On this day in May of 1864, the armies of Lee and Grant clash near Bethesda Church in a bloody prelude to the Battle of Cold Harbor
For the previous month, Grant and the Army of the Potomac had been forging a bloody path south toward the Confederate capitol in Richmond. What has become known as the Overland Campaign consisted of vicious battles at the Wilderness (May 5-7), Spotsylvania Courthouse (May 8-21), North Anna (23-26), Bethesda Church (May 28-30), and finally Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12). Grant's strategy during this campaign was to inflict as many casualties on Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, and to attempt to get between Lee and Richmond if possible. He attempted this after every battle. Following days of brutal struggle and maneuvering around each battlefield, Grant would sidestep Lee's right flank and march south in hopes of getting behind the Confederates. Each time Lee would win the race to the next vital crossroads or river, forcing Grant to attack. This was a very bloody game of chess.
Following the Battle of North Anna, where Lee almost succeeded in isolating two wings of Grant's army and destroying them separately, the two armies maneuvered southeast in the direction of Hanover Courthouse and Mechanicsville, both just a few miles outside of Richmond. This was a continuation of Grant's strategy to get around Lee's right flank and between him and Richmond.
Lee established a line of defense behind Totopotomoy Creek, east of Atlee's Station and north of Mechanicsville. Grant decided to move in the direction of Lee on May 29 with the hope of pinning down the Confederate's while he outflanked to the right (south).
On May 30, Grant ordered a general advance against Lee's line on Totopotomoy Creek. Wright's VI Corps on the Union right (north) and Hancock's II Corps in the center were unable to effectively make contact with the Confederate line, so the fighting in that area only resembled heavy skirmishing against the Corps of A.P. Hill and Richard Anderson. To the south, General Warren's V Corps was maneuvering to make contact with the Confederate lines.
General Lee identified Warren's movements as an attempt to get around his flank. He ordered General Jubal Early, in charge of the II Corps on the right flank, to strike Warren before he could succeed in his plans. Early sent General Robert Rodes Division to hopefully outflank Warren near Bethesda Church. Rodes troops ran into elements of Crawford's Union Division, routing them in the process of the attack. This left Warren's flank exposed and in danger, but Rodes' Division fell into disorder during their all-out attack, and no other troops were readily available to follow up the success. This allowed Warren to call up extra artillery and to shift his lines to face the possible continuation of a Confederate attack.
At this point the Confederates had achieved success along the line of battle, even though the attack by Rodes if properly supported could have been decisive. Unfortunately General Stephen Ramseur, one of Early's Division commanders, was allowed to attack the Union lines directly towards the artillery in an attempt to break through the Federal defenses. The primary unit that made the attack was Pegram's Brigade, and it was mauled during the advance, somehow managing to get within 50 yards of Warren's lines before collapsing with several hundred casualties, including many captured. Following this attack, Early withdrew his Corps a short distance to the west and broke off contact. This concluded the fighting along Totopotomoy Creek and near Bethesda Church.
The following day, May 31, the two armies started to shift forces to the southeast a few miles towards the crossroads at Cold Harbor, ultimately leading to the disastrous Union attack against the formidable Confederate trenches there on June 3. Bethesda Church became a bloody footnote to the two brutal and bloody engagements that preceded or followed it at North Anna and Cold Harbor.