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 persists. Some 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?