Sherman had double Johnston's numbers in the field. But Johnston, as a supremely skillful Fabian, was a most worthy opponent for this campaign, when the Confederate object was to gain time and sicken the North of the war by falling back from one strongly prepared position to another, inflicting as much loss as possible on the attackers, and forcing them to stretch their line of communication to the breaking point among a hostile population. Two of Sherman's best divisions were still floundering about with the rest of the Red River Expedition. So he had to modify his original plan, which would have taken him much sooner to Atlanta and given him the support of a simultaneous attack on Mobile by a cooperating joint expedition. But he was ready to the minute, all the same.
Dalton, Johnston's first stronghold, was cleverly turned by McPherson's right flank march; where upon Johnston fell back on Resaca. Here, on the upon the fifteenth of May, the armies fought hard for some hours. But Sherman again outflanked the fortified enemy, who retired to Kingston. Then, after Sherman had made a four days' halt to accumulate supplies, the advance was resumed, against determined opposition and with a good deal of hard fighting for a week in the neighborhood of New Hope Church. The result of the usual outflanking movements was that Johnston had to evacuate Allatoona on the fourth of June. Sherman at once turned it into his advanced field base; while Johnston fell back on another strong and wellprepared position at Kenesaw Mountain.
Grant, favored in a general way by Sherman and in a special way by Sheridan, had meanwhile enjoyed a third advantage, this time on his own immediate front, through the sickness of Lee, who could not take personal command during the last ten days of May. On the twenty-first half of Grant's army marched south while half stood threatening Lee, in order to give their friends a start toward Richmond. This move was so well staffed and screened that perhaps Lee could not have seen his chance quite soon enough in any case. But when he did learn what had happened even his calm self-control gave way to the exceeding bitter cry: "We must strike them! We must never let them pass us again!" On the thirtieth he was horrified at getting from Beauregard (who was then between Richmond and Petersburg) a telegram which showed that the Confederate Government was busy with the circumlocution office in Richmond while the enemy was thundering at the gate. "War Department must determine when and what troops to order from here." Lee immediately answered: "If you cannot determine what troops you can spare, the Department cannot. The result of your delay will be disaster. Butler's troops will be with Grant tomorrow." Lee also telegraphed direct to Davis for immediate reinforcements, which arrived only just in time for the terrific battle of Cold Harbor.
With these three advantages, in addition to the other odds in his favor, Grant seemed to have found the tide of fortune at the flood in the latter part of May. But he had many troubles of his own. No sooner had half his army been badly defeated on the eighteenth than news came that Sigel was in full retreat instead of cutting off supplies from Lee. Then came news of Butler's retreat from Drewry's Bluff, close in to Richmond. Nor was this all; for it was only now that definite news of the Red River Expedition arrived to confirm Grant's worst suspicions and ruin his second plan of helping Farragut to take Mobile. But, as was his wont, Grant at once took steps to meet the crisis. He ordered Hunter to replace Sigel and go south--straight into the heart of the Valley, asked the navy to move his own base down the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, and then himself marched on toward Richmond, where Lee was desperately trying to concentrate for battle.
The two armies were now drawing all available force together round the strategic center of Cold Harbor, only nine miles east of Richmond. On the thirty-first Sheridan drove out the enemy detachments there, and was himself about to retire before much superior reinforcements when he got Grant's order to hold his ground at any cost. Nightfall prevented a general assault till the next morning, when Sheridan managed to stand fast till Wright's whole corps came up and the enemy at once desisted. But elsewhere the Confederates did what they could to stave the Federals off from advantageous ground on that day and the next. The day after--the fateful third of June--the two sides closed in death-grips at Cold Harbor.
On this, the thirtieth day of Grant's campaign of stern attrition and would-be-smashing hammerstrokes at Lee, these were his orders for attack: "The moment it becomes certain that an assault cannot succeed, suspend the offensive. But when one does succeed, push it vigorously, and, if necessary, pile in troops at the successful point from wherever they can be taken." The trouble was that Grant was two days late in carrying on the battle so well begun by Sheridan, that Warren's corps was two miles off and entirely disconnected, and that the three remaining corps formed three parts and no whole when the stress of action came.
At dawn Meade's Army of the Potomac (less Warren's corps) began to take post for the grand attack that some, more sanguine than reflecting, hoped would win the war. When it was light the guns burst out in furious defiance, each side's artillery trying to beat the other's down before the crisis of the infantry assault. There was no maneuvering. Each one of Meade's three corps- -Hancock's, Wright's, and Smith's (brought over from Butler's command)--marched straight to its front. This led them apart, on diverging lines, and so exposed their flanks as well as their fronts to enemy fire. But though each corps thought its neighbor wrong to uncover its flanks, and the true cause was not discovered till compass bearings were afterwards compared, yet each went on undaunted, gaining momentum with every step, and gathering itself together for the final charge.
Then, surging like great storm-blown waves, the blue lines broke against Lee's iron front. In every gallant case there was the same wild cresting of the wave, the same terrific crash, the same adventurous tongues of blue that darted up as far as they could go alive, the same anguishing recession from the fatal mark, and the same agonizing wreckage left behind. In Hancock's corps the crisis passed in just eight minutes. But in those eight dire minutes eight colonels died while leading their regiments on to a foredoomed defeat. One of these eight, James P. McMahon of New York, alone among his dauntless fellows, actually reached the Confederate lines, and, catching the colors from their stricken bearer, waved them one moment above the parapet before he fell.