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Union General Ulysses S. Grant makes what he later recognizes to be his greatest mistake by ordering a frontal assault on entrenched Confederates at Cold Harbor, Virginia. The result was some 7,000 Union casualties in less than an hour of fighting.
Grant’s Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had already inflicted frightful losses upon each other as they wheeled along an arc around Richmond, Virginia—from the Wilderness forest to Spotsylvania and numerous smaller battle sites—the previous month.
On May 30, Lee and Grant collided at Bethesda Church. The next day, the advance units of the armies arrived at the strategic crossroads of Cold Harbor, just 10 miles from Richmond, where a Yankee attack seized the intersection. Sensing that there was a chance to destroy Lee at the gates of Richmond, Grant prepared for a major assault along the entire Confederate front on June 2.
But when Winfield Hancock’s Union corps did not arrive on schedule, the operation was postponed until the following day. The delay was tragic for the Union, because it gave Lee’s troops time to entrench. Perhaps frustrated with the protracted pursuit of Lee’s army, Grant gave the order to attack on June 3—a decision that resulted in an unmitigated disaster. The Yankees met murderous fire, and were only able to reach the Confederate trenches in a few places. The 7,000 Union casualties, compared to only 1,500 for the Confederates, were all lost in under an hour.
Grant pulled out of Cold Harbor nine days later and continued to try to flank Lee’s army. The next stop was Petersburg, south of Richmond, where a nine-month siege ensued. There would be no more attacks on the scale of Cold Harbor.
READ MORE: 7 Important Civil War Battles
Union disaster at Cold Harbor - HISTORY
Cold Harbor National Cemetery
Cold Harbor National Cemetery, located in Mechanicsville, Virginia, is the final resting place for approximately 2,100 veterans, the majority of whom were soldiers who died during the bloody Civil War battles of the summer of 1864. Located in Hanover County, about ten miles northeast of Richmond, the cemetery is a part of the Cold Harbor Battlefield. Adjacent portions of the battlefield are part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. The cemetery features three monuments to fallen Union soldiers and an 1871 superintendent&rsquos lodge that was designed by U.S. Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs.
After a series of fierce battles during the Overland Campaign at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Totopotomoy Creek in May 1864, both Union General Ulysses S. Grant and Confederate General Robert E. Lee recognized the strategic importance of Cold Harbor, a crossroads between Richmond and the Chickahominy River, named for a local tavern. After skirmishing on May 31 and June 1, Grant planned an assault on the Confederate lines for June 2, but his men were exhausted, forcing him to postpone the engagement. This gave Lee&rsquos men time to fortify their defensive trenches and allowed additional reinforcements to arrive.
When the Union charge finally began before dawn on June 3, the Confederates, though outnumbered 100,000 to 60,000, were able to hold their positions, cutting down Union troops until &ldquothe dead covered more than five acres of ground about as thickly as they could be laid.&rdquo The battle became Lee&rsquos last major victory and one of Grant&rsquos greatest regrets. Recounting the battle's failed assault, Grant wrote in his memoirs, "At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained." The Union suffered over 12,000 casualties, while the Confederates suffered only 4,000.
To accommodate the massive number of Union soldiers who died in the area, Cold Harbor National Cemetery was established in 1866. The first burials in the cemetery were reinterments of Union soldiers from across a 22-square mile area, including the battlefields of Cold Harbor, Gaines&rsquo Mill, Savage&rsquos Station, and Mechanicsville. More than 1,300 burials are unknown, including two large burial mounds at the north end of the cemetery containing the remains of 889 unknown soldiers. The cemetery closed to new interments in 1970.
The square-shaped, 1.4-acre cemetery has four sections. Marked by iron gates and accessible only to pedestrians, the main entrance is along the cemetery&rsquos southern edge. Built according to the Quartermaster Corps standardized plan, the Second Empire style superintendent&rsquos lodge that Meigs designed circa 1870 is near the main entrance. A four-foot tall brick wall encloses the grounds.
There are three large monuments in the modest-size cemetery. The Pennsylvania Monument, erected in 1909 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, honors the state&rsquos volunteer soldiers who died at the Battle of Cold Harbor. A soldier standing at parade rest is atop the 30 foot-tall granite shaft, which architect J. Henry Brown designed. The base of the shaft lists the regiments that participated in the battle.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in 1877 by the Federal Government, is a marble sarcophagus that memorializes the 889 unknown Union soldiers interred in two large group burials at the cemetery. A monument to the 8th New York Artillery Regiment, erected in 1909 by the state of New York, consists of an 11 foot-tall granite block with a bronze dedication tablet affixed to the front.
Cold Harbor National Cemetery is the final resting place for a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation&rsquos highest military decoration, given for &ldquoconspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty.&rdquo
Cold Harbor National Cemetery is located at 6038 Cold Harbor Rd., in Mechanicsville, VA. The cemetery is open for visitation daily from dawn to dusk. No cemetery staff is present onsite. The administrative office is located at the Hampton National Cemetery, Hampton, and the office is open Monday to Friday from 8:00am to 4:30pm it is closed on all Federal holidays except for Memorial Day and Veterans Day. For more information, please contact the cemetery office at 757-723-7104, or see the Department of Veterans Affairs website. While visiting, please be mindful that our national cemeteries are hallowed ground. Be respectful to all of our nation&rsquos fallen soldiers and their families. Additional cemetery policies may be posted on site.
Richmond National Battlefield Park preserves several battlefields and historic sites related to the 1862 Peninsula Campaign and the 1864 Overland Campaign around the former Confederate capital.
Cold Harbor National Cemetery is one of seven national cemeteries in the Richmond area. The others include Fort Harrison, Glendale, and Richmond National Cemeteries in Richmond Seven Pines National Cemetery in Sandston City Point National Cemetery in Hopewell and Poplar Grove National Cemetery in Petersburg.
Cold Harbor National Cemetery was photographed to the standards established by the National Park Service&rsquos Historic American Landscapes Survey. The nearby Gathwright House, which was used as a field hospital during the Civil War, has been documented by the National Park Service&rsquos Historic American Buildings Survey.
10 Facts: Cold Harbor
The Battle of Cold Harbor was one of the Civil War's most dramatic and decisive engagements. Please consider these 10 facts to expand your knowledge and appreciation of the American Battlefield Trust's ongoing preservation efforts on the historic battlefield.
Fact #1: The Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia was a sprawling, two week engagement that left more than 18,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or captured.
In the summer of 1864, the Union Army of the Potomac was fighting its way south towards Richmond, Virginia. In a series of battles collectively known as the Overland Campaign, the Union army had suffered more than 50,000 casualties but had also forced Robert E. Lee’s hard-bitten Confederate veterans to abandon much of northern Virginia. The small crossroads of Cold Harbor, just ten miles north of Richmond, became the focal point of the action in late May. From May 31-June 3, Ulysses S. Grant ordered repeated attacks against entrenched Confederate positions, culminating in an enormously bloody repulse on June 3. Both armies held their ground and kept up a withering fire between the lines until June 12, at which point Grant withdrew but continued to move east and south. The Army of the Potomac crossed the James River and, by June 16, was in position to directly threaten the manufacturing and rail center of Petersburg—the back door to Richmond.
Fact #2: The Confederate line was nearly broken on June 1.
Union cavalrymen captured the Old Cold Harbor crossroads on May 31. Early on June 1, Confederate infantry attacked the Union troopers but were driven back with heavy losses—the repeating carbine had drastically improved the combat power of the cavalry. Union infantry reinforcements arrived throughout the day. In the evening, the Federals managed to pierce a weak seam between two Confederate brigades before being repulsed by a desperate counterattack. The day’s fighting cost the two armies roughly 4,000 casualties. Ulysses S. Grant planned another attack for June 2 but postponed it until June 3 in order to give newly arrived soldiers time to rest. Robert E. Lee used the time to greatly strengthen his position. By the end of the day, the Confederates were protected by “a maze and labyrinth of works within works,” according to a Northern journalist.
Fact #3: Approximately 6,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during the June 3 assault.
When the orders for a full-scale assault began to filter through the army on June 2, many Union officers were gravely concerned. Neither Grant nor George Meade, his second-in-command, had personally observed the heavily fortified Confederate line. Furthermore, the orders did not specify a particular target of the attack and they did not appear to coordinate the efforts of the different parts of the army. Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, commanding the 18th Corps, was “aghast at the reception of such an order, which proved conclusively the utter absence of any military plan.” Colonel Horace Porter remembered infantrymen attaching name tags to their uniforms for later identification if killed on the field—a precursor to the official G.I. dog tags introduced in World War I. When the attack went forward at 4:30 a.m. on June 3, the soldiers “went down like rows of blocks” under crushing Confederate fire. The scene was chaotic and terrifying—successive lines mixing into pushing, shoving crowds as tens of thousands of men tried to stay alive in the open fields in front of the seething Southern breastworks. Grant suspended the offensive at noon, and would later claim to have “always regretted that the…assault was ever made.” The Confederates suffered about 1,500 casualties, losing one man to every four fallen Federals.
Thousands of Union soldiers were killed or wounded within the first hour of the attack. Library of Congress
Fact #4: Wounded Federal soldiers were left on the battlefield for four days after the June 3 assault.
The massive assault on June 3 ended with Union soldiers using cups, bayonets, and their hands and feet to dig out rudimentary protection under the mouths of the Confederate guns. These were quickly developed into more elaborate entrenchments, although in some places the opposing lines were less than 75 yards apart. Sharpshooting was particularly fierce for days. Ulysses S. Grant, perhaps unwilling to admit defeat, delayed the process of requesting a formal truce to gather the several hundred wounded that were immobile between the lines. It was not until June 7 that the terms were arranged and Union soldiers ventured into no-man’s-land to recover their comrades. Most of them had already died. One Federal remembered that “I saw no live man lying on this ground. The wounded must have suffered horribly before death relieved them, lying there exposed to the blazing southern sun o' days, and being eaten alive by beetles o' nights.”
Fact #5: The Battle of Cold Harbor was Robert E. Lee’s last large-scale field victory.
Derisively referred to as the “King of Spades” early in the war, a dig against his perceived proclivity for static defense and entrenchment, Robert E. Lee quickly proved his detractors wrong with a series of audacious maneuvers and correspondingly stunning victories. The successes of the Seven Days, Second Manassas, and Chancellorsville were all sourced in Lee’s talent for moving his army with a speed and precision that stymied his Union opponents. At Cold Harbor, the Union Army suffered heavily after Lee guided his men into impregnable positions threatening the Federal line of advance. By late June, however, less than two weeks after the end of the battle, Lee had been forced to submit to a siege around Richmond and Petersburg. He held the cities for another nine months and not only bitterly contested each Union offensive, but also won some battles at places like Reams Station with portions of his army. Most of his army was frozen in place, however, and was absolutely required to man the trenches, or else Petersburg and Richmond would be lost to the Federals. When the line was finally broken, the Army of Northern Virginia’s final field campaign was a week-long string of disasters.
