They dug “zig zags” between lines of trenches so they could retrieve supplies without getting their heads blown off. They would top the trench with a header log and shoot through a narrow gap below it.
This depression is a rifle pit occupied by a Union soldier. It was the closest position to enemy lines, just 50 yards from Confederate rifle pits.
Most fighting at Cold Harbor took place June 1-3, when Union forces launched assaults. They were unsuccessful. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” Grant wrote in his memoirs. “No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
On June 3 alone, nearly 6,000 Union soldiers were killed or wounded, most in just an hour’s time. Both sides’ casualties over the two weeks totaled 16,000. A nearby creek was named Bloody Run. According to the brochure, Cold Harbor was the beginning of modern trench warfare, showing how trenches, supported by artillery, were practically impenetrable.
I have to admit that my eyes tend to glaze over when faced with a battlefield map full of lines and arrows. But standing in the places where soldiers took cover in trenches, hid in rifle pits and charged across fields opened a small window into the past and helped me understand what happened 150 years ago.
You also can sign up for our Family Tree University course Civil War Research: Find Your Ancestors in the War Between the States with instructor Diana Crisman Smith. The next session starts Aug. 1, and you can use code FTU0811 to get 20 percent off your tuition.