June 3, 1864: “Eighteen tons of iron thrown at the rebel lines….”

I am off early this morning to attend the sesquicentennial events at Cold Harbor.  One hundred and fifty years ago this day, Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, commanding the artillery of the Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, also had an early start to the day.  I offer you lengthy citation from his diary describing the events from an artillerist’s perspective:

June 3, Friday.  The day opened with a big battle to our left; where the Second and Sixth Corps attacked at daylight.  The Fifth Corps being strung out on a line some five miles long could do nothing save demonstrate and fire artillery. Soon after daylight, I received orders to return to the Walnut Grove Church with the three batteries I had taken away last night.  On arriving there I found matters as I described them to be last night; the Ninth Corps having thrown up works along the south side of the pike.  Burnside was to have attacked with his whole corps at daylight, as a diversion to the attack on the left, but as usual was not ready until the matter there had been decided.

So soon as I got to the church, I sent Barnes and Walcott out to the position they held yesterday, on the left and right of the road to Walnut Grove Church, and placed Mink on the left of Stewart.  Some four hundred yards to the east of the church, on the north side of the pike, stands a house belonging to one Curry; just back of this house the little stream commences which crossed the Bowles house road, running west nearly parallel to and some two hundred fifty yards from the pike. The ravine in which it runs is quite deep, but the banks slope gradually on either side, and are almost free of trees.  On the south bank of this ravine Phillips and Richardson were posted to the east; Stewart and Mink to the west of the road to Bowles’s house. The enemy’s skirmishers were some hundred yards back on the north bank, with batteries stationed just whee Breck and Richardson were on the 31st of last month, so that our relative positions were exactly the reverse of what they were that day.

About ten o’clock, perhaps earlier, our line facing north commenced to advance together with the Ninth Corps on its right. The progress made was very slow at considerable loss, the artillery advancing by battery with the line of battle.  After we got possession of a small nameless house directly north of the Tinsley house Stewart and Mink did not suffer so much; but the rebel battery in Breck’s old place showed how good a position it was.  The whole move was a gradual swinging round of our right; Bartlett’s brigade finally coming around at right angles to the pike on a line with that of Ayres, and the Ninth Corps stretching from there northeast to the Armstrong house, with their skirmishers across the Shady Grove road.  It was late in the afternoon when this was accomplished.  Stewart and Richardson suffered severely….

While this was going on, the rebels made a savage charge up the pike and through the wood north of it, getting to within canister range, but were repulsed by Ayres’s brigade together with Hart’s and Rittenhouse’s batteries.  … had all twelve batteries in position, and engaged throughout a good part of the day, using an immense amount of ammunition.  Their reports tonight show a total of 3,435 rounds expended, equal to seventy-one rounds per gun, and making about eighteen tons of iron thrown at the rebel lines; an amount which one would think ought to have some effect, but probably did not, if we may judge from the small amount of harm their fire did us, which was almost if not quite as heavy as our own….

So far news has reached us, the fight of Cold Harbor this morning must have been terrible, and though it was short, our losses were something fearful; while the enemy’s were probably small, for they were behind very strong works, and had many small swamps in their front. Our men are said to have carried the line in one place notwithstanding, and captured three guns.  Tyler’s division of heavy artillery were all cut to pieces.  He lost a leg himself, while Colonel Morris and Porter were killed.  I hear, too, that Captain Ames of “G” Battery is wounded, making the fifth out of the six captains of the regiment with this army who has been hit; one of them, if not two, mortally wounded.

The day has been rather a pleasant one to me, as I have been free to move around from one battery to another without any unreasonable demands being put upon me.  I mention this, as I feel that I am standing on the edge of a volcano which may burst out at any moment, and in the spot least looked for. This evening I saw it in its fury thought its lava did not reach me….

From the passage that follows, I gather the “volcano” referred to was not the great battle, but rather Major-General G.K. Warren.  Late in the evening, Warren returned to his headquarters upset that his staff had not done their duties in his absence.  “I never heard anything which could begin to equal the awful oaths poured out tonight,” Wainwright wrote, “they fairly made my hair stand on end with their profaneness, while I was filled with wonder at the ingenuity of invention and blackguardism they displayed.”

There were many profane words, and for good measure sacred words, expressed on the evening of June 3, 1864.

(Citations from Charles S. Wainwright, A Diary of Battle: The Personal Journals of Colonel Charles S. Wainwright, 1861-1865, edited by Allan Nevins, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pages 402-5.)



3 thoughts on “June 3, 1864: “Eighteen tons of iron thrown at the rebel lines….”

  1. Teach other authors how to make the great maps that you produce. A few crummy maps is not going to make in today’s world,

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