Fact #6: Despite the Confederate tactical success, the Battle of Cold Harbor was a strategic turning point in the Civil War, after which there was little chance for overall Confederate victory.
Edward Porter Alexander Library of Congress
Edward Porter Alexander, the Southern artillery officer who orchestrated the guns before Pickett’s Charge and served as one of Lee and Longstreet’s most consulted aides, called the Battle of Cold Harbor “our last, and perhaps our highest tide.” After the suffering of the Overland Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Union soldiers fell in less than two months, Alexander believed that halting Grant’s army north of the James River, “no nearer Richmond…than his ships might have landed him at the beginning without the loss of a man,” would have turned the Northern public strongly against further prosecution of the war. Robert E. Lee himself believed that “we must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there, then it will be a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” Despite the staggering losses at Cold Harbor, Grant managed to withdraw in good order and then deceive the Confederates for critical days as his army crossed the James River and marched towards Petersburg, where Lee’s grim prediction was confirmed.
Fact #7: Cold Harbor was neither cold nor accessible by boat—the name is a confluence of Old High German and local branding.
The area of Cold Harbor, Virginia, gets its name from the two Cold Harbor taverns (Old and New), which both stood near the contested crossroads in 1864. In 5th century Germany, the words “heer” and “bergen” meant “army” and “shelter,” respectively. This concept eventually arrived in Middle English as “herber,” meaning a way station or an inn. Today, “harbor” more commonly refers to a seaport or dock, but the term’s more archaic root as a “shelter” can still be found in “harboring a fugitive” or “harboring a grudge,” among others. The reasoning behind the use of the word “Cold” is less clear, as Cold Harbor is hot and humid landscape for much of the year. Many believe that the adjective was used to describe the Old Cold Harbor Tavern’s amenities, or lack thereof, for it is said that owner Isaac Burnett only served cold meals, or perhaps no meals at all. Union officers became confused by the Old/New distinction during the battle, and many mistakenly referred to the area as Cool Arbor.
Federal forces near Old Cold Harbor Tavern. The wartime proprietor of the tavern was Isaac Burnett. Library of Congress
Fact #8: The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought on some of the same ground as the 1862 Battle of Gaines’ Mill.
In late June 1862, the Union and Confederate armies were locked in combat just outside of Richmond. Robert E. Lee, only recently placed in command of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had launched a bold offensive in an effort to force George McClellan and the Army of the Potomac away from the capital. On June 27, a large battle, commonly known as the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, broke out near the Old Cold Harbor crossroads as a Union rear-guard force withstood repeated Confederate assaults. The Confederates broke the Union line at nightfall and sent a chill through McClellan, who ordered his army to retreat all the way to a new supply base on the James River. In early June 1864, not quite two years later, the fortunes of war brought the armies back to the old battlefield, but with their roles reversed.
Fact #9: Cold Harbor was extensively photographed during and after the battle.
In order to document a battlefield, Civil War photographers needed a variety of circumstances to correctly align. They needed time to travel to the scene and strong indications that the photographic opportunities warranted the effort of sending a mobile studio. Most importantly, the field had to still be in Union hands. Since only part of the battlefield was under Union control, photographers recorded photos of Union camps, including most of the officers of the Union high command. These photographs, taken during a period of extreme tension, are unusually revelatory of their subjects. A photographer returned in 1865 to shoot parts of the battlefield, including Confederate fortifications and horrific scenes showing decomposed soldiers undergoing burial operations.
Soldiers' remains frequently required reburial if battlefield graves proved too shallow for prolonged interment. Library of Congress
Fact #10: The American Battlefield Trust has saved important parcels of land at Cold Harbor.
In December 2013, the American Battlefield Trust helped save six crucial acres at the Cold Harbor battlefield that is contiguous with National Park Service property. This land, roughly half a mile northwest of the crossroads itself, was the scene of sharp fighting on June 1 as soldiers of the Union Eighteenth Corps pushed through the advanced lines of Joseph B. Kershaw’s Southern division. On June 3, more Federal soldiers used the land to form up for the day’s fateful charge while under a destructive artillery fire. Nearly half of the men who formed on those six acres were killed or wounded within twenty minutes of the attack orders being given.
The Battle of Cold Harbor
Static lines were anathema to Grant. On May 30, he decided to venture another general advance. Wright was to move south against the northern Confederate flank, held by Hill, while Hancock attacked across Totopotomoy Creek, against Breckinridge, and Warren pressed west along Shady Grove Road, against Early.
No sooner had Wright started south than he became snared in swampy land near Crump's Creek, a winding stream flanked by vicious little marshes. The terrain, Meade's aide Humphreys noted, presented a "tangle of the worst character" and delayed the Sixth Corps until late in the day. Hancock opened with artillery from the Shelton place and advanced his skirmishers, who managed to capture some of Breckinridge's forward rifle pits. The main rebel line, however, remained strongly entrenched. Meade ordered up support in the form of Burnside's corps, but it arrived too late to contribute to the fight.
|MAJOR GENERAL HORATIO G. WRIGHT ASCENDED TO COMMAND OF THE SIXTH CORPS FOLLOWING MAJOR GENERAL JOHN SEDGWICK'S DEATH AT SPOTSYLVANIA. (LC)|
|HAVING REPLACED LIEUTENANT GENERAL RICHARD S. EWELL ON MAY 29, MAJOR GENERAL JUBAL A. EARLY ORCHESTRATED THE CONFEDERATE ASSAULT ON THE UNION FIFTH CORPS AT BETHESDA CHURCH. (LC)|
An incident at the Shelton house, where Hancock had his headquarters, enlivened the afternoon. A servant, apparently distressed by the artillery duels, shoveled hot kitchen coals near an ammunition chest, which exploded, killing two soldiers and blinding several others.
On Grant's left flank, Warren pressed the rest of his corps across Totopotomoy Creek and deployed on Shady Grove Road. Meade considered moving the Fifth Corps east toward Old Church but rejected the idea out of concern that Warren's departure would expose Hancock's lower flank. Warren followed the original plan and began probing west along Shady Grove Road, Griffin leading, followed by Crawford and Cutler.
Wright's movement southward and Warren's concentration below Totopomoy Creek piqued Lee's interest. Grant seemed once again to be shifting to the left, establishing a front stretching several miles from Crump's Creek to Shady Grove Road. "This is just a repetition of their former movements," Lee pointed out to his First Corps commander Anderson in an 11:00 A.M. communique. To thwart Grant, Lee instructed Early, who was entrenched across Warren's path, to attack the Union Fifth Corps. Anderson was to cooperate with Early, and time was of the essence. "Whatever is determined on should be done as soon as practicable," Lee urged.
Early hit upon an ingenious scheme to snag Warren. While part of his corps remained ensconced on Shady Grove Road to pin the Fifth Corps in place, the rest, led by Major General Robert E. Rodes's division, would march a mile south along woodland paths and emerge on Old Church Road. Advancing east along Old Church Road, Rodes was to move past the lower edge of Warren's column, then sweep north and burst into the enemy's flank and rear.
|THE PENNSYLVANIA RESERVES OF COLONEL MARTIN D. HARDIN'S BRIGADE BORE THE BRUNT OF EARLY'S ASSAULT ON MAY 30. DUE TO BE MUSTERED OUT THE FOLLOWING DAY, THIS WAS THEIR LAST ENGAGEMENT. (NPS)|
During the afternoon, as the Fifth Corps crept west along Shady Grove Road, battling Early's skirmishers, Warren became increasingly worried about his left flank. To protect his moving column, he sent Crawford's division south along a farm track to Old Church Road. Crawford erected makeshift works near Bethesda Church and directed Colonel Martin Hardin to start his brigade west along Old Church Road, paralleling Griffin and Cutler to the north. The terms of service for Hardin's men were about to expire, and his troops hoped desperately to avoid battle.
Rodes's Confederates meanwhile filed onto Old Church Road and marched east, directly into Hardin's brigade. The rout was complete as they drove Hardin back on Crawford's supports at Bethesda Church. Overrun by stampeding compatriots and Rodes's jubilant rebels, Crawford's formation folded. At least two of his brigades fled "rather indiscriminately" back up the country lane toward Shady Grove Road.
The next phase of Early's plan called for Rodes to push north into the belly of Warren's corps. But Rodes hesitated. His units had become jumbled in the rush, and Major General Stephen D. Ramseur's division, which was slated to lead the attack, needed time to deploy. Early's plan also contemplated Anderson moving onto Shady Grove Road to attack in tandem with Rodes, but Anderson was delayed, and precious time slipped by. Alerted to the danger on his flank, Warren began shifting to face south toward Early. Crawford reformed at the farm lane, Griffin moved to his support, and Fifth Corps guns began rumbling into place. Colonel Wainwright positioned Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery, next to the farm lane to give the Confederates a nasty reception if they attacked.
Ramseur's fighting blood was up. Recently promoted to head a division, he was anxious to prove his mettle. The Union guns on the farm lane provoked his wrath, and he directed his Virginia brigade to take the pieces. Recklessly pressing up the road, the Virginians came into range of Wainwright's artillery. "Our line melted away as if by magic," a gray-clad survivor recounted. "Every brigade, staff and field officer was cut down, (mostly killed outright) in an incredibly short time." Colonel Edward Willis, a popular former member of Stonewall Jackson's staff, was mortally wounded leading the Virginians.
(click on image for a PDF version)
| REGAINING CONTACT: MAY 30 |
On May 30, Grant orders a general advance. Along Totopotomoy Creek, Hancock spars with Breckinridge and captures some Confederate forward positions. Warren moves west along Shady Grove and Old Church Roads but encounters Early's corps seeking the Union flank near Bethesda Church. Early manages to overrun Crawford's division and turn north but is stopped by Warren's artillery (inset). On the extreme Union left flank, Sheridan tangles with Confederate cavalry along Matadequin Creek and opens the road to the strategic crossroads of Old Cold Harbor.
