Cold Harbor: When Leaders Fail

I stood at the bottom of an open trench, the trees looming above me. When I popped my head up, I saw a wide open field through the grove. If an army was coming at me, it would have been a clear shot. There were no hills, no trees, no ditches. Not even a dip in the earth for attackers to hide in. Yet I would have been virtually untouchable, fully protected by both the entrenchment and the tree trunks. It was one of the worst places I’ve ever seen for an infantry assault. Yet one happened here a very long time ago. And while the deep trench might bring to mind the Western Front of WWI, it was right in the middle of the United States – In Cold Harbor, Virginia.

The Civil War campaign culminating in this blood-soaked ground was a dizzying one (not counting the three years of bitter fighting before May of 1864). It had started barely three weeks earlier, when Grant took over the Army of the Potomac and ran it rough shod over Virginia. In a new style of warfare, with constant attacks and no retreats, the bodies stacked up in places like the Wilderness (read about that here), Spotsylvania (read about that here), and the North Anna River. Yet the gray line didn’t break and people grew restless. Politicians in Washington threw their hands up in befuddlement, while plenty of heartbroken families lost faith in cause and country, wanting nothing more than an end to the suffering. In the more seething circles, Gant had earned the unceremonious title of “Butcher.”

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But Lee was wearing down and Grant could smell victory. Or at least he hoped so, since Lincoln was ever restless to put the divided country back to rights. Especially with an election looming – one that pitted him against a shining star and military darling of the Union Army – General George B. McClellan.

Considering all the mounting pressure on his somewhat tired shoulders, it’s easy to see why Grant might have snapped. Honestly, it’s eerily similar to the circumstances facing his opponent, General Lee, on the third day of the infamous battle of Gettysburg. A win was paramount back then too. Victory or bust. Lee chose bust and sent his troops over a flat stretch of open land, in full view of enemy guns, right into the heart of a Union stronghold.

Perhaps one of the biggest forehead-slapping “d’oh” moments of the Civil War, yet Grant would follow it up in fine style less than a year later. The warring armies faced each other outside of Cold Harbor, Virginia. Lee and his troops, arriving first, wound up with the most desirable ground. A slightly elevated patch of land tucked neatly in a grove of trees. Once they fortified the seven mile stretch with deeply dug and reinforced entrenchments, it was like the Helm’s Deep of Virginia. Okay maybe not quite like that, but you get it.

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Meanwhile, Grant’s forces were exhausted from both the constant fighting and the Virginia heat. As summer settled over the prairies, the sun became a brutal overlord, beating even the most seasoned marchers into heat sickness and sun stroke. Many fell out in the miles-long marches leading into Cold Harbor. The rest practically choked to death on dust clouds kicked up by the horses and stomping feet of the biggest army on the continent. In more cases than one, soldiers were so coated in dust their uniforms turned gray, which led to some bloody confusion and “friendly fire” tragedies here and there. By the time the Union Army finally staggered into Cold Harbor, they could only try to catch their breath as they dug hasty entrenchments and fought scattered battles with the gray-clad troops across the way.   

And there would be no rest for the weary. Not with so much on the line. Before the sun got out of bed on June 3, 1864, the Union would attack the Southern Stronghold in a full-on frontal assault. For this dawn attack, they would march through a wide open swath of prairie, with no protection whatsoever, and charge a set of earthworks far more fortified than their own.

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At the first cracks of dawn, weary Union captains jostled awake their men. The night before had been rainy, leaving a lot of their equipment damp and spoiled. Most canteens dwindled to the dregs, since there had been little time for ration resupplies and refills on the march. The famed Irish Brigade was so hungry they chanced creeping into an orchard the night before and stripping the trees bare of their far-from-ripe fruit. An error that produced many a cramped gut and cases of “Virginia Quick Step” come sun up.

As for the attack itself, it would be spearheaded by the many-times-tested II Corps, led by revered General Winfield S. Hancock and laced with colorful characters such as General Francis Channing Barlow (meet him here). You couldn’t ask for a stronger corps or better generals to lead such an assault. But along with everything else stacked against them, another thing happened they didn’t count on. Behind the fortifications, the Confederates positioned their gunners on opposite ends of the line. So instead of charging a straight center, the Union Boys would march into the pincers of a deadly crossfire. The results were, in a word, disastrous.

