Cold Harbor: A hike through hallowed ground

January 3, 2012 · 3 minute read

Because we’re still in winter’s reduced daylight hours, and since it is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I’m going to direct you to another short, easy hike at a battle site from the War Between the States.

After the Battle of Spotsylvania, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant continued his effort to capture Richmond. In addition to other skirmishes along the way, Grant’s forces and those of General Robert E. Lee clashed again near Old Cold Harbor. Union soldiers captured the crossroads on May 31, 1864, but Southern fortifications kept the Federal troops at bay for two weeks. Grant finally withdrew and turned his attention on Petersburg.

Start your hike behind the visitor center where you will cross the center of the Confederate line of defense. On June 3, the Union army launched a massive attack, but was soon pinned down by Confederate firepower and, in less than 30 minutes, thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded. Remember that most of the land you will be walking upon was open farmland at the time; there were few trees or shrubs to hide behind or to use as shields against the showers of bullets.

Oak and loblolly pine trees tower above, while sassafras and holly make up the understory, as you swing away from the road at .2 mile. Holly is very shade tolerant and is often found flourishing under the canopy of an older and taller forest. Unlike many other trees, hollies are either male or female—thus, they must be in proximity to each other for the female to bear fruit. The berries, which turn bright red in the fall, are a favorite winter food for birds and deer. Wild turkeys are sometimes seen feeding high up in the trees as well as on berries that have fallen to the ground.

At .3 mile, cross a footbridge constructed to protect the breastworks. The fortifications here were made by Union soldiers, who, unable to advance or retreat, used bayonets, cups, canteen halves, and whatever other implements would work to dig the trenches in an attempt to escape the unrelenting Confederate fire.

The rifle pits you pass at .4 mile were dug so that guards could watch for enemy movement, but be protected—more or less—from musket fire. Sweet pepper bush is now growing near the site, healing the ground’s wounds and obscuring this little bit of history. In late July, the plant’s wildly fragrant white flowers grow in spikes. Stop to smell one and discover how the “sweet” got into the name. The “pepper” portion was given to the plant, possibly, because the dried seedpods resemble small peppercorns. These remain on the plant through much of the year, making it a distinctive plant that is easy to identify.

Some of the best-preserved breastworks and trenches are passed at .8 mile. If these trenches and mounds of dirt are still this obvious, think how deep and tall they must have been more than 100 years ago. Imagine what it was like to be engaged in this desperate attempt to stay alive. Although historians have not found any proof that it happened, a persistent tale maintains that men of the Union army wrote their names on bits of paper and attached them to their clothing in the hope that their bodies could be identified after the battle.

The hike comes to an end as you return to the visitor center at 1 mile.


Getting there: Take I-295 North to the VA 156 (North Airport Drive) exit. Continue on VA 156N for 5 miles Cold Harbor park entrance on the right.

Difficulty: easy.

Please note: This description is adapted from 50 Hikes in Northern Virginia, published by Countryman Press and Leonard M. Adkins.