To help relieve pressure against Warren, Grant directed an attack across his entire line. Wright, however, was still floundering toward Hancock's upper flank, Hancock could make no headway against Breckinridge, and Burnside was busy extending to fill the works vacated earlier by Warren. Warren proved capable of fending for himself. His decisive repulse of Ramseur dampened Early's ardor, and the Confederate Second Corps retired a short distance west along Old Church Road. Early blamed Anderson for not arriving in time to assist. The soldiers faulted Ramseur who had ordered the charge without sufficient reconnaissance. The engagement left nearly 1,200 Confederates killed, wounded, and captured, as opposed to about 750 Federals. If Bethesda Church held any lessons, it was that both antagonists had become so worn from constant campaigning that complex, coordinated operations were no longer feasible.
While Grant's and Lee's infantry sparred along Totopotomoy Creek and at Bethesda Church, their cavalry tangled to the east along little Matadequin Creek. Grant had positioned Sheridan's cavalry at Old Church, a few miles east of the infantry, to protect the Union army's supply line from White House Landing. Early in the afternoon, Torbert dispatched Colonel Thomas C. Devin's brigade southwest along the road to Old Cold Harbor. It just so happened that Butler's South Carolina cavalry was probing the same road from the opposite direction, and the two forces collided. Butler drove in the head of Devin's column, and soon both sides were digging in near Matadequin Creek, a steep-banked stream below Old Church.
To break Butler's stranglehold on the road to Old Cold Harbor, Torbert brought up his brigades under Merritt and Custer. Outflanked and heavily outnumbered, Butler tumbled back. By nightfall, Torbert had pushed Butler to within a mile and a half of Old Cold Harbor.
Lee scanned his evening reports with concern. He had managed to contain Grant's thrusts along Totopotomoy Creek, but danger was now brewing beyond the Confederate right. Torbert's determined foray from Old Church signaled that Grant intended to occupy the critical Old Cold Harbor junction. From there, roads radiated below Lee's lower flank, giving Grant a choice of unobstructed routes to Richmond and a chance to get into Lee's rear. To make matters worse, Confederate intelligence indicated that Major General William F. "Baldy" Smith's Eighteenth Corps had left Butler's Army of the James and was traveling upriver on transports to join Grant. Apparently Grant intended to concentrate these reinforcements, numbering approximately 12,500 men, toward Old Cold Harbor along the route cleared by Torbert.
|THE OLD CHURCH HOTEL SERVED AS SHERIDAN'S HEADQUARTERS ON MAY 30, AND IT WAS FROM HERE THAT HIS CAVALRY VENTURED SOUTHWARD AND TANGLED WITH CONFEDERATE TROOPERS ALONG MATADEQUIN CREEK. (LC)|
Lee's infantry, ranging along a line extending six miles from Atlee's Station to Bethesda Church, was stretched to its limit. Forwarding troops to Old Cold Harbor to counter Grant would require Lee dangerously to weaken his Totopotomoy Creek defenses. The answer was for Beauregard to send troops from below the James River. That evening, Lee urgently wired Beauregard and President Davis. Smith's corps would reach Grant the next day, he warned. Delay in sending troops to block Smith would spell disaster.
The Battle of Cold Harbor in June of 1864 was Robert E. Lee’s last great victory of the Civil War. Outnumbered almost two to one, his entrenched veterans caused massive losses in Grant’s army. Many of Grant’s troops were new recruits or rear area troops facing their first battle, which contributed to the disaster.
About 95% of the Cold Harbor battlefield has been lost to development. A 300 acre tract is preserved by the National Park Service as part of the Richmond Battlefield National Park. A nearby 50 acre tract is preserved by Hanover County. Garthright House, used as a field hospital during the battle, has also been saved by the National Park Service. A small National Cemetery is adjacent to the battlefield park.
Although small, the battlefield contains a number of well-preserved entrenchments. The National Park Visitor Center provides background information about the battles fought there, including the 1862 Battle of Gaines’ Mill that occured over roughly the same area.
Explore the Battle of Cold Harbor
Tour the Battlefield. The National Park has a short auto drive as well as walking trails. The county park also has a walking trail with interpretive markers.
View the monuments and historical markers of the park, each with photos and a transcription of the text from the monument or marker.
The Armies at Cold Harbor provides the Order of Battle for the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia during the battle. Links to more in-depth information about the individuals and units are available on a companion website, wwws.civilwarintheeast.com.
Who fought in the Battle of Cold Harbor?
The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought between the Federal Army of the Potomac under Major General George Meade and directly supervised by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of all Union forces, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee.
Grant was reinforced by Major General William F. Smith’s corps from Major General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James. Lee was reinforced by Major General Robert F. Hoke’s Division from General P.G.T. Beuregard’s forces south of the James River and Major General John C. Breckenridge’s division from the Shenandoah Valley.
Major General George Gordon Meade
Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant
When was the Battle of Cold Harbor fought?
The Battle of Cold Harbor lasted from May 31 until June 12, 1864. The most intense fighting, Grant”s Grand Assault, was on June 3.
Where was the Battle of Cold Harbor fought?
The Battle of Cold Harbor was fought about ten miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, in what is now the city of Mechanicsville. Cold Harbor was not a port or even on the water. The name comes from the term for a tavern where you could sleep (harbor) but that did not serve hot meals.
How many men fought in the Battle of Cold Harbor?
Grant commanded about 108,000 men. Lee had about 59,000. While Lee’s army was composed almost entirely of experienced veterans, many Union troops were new conscripts or artillerymen who had spent the war behind the lines in the Washington defences and who now fought as infantry.
How many casualties were there in the Battle of Cold Harbor? How many men died there?
There are no exact numbers available and estimates vary for the number of casualties at the Battle of Cold Habor. Union casualties are estimated at between 12,000 and 15,000, with Confederate casualties between 1,500 and 5,000. It was one of the most lopsided casualty rates in the war.
Who won the Battle of Cold Harbor?
The Battle of Cold Harbor was a clear Confederate victory. It was Lee’s last great victory of the Civil War.
Why was the Battle of Cold Harbor important?
Lee had prevented Grant from breaking through the Confederate lines to capture Richmond, less than 10 miles away. He had caused Grant so many casualties that anti-war sentiment in the north became a serious issue for the Lincoln administration. The battle forced Grant to once more disengage and find another way around Confederate entrenchments – which he did by moving his army to Petersburg.
The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
Chapter 1. Introduction: Melville’s “On the Slain Collegians” [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: It used to be said that in the old wars fought by the Irish clans that they had an agreement. I don’t know if this is true, but I love the idea, that no matter how much they slaughter themselves with broadswords and knives and whatever else those maniacs used, that they should always spare the poets. Don’t kill the poets, because the poets had to be left to tell the story. Most great poets don’t go to war, they write. This week you’re reading a great poet, E.L. Doctorow, a poet in prose, a poet in fiction. Doctorow, as some of you must know, is a famous American writer for his historical fiction. Much of his fiction is often very historical and you’ll find, if anyone takes the time some day, that large chunks of the monologue you hear from William Tecumseh Sherman in this novel is directly out of his famous memoirs, and then every now and then Doctorow will embellish or add a few lines. Most of the people in this book were real people, but there are some invented. In some ways, possibly the most brilliant inventions in this book are the slave characters, or the freedman characters, and what Doctorow does with them through this sort of anguished crucible of all out war. Look especially for those journeys into Sherman’s own mind, Sherman’s psyche, those meditations of Sherman’s on death. Page 88 and 89 to be exact is, I think, an unforgettable mediation by Sherman on the meaning of death and just what it means and why he in some ways enjoys it.
Herman Melville wrote a whole bunch of poems during the Civil War. He was one of the poets spared. He wasn’t very famous yet, as you know, for Moby Dick that was to come later. Maybe our greatest writer of the nineteenth century also wrote a lot of poetry, and he wrote almost all of his poetry during the Civil War, as did, by the way, Emily Dickinson. Don’t know if any of you are Emily Dickinson fans, but Emily, the Belle of Amherst, wrote between 900 and 1000 poems in her life, and fully two-thirds of them in the four years of the war. She became obsessed with the idea of the war, and if you read her closely enough it’s all over her wartime poetry. She became obsessed with death. Our greatest death poet was, of course, Whitman more from him later.
But one little piece by Melville, because it’s about you. This was Melville’s meditation in poetry on the death of college students in the war. It’s called “On the Slain Collegians.” It’s timeless, it could be about any war, although collegians don’t go to war anymore very much in America. “Youth is the time when hearts are large and stirring wars appeal to the spirit which appeals in turn to the blade it draws. If woman in sight and duties show, though made the mask of Cane, or whether it be truth, sacred cause, who can aloof remain that shares youth’s ardor, uncooled by the snow of wisdom or sordid gain? Woe for the homes of the North and woe for the seats of the South, all who felt life spring in prime and were swept by the wind of their place in time. Oh lavish hearts on whichever side of birth or bane or courage high, arm them for the stirring wars, arm them some to die, Apollo-like in pride. Each slay his python caught, the maxims in his temple taught. The anguish of maternal hearts must search for balm divine. But well the striplings bore their faded parts, the heaven all parts must assign. Never felt life’s care or cloy. Each bloomed and died an abated boy, nor dreamed what death was, thought it mere sliding into some vernal sphere. They knew the joy but leaped the grief. Like plants that flower ‘ere comes the leaf which storms lay low in kindly doom and kill them in the flush of their bloom.”
Chapter 2. Grant’s Strategic Changes from the West to the East [00:05:21]
The casualties in the Union Army alone, the Army of the Potomac, Grant’s army, from the first of May through the end of July 1864, in this horrible war of attrition and the stalemate it produced in Virginia, the casualties in that one army in about two to two-and-a-half months was 66,000 men. It is the largest loss of life in the shortest period of time in all of American military history. How did it get to that? Why did the war go on, and on and on? Well let’s begin with Grant and Lee, these two great warriors around whose names, symbols, actions, decisions a good deal of the war would hinge in the final year. Grant, from his successes in the West — fall of Vicksburg, siege and fall of Chattanooga, the victory at Chickamauga — came East, appointed by Abraham Lincoln as General of the Army. Congress actually revived a special rank that it hadn’t used in years called Lieutenant-General, just for Grant. He came East and was appointed head of all Union Armies, on any front anywhere, in March of 1864, winter ‘64. He was wined and dined at the White House and wined and dined in Congress. They had to keep telling him to put on a decent uniform.
