Grant and the Wounded of Cold Harbor

Sunday, May 7, AD 2017

Ulysses S. Grant was a great man and a great general, but he did make mistakes.  At Cold Harbor, Virginia he made two very big mistakes.  He made foolish assaults on Lee’s heavily entrenched lines on June 3, 1864 which cost the lives of 1844 Union soldiers compared to the lives of 83 Confederate troops who fell in this battle.  This was the lesser of his mistakes.

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4 Responses to Grant and the Wounded of Cold Harbor

  • Given that Lee was a military engineer, Grant was foolish in ordering a rush. He was playing to one of Lee’s strengths.

  • Civil War generals were slow in understanding how quickly firepower had increased.

  • I am a contrarian when it comes to the brilliance of Lee. He disregarded strategic realities, especially later in the war when some sort of political solution was not remotely possible. Even with disparities like these, the south could never beat the north, Lee should have (surely did) know it, and fought battles that were mathematical losers no matter how elegant his maneuver. Grant finally got it, and could have fought the Confederacy literally to the last man standing. Indeed, Lee’s very brilliance merely extended the war and cost lives usually attributed to Grant. Not that Lee was not brilliant in what he pulled off, usually at a disadvantage.

  • “the south could never beat the north,”

    It didn’t have to my Bruin friend, it merely had to outlast the North, and it came close to doing that, largely because of Lee’s success in blocking the Union conquest of Virginia. But for the iron determination of Lincoln, the North probably would have tossed in the towel in 1864 after Grant ran up 50,000 Union casualties in a month in the Overland Campaign. Lincoln was above all a shrewd politician, and in August 1864 he thought he was not going to be re-elected, and he was probably right. Thanks to Sherman taking Atlanta and Sheridan’s victories in the Valley Lincoln was re-elected, but that election could easily have gone the other way if the stalemate that Lee had placed on Grant’s drive against Richmond had been replicated for another two months in the rest of the Confederacy.

June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder

Tuesday, June 3, AD 2014

ColdHarbor-June3

And, after that, the chunky man from the West,

Stranger to you, not one of the men you loved

As you loved McClellan, a rider with a hard bit,

Takes you and uses you as you could be used,

Wasting you grimly but breaking the hurdle down.

You are never to worship him as you did McClellan,

But at the last you can trust him.  He slaughters you

But he sees that you are fed.  After sullen Cold Harbor

They call him a butcher and want him out of the saddle,

But you have had other butchers who did not win

And this man wins in the end.

 

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

The main Union assault at Cold Harbor went in on the foggy morning of June 3 at 4:30 AM, the three corps of Smith, Wright and Hancock hitting the Confederate left.  Some of the Union veteran troops, in those pre-dog tag days, pinned white notes with their names and addresses on the backs of their uniforms so their bodies could be identified, they having learned the hard lesson that assaulting fortified lines held by Confederate infantry was bound to cause huge casualties among the attacking force.  The attack went in blind, as, stunningly, no had bothered to reconnoiter the Confederate lines and draw up maps.  One Union soldier in Gibbon’s division had an apt comment on this military malpractice:   “We felt it was murder, not war, or at best a very serious mistake had been made.”

Smith’s attack on the right quickly bogged down, his men being funneled through two ravines where they were cut down in large numbers.  Wright’s men in the middle, still weary from their attacks on June 1, made little effort, and their attack was pinned down almost as soon as it started.  Hancock’s attack on the Union far left pierced the Confederate lines, but the breach was sealed and the Confederates repulsed Hancock with heavy loss. The attacks were all over by 7:30 AM.  Grant wanted attacks to resume, but by 12:30 PM  he had become convinced that further attacks were simply impossible.

The Union casualties from the assault have been estimated from 3,000-7,000.  I believe the upper estimate is more likely correct.  The Confederates incurred about 1500 casualties.  The armies would remain confronting each other at Cold Harbor until June 12, but there would be no further attacks.  Total Union casualties from all the fighting at Cold Harbor were around 12,000 to 5,000 Confederate, the same disparity as at Fredericksburg, the Cold Harbor assault of June 3, resembling the futile Union assaults of that battle.

Cold Harbor represented the nadir of Union fortunes during the Overland Campaign.  After huge casualties, 55,000, the Army of the Potomac still confronted an Army of Northern Virginia that could hold any position it chose to defend.  Grant seemed at loose ends for a while after the defeat of June 3, uncertain what to do next.  However, during the Civil War Grant never allowed any setback he suffered to remain final.  A failure all of his life except for war, matrimony and his last gallant race with the Grim Reaper at the very end to complete his Personal Memoirs to restore the family fortunes, he was determined that neither the Union nor he was going to lose this War.  Here are his comments in his Memoirs about the assault at Cold Harbor of June 3:

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2 Responses to June 3, 1864: Cold Harbor-Not War But Murder

June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor

Sunday, June 1, AD 2014

Overland_Campaign_June_1

As May 1864 faded into June, Grant’s Overland Campaign was clearly headed for some sort of climax.  Grant had forced Lee back to the outskirts of Richmond. With Lee’s lines along,  and south east of, Totopotomoy  Creek being too strong in Grant’s estimation, he moved yet again south and east to flank Lee’s right.  On May 31, Union cavalry took Old Cold Harbor while Confederate cavalry held New Cold Harbor.  Both locations were  only ten miles from Richmond.

Lee planned to seize New Cold Harbor on the morning of June 1 from the Union cavalry holding it.  Bungled command arrangements and a fierce defense from the entrenched Union cavalry gave sufficient time for the infantry of Wright’s corps to come up and hold New Cold Harbor.

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One Response to June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor

  • It is momentous to call to mind that the Cold Harbor campaign was 150 years ago these very days of June, and then, 70 years ago this Friday, we have the anniversary of D-Day.