“Shells screamed through the air bursting over our heads while the rattle of musketry was terrible,” recalled Joseph Willett of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery. “a terrible enfilading fire of grape and canister swept along the line, troops fell as grass before the Reaper, only swifter.” Another soldier in a New York regiment wrote – “The air seemed completely filled with screaming, exploding shell and shot of all descriptions, and our soldiers were falling fast… we could not advance, neither could we retreat…” But perhaps W.I. Hallock of the 8th New York summed it up the most succinctly – “It could not be called a battle, it was simply a butchery, lasting only ten minutes.”

As for the men behind the guns, they didn’t have a much better view. “The ground was blue with the dead and wounded who fell under the deadly fire of our artillery and infantry at close range, far more than this writer ever saw fall on an equal area on any other battlefield,” wrote Colonel Edgar of the Confederate Army. Another Georgia Soldier said of it – “The open field in front of Colquitt is blue with Yankees, I have never seen as many dead in one place.”

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Unable to withstand such devastating fire, one they were surprised left anyone alive, the Union Army beat a hasty retreat back to their trenches. The wounded and dying had to remain in the field, sprawled out amongst the gored bodies of their comrades, and subject to the boiling sun. Since sharp shooters on both sides picked off anyone who stuck so much as a toenail out of their trench, even medical workers couldn’t give aid to the suffering. It left hurting, dying men with no help, no food, and no water. The cries were so horrific they caused many a man to break down. As did the nauseating smell from the unattended bodies quickly decaying in the heat.

“It was the most sickening sight of this arena of horrors, and the appearance of these bodies, strewed over the ground for a quarter of a mile, and in our view for days, can never fade from our recollections,” wrote a rattled Union Soldier of a New Jersey Regiment. A Confederate Soldier from Kershaw’s brigade remembered – “Men lay in places like hogs in a pen, some side by side, across each other, some two deep, while others with their legs lying across the head and body of their dead comrades.” 

While so many men suffered and died in that putrid field of death, Grant and Lee haggled over a temporary truce. But since doing so meant ceding the battlefield to the other, neither general was willing to budge. After three days of arguing back and forth, three days of wounded men dying one by one, and three days of soldiers vomiting in their trenches from the smell and mental strain, the only official truce of the Civil War settled over Cold Harbor.

But for the wounded in that field, it was too little too late. When medical officers swarmed into the killing ground, most of the wounded had expired from dehydration, shock, and sun exposure. Only three, three, were pulled out alive – one having survived by sucking the dew drops off of grass blades every morning. Three… out of the multiple hundreds laying there, many of whom could have survived if only medical aid would have been allowed on the field.

Grant said later the charge at Cold Harbor was one of the few moments of his military career that he deeply regretted, hinting he would do things differently if life rewind buttons existed. Especially since no breakthrough came for the Union Army. After the bloodbath at Cold Harbor, Grant chased Lee all the way to Petersburg Virginia, where they settled down into a months-long siege that only broke the following spring.

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It’s a story that rips your heart out, isn’t it? And it’s also a potent reminder of just how devastating it can be when leaders fail. When generals haggle too much, when politicians can never agree, when all they want to do is fight. Because I don’t see them taking all the bullets and spilling all the blood. No, it is the people caught in the middle who suffer.

So, what to do when our leaders fail, here and across the world? Well, then it’s up to us. We the people. Sometimes, we must step in and set an example. We can take care of each other. We can fight for what is right. Not with bullets and violence, but by volunteering, donating, voting, and just being kind to one another. If there’s anything I learned during this pandemic, when my own feelings suffered in that field under a hot sun, it was that tiny acts of kindness can go far. A compliment from a stranger, a pat on the back from a friend, a phone call from a family member. It all has power. So much more power than guns and bullets.

It feels easy nowadays to get caught up in the fighting. Everyone else is doing it. It’s almost like peer pressure at this point. But we must rise above and remember the human faces behind the social media posts and talking points. Everyone is fighting their own battle under the hot sun. If we the people can remember that, then maybe we can make a real breakthrough. But until then, we must look after one another. We must be good humans. We must lead our leaders.

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SOURCES

Cold Harbor – Richmond National Battlefield Park

A Stillness at Appomattox – B. Catton

Bloody Roads South – N. Trudeau

Cold Harbor – G. C. Rhea

All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from the Civil War, click here, here, and here.

Don’t forget the Civil War fallen this Memorial Day.

63 Comments on “Cold Harbor: When Leaders Fail

  1. A fine, fine & much stirring post. A NYARNG Artillery Officer in the late ’60’s, this worthy work of yours sure got my attention.