There’s a lot of truth to this idea of Grant the kind of humble plebian. He had after all been doing nothing but work in his brother’s leather shop in Galena, Illinois when the war broke out. But, boy, did he have a nose for war. He was a great horseman. They said he could canter like nobody else and gallop like nobody else, and he loved his horses. Been to West Point. About the only thing he really got good grades in at West Point were painting and drawing. He nearly failed some of the military science courses. Some of his biographers have actually made a big deal out of that, that because he hadn’t studied hard in Jomini’s Manuals, those manuals of combat tactics and strategy, that he was therefore freer to simply invent as he went. I don’t know. This war made Grant at the same time he made the war. He may have been, as many of his — and by the way there’s been an industry of Grant biographies in the past 10 to 15 years he’s been rediscovered after a long period in our history when he just vanished and the country forgot that “oh, by the way, the Union won the war and there was that guy Grant.” There are far, far, far more monuments to Robert E. Lee on the American landscape than there are to Ulysses Grant. I’ll try to explain that at the end of the course.
His casualty rates in this last year of the war were ghastly and horrible, and it nearly led to a sufficient level of war weariness across the North and disgust and just an overwhelmed kind of spirit that it was entirely possible by July and August of ‘64, if certain events hadn’t quickly followed, that the North collectively would’ve given up the war and sued for peace. But Grant developed essentially a strategy of victory, and here’s what it was. He did it in conjunction with William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, the previous General of the Army, Henry Halleck, and most importantly with Lincoln himself, and that strategy was basically this. It was first to determine that Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, was not to be the objective of the war in the East taking an enemy’s capital not that important. Secondly, Grant grasped, as did Sherman, the political character of this war, that this was now a war to be won or lost in public opinion. Because it had become all-out, because it was now a war upon people, upon resources, it depended deeply upon morale and the will of either side to somehow see it through. Third, Grant, and Sherman especially, determined that this would now be a war on Southern resources. The destruction of slavery, of course, becomes a major part of that. And one of the great ironies of the war is that Sherman never, ever, for a day, wanted to free a slave. As he told his officers, “ain’t gonna be no niggers in Uncle Billy’s army.” Sorry, that’s what he said. He wasn’t into having black soldiers in fact there were no black soldiers who actually served in Sherman’s army in Georgia. There will be thousands upon thousands of freedman following his army, and it will force him to a situation of a recognition that will it or not, he’s crushing the spirit of the South to destroy slavery, and ultimately kind of admits it. Look for that in Doctorow.
In the East the object of the war now was to be Lee’s army, to fight Lee’s army anywhere, on ground especially, that the Northern troops could somehow choose to try to spring Lee out of his trench works, that he would build everywhere they would stop, and to simply kill as many Confederates as possible to force the South to quit. It was to be a war on an army, not for a strategic capital. Now strategic crossroads and rivers and so on would be important, but the object now was to destroy the fighting force of the South and its fighting will. And in the Western part of the war — and there were actually five major armies now that Grant was to try to coordinate an army under Nathaniel Banks out in the far west that Lincoln wanted to go into Texas with, and they never really got into Texas. What Grant wanted eventually — excuse me one second — what Grant wanted was the army under Nathaniel Banks in Louisiana to move east, to take Mobile, the last remaining great southern port and then come smashing right through the Deep South across Alabama into Georgia, as Sherman’s army, as we’ll see in a minute, was invading northern Georgia, toward Atlanta, and sort of just invade the whole middle heartland of the South until the South would give up. And in Virginia, Grant took battlefield command. He didn’t have to, he could’ve stayed at his desk in Washington, but it was quite decidedly not his style he went into the field as the Commander of the Army of the Potomac.
Chapter 3. The Psyche of Robert E. Lee [00:13:26]
Now, on the other side, in Robert E. Lee, the South had without a question — we’ve said this before and there’s so much been written on this you can’t count it all — the South had a great general in Lee, a daring general. In spite of his tremendous defeat at Gettysburg, where he actually did tender his resignation that Davis didn’t accept and couldn’t accept, Lee was already a legend. His men saw him as almost God-like. He was beautiful, they said, he was gorgeous, he was handsome. No one ever looked quite like Lee in a uniform with that curly white hair. There’s a brand new biography out that I recently reviewed by a woman named Elizabeth Pryor it’s just won the Abraham Lincoln Prize. There’s another lovely irony, a book on Lee wins the Lincoln Prize that’s reconciliation. [Laughter] It’s called Reading the Man. Sounds like a title of a porn movie or something but — [Laughter] Sorry, scratch that Jude. [Laughter] But she did the book from Lee’s voluminous letters. He was a tremendous letter writer, throughout his life.
Lifetime officer, son of Light Horse Harry Lee of the American Revolution fame. His father had been a total scoundrel. He had a brother that was an even greater scoundrel. His brother, and probably his father, had fathered children by slave women, had abandoned their homes, their wives, their families. He came from a very, very difficult, sordid but aristocratic, famous Virginia family, and he went to West Point just like his daddy, and he became an officer in his early twenties. He spent his twenties, his thirties, and his forties spread all over the United States, largely as an engineer. He was a great engineer. He helped build the first bridge across the Mississippi. He helped redirect rivers in the lower Mississippi, and on and on. He spent probably two-thirds of his life, up until the Civil War, away from home, away from that mansion that sits today in Arlington Cemetery. Arlington House was Lee’s home. He inherited it by marrying into it. He married a Custis he married into the family of George Washington, the extended family of George Washington. And, of course, it is Lee’s own home, Arlington, that before the war even ended the United States Government confiscated. Lee’s wife, to say the least, never got over this. They confiscated Lee’s home and converted it into the largest national cemetery in the country. If you ever go to Arlington, go to Arlington House, or at least remember that that was founded to bury the thousands and thousands of Union dead killed by Lee’s army.
At any rate, he may have hated war in the abstract but his biographers have taken us into Lee’s psyche in some useful ways. I won’t cite all these many biographies but some of them have really shown us a complicated man of great daring and audacity and aggressiveness. He always wanted to be on the offensive. He hated being entrenched. He hated being on the defensive and he clearly saw war as an emotional or psychological release. “I think a little lead properly taken is good for a man,” he said. That was in the Mexican War. He didn’t say that during the Civil War. Surveying the field of slaughter at Fredericksburg in December of ‘62 he said, famously, “It is well that war is so terrible so that we do not grow too fond of it.” He appeared to change in battle. His eyes would be like fire, people said. An English journalist observer in the Battle of the Wilderness, a horrible battle fought in dense woods, observed this of Lee. “No man who at the terrible moment saw his flashing eyes and sternly set lips is ever likely to forget them, the light of battle still flaming in his eyes.” And there are lots of people who said that about him. The debate about Lee is essentially, among historians at least, is essentially whether he bled the South to death, so to speak, with his aggressiveness, his two major invasions of the North and the cost that meant to the Confederacy, or whether he was the true military genius of American history and only through that offensive daring did the Confederacy survive as long as it did. Or, only through his devotion and his maneuverability of huge numbers of men across difficult landscapes did the Confederacy survive as long as it did through 1864 in his struggle against Grant’s Army, which outnumbered him at times two to one, in 1864 and 1865. But he hated being on the defensive now in 1864. “I will strike that man a blow in the morning, I will strike that man a blow in the morning,” he would say sometimes at night in his camp, even if he wasn’t planning to do it.
Chapter 4. Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Crater: Grant and Lee in 1864 [00:19:17]
Now, the Campaign of 1864, the pivotal — in so many ways, decisive, despite the fact that it becomes a horrible stalemate — the decisive campaign of the Civil War in everyone’s hopes in the North, a campaign once again that would only be one summer, was launched in April and May of ‘64. But it wasn’t going to end that summer. It would end in a horrible stalemate and a siege of the city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond. And the war, of course, would not end until the following spring, four Aprils into the war. But here’s roughly what happened — and by the way I refer you here to the Ken Burns film series, and there’s of course a very good reason that Burns decided in this nine-part film series to give two whole parts to the year 1864. I have my own little criticisms of that film series which I’ll be happy to share with you at some point, but I thought it was actually quite brilliant the way he just makes you agonize to get out of 1864 I mean, God how long must 1864 last? Because that’s actually the way the country felt.
In the Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864, the two armies basically collided just west of Fredericksburg in a densely, densely wooded area that was known at that time as the Wilderness. They essentially just bumped into one another because there were only two roads that went North, South or East or West through this area. And they fought it out in woods for two days. It was a totally disorganized battle. Often men would only fire at what they saw other weapons firing, because they could really never see their enemies, and hence sometimes killed their own men. And the most horrible thing about the Wilderness, of course, as you perhaps have heard, is that hundreds, if not thousands, of wounded ended up being burned to death in the woods because the woods caught on fire in several places and the wounded could not be retrieved. Soldiers on both sides laid down at night in makeshift trench works along roadways and listened to their comrades scream as they were burning to death in the woods and could not save them. In two days of a really thoroughly disorganized slugfest in woods, Grant’s Army lost 18,400 casualties, dead and wounded. Lee lost about 11,000, dead and wounded. And it appeared that Lee had once again — for what, the fourth time now? — stopped a Union Army invading into Virginia, and that that Union Army would probably have to retreat back out of this densely wooded wilderness, get up north of the Rappahannock, regroup again, again, again, as the Army of the Potomac always had. And yet what happened was, of course, Grant never intended to stop no matter what happened. He had the obvious advantage of manpower. He had tremendous resources behind him.
Although that manpower was risky, because that very summer the three-year enlist — they weren’t up by May but they were going to be up in June — the three-year enlistments, from ‘61 to ‘64, the great mass of the Army of the Potomac had been in — those who had survived, the veterans, the real soldiers — had been in for three years and their terms would be up. How in the hell to get these men to re-enlist when they were enduring this? And the government came up with three and four-hundred dollar bounties, they came up with thirty day furloughs here and there, percentages of regiments sent home. They’d do anything to get these guys to re-enlist. And Lincoln called for 500,000 more volunteers, a half a million. Now they will actually eventually get almost that half million men, but the problem, as the Union armies realized that summer, is that these new soldiers, brought in by being paid bounties and all sort of other things, were terrible soldiers. And Grant counted by July and August of these new recruits that about three of every four became deserters the first time they faced combat. So that manpower was not a certain thing, but Grant just kept moving.
And there’s a famous story. It’s the night of the second day, it’s the 6 th of May ‘64, and most of the Union Army is camped along a roadway, a North/South roadway. They’ve just fought the two worst days of the war, if they’ve survived. They’re depleted. Woods are burning. They expect any moment to all have to retreat north. And there came Grant with just a few members of his staff cantering down the road, heading south. He didn’t stop to say anything to anybody. He didn’t even tip his hat probably spit from his cigar. And as they saw him moving South, they began to realize they weren’t retreating. And for about a mile and a half along this roadway these scarred soldiers started to get up and scream and holler, at the top of their lungs, for Grant, for Grant they were going South. And they did.
