Research Exercise: What Horace Porter Said

Horace Porter liked to put himself at the center of everything.
Horace Porter liked to put himself at the center of everything.

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:

Porter Cold Harbor One

Porter Cold Harbor Two

Porter Cold Harbor Three

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.

24 thoughts on “Research Exercise: What Horace Porter Said

  1. Bob Nelson June 4, 2014 / 12:26 pm

    Of the three major histories of the war I have in my library, McPherson relates the story with no citation, Foote uses it but attributes it to Porter, Catton does not use it either in his 3-volume history or in his AoP trilogy. Of the Internet sites I checked, almost every one including the National Park Civil War Series and History Net tell the same story. I have yet to find it mentioned by anyone else other than Porter. I find it interesting that Porter wrangled a MoH for his actions at Chickamauga in 1902. Don’t you find this quite similar to the “7,000 casualties in thirty minutes” canard that has been repeated over and over and over?

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 4, 2014 / 4:42 pm

      I don’t find the quote itself as troublesome as the losses estimate (which has a few bull-headed defenders). I find the use to which the quote has been put to be misleading.

  2. tcgreen June 4, 2014 / 1:51 pm

    As I perceive it, the statement has often been used to demonstrate that the folly of the June 3 attack was obvious to the troops but was ordered anyway because Grant didn’t know or was a butcher and events proved the troops right and Grant wrong. However, the passage as written seems to me to convey Porter’s view that the soldiers were committed to doing their duty in what they would by this time expect to be a tough fight. In other words, the passage suggests that the soldiers expected more of the same tough fighting that was the norm in the Overland Campaign, not that they expected this particular attack to be hopeless. Viewed in that light, I don’t think the common use of the statement is supported by the text. But what do actual words matter when there’s Grant ‘s reputation to impugn?

  3. Bob Nelson June 4, 2014 / 2:45 pm

    As for the “7,000 casualties,” Thomas Livermore and William Fox are not helpful as their works on Civil War casualties both cite numbers for the entire two weeks of fighting at Cold Harbor and do not cite June 3 casualties specifically. Meade himself may have unwittingly helped establish the number. “[W]e had a big battle yesterday,” he wrote to his wife on June 4, “losses estimated about equal on both sides; ours roughly estimated at seven thousand five hundred in all.”

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 4, 2014 / 4:39 pm

      If you take all the operations on June 3, 6-7,000 is not an unreasonable rough estimate. That would include what happened to the V and IX Corps. So Meade’s thumbnail analysis is interesting, but not particularly reliable concerning the initial assault itself.

  4. Bob Nelson June 4, 2014 / 3:20 pm

    Just curious, Brooks. As a professional historian and writer, what do you do with quotes such Porter’s, which cannot be substantiated by other comments/quotations from period diaries, unit histories, the OR & et cetera? I run across this all the time with my “Today” pieces — a great quote, colorful, adds much to the narrative but is unsubstantiated. Do you use it or not?

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 4, 2014 / 4:40 pm

      I see whether the quote fits in with what else is going on at the time. Something standing out on its own is harder to accept, however attractive it may sound. In this case, it’s the use to which Porter’s comment has been put that is troubling.

  5. Sara June 4, 2014 / 5:51 pm

    James H. Wilson does mention the incident in “Under the Old Flag,” but it is unclear whether he meant that he heard it at the time from Porter or simply learned of it afterwards from Porter’s book.

  6. K.S.McPhail June 5, 2014 / 12:00 am

    There is this interesting snippet . . .
    THE CRISIS OF MINE RUN

    Early on Monday morning the Army was under arms impatiently awaiting tho signal-gun. At last the sound of Sedgwick’s cannon came rolling along the line, when the entire artillery of the right and centre opened upon the works of the enemy. But not an echo from WARREN on the left! The explanations of this silence soon came in intelligence brought by an aide-de-camp. A close observation of the enemy’s position by dawn revealed a different state of facts than was presented the previous evening. The precence of WARREN’S troops had attracted Lee’s attention to his right, and during the night he powerfully strengthened that flank by artillery in position and by infantry behind breastworks and abatis. Looking at the position with the critical eye of an engineer, but not without those lofty inspirations of courage that o’erleap the cold dictates of mathematical calculation, WARREN saw that tho task was hopeless; and so seeing, he resolved to sacrifice himself rather than his command. He assumed the responsibility of suspending the attack.

    His verdict was that of his soldiers- a verdict pronounced not in spoken words, but in a circumstance more potent than words and full of a touching pathos.

    The time has not been soon when the Army of the Potomac shrank from any call of duty; but an unparalled experience in war, joined to a great intelligence in and file, had taught these men what, by heroic courage, might be done, and what was beyond the bounds human possibility. Recognizing that the task now before them was of the character of a forlorn hope, knowing well that no man could here count on escaping death, the soldiers, without sign of shrinking from the sacrifice, were seen quietly pinning on the breast of their blouses of blue, slips of paper on which each had written his name.

    -The United States Army and Navy Journal and Gazette of the Regular Army; April 28, 1866

    • jfepperson June 5, 2014 / 10:54 am

      Who is the author of that piece?