    • I’m glad to hear it! And always glad when you stop by to read my posts 🙂

    • I’m very glad you liked it. It was indeed a terrible battle, it felt eerie walking those grounds.

    • Yes I have read about Whitman’s work with the wounded – a noble effort indeed. I can see it taking a toll, Civil War hospitals cannot have been a pleasant place to work!

  2. When I drive from Charlottesville, VA to Washington, DC, I normally take Route 20 to Route 3 to 95. I pass through Wilderness and Chancellorsville battlefields. They are about 15 miles apart. It’s amazing how close many of the Virginia battlefields actually are to each other. Well told story.

    • You are right, it’s crazy how close they are. We visited both of those battlefields a few years back. Not only are they super close together, but the fighting that took place in each was exactly, almost to the day, a year apart!

  3. Fine retelling of an important story. As for Grant, I guess part of his strength was the ability to pull things together after a disaster and continue his pursuit of the objective, as after the first day at Shiloh.

    • How Grant pulled himself together and kept on going through everything is remarkable. After reading Ron Chernow’s “Grant,” I think he was truly, despite some mistakes every military leader makes, one of the best generals we’ve ever had.

      • I loved Chernow’s book and loved it. He was not perfect, but Grant had a lot of admirable qualities.

  4. Thanks for the story of this especially awful battle, M.B. You may recall my reference to it in one of my ancestry posts. I find it especially appalling that they couldn’t cease fire long enough for medics to aid the wounded. That doesn’t seem like a usual way of doing war.

    • I do remember you writing this up actually! 🙂 🙂 I agree, not halting to let medical workers into the field is an exceptional kind of cruelty.

  5. Thank you for an excellent post. History carries dreadful lessons, which is why opponents of we the people wish to cancel it. Yours is important work for the continuance of freedom.

    • History is definitely packed with important lessons, making the need to discuss it from each and every angle always important. Thanks so much for reading!

  6. A most excellent telling of this episode in the Civil War M.B. We have recently been studying this recently and it is all equally awful. So true that kindness holds more power than bullets.

    • Yes, such an awful conflict, the scars of which still linger today. Any part in particular of the US Civil War you are studying? Let me know if you’d like reading recommends. 🙂

      • I was most impressed with the guy at Littleround Top ?Chamberlain, he was a school teacher and became amazing, if you have anything on him to recommend.

      • Ahhh Chamberlain. Yes he certainly lived a well-rounded life. “Army Life” by Theodore Gerrish was written by a soldier of the 20th Maine, which was Chamberlain’s regiment. And Chamberlain wrote his own memoirs too entitled “Bayonet! Forward.” I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, as it’s hard to find a copy.

  7. Written very good & informative about that horrid fight at Cold Harbor. Must have been awful to see.

  8. You have taken a fine message from this example of history written to take us there. Yet we still had the trench warfare of WWI

  9. War is senseless at the best of times and rarely is the human cost considered. The thing that annoys me the most is that we don’t seem to learn lessons from the past and everyone wants to justify their own war. It’s just nuts!

    • 🙁 I can’t recall a time yet. But we can still hope! Very glad the post moved you!

  10. You have a nature writer’s zeal in describing living history in the landscape. I really enjoy your style, thank you for sharing.

  11. This is extremely well done, MB, in capturing the horrors of war and some of the stupidity that leads to those horrors. War is bad enough without the wanton waste of life. Thank you. –Curt

  12. Fabulously written MB. Such a horrible way to treat humans. Such a sadness for all involved

  13. Well-written and thorough account of the Battle of Cold Harbor, M.B. The butchery and brutality, so utterly terrible. Great photos too, I really liked seeing the trenches.

    • I was pleased with how the photos turned out! The sun was pretty brutal that day and it was hard to balance the light, especially in the tree glove. Glad you enjoyed the post, I hope one of these days we can settle our differences peacefully instead of constantly fighting with each other!

  14. I love your prescient post – we seem to learn nothing from the past. You are right when you say that we should counteract our current divisions with kindness. We take democracy for granted and there are so many countries that would long for our freedoms. Excellent, MB!

    • Yes… it would be nice if we could learn from the past! Well said too – democracy is a very fragile thing and we must all work hard to protect it and take care of the people around us.

  15. Your description of this event, and the quotes you selected, brought this to life, M. B. It was butchery. Thanks for the shout out to Helm’s Deep! I could “see” that in my mind.

    • Butchery – excellent word to describe it. And I’m glad someone caught the Helm’s Deep reference! I was getting worried no one noticed 🙂 🙂

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