The rest of this terrible campaign would be an attempt by Grant now to outmaneuver Lee, to try to keep moving left, Grant’s left, to try to get around Lee’s army, to move faster than Lee, if possible, and ultimately to cut off Lee’s supply line, either to Richmond or further south from Richmond, and if possible — forget about taking Richmond — but to try to cut off Lee’s army from the rest of the South, and if possible with Sheridan’s army in the Shenandoah Valley cut him off from the West. So when Grant gets accused of being a butcher that summer, there’s some truth to that. But it really was a war of maneuver, maneuver, maneuver. They collided — actually the first attempt was to see who could get first to this crossroads called Spotsylvania Courthouse, and at Spotsylvania they fought for about six, seven consecutive days. This was the rehearsal for World War One. Everywhere the army stopped they dug the deepest possible trenches they could. And at Spotsylvania, indeed, Lee’s army got there just before Grant’s army and they built this incredible trench work that was in a U-shape, and for about six days Grant’s army just made one frontal assault on this after another, and it produced these horrifying scenes of the dead and wounded, three and four deep, in these trenches, day after day after day, most of it fought in rainstorms. At Spotsylvania, when you add it all up — they first encountered each other on the 8 th of May and they didn’t really stop fighting there until about the 19 th of May — Grant’s army lost almost 30,000 casualties Lee’s army almost 20,000 casualties. And yet Grant just kept moving and kept moving, left and south, left and south.
And then Grant, the first week of June, would make his greatest mistake of the war, and he admitted it. It’s the only place in his great two-volume memoir when he used the word regret, and he really regretted Cold Harbor. At Cold Harbor, Grant had misinformation. He somehow did not understand how much of Lee’s army had actually concentrated in front of him and somehow he mis-saw the landscape. He didn’t realize that Lee’s army on each flank had a river, and those rivers were pretty high, it was May/June, and there was no way to flank him. So he just made, on the 3 rd of June, the largest frontal assault attack of the war. There were 50,000 Union troops engaged in this, and Grant’s army took 7000 casualties in a half-hour. And many of the men — and they’d been fighting now day after day after day, and God only knows what fatalists soldiers become in that circumstance. They were asked before the attack at Cold Harbor to pin their names and home addresses on their shirts, at least much of the Union Army was. And they did. They had no dog tags in that war. They were told to pin their names on themselves so they could be identified when dead. And I believe Burns uses this story in the film. There was one Union soldier who etched into his diary, “Morning, June 3 rd , I died today at Cold Harbor.” And he did.
This stopped Grant’s movement. It protected Richmond. It meant that the war would now go on and on through that summer. Rather than attempting any more assaults on Lee’s forces, which were now constantly digging trenches, digging trenches, digging trenches, all around the eastern side of Richmond, Grant kept moving south. And this time he got to Petersburg faster than Lee, or at least most of Lee’s army, and by mid to late June they put the city of Petersburg, just some twenty-five miles south of Richmond, under siege. And Petersburg would — and you can see many of these great photographs in Burns’ film series. Photographers went crazy in ‘64 and ‘65 photographing these giant trench works, these trench cities that were built around Petersburg. There would be a quick attempt to break the siege at Petersburg in what is known as the Battle of the Crater — quick in the sense of about a month after. Grant’s army concentrated all around the east side and the south side of Petersburg. They were always trying to cut Lee’s supply lines off, either west or south, and never managed to completely do it until the next spring.
But you may know the story of the Battle of the Crater. Some coalminers in the 48 th Pennsylvania went to their Colonel, who went to his General, who went to General Burnside, who went to Grant and said, “We can dig a tunnel, 500 yards, under the Confederate line, and we’ll fill it with tons of dynamite, and we can do it with ventilation slats, we know how to do these things, and we’ll blow the Confederate line to smithereens. Let us do it.” And at first Grant and his staff said, “No, no, no, no, this is too crazy.” They sat down with him, they convinced him they could do it, and they did it. Five hundred yards of a tunnel, they ventilated it, the Confederates on the other side. And the lines in some areas here were never more than 150 to 200 yards apart. They actually did hear some digging, we’re told later, but they didn’t know what the hell it was. And then they dug a counter-trench at the end, inside, or a tunnel. They put in four tons of dynamite, fuses. You to this day can see the openings of that tunnel and you can still see the suppression in the landscape where the crater was. And on July 30,1864 they blew it up, and they blew up an area of the Confederate line about 200 yards long. Men’s bodies were simply exploded into the air. It’s the opening scene of Cold Mountain, if you’ve seen the movie. Not bad, it’s one of the best parts of that movie actually. I thought Nicole Kidman was badly cast I don’t know about you. [Laughter] When you’re suffering and you haven’t got enough to eat and you’re laying in the snow you can’t look like Nicole Kidman, I’m sorry. [Laughter] It ain’t right. But the problem was the Battle of the Crater became a Union disaster. Instead of exploiting this as they should have, and been far, far more organized — they should’ve managed to get around this crater — actually they didn’t even understand how big this gigantic hole in the ground would be — a huge hole in the Confederate line had been exploded, hundreds of yards wide. But Union troops started marching into the hole — I’m not kidding — and within an hour or two, as Confederates regrouped, in sheer shock, they said it was just like picking out fish in a bowl, and they stood all around this giant hole in the ground. And 4,000 Union troops were killed in the Battle of the Crater, which turned out to be a Union disaster.
Chapter 5. Sherman’s March to the Sea [00:33:21]
Now, out West. Where’s Sherman? There he is. Can we see this? Now, the other major campaign of the war that of course will ultimately lead to Union victory — and I won’t get us quite to the dead-end of the war today by any means — but it is, of course, William Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign through northern Georgia, the fall of Atlanta by September of ‘64. The campaign lasted all that summer. At the same time this stalemate sets in in Virginia, around Petersburg, with these thousands of casualties. And you must try to, if you can imagine Northerners standing in post offices and telegraph offices all over the towns of the Midwest, New England, waiting for casualty reports, and the adjutants of regiments writing the lists. Standing in a small town post office and a telegraph comes through with a list of the dead a dozen, two dozen, three dozen, men, from a town that only had 1000 people. It was beginning to destroy Northern morale.
And things weren’t that much better in Georgia, or so it seemed, throughout that summer. Sherman finally outmaneuvered General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army, toward Atlanta, won at Kennesaw Mountain in two days in June, late June of ‘64, and essentially put Atlanta under siege in July and August, and kept trying to get around, around, around — especially to the left, to the east and south — Atlanta to cut off the supply lines to this biggest city in the heartland of the South. He finally succeeded, at great cost, when Atlanta fell on the 4 th of September in ‘64. And the fall of Atlanta is in some ways, both strategically and in terms of morale, one of the most important little turning points of the war, that has a huge impact on the political situation and the Election of ‘64 about to occur — more on that in a second.
It was then that Sherman, based on this strategy of conquest, destruction of resources and war upon people, made the decision, really quite quickly, to launch his march to the sea. It took him a couple of months to organize it but from November 15 th to Christmas Eve — that’s about five weeks — Sherman’s army marched 285 miles from Atlanta to Savannah with 62,000 troops. They were almost unopposed. General John B. Hood’s Confederate Army, that had surrendered — in effect given up — Atlanta, had retreated south to fight again. And Hood’s idea, but actually without Jefferson Davis’s approval — well if Sherman was going to invade toward the East, toward the sea and destroy Georgia, Hood took an army of about 30,000 men and invaded back up into Tennessee, hoping that Sherman would stop and come after him. Sherman said, “Let him go.” It was a kind of a game now, of time, resources, destruction, and who would give up. “We are not fighting a hostile army anymore,” Sherman said, I’m quoting him, “we are fighting a hostile people. His aim and objective now was the civilian population, and Americans had never made war on civilians quite like Sherman would in Georgia. “We cannot change the hearts of those people,” Sherman wrote of the South, “but we can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations will pass before they will ever again appeal to it.” Now up in the Shenandoah Valley, Philip Sheridan’s Union Army, under similar orders, to make war on society, gave a simple order to his officers and most of that army was cavalry. His order was put in the starkest of total war terms. He said, quote, “Leave them only their eyes with which to weep.” This was now savage war.
To win the war with fear was Sherman’s goal, to win it with destruction and to win it with maneuvers. Freed slaves swarmed behind Sherman’s army. He hated it, he didn’t want them to be there, he didn’t know what to do with them — what the hell am I going to do with this people? First it was 5,000 10,000 15. He had 25 to 30,000 refugee slaves tailing right behind his army it was about half the size of his whole army. Follow that in Doctorow. Sherman didn’t always play kindness or niceness with them. At one point his troops lifted up the pontoon bridge across a river and scores of freedmen trying to get across with him drowned in the river. Sherman’s attitude was “the way it goes.” They made it by Christmas Eve to Savannah just before that into Liberty County, just south of Savannah. And to this day in Liberty County, Georgia, there are plenty of people around — I have a former student who lives there and runs a historic site — who will tell you, “This is where Sherman turned left.” Okay. And you think, well okay, there must’ve been a left turn sign or something, this is where Sherman turned left. I’ll also never forget the time I was doing research in the Caroliniana Collections in Columbia, South Carolina, and I don’t remember exactly what I asked for in the Archives — I spent a good week there — I don’t remember. Oh, it was records about the state capital and the buildings. I wanted to know about the ruins and destruction, and I asked for this stuff, and the archivist, who was a woman, looked up from the desk at me and she said, “Don’t have it. Sherman burnt it.” [Laughter] Okay, thank you very much, I won’t be able to look at that stuff apparently.
Now, if you follow the purple line here, of course, you realize that this is the destined, this is the route of Sherman’s — this is about 280 miles from Atlanta to the sea. It would give us some of the best songs of the war, marching through Georgia. It also gave the Civil War its anti-hero, its principal villain, of Union victory, some say the architect of total war — that’s a little too much to lay on Sherman. But it was now a war of conquest and destruction. He did not destroy Savannah but when he got to Charleston — well actually much of Charleston he didn’t have to destroy because it was being destroyed already by Union gunboats and artillery from around the harbor. But the city he did destroy was Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, which was burned to the ground, as, by the way, was Atlanta. Now, Sherman would always say these were just fires that broke out because of extensive shelling. That was not the case in Columbia. They burned about everything that was standing in Columbia, and then they kept moving north north, north into North Carolina. And I’ll come back to that later because the final, final surrender of the Civil War, of course, came in North Carolina, not in Virginia. Now —
Chapter 6. The Beginning of Memorial Day and Conclusion [00:42:23]
Before we get to Appomattox — I’m going to save the Siege of Petersburg, the lifting of the siege and the march to Appomattox and the surrender for Thursday, because it makes a perfect segway back into wartime reconstruction plans, because the nature of that surrender at Appomattox has a great deal to do with the kind of reconstruction ideas and plans that were boiling as early as 1863 really, out of Congress and from Lincoln himself. And let me just end with this little story. I mentioned that Sherman made it to the sea at Savannah, marched part of his troops up to Charleston, took Charleston, the seedbed of Secession and all of that, although actually Charleston didn’t fully fall to Union hands until February of ‘65. It had been bombarded throughout the last eight to nine months, as I said, from Union ships and guns all around the harbor. And if you’ve ever been to Charleston, that glorious, beautiful colonial city, that Caribbean city, as it looks, with all those mansions about fifteen to twenty blocks up from the harbor, you must imagine it almost completely in ruin by early 1865. All the white people evacuated and abandoned the city, and the only people left principally were slaves, freedmen, thousands of them, and they in effect took over the city.
