Picturesque stands of trees, rolling fields, and quiet hide the violence that swept across the Cold Harbor battlefield in early June 1864 as Union troops commanded by General Ulysses S. Grant met a staggering defeat in one of the bloodiest encounters of the war.
Part of Richmond National Battlefield Park, a sprawling complex of Civil War sites that surround Virginia's capital, Cold Harbor proved to be a killing field on June 3, 1864, as Confederate troops mowed down upwards of 7,000 Union soldiers in less than an hour.
Gen. Grant had thought that if he could break through the Confederate lines here, it'd be short work to continue on to Richmond and force an end to the Civil War. Instead, the Union troops met disaster in a series of battles that stretched from late May into mid-June, with the worst outcome coming on June 3. As Civil War Times put it in recounting the fighting on that day, "In human terms, Cold Harbor was an utter catastrophe, the direct result of a flawed command process that finally broke under the strain of battle."
Today the Cold Harbor battlefield offers visitors a small glimpse of what was a 7,500-acre battlefield during the Civil War. Extensive trenches -- earthworks -- worm their way this way and that through woodlands that were fields 147 years ago, remaining evidence that points to why the Confederate Army was so successful in the battle.
You have several options for exploring Cold Harbor. There is a two-and-a-half-mile-long trail that winds across the portion of the battlefield protected by the park and which takes you through most of the trenches, or you can opt for a shorter, mile-long loop that also features earthworks.
A one-way road meanders through the park, bringing you to three focal points that contain placards and markers that explain key segments of the fighting.