    • tcgreen June 5, 2014 / 12:49 pm

      That indeed is a fascinating find. The snippet mirrors what Porter wrote. In reviewing the original Gazette on Google Books (p.568 of Volume III of the Gazette), I found that passage was taken from William Swinton’s Campaigns of the Army of the Potomac (though the Gazette identifies the title as a History of the Army of the Potomac), which I understand to have been a fairly popular history prominent at the time. A review of Swinton’s book confirms that the passage is from his book (p.397 in the 1882 version). I would think that Porter almost certainly would have consciously or unconsciously been familiar with Swinton’s book. Swinton does not identify any such actions by the troops in preparation for the June 3 attacks.

      • jfepperson June 5, 2014 / 2:57 pm

        Swinton is also not considered terribly reliable.

  7. John Foskett June 5, 2014 / 9:32 am

    I’ve always wondered why this sort of pre-battle activity would only have occurred before Cold Harbor (assuming that it occurred). At least since Fredericksburg, troops in the A of the P .would have had a graphic understanding of what it meant to assault an entrenched position (I know – that wasn’t “entrenchments” but let’s use the wall as analogous – the big issue being a nice field of fire for sheltered defenders). The Mine Run anecdote quoted in this thread accords with common sense. Something about Cold Harbor has apparently caused a lot of historians to become intellectually lazy. Perhaps it’s because of Grant’s admission in his Memoirs. After all, if a guy who had been through the carnage of Shiloh, the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania put the spotlight on Cold Harbor, it must have been “different”. Cold Harbor has come to stand out almost alone as a case of “mindless, inevitable, and foreseeable slaughter” anticipatory of similar, albeit far more costly, tactics in WW I. That singularity is in my humble opinion a falsehood, thanks to the work of folks such as Rhea and yourself. It’s too bad that people who should know better don’t do a minimal amount of digging and figure out that they’re presenting “spin”.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2014 / 6:41 pm

      Just don’t tell Bob Bateman that, He claims I’ve done no research on the subject. He also told me: “You are not, actually, God.” I like the modifier.

      • K.S.McPhail June 5, 2014 / 7:07 pm

        So, you then could be, metaphorically, God.

        • John Foskett June 6, 2014 / 7:43 am

          To paraphrase Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, “That’s disconcerting…” In other words, I may be more careful about what I post in these comments – just to be safe.🙂

  8. centerforhistorystudies June 5, 2014 / 7:09 pm

    Wasn’t Swinton the fellow that Gen. Grant kicked out of camp for eavesdropping? If so, it seems that Swinton paid him back.

  9. K.S.McPhail June 5, 2014 / 7:34 pm

    Have there been any studies on Union Army desertion rates in the Army of the Potomac/Army of the James for 1864? I wonder how many of the casualties were “missing,” and how many of them were the new “recruits” that had fleshed out(so to speak) so many of the old regiments.

  10. Mr Dave June 5, 2014 / 8:48 pm

    Emory Upton’s comments in letters to his sister written right after the battle are perhaps more relevant.:
    June 4, 1864.
    My Dear Sister: … I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed. Assault after assault has been ordered upon the enemy’s intrenchments, when they knew nothing about the strength or position of the enemy. Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties. I must confess that, so long as I see such incompetency, there is no grade in the army to which I do not aspire.

    and
    Headquarters Second Brigade, June 5, 1864.
    My DEAR Sister: We are now at Cold Harbor, where we have been since June 1st. On that day we had a murderous engagement. I say murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy’s intrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities. My brigade lost about three hundred men. My horse was killed, but I escaped unharmed. Since June 1st we have been behind rifle-pits, about three hundred yards from the enemy. A constant fusillade from both sides has been kept up, and, though but little damage has been done, it is, nevertheless, very annoying.
    I am very sorry to say I have seen but little generalship during the campaign. Some of our corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not even ride along their lines; yet, without hesitancy, they will order us to attack the enemy, no matter what their position or numbers. Twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should to-day be in our ranks. But I will cease fault-finding, and express the hope that mere numbers will yet enable us to enter Richmond. Please give my love to all. I am as anxious to hear from home as you are to hear from me. The fatigue of the campaign hardly disposes one for letter-writing.

    Perhaps we in the 21st Century can coolly debate just how bad Cold Harbor was and whom should be blamed most but we shouldn’t make light of those losses. I have no desire to play a blame game I just want to add Upton’s comments for the record.

    • Brooks D. Simpson June 5, 2014 / 9:26 pm

      I don’t think anyone is making light of the losses suffered. They were serious enough, and the assault was futile. Recall that the 9/11 losses were also scaled back, but that doesn’t make that event any less horrible or tragic.

    • John Foskett June 6, 2014 / 7:41 am

      What were Upton’s thoughts on the generalship and losses involved in the 5/12/64 assault at Spotsylvania, just by way of comparison? (I’m asking in part because I don’t know). I haven’t seen anyone suggest that Cold Harbor wasn’t a poor tactical decision or that the losses were inconsequential. The point, I believe, is that it has become a paradigm for stupid sacrifice, in part due to inflated “facts” which until recently were blindly accepted. When one looks at the actual facts and in context, it doesn’t stand in such stark isolation.

  11. Mr Dave June 6, 2014 / 6:49 am

    There is a difference between futile and murderous (Upton’s word).

    • John Foskett June 6, 2014 / 2:44 pm

      That distinction seems to be a bit hypertechnical. A “futile” attack against an entrenched position with good fields of fire is about 95% or so certain to also be “murderous”. The latter sounds more inflammatory but to the grunt walking into the stream of lead telling him that it’s merely “futile” isn’t likely to make him feel better. As our host points out, it was “both”.

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