The first Union regiment that marched up Meeting Street in Charleston was the 21 st USCT, a colored infantry, a black regiment, and they accepted the surrender of the city from its mayor. And then they began to hold ceremonies, the black folks of Charleston, they began to hold ceremonies all around the city. They held a parade in late March — or was it early April — of ‘65. They had this huge parade where they had two floats and they had, on one float, they had a little slave auction occurring, a mock slave auction with a woman with her baby being sold away, and on the next float they had a coffin labeled “Slavery,” and it said “Fort Sumter Dug its Grave, April 12 th , 1861.” And then they planned one more ceremony, and — oh and by the way, the war, when it finally, finally, finally ended, they held an extraordinary ceremony on Fort Sumter. They crammed about 3000 people onto the little island. All kinds of dignitaries came. Now General Anderson — not the Colonel who had surrendered the fort four years ago — came and raised the U.S. flag, four years almost to the day that they had taken it down. William Lloyd Garrison was there from the North, the great abolitionist who wept uncontrollably when he heard a small black children’s choir sing John Brown’s Body.
And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14 th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.
Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1 st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.
African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866 they were too late. I had the great, blind, good fortune to discover this story in a messy, totally disorganized collection of veterans’ papers at the Houghton Library at Harvard some years back. And what you have there is black Americans, recently freed from slavery, announcing to the world, with their flowers and their feet and their songs, what the war had been about. What they basically were creating was the Independence Day of a second American Revolution. That story got lost, it got lost for more than a century. And when I discovered it, I started calling people in Charleston that I knew in archives and libraries, including the Avery Institute, the black research center in Charleston — “Has anybody, have you ever heard of this story?” And no one had ever heard it. It showed the power of the Lost Cause in the wake of the war to erase a story. But I started looking for other sources, and lo and behold there were lots of sources. Harper’s Weekly even had a drawing of the cemetery in an 1867 issue. The old oval of that racetrack is still there today. If you ever go to Charleston go up to Hampton Park. Hampton Park is today what the racecourse was then. It’s named for Wade Hampton, the white supremacist, redeemer, and governor of South Carolina at the end of Reconstruction and a Confederate General during the Civil War. And that park sits immediately adjacent to the Citadel, the Military Academy of Charleston. On any given day you can see at any given time about 100 or 200 Citadel cadets jogging on the track of the old racecourse. There is no marker, there’s no memento, there’s only a little bit of a memory. Although a few years ago a friend of mine in Charleston organized a mock ceremony where we re-enacted that event, including the children’s choir, and they made me dress up in a top hat and a funny old nineteenth century suit and made me get up on a podium and make a stupid speech. But there is an effort, at least today, to declare Hampton Park a National Historic Landmark. See you Thursday.
Union disaster at Cold Harbor - HISTORY
Union Order of Battle : Battle of Cold Harbor
- Infantry: 8th, 11th, 14th, 21st Regiments.
- Cavalry : 1st Regiment.
- Artillery, Heavy : 2nd Regiment.
- Infantry : 1st, 2nd, 3rd Regiments.
- Cavalry : 8th Regiment.
- Infantry: 7th, 13th, 14th, 19th, 20th Regiments.
- Cavalry: 3rd Regiment.
- Infantry : 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th , 31st, 32nd Regiments.
- Cavalry: 1st Regiment.
- Artillery, Field: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th Batteries.
- Infantry : 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th Regiments Purnell Legion.
- Infantry : 1st, 7th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 25th, 27th, 28th, 29th, 32nd, 35th, 36th, 37th, 39th, 40th, 56th, 57th, 58th, 59th Regiments.
- Cavalry: 1st Regiment.
- Artillery, Heavy: 1st Regiment.
- Artillery, Field : 1st, 3rd, 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 14th Batteries.
- Infantry: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th, 16th, 17th, 20th, 24th, 26th, 27th Regiments 1st Sharpshooters.
- Cavalry: 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th Regiments.
- Infantry: 2nd Regiment.
- Infantry : 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th Regiments.
- Infantry : 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th Regiments.
- Cavalry: 1st, 3rd Regiments.
- Infantry : 3rd, 7th, 10th, 12th, 34th, 39th, 40th, 42nd, 43rd, 44th, 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th, 51st, 57th, 59th, 61st, 62nd, 63rd, 64th, 65th, 66th, 67th, 69th, 70th, 71st, 72nd, 73rd, 74th, 76th, 77th, 80th, 82nd, 83rd, 86th, 88th, 89th, 92nd, 93rd, 94th, 95th, 96th, 97th, 98th, 104th, 106th, 108th, 109th, 111th, 112th, 115th, 117th, 118th, 120th, 121st, 122nd, 124th, 125th, 126th, 139th, 140th, 142nd, 146th, 147th, 148th, 151st, 152nd, 155th, 164th, 169th, 170th, 182nd Regiments 1st Bn. Sharpshooters.
- Cavalry: 1st, 2nd, 2nd Mounted Rifles (dismounted), 4th, 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, 19th, 24th (dismounted) Regiments Oneida Cav.
- Artillery, Heavy: 2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th Regiments.
- Artillery, Field: 1st, 3rd, 4th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 19th, 27th, 34th Batteries 15th Horse Artillery.
- Infantry : 4th, 8th, 60th, 110th, 122nd, 126th Regiments.
- Cavalry : 2nd, 6th Regiments.
- Artillery, Field: 1st Regiment, Battery H.
- Infantry: 11th, 23rd, 45th, 48th, 49th, 50th, 51st, 53rd, 55th, 56th, 57th, 58th, 61st, 62nd, 63rd, 67th, 68th, 69th, 71st, 72nd, 76th, 82nd, 83rd, 84th, 87th, 88th, 90th, 91st, 93rd, 95th, 96th, 97th, 99th, 99th, 100th, 102nd, 105th, 106th, 107th, 110th, 114th, 115th, 116th, 118th, 119th, 121st, 138th, 139th, 140th, 141st, 142nd, 143rd, 145th, 148th, 149th, 150th, 155th, 183rd, 184th 188th, 190th, 191st Regiments.
- Cavalry : 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 13th, 16th, 18th Regiments.
- Artillery, Heavy: 2nd Provisional Regiment.
- Artillery, Field: 1st Regiment.
- Infantry: 2nd, 7th Regiments.
- Artillery, Field : 1st Regiment.
- Infantry : 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 17th Regiments.
- Cavalry 1st Regiment.
- Artillery Heavy: 1st Regiment.
- Artillery, Field: 3rd Battery.
- Infantry: 7th Regiment.
- Infantry : 2nd, 5th, 6th, 7th, 36th Regiments.
- Infantry: 19th, 23rd, 27th, 30th, 31st, 39th, 43rd Regiments.
- Infantry : 2nd, 4th, 8th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 14th, 17th Regiments.
- Cavalry : 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th Regiments.
- Artillery, Field: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 8th Regiments 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Horse Artillery.
- Engineers: Engineer Battalion.
- Infantry: 1st, 2nd, U.S. Sharpshooters.
|General Grant at Battle of Cold Harbor|
|Cold Harbor Battlefield|
Recommended Reading : Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 . Library Journal: On June 3, 1864, the Union Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth Corps assaulted Confederate breastworks at Cold Harbor outside Richmond , VA. The resulting bloodbath amounted to U.S. Grant's worst defeat and "Bobby" Lee's final great victory. In his latest book, native Virginian and Baltimore Sun correspondent Furgurson (Chancellorsville, 1863) vividly retells the well-known story of how the friction between Grant and his insecure direct subordinate, George Meade, poisoned the Army of the Potomac 's whole chain of command. Continued below…
By contrast, he depicts Lee as a commander beset by poor health and impossible logistical problems who brilliantly deployed his meager forces and soundly thrashed his overconfident adversary, thereby saving the rebel capital and extending an unwinnable war by nearly a year. The book is rich in word pictures and engaging anecdotes. Furgurson considers the wounded that were left to suffer with the dead between the lines while Lee and Grant quibble over protocols of recovery the disastrous affect of poor maps and impassable terrain on the Federal assault and Grant's immediate need to bring Lincoln a battlefield victory before the 1864 presidential election. Furgurson's contribution is his evocative retelling of a great American military tragedy.
Recommended Reading : Cold Harbor : Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 , by Gordon C. Rhea (Hardcover). Description: In his gripping volume on the spring 1864 Overland campaign--which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Civil War--Gordon Rhea vividly re-creates the battles and maneuvers from the North Anna stalemate through the Cold Harbor offensive. Rhea's tenacious research elicits stunning new facts from the records of a phase oddly ignored or mythologized by historians. The Cold Harbor of these pages differs sharply from the Cold Harbor of popular lore. We see Grant, in one of his most brilliant moves, pull his army across the North Anna River and steal a march on Lee. In response, Lee sets up a strong defensive line along Totopotomoy Creek, and the battles spark across woods and fields northeast of Richmond . Continued below…
Their back to the Chickahominy River and on their last legs, the rebel troops defiantly face an army-wide assault ordered by Grant that extends over three hellish days. Rhea gives a surprising new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded. Here, Grant is not a callous butcher, and Lee does not wage a perfect fight. Every imaginable primary source has been exhausted to unravel the strategies, mistakes, gambles, and problems with subordinates that preoccupied two exquisitely matched minds. In COLD HARBOR , Rhea separates fact from fiction in a charged, evocative narrative. He leaves readers under a moonless sky, Grant pondering the eastward course of the James River fifteen miles south of the encamped armies. About the Author: Gordon Rhea is the author of three previous books, a winner of the Fletcher Pratt Literary Award, a frequent lecturer throughout the country on military history, and a practicing attorney.
