June 1, 1864 was one of the worst days ever in the Litchfield Hills. It was no natural disaster, like the Great Flood of 1955, but it struck the towns and villages of this region hard and cut the heart out of these communities. Events in war-torn Virginia shattered this region, for on that day, the 2nd CT Heavy Artillery was decimated in a fruitless charge at Cold Harbor. Ulysses Grant would later write; ""Cold Harbor is the only battle I ever fought that I would not fight over again under the circumstances. I have always regretted that the assault on Cold Harbor was ever made."
The 2nd CT Heavy Artillery faced battle for the first time on that afternoon. Originally recruited in Litchfield County back in 1862 as the 19th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry , its ranks expanded to three battalions and it was re-designated as heavy artillery in the defense of the Capitol. The 2nd CT and other heavy artillery regiments languished on garrison duty where deaths from disease were common and they endured the derision of combat veterans as "bandbox regiments". Then in 1864, Grant armed the heavies as infantry and launched them into his offensive against the Army of Northern Virginia that began in the Wilderness and ground to a halt in the trenches of Petersburg six weeks later.
They wore new uniforms at Cold Harbor, in contrast to the tattered flags and clothing of Meade's veterans, and those southerners who opposed them behind fortified breastworks. Observers after the battle said they could tell where the regiment fought by the brightness of the uniforms of the dead. They were mechanics from Winsted, ironworkers from Salisbury, farmers from Sharon and clerks from Woodbury. Some towns sent enough of their young men to fill an entire company. Salisbury sent 79 to war with the 2nd CT Hvy. Art. 22 of them would be casualties in this day's battle.
The attack was made at 5:00 p.m.after a hard march and against the entrenched confederate line. It was murder on the northern units. Tom Gladwell's Cold Harbor: The Perfect Killing Ground, describes the carnage:
Each of the battalions was in its own lines, the lines being positioned one hundred paces apart. Recalled Theodore Vaill, an adjutant, "The 1st Battalion, with the colors in the center, moved directly forward through the scattering woods, crossed the opened field at a double quick, and entered another pine wood, of younger and thicker growth, where it came upon the first line of the Rebel rifle-pits." A New York soldier watching from the rear remembered that as "soon as the heavies began the charge, the Rebel works were bordered with a fringe of smoke from the muskets and the men began to fall very fast... We could see them fall in all shapes. Some would fall forward as if they had caught their feet and tripped and fell. Others would throw up their arms and fall backward. Others would stagger about a few paces before they dropped."
The battle raged for 5 hours, and the losses of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery were 85 killed outright, 11 mortally wounded, 224 injured and 3 captured; total 322. This was the highest casualty rate of any Connecticut regiment in a single battle during the war. Union General Emory Upton described the attack as "murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy's entrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities."
Blaikie Hines, whose Civil War Volunteer Sons of Connecticut is the only consise and comprehensive history of every Connecticut Civil War regiment and the casualties credited to each town, determined that Canaan/Falls Village, Cornwall, Harwinton, Kent, Litchfield, Morris, New Milford, Norfolk, Salisbury, Sherman, Torrington, Washington, Watertown and Winchester lost more citizens on this day at Cold Harbor than on any other day during the war.
There is hardly a cemetery in the Litchfield Hills from this period without the grave of a soldier from the 2nd Connecticut. The Calhoun Cemetery beyond my office window has three of these, all of whom died during the war. Many others lie in Virginia soil. There is a regiment of Civil War reenacters based in Woodbury, CT that depicts the 2nd CT Hvy Artillery today. A monument to the sacrifice of the original regiment was dedicated at Cold Harbor in 2003 with the assistance of its modern depictors.