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The movements of both armies were bringing them steadily nearer to Richmond, and but one chance now remained to achieve the object of the campaign, the defeat of Lee’s army north of the Chickahominy and away from the strong defenses of the Confederate capital. The enemy, swinging southward to conform to Grant’s advance, finally reached the important point of Cold Harbor on May 31st. Cavalry was sent forward to dislodge him, and seized some of the entrenchments near that place, while both armies were hurried forward for the inevitable battle. The Sixth Corps, of which the Second Artillery was part, reached its position on the extreme left near noon on June 1st, having marched since midnight, and awaited the placing of other troops before the charge, which had been ordered to take place at five o’clock.
It would have been a fearful waiting for these men could they have known what was in store for them. But they were drugged, as it were, with utter fatigue; the almost constant movement of their two weeks of active service had left them “so nearly dead with marching and want of sleep” that they could not notice or comprehend the significant movements of the columns of troops about them preparing for battle, or the artillery which soon opened fire on both sides; their stupor, it is related, was of a kind that none can describe. They heard without excitement the earnest instructions of Colonel Kellogg, who, in pride and anxiety at this first trial of his beloved command, was in constant consultation with officers and men, directing, encouraging, explaining. “He marked out on the ground,” writes one of his staff, “the shape of the works to be taken,–told the officers what dispositions to make of the different battalions,–how the charge was to be made,–spoke of our reputation as a band-box regiment, ‘Now we are called on to show what we can do at fighting.’” The brigade commander, General Emory Upton, was also watching closely this new regiment which had never been in battle. But all foreboding was spared most of the men through sheer exhaustion.
At about the appointed time, five in the afternoon, the regiment was moved in three battalions of four companies each out of the breastworks where it had lain through the afternoon, leaving knapsacks behind, stationed for a few moments among the scanty pine-woods in front, and then at the word of command started forth upon its fateful journey, the Colonel in the lead.
The first battalion, with the colors in the center, moved at a double quick across the open field under a constantly thickening fire, over the enemy’s first line of rifle pits which was abandoned at its approach, and onward to the main line of breastworks with a force and impetus which would have carried it over this like Niagara but for an impassable obstruction. Says the regimental history, “There had been a thick growth of pine sprouts and saplings on this ground, but the rebels had cut them, probably that very day, and had arranged them so as to form a very effective abatis,–thereby clearing the spot and thus enabling them to see our movements. Up to this point there had been no firing sufficient to confuse or check the battalion, but here the rebel musketry opened. A sheet of flame, sudden as lightning, red as blood, and so near that it seemed to singe the men’s faces, burst along the rebel breastwork, and the ground and trees close behind our line was ploughed and riddled with a thousand balls that just missed the heads of the men. The battalion dropped flat on the ground, and the second volley, like the first, nearly all went over. Several men were struck, but not a large number. It is more than probable that if there had been no other than this front fire, the rebel breastworks would have been ours, notwithstanding the pine boughs. But at that moment a long line of rebels on our left, having nothing in their own front to engage their attention, and having unobstructed range on the battalion, opened a fire which no human valor could withstand, and which no pen can adequately describe. It was the work of almost a single minute. The air was filled with sulphurous smoke, and the shrieks and howls of more than two hundred and fifty mangled men rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry. ‘About face,’ shouted Colonel Kellogg, but it was his last command. He had already been struck in the arm, and the words had scarcely passed his lips when another shot pierced his head, and he fell dead upon the interlacing pine boughs. Wild and blind with wounds, bruises, noise, smoke, and conflicting orders, the men staggered in every direction, some of them falling upon the very top of the rebel parapet, where they were completely riddled with bullets,–others wandering off into the woods on the right and front, to find their way to death by starvation at Andersonville, or never to be heard of again.”
The second battalion had advanced at an interval of about seventy-five yards after the first, and the third had followed in turn, but they were ordered by General Upton to lie down as they approached the entrenchments. They could not fire without injury to the line in front, and could only hold their dangerous and trying position in readiness to support their comrades ahead, protecting themselves as they could from the fire that seemed like leaden hail. There was no suggestion of retreat at any point and several hundred of the enemy, taking advantage of a lull in the firing, streamed over the breastworks and gave themselves up, but through a misunderstanding of the case the credit of their capture was given to other regiments, though clearly due to this.
The history continues: “The lines now became very much mixed. Those of the first battalion who were not killed or wounded gradually crawled or worked back; wounded men were carried through to the rear; and the woods began to grow dark, either with night or smoke or both. The companies were formed and brought up to the breastworks one by one, and the line extended toward the left. The enemy soon vacated the breastwork in our immediate front, and crept off through the darkness.” Throughout the terrible night they held their ground, keeping up a constant fire to prevent an attempt by the enemy to reoccupy the line, until they were relieved in the early morning by other troops; they had secured a position which it was indispensable to hold, and the line thus gained remained the regiment’s front during its stay at Cold Harbor. Until June 12th the position was kept confronting the enemy, whose line was parallel and close before it, while daily additions were made to the list of casualties as they labored in strengthening the protective works.
The regimental history continues: “On the morning of the 2nd the wounded who still remained were got off to the rear, and taken to the Division Hospital some two miles back. Many of them had lain all night, with shattered bones, or weak with loss of blood, calling vainly for help, or water, or death. Some of them lay in positions so exposed to the enemy’s fire that they could not be reached until the breastworks had been built up and strengthened at certain points, nor even then without much ingenuity and much danger; but at length they were all removed. Where it could be done with safety, the dead were buried during the day. Most of the bodies, however, could not be reached until night, and were then gathered and buried under cover of the darkness.”
The regiment’s part in the charge of June 3rd, the disastrous movement of the whole Union line against the Confederate works, which Grant admitted never should have been made, was attended with casualties which by comparison with the slaughter of the 1st seemed inconsiderable. There were, in fact, losses in killed and wounded on almost all of the twelve days of its stay at Cold Harbor, but the fatal 1st of June greatly overshadowed the remaining time, and that first action was indeed incomparably the most severe the Second Connecticut ever saw. Its loss in killed and wounded, in fact, is said to have been greater than that of any other Connecticut regiment in any single battle.
The reputation of a fighting regiment, which its fallen leader had predicted, was amply earned by that unfaltering advance against intrenchments manned by Lee’s veterans, and that tenacious defense of the position gained, but the cost was appallingly great. The record of Cold Harbor, of which all but a very small proportion was incurred on June 1st, is given as follows: Killed or died of wounds, one hundred and twenty-one; wounded, but not mortally, one hundred and ninety; missing, fifteen; prisoners, three.
General Martin T. McMahon, writing of this battle in “The Century’s” series of war papers, says: “I remember at one point a mute and pathetic evidence of sterling valor. The Second Connecticut Heavy Artillery, a new regiment eighteen hundred strong, had joined us but a few days before the battle. Its uniform was bright and fresh; therefore its dead were easily distinguished where they lay. They marked in a dotted line an obtuse angle, covering a wide front, with its apex toward the enemy, and there upon his face, still in death, with his head to the works, lay the Colonel, the brave and genial Colonel Elisha S. Kellogg.”
Such was their first trial in battle.