Recommended Reading : Bloody Roads South: The Wilderness to Cold Harbor , May-June 1864 , by Noah Andre Trudeau. Description: "Nobody has brought together in one volume so many eyewitness accounts from both sides."-Civil War History Winner of the Fletcher Pratt Award. In this authoritative chronicle of the great 1864 Overland Campaign in Virginia, Noah Andre Trudeau vividly re-creates the brutal forty days that marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War. In riveting detail Trudeau traces the carnage from the initial battles in Virginia 's Wilderness to the gruesome hand-to-hand combat at Spotsylvania's "Bloody Angle," to the ingenious trap laid by Lee at the North Anna River , to the killing ground of Cold Harbor . Through fascinating eyewitness accounts, he relates the human stories behind this epic saga. Continued below…
Common soldiers struggle to find the words to describe the agony of their comrades, incredible tales of individual valor, their own mortality. Also recounting their experiences are the women who nursed these soldiers and black troops who were getting their first taste of battle. The raw vitality of battle sketches by Edwin Forbes and Alfred R. Waud complement the words of the participants. PRAISE FOR THE BOOK: "Bloody Roads South is a powerful and eloquent narrative of the costliest, most violent campaign of the Civil War. Grant vs. Lee in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, and at Cold Harbor has never been told better."-Stephen W. Sears, author of The Landscape Turned Red. About the Author: Noah Andre Trudeau is an executive producer for cultural programs at National Public Radio in Washington , D.C. He is the author of Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 and The Last Citadel: Petersburg , Virginia , June 1864-April 1865.
Recommended Reading : Trench Warfare under Grant and Lee: Field Fortifications in the Overland Campaign (Civil War America ) (Hardcover) (The University of North Carolina Press) (September 5, 2007). Description: In the study of field fortifications in the Civil War that began with Field Armies and Fortifications in the Civil War, Hess turns to the 1864 Overland campaign to cover battles from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor . Continued below.
Drawing on meticulous research in primary sources and careful examination of trench remnants at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor, and Bermuda Hundred, Hess describes Union and Confederate earthworks and how Grant and Lee used them in this new era of field entrenchments.
Recommended Reading : The Battlefield of Cold Harbor , Hanover County, Virginia , 1864 (Map). Review: The site of Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia 's last Civil War Victory is one of astonishment, battlefield courage, and horrific carnage… This work includes the most complete, accurate and detailed maps of the battle of Cold Harbor ever published. Watercolor and colored pencil map showing farms, mills, entrenchments, watercourses, woods, fields and residences are all meticulously detailed and scaled to perfection. Continued below.
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Even if you are not a die-hard fan of Civil War history, you might have heard of the Battle of Cold Harbor, fought in Hanover County, Virginia, not far northeast of Richmond. The conflict, fought June 1-3, 1864, resulted in extremely heavy causalities to Grant’s Union forces. Click here for a synopsis of the battle and casualty statistics. General Grant is often quoted as saying that one of his biggest regrets was ordering the fatal assault on June 3.It was especially important to York countians since the 87th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, a regiment made up of men from York and Adams counties, was in the midst of the battle. My great-grandfather, Amos Burk, had his arm amputated as a result of being wounded while part of a picket line there on the night of June 1. It turns out he was luckier than many of his comrades.
But there is another York County connection. Virginian Ella Bassett Washington had come to Clover Lea, her parents’ plantation near Cold Harbor to ride out the war. Instead, she found herself in its midst. She kept a journal of those harrowing days in June. That journal passed down to her niece, Lucy Neville Mitchell, who was married in September 1902 at Clover Lea. Her groom?–Stephen Fahs Smith, son of S. Morgan Smith. So Mrs. Smith and her aunt’s Civil War journal came to York County.
Here is my recent York Sunday News column with more on Ella Bassett Washington and Lucy Neville Mitchell Smith:
Ella Bassett Washington. Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
Union disaster at Cold Harbor - HISTORY
AT COLD HARBOR
Cold Harbor Burial Party 1864.
How many Union troops were casualties, and in what amount of time, during the June 3, 1864 morning attack at Cold Harbor?
In answering this question, Civil War web sites are all over the map.
The National Park Service on their web site at http:/www.nps.gov/rich/historyculture/cold-harbor.htm reports that:
"In less than an hour, thousands of Federal soldiers lay dead and dying between the lines."
The Library of Congress at http:/memory.loc.gov/ammem/cwphtml/tl1864.shtml under the title: "Time Line of The Civil War, 1864" compiled by Joanne Freeman with a special debt to the Encyclopedia of American History by Richard B. Morris, says:
"June 1864 -- The Battle of Cold Harbor. Grant again attacked Confederate forces at Cold Harbor, losing over 7,000 men in twenty minutes."
Although we have seen the 7,000-man casualty figure, mentioned above, on several Civil War web sites, we have seen very few references to the "twenty minutes" time span.
Two of the more popular Cold Harbor books provide different information regarding the June 3 casualties:
- "Not War But Murder, Cold Harbor 1864" by Ernest B. Furgurson (2000) Hardback, Page 278:
The references above don't even scratch the surface as to the number and variety of sites and books offering differing opinions as to the Cold Harbor, June 3, 1864, results. Because of this, it appears that, if you take the time, you can find just about any casualty and time combination that you would like to believe.
Due to this confusion, we believe it can only be said that there were thousands of Union casualties on June 3, 1864 at Cold Harbor in a very short time span. Anything beyond that is subject to debate.
It reminds us of a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: "History is a set of lies agreed upon". Whether Napoleon was right or wrong, it should be remembered that Civil War history (and most 19th century history, for that matter) relies mainly on second hand or "hearsay" information.
And isn't hearsay, after all, the basis for most of the Cold Harbor Civil War battle information?
> Opinions > Cold Harbor Casualties
Grant’s Regret at the Battle of Cold Harbor
F orty thousand Union troops charged out of the woods at Cold Harbor, Virginia, into a spray of Confederate fire. Attackers fell by the hundreds as they approached the enemy entrenchments. The effort quickly proved hopeless, but the troops remained in the field. For the next nine hours of June 3, 1864, Union soldiers hugged the ground, digging in as well as they could. Many of them used the bodies of fallen comrades for protection while attempting to answer the Confederate fire. Union commanders repeatedly ordered their men to renew the assault, but the soldiers refused to budge. Finally Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant called off the attack.
In the initial charge, which had lasted less than 10 minutes, nearly 7,000 Union soldiers had been killed or wounded. Not until World War I would an army suffer such a high-casualty rate. Grant, the Union’s recently appointed general-in-chief, would one day write in his memoirs, “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered.” But in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant took a very different tone as he drafted his post-action report to the War Department. “Our loss was not severe,” he wrote, “nor do I suppose the enemy lost heavily.”
Why would the battle-tested commander of all Union forces call the casualties of Cold Harbor not severe when they were the worst he had ever seen? How could he get away with such a gross misrepresentation when a virtual host of press correspondents followed the Union army’s every move? And why, once the truth came out, did he never come under even the mildest censure from his superiors? The answer seems to lie in a cover-up that involved not only Grant, but high-ranking members of President Abraham Lincoln’s administration—a cover-up that related directly to the powerful stresses that civil war was placing on the American system of representative government.
If Grant purposely understated the extent of the defeat at Cold Harbor, he may have done so because he realized that bad news from the Virginia front could turn the already frustrated Northern citizenry completely against the war effort. This would present major problems for the Lincoln administration, especially now, on the eve of the Republican convention, with the party just five days away from settling on its candidate for the November presidential election. Lincoln was clearly the party favorite, but as the war dragged on and the patience of the haggard Northern populace wore thinner, he was vulnerable. And if Lincoln was vulnerable, so was his general-in-chief.
The growing impatience of the Northern people was part of the reason why Grant had returned to the battle-scarred region between Fredericksburg and Richmond—and led him to initiate the Battle of Cold Harbor and the disastrous charge. Grant believed he was very close to destroying General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If he could do so, the war would be over, and Lincoln would have no more worries about keeping the support of a people weary of war. Grant was convinced that if he could draw Lee’s army out into the open, he could inflict losses that Lee would be unable to replace. It was a matter of simple mathematics. Because the North had twice as many soldiers, if battlefield casualties accelerated equally on both sides, the Union army would soon be the only one left standing.
As part of this strategy, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, and headed toward Richmond. In the Wilderness, a second-growth woodland full of short brush and twisted shrubbery, Grant’s army fought Lee’s army from May 5 through 7. The Battle of the Wilderness ended with Union losses nearly doubling those of the Confederacy, but the Army of the Potomac successfully continued toward the Confederate capital. A few days later, on May 11, Grant sent a dispatch to Washington, D.C.: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Newspapers in the North picked up on this phrase and made it as famous as the unconditional surrender demand he had made two years earlier in capturing Fort Donelson, Tennessee.
Many Northerners hoped Grant was on a campaign that would decide the war once and for all. “We know it cannot be long before one or more bloody battles will take place in which…probably the Civil War will be decided as to its continuance, or termination,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on May 17. “My faith is firm in Union success, but I shall be glad when faith is fact.”
Even Grant, usually an understated man, boasted of his inevitable success in a letter dated May 26. “Lee’s army is really whipped,” Grant wrote to his predecessor in command of the Union armies, Major General Henry Halleck. “The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably…. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy and attack with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured.”
Grant was mistaken, and the hopes of Welles and many other optimistic patriots were dealt a severe blow. Grant erred in believing that Lee’s army was whipped and that his own troops would attack with confidence. True, the Union troops had fought with courage and valor in the Wilderness and again, on May 12, in a predawn assault at the Bloody Angle outside Spotsylvania Court House. But at Cold Harbor they were asked to make a frontal attack across open fields on entrenched Rebel positions. The soldiers, knowing far better than their commanders what awaited them, pinned to their uniforms slips of paper bearing their names and addresses, so their bodies could be identified after the battle. A blood-stained diary was recovered after the fight from the body of one Federal soldier. His final entry read, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”
For the Union soldiers, the true horror of Cold Harbor was only beginning when Grant called off the disastrous nine-hour assault. As the survivors crawled back to their trenches or dug new fortifications, thousands of wounded soldiers remained on the battlefield, crying out for help. Attempts to reach them almost certainly met death. A Captain Holmes wrote home on June 4, “sharpshooters put a bullet wherever you show a head, and on June 7, you show your nose anywhere and sizzle come the bullets at it in less than the twinkling of a bedpost.” For two days after the battle, Grant made no attempt to propose a truce or to otherwise make provisions for the wounded Union soldiers dying between the battle lines. Tradition held that the first commander to ask the enemy’s permission to bring in wounded was the loser, and Grant would not admit losing.
