Cold Harbor Myths

Today is the 147th anniversary of the battle of Cold Harbor … specifically the day when a Union assault made by three infantry corps suffered a bloody repulse as well-protected Confederates cut down the attackers.  It was a decided defeat, but far from a decisive one.  And yet it sticks in people’s minds as emblematic of the generalship of Ulysses S. Grant.  After all, what better evidence is there that Grant was a butcher when the mindless frontal assault he ordered resulted in 7,000 men falling inside of thirty minutes, and then he left the wounded out there to die rather than to admit defeat and ask for a truce to take care of the wounded and bury the dead?  Oh, and then there are the self-fashioned dog tags, and the stories of men refusing to attack again, and so on, including the diary entry, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”

As such, for many people Grant’s entire record as a general and most certainly the Overland Campaign is reduced to this single assault, something that even Robert E. Lee is spared when it comes to equating his generalship with Pickett’s Charge, which, by the way, was far more costly.

Make no mistake about it: I find visiting Cold Harbor to be an eerie experience, starting with my first visit in 1974.  One place in particular sends chills up my spine: an area where there are trees but a clear forest floor between the positions of the rival armies.  You park your car, walk forward, and find yourself in the killing zone within a minute.  If you have visited the battlefield, I’m sure you know the area: it’s between the Confederate and Union turnouts.  When I first visited there, the story of the battle was of the mindless and bloody assaults as well as Grant the inept, inhumane, and just plain bad.

Now, thanks to recent scholarship (notably the work of Gordon Rhea) as well as a more careful reading of the evidence, we know that there is much to reconsider here.  Yes, the assault was mismanaged, but we have to hold George G. Meade and three corps commanders responsible for that: in the wake of a Meade tantrum some ten days before Grant had decided to let Meade exercise control over his forces, and Meade and his commanders failed to do that on June 3.  Meade even bragged to his wife on June 4 that it was his operation, although it also looks as if he lost control of it, for it was Grant who decided to bring the attacks to an end.  And now we know enough to toss aside the 7,000 men lost in thirty minutes mantra, because the losses were closer to 4,500, and they occurred over several hours (Rhea estimates that just over 6,000 Federals fell that day, but that includes the operations of the Fifth and Ninth Corps).  Other assaults during the Overland Campaign were more costly, and Pickett’s Charge may have been nearly twice as costly.  When it comes to the unseemly squabble between Grant and Lee over a flag of truce to bury the dead, well, that story seems to be somewhat more complex than we originally thought, although to my mind neither general comes off particularly well.  Having recently reread other exchanges between Grant and Lee, I can tell you that neither man was a good loser and each sought to wriggle off the hook when they were in the inferior position.  Finally, as Grant from the beginning had considered a crossing of the James as part of his campaign plan, it’s wrong to see Cold Harbor as an operational defeat so much as a setback, and certainly not a game-changer in terms of Grant’s operational plan.  It simply marked the end of one option.

Yes, the old story still persistsSome generals still believe it, and use these myths to impart lessons.  So do self-appointed guides.  Indeed, we’ve even had claims that there was a cover-up concerning the casualties at Cold Harbor, with one author claiming that Grant deliberately concealed the extent of his losses, and that coverup persisted in order to secure Lincoln’s renomination at Baltimore a few days later.  That some history buff journal embraced such claptrap as history is a sad commentary on affairs (Charles Dana notified Washington on the afternoon of June 3 of the extent of the losses, having been sent to Grant’s headquarters to augment Grant’s own dispatch writing; the author of this sadly inept piece was ignorant of such facts, and that’s putting the best face on such matters).

Yes, Cold Harbor was a setback, and yes, it was a bloody repulse; no one’s claiming it was a Union victory.  But what happened there has been distorted in countless ways until what people think happened there bears slight resemblance to what did happen there.  That in the minds of some people it has come to represent Grant’s generalship is particularly sad; that it continues to do so in the minds of some despite recent findings suggests the gap between historical scholarship and popular understanding … and sometimes the understanding of professional historians as well.  After all, what should we make of claims that we should learn from the past if we don’t understand the past in the first place?

