One of the enduring images of Cold Harbor comes from the description provided by Horace Porter of how Union soldiers prepared for the attack on June 3 during the evening hours of June 2. One of the enduring characteristics of narratives about Cold Harbor is how people have used this description to further various interpretations of the June 3 assault.
This presents us with an opportunity to do a little detective work. Here’s what Porter actually wrote in his 1897 book, Campaigning with Grant:
Your assignment is a simple one: what have people made of this statement? What use have they made of this narrative? Is the interpretation you highlight justified by the text cited?
Let’s cite an example from the New York Times’ Disunion blog.
Unbelievably, despite having been given orders – and an extra day – to prepare before engaging Lee’s army, the Union corps commanders had conducted practically no reconnaissance of the seven-mile front that stretched from Bethesda Church to the Chickahominy. As a result, their troops would be charging blind. When they received their orders early on the morning of June 3, the soldiers did not panic or run; many of them simply wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper, and pinned the notes to the inside of their blouses, so that their bodies could be identified for burial.
Their fatalism proved amply justified. The attack began in mist and fog, at 4:30 a.m. As they charged, all the Yankees could see before them was freshly turned earth, behind which were the entrenched rifle pits of thousands of waiting rebels. During the first crucial hour of the main attack, the Southern guns poured volley after volley of enfilading fire into the hapless federals. They died in rows, in waves; as many as 7,000 Union soldiers fell in that terrible hour, most in the first 10 minutes. The field was soon littered with Union dead and wounded.
Yes, I know: the 7,000 dead and wounded in thirty minutes tale has been discredited, but it persists in various forms (here we have most falling in ten minutes … can’t these people coordinate their tales?).
Or this, from The Washington Post:
Cold Harbor became Gettysburg in reverse; what Pickett’s Charge would be to Lee, Cold Harbor would be to Grant. Thousands of men were killed or wounded in barely half an hour on that June morning. The story goes that many pinned their names to their clothes before they charged, so that their bodies could be identified.
Not quite so bad, although I don’t recall Lee advancing after Gettysburg. Nor did Grant lose half the attacking force.
I’m well aware that Gordon Rhea has pointed out that he can find no other account to substantiate Porter’s description. I am less likely to dismiss it simply because of that fact … but I also know that the act of fashioning homemade dog tags (there were none issued by the government) was done before engagements on several fields, so to single out Cold Harbor seems a bit exaggerated.
Kevin Levin beat me to the punch on these and several other issues concerning recent commentary on Cold Harbor, and I’ll return to those issues later. But, for now, there’s what Horace Porter said. So let’s see what you find.