Grant finally opened correspondence with Lee on June 5, informing him that wounded men, probably of both armies, lay exposed and suffering between the lines, and that for humanity’s sake, unarmed stretcher-bearers should be sent to pick up the dead and wounded. Lee agreed but wanted a flag of truce to be accepted first. Grant did not give in to Lee’s demand until the next day, June 7, a full four days after the men had fallen. In the meantime, Grant would admit in his memoirs, all but two of the wounded had died.
For the first time during Grant’s campaign in that summer of 1864, correspondents from Democratic newspapers failed to exploit a bloody Federal setback and the horror of a battle’s aftermath, even though the Battle of Cold Harbor had given them plenty of ammunition on both counts. In a matter of minutes, three Union corps had suffered more casualties than they had in 20 hours of terrible fighting at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania. And for three days after the battle, the no-man’s land between the armies bore unspeakable horrors.
What occurred on June 3 should have appeared in banner headlines and sparked severe condemnation in the Democratic press. When a Union defeat of similar proportion had occurred at Fredericksburg in December 1862, newspapers immediately published the reports from the field, and the nation plunged into its deepest despair of the war. Yet the stories of June 4, 5, and 6, 1864, were simply reprints of verbatim releases from the War Department or accounts furnished by reporters from pro-administration newspapers.
It was more than a week before the Democratic press began reporting the actual events of June 3, and even then they relied on the syndicated reports of Republican correspondents. Stories syndicated by the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Tribune, and New York Times served as the basis for the first detailed reports published by the anti-Lincoln press. Even as late as June 8, the Columbus Crisis, a rabidly Democratic newspaper, gave top billing to less important stories and buried accounts of Cold Harbor.
By the time newspapers such as the World and the Age finally published details of the Battle of Cold Harbor, it was too late. The Republicans had already renominated Lincoln and adopted a platform calling for the passage of a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery throughout the United States. On the military side, the Army of the Potomac had already begun preparing for its next big move. The potentially devastating news of the worst Union defeat of the war had been kept from the public long enough that its impact was muted by other, more current events.
The Democratic press failed to exploit this defeat for several reasons. The three correspondents from the World who reported on the Army of the Potomac were unavailable to file reports. The principal reporter had been captured by Confederates, and the other two correspondents were ill. So they relied on the account of the June 3 fighting filed by the Times reporter.
Another reason was that foul weather on the Virginia Peninsula had caused problems with telegraph transmission. A War Department statement released at 10:00 p.m. on June 3 read:
Nothing has been heard from General Grant since his dispatch dated at 7 o’clock yesterday morning. Grant’s telegraph message with the clause. Our loss was not severe was sent at 2:00 p.m. on June 3, the day of the infamous charge, but was not reported as received until 7:55 the next morning.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton promptly assigned blame: “Telegraphic communication has been delayed by a violent storm on the peninsula yesterday evening and last night and cannot be re-established before sometime tomorrow.” Perhaps the breakdown of the telegraph at the same time as the Cold Harbor defeat was a coincidence. If so, it was a coincidence that spared the Lincoln administration a major backlash from the populace.
Some Democratic correspondents may have left the battlefield to attend the Republican nominating convention in Baltimore. Though the convention did not begin until four days after the Cold Harbor tragedy, it is very likely that on June 3 the reporters were already in transit.
Southern newspapermen knew that Grant’s army had been dealt a devastating defeat at Cold Harbor. So when they saw innocuous descriptions of the battle in the Northern press, they assumed that Grant had telegraphed false accounts of the battle to protect Lincoln’s renomination prospects. In fact, in the only message Grant ever sent the War Department about Cold Harbor, the complete text read:
We assaulted at 4:30 this a.m., driving the enemy within his entrenchments at all points, but without gaining a decided advantage. We now occupy a position close to the enemy and in some places within fifty yards. Our loss was not severe, nor do I suppose the enemy lost heavily. We captured over three hundred prisoners mostly from Breckenridge’s command.
It was not simply by accident that the travesty and tragedy of the Battle of Cold Harbor was not officially acknowledged by the government until after the war. If Grant had been hesitant to report the extent of the defeat, he probably had the support of War Secretary Stanton, who also was trying to spare Lincoln from the public outcry that bad news from the front would spark. Stanton released a slightly more candid report on Cold Harbor on June 4.Another official report, not from Grant estimates our killed and wounded at 3,000, read an article in the June 6 edition of the World. Even this updated number was less than a third of the army’s total loss from May 31 to June 3 and less than half of those who fell during 10 minutes of the battle’s initial charge.
The Philadelphia Age, apparently more aware of the lost opportunity than its sister paper, the World, published an editorial on the Lincoln administration’s misleading reports in its June 9 edition:
We think Mr. Stanton might be a little more explicit in his telegrams about the condition of affairs in Virginia. He has of late been very meagre in giving intelligence. From his dispatches we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result. If Mr. Stanton knew the public anxiety there is in the public mind to hear the truth about Virginia, he would be a little more explicit in his dispatches…. They have lost all significance as candid reports of military operations.
But Stanton knew all too well—perhaps better than anyone else in the country—what an impact the Cold Harbor tragedy could have had on the public just before the Republican convention. And no one else in the country was in a better position to screen the information that passed from the battlefield to the press. So, inclement weather or not, Stanton released vague dispatches, and in doing so confirmed that he was not only the civilian administrator of the army, but a member of the incumbent political family.
The inaccurate battle reports may have stemmed from the refusal of a proud commander and a politically astute cabinet officer to acknowledge that the army had been ordered to make a suicidal attack. Or perhaps it was the general policy of the army high command to withhold or understate the truth of unfavorable battle results. Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain commented on the situation in the summer of 1864 in his book The Passing of the Armies. He wrote about the movement of the Army of the Potomac as it emerged from the Wilderness in May:
Then the rushing, forced flank-movements, known and overmatched by the ever-alert followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss buffetings on bloody angles butcherings in slaughter pens, —all the way down to the fateful Chickahominy once more—a campaign under fire for twenty-seven days and nights together morning reports at last not called for and when we asked explanation our superiors answered,—confidentially, lest it seem disloyal ‘Because the country would not stand it, if they knew.’
The Army of the Potomac never adopted any official policy that released officers from writing official reports that might sour public opinion. Yet if Chamberlain’s claim is true, a certain casualness prevailed that spring in regard to post-action reports—reports that would only help preserve horribly vivid pictures of bloody defeats. Veteran officers understood that the disclosure of certain facts would jeopardize the army’s campaign. No superior would ever report them for not recording battlefield incidents that promoted the image of Grant as a butcher and fueled the campaign of the peace advocates.
Chamberlain went a step further in a speech to the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1889:I desire to say here today that in this Army of the Potomac whose suffering and losses were such in that same year of 1864 that we were not called upon or permitted to report our casualties during that whole campaign from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the James and Appomattox, for fear the country could not stand the disclosure….
After the war, one of Grant’s corps commanders commented on Cold Harbor in the Century War Series, published in Century magazine and later compiled as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. On the 9th of July following, he wrote, “I had a conversation with General Grant about the campaign, in which I expressed the opinion that the battle of Cold Harbor was fought in contravention of military principles, with which, after some discussion, he seemingly agreed, saying that he had never said anything about it, because it could do no good….”
In a report dated July 22, Grant devoted only the following sentences to the subject: “On the 3d of June we again assaulted the enemy’s works in the hope of driving him from his position. In this attempt our loss was heavy, while that of the enemy I have reason to believe was comparatively light.”
For the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, the horror of Cold Harbor had culminated a month of nearly constant exposure to enemy fire with frequent periods of high-intensity combat at places such as the Wilderness and the Bloody Angle. The cumulative effect of this relentless terror, during which a good night’s sleep and normal diversions for relaxation were nonexistent, severely demoralized the army. The average soldier became less willing to accept on faith the competency of his commanders, and many began to long for the past when Major General George B. McClellan had commanded the army. McClellan never would have sent them into battle to be slaughtered needlessly in hopeless assaults that accomplished little.
Less than a month after the Cold Harbor fiasco, the memory of that battle returned to haunt the army when it lost a chance to break the Rebel lines at Petersburg and capture Richmond late that July. The opportunity was lost partly because the soldiers were unwilling to attack as they had in May and June. In a June 24 letter to his parents, Captain Holmes wrote, “The feeling for McClellan has grown this campaign”. Adam Gurowski wrote in his diary on June 11, “Ambulances cross the city in all directions crippled, lame, wounded in all the streets thousands and thousands under the sod in the cursed Virginia soil, and all this sacrifice seems to have been made for the glory of the politicians. Sanitary Commission member George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary on June 9,People are blue. They have found out somehow that Grant will never get into Richmond after all….”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted misgivings about Grant on June 2, the day before the Cold Harbor charge.There is intense anxiety in relation to the Army of the Potomac, he wrote in his diary, “Great confidence is felt in Grant, but the immense slaughter of our brave men chills and sickens us all. The hospitals are crowded with the thousands of mutilated and dying heroes who have poured out their blood for the Union cause.” Two days later he recorded, “Still there is heavy loss, but we are becoming accustomed to the sacrifice. Grant has no great regard for human life. “Many people, military and civilian, were beginning to share Welles’s assessment of the general-in-chief.
Grant had done nothing for which he could be charged or disciplined. His distortion of the truth in communications to the War Department might have been influenced by conflicting reports from the battlefield, or perhaps by faulty intelligence, or any of a number of other circumstances that can leave a commander misinformed. But his subsequent telegraphic messages did little to correct the initial error, and for the rest of his life, on the few occasions when Grant mentioned Cold Harbor, he did so with embarrassment and shame.
Occurring when it did, the Battle of Cold Harbor could have caused dissension at the Republican convention in Baltimore, threatening the renomination of Lincoln or at least marring the appearance of almost universal Union support for his second term. It certainly would have brought a tremendous outcry from the Democratic press, triggering an increase in the activities of subversive Peace Democrat, orCopperhead, societies and Confederate agents in Canada. And it would have enhanced support for the already substantial peace movement in the North. If the Northern public had learned of the disastrous charge and the tragic neglect of the wounded soldiers, Lincoln and Grant might have lost their jobs after the election.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was the type of incident for which the Democratic press had waited for three years. This was particularly true of Copperhead newspapers, which relished occasions to castigate Lincoln and his administration. In June 1864, they bungled their biggest opportunity.
This article was written by David E. Long and originally published in the June 1997 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!