15 thoughts on “Cold Harbor Myths

  1. ray o'hara June 3, 2011 / 3:29 pm

    Cold Harbor is the Lost Cause centerpiece.
    there is/was the sign there proclaiming the 7000 in 30 minutes.
    And then there are countless histories, especially those large books like “Great Battles of the Civil War” that sell like hotcakes as Xmas presents. that are scrupulous
    in mentioning Union losses during the campaign but are strangely silent about and CSA losses.

    The letter exchange might not reflect well on either but they were each trying to enforce their will upon the other. That may seem petty to us but it matters in these type of affairs. I always felt Grant got payback at Appomattox when they sat making smalltalk while Lee died a thousand deaths. But Grant sat until Lee brought up they had a purpose for being there,it was subtle but Grant had his “uncle” from Lee.{how great had that must have felt}. A dramatic moment seemingly missed by the others in the room.

    One thing that always gets me is how some historians rip on the AoP for making the assault at Cold Harbor and then rip on the troops for being much more cautions in the future.Such case is the arrival at Petersburg and the Union troops not being very careful
    Breastworks appeared empty except for maybe a few pickets, that awful line of muskets didn’t appear until the attackers were in the killing ground, until that they were under cover.
    Honestly I wonder if some think the Rebs manned the works like the French Foreign Legion did at Ft Zinderneuf in Beau Geste? I also see this in books that
    take the Armies strengths and divide by the miles of front in the Rich-Pete lines as if everybody was deployed full time in the front lines each man equidistant from his neighbors so on down the line.

    The biggest myth to me though is at Spotsylvania and it concerns Upton’s assault.
    everything is criticized except the part that was the most faulty, and that was the premise of the attack itself. Upton came up with a neat plan for a raid.
    and he carried it off brilliantly against the surprised Rebels. but the mistake was in thinking that the support troops were somehow going to cross an open field a qtr mile wide in broad daylight against fully alerted defenders, you bet your ass Ferraro got crushed as soon as his men showed themselves, what did they expect? Of course Upton when forced back called them all cowards and history has accepted that verdict, I see a half thought out plan.

    The ANV made the exact same mistake in “Lee’s last grand offensive” as the NPS sign proclaims at Ft Harrison near Petersburg. Gordon who led the attack attributed the failure to the cowardice of the follow up troops, but then he almosts figures it out when he mentions that when it finally came time to retreat only the bravest dared cross no-mans land back to the CSA lines.
    Why Upton and Gordon thought the following waves would be able to cross when everybody was fully alerted boggles the mind. Failure was clearly the only possible result.

  2. Matt McKeon June 3, 2011 / 7:29 pm

    Was the pinning the names of the soldiers on their uniforms real or a myth?

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 3, 2011 / 7:55 pm

      We only have Horace Porter’s account on this issue … but the fact is that soldiers did these sorts of things before various battles given the lack of government-issued dog tags. The idea that this was unique to Cold Harbor is ridiculous.

      • Sara June 7, 2011 / 5:56 pm

        Some accounts I have read also try to depict this event as symptomatic of the soldiers’ lack of morale and sense of desperation, when in fact Porter interpreted it very differently: as a sign of the men’s incredible bravery and commitment to duty, as well as their knowledge of what might might be their fate.

  3. John Foskett June 4, 2011 / 8:03 am

    Cold Harbor – the one thing Grant did which in his Memoirs he said he regretted. And what did Cold Harbor produce (aside from some good old “Grant the Butcher”/”Grant the Merciless to the Wounded” fodder for the Lost Cause crowd)? Yet another well-executed move around Lee’s flank across the James to Petersburg – where, if Grant had gotten minimal cooperation from Baldy Smith, et al., the ANV would have been in very, very dire circumstances and where, in any event, the ultimate jig was up for Lee.

    • Sara June 7, 2011 / 6:13 pm

      Well stated. I wonder how surprised Lee and/or his lieutenants were when, even after this repulse, Grant kept pressing forward. Perhaps Lee had already figured out by this time that he was facing a very different kind of man from the ones he had previously encountered leading the Union forces.

      It saddens me greatly that the myth of “Grant the Butcher” has continued down to this day, when Lee engaged in tactics just as aggressive over the course of the war and lost a greater proportion of his men than Grant did. Neither man was a butcher, and neither man should be built up by tearing the other man down. They were both incredibly gifted generals engaged in a horrible war. Grant is guilty of nothing but the skillful utilization of his forces to bring the war to the quickest conclusion possible, and considering how two men died from disease for every one who died in combat, he doubtless saved innumerable lives by doing so.

  4. Will Hickox June 4, 2011 / 1:37 pm

    So was the refusal to renew the assault also a myth? I can’t remember Rhea’s account in his book. I remember reading about it in the regimental history of the 12th New Jersey.
    Exaggerated though the losses might have been, Cold Harbor clearly stood out in the minds of many veterans or it wouldn’t have come down to us as the big, bloody disaster of popular memory.

  5. Will Hickox June 4, 2011 / 1:38 pm

    I meant “the regimental history of the 12th New Hampshire.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 4, 2011 / 1:51 pm

      I think you meant 12th New Jersey. Rhea, 376, cites that as the sole narrative of that story. The story originated in Swinton’s 1866 history (he did not mention it at the time, Rhea notes). It’s clear that in several instances it was suicide to advance again, but it was the commanders who relayed the situation upwards, and the offensive was halted. Grant had made it clear that when it was evident that nothing could be gained to stop assaulting: it was Meade who wanted his commanders to try again. Finally it was Grant who pulled the plug.

  6. James F. Epperson June 4, 2011 / 3:47 pm

    There are some questionable accounts that got into mainstream histories w/o much analysis. One of the worst was Wilkison’s book, in which he claims to have seen men refuse orders to renew the attack. Problem is, Wilkison was serving in an artillery battery and would not have been near the front edge of the infantry lines to see that kind of thing.

  7. Charles Lovejoy June 4, 2011 / 7:10 pm

    I’ve never understood why, but for some reason I feel in many cases Grant has received unfair criticism. Was it not Mary Lincoln that gave Grant that name ‘butcher’? A person with no military background. In cases like Cold Harbor and Pickett’s Charge there was a series of circumstances that turned them in to the disasters they ended up. Grant nor Lee I do not feel set out to use their armies as ‘fodder’. Grant got results and many other Union leaders did not. I have always felt some of Grant’s criticism came from Jealousy. Like Grant or not , he was the commander that led the Union to Victory after a series of failures by other Union commanders. As a southerner I feel both he and Sherman gave the surrendering Confederate armies fair and honorable terms of surrender. Grant was no butcher.

  8. Mrs Chesnut June 6, 2011 / 2:39 am

    It was common practice for soldiers to pin notes and other ID inside their jackets, but it seems to have been exceptionally widespread enough before Cold Harbor for Horace Porter to notice and comment on it, as I recall. Certainly from Malvern Hill to Cold Harbor these fruitless assaults were a feature of the war. The soldier who wrote in his diary that he was going to die did die. I suppose Grant and Meade can share the blame but I trust Grant would have been the first to acknowledge that the buck stopped with him.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 6, 2011 / 8:30 am

      According to Gordon Rhea (Cold Harbor, p. 312), “nothing in letters, diaries, or contemporaneous newspaper accounts” supports Porter’s account. His argument, which makes sense, there’s no evidence of a foreboding such as there was before Mine Run the previous fall.

      Grant openly expressed regret that the second assault took place. But we all know that the buck stopped with Lee at Gettysburg, too, but how many people pick on Stuart, Ewell, or Longstreet? Accepting responsibility is not the same as saying that one was the cause of the failure. And you can’t overlook Meade’s willingness to say that he was in charge … even to his wife.

      It’s not that Cold Harbor wasn’t a defeat … it was. It’s what people have made of it that’s open to challenge.

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