General Robert E. Lee

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

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: Continue reading

70 Years Ago This Week

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The video above was produced 7 years ago.  If D-Day were to occur today under the current administration I suspect that the coverage of most of the media would be in the nature of  “OBAMA STORMS ASHORE IN NORMANDY!” or “THE NAZIS ARE AFRAID OF OBAMA!”.  When the press isn’t in the tank however, their coverage of military matters normally is in accord with this sarcastic comment of General Robert E. Lee:

“We made a great mistake in the beginning of our struggle, and I fear, in spite of all we can do, it will prove to be a fatal mistake. We appointed all our worst generals to command our armies, and all our best generals to edit the newspapers.”

Continue reading

June 1, 1864: Initial Assaults at Cold Harbor

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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. Continue reading

May 30, 1864: Battle of Totopotomoy Creek

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Lee realized that he was reaching a limit to how he could respond to Grant’s continual movement to the southeast.  Protecting Richmond was nailing his army in place, depriving it of the ability to maneuver as Grant used his superior numbers to outflank Lee’s defense.   Lee’s left and center along the Totopotomoy were relatively easy to defend, but his right was at a right angle tot he creek as the Union forces were continuing their push south to outflank him.  It was for this reason that Lee ordered Early, now in command of the II corps after Lee had relieved Ewell, attack Warren’s V corps.

The Confederate attack, although pressed heroically by the men of Ramseur’s division, proved a costly failure with 1500 Confederate casualties to 700 Union, the Union troops cheering the valor of the Confederate troops they repulsed and captured.  Continue reading

May 26-28, 1864: Movement From the North Anna

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Grant, after the fruitless skirmishing on the North Anna, decided to resume his drive by once again heading east and south, around Lee’s left, the same type of movement he had been making since the outset of this campaign.  However, he had a tricky problem to resolve:  How to cross to the north bank of the North Anna without Lee becoming wise to his intentions, and launching an assault on the Union army as it straddled the North Anna?  To divert Lee’s attention, Grant sent two divisions of cavalry west to convince Lee that Grant was going to move west instead of east.  The ruse worked, and Grant quietly moved his infantry corps successfully across the North Anna on the evening of the 26th-27th.

Lee on the 27th instantly realized what Grant was doing, and sent his army hurtling south to take up a strong defensive position at Atlee’s Station, only nine miles north of Richmond, where he could guard the railroads that supplied Richmond and his army.

Grant sent his cavalry ahead to blaze a path across the Pamunkey River for his infantry marching southeast.  On May 27th Union cavalry established a bridgehead over the Pamunkey at Dabney Ford with a Union engineer regiment building a pontoon bridge.  General Custer’s cavalry beat off a Confederate counterattack and Union infantry and Cavalry passed over the Pamunkey on the pontoon bridge.

On the 28th Union and Confederate cavalry fighting dismounted, clashed at Haw’s Shop while the remainder of Grant’s army crossed the Pamunkey, except for Burnside’s corps that was guarding the army’s wagon train.

Lee now knew that Grant was across the Pamunkey but was unsure what Grant’s next move would be, and for now held his position behind  Totopotomoy Creek at Atlee’s Station.  Here is Grant’s account of this movement in his Personal Memoirs: Continue reading

May 23-26, 1864: Missed Opportunity at the North Anna?

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We can lie about him,
Dress up a dummy in his uniform
And put our words into the dummy’s mouth,
Say “Here Lee must have thought,” and “There, no doubt,
By what we know of him, we may suppose
He felt—this pang or that—” but he remains
Beyond our stagecraft, reticent as ice,
Reticent as the fire within the stone.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

 

Ultimately the North Anna portion of the Overland Campaign produced little in the way of fighting.  Four skirmishes fought over four days with total casualties of 2600 for the Union and 1500 for the Confederacy, high enough for the men killed and wounded  and their families but as nothing compared to the casualties amassed at The Wilderness and Spotsylvania.  However, one tantalizing question emerges from this section of the campaign:  did the Confederates miss a golden opportunity to defeat Grant on May 24 due to the illness of General Lee.  The armies now were closer in size than they would be at any time before or later during the campaign:  68,ooo in the Army of the Potomac and 53,000 in the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee having received reinforcements, consisting of Breckinridge’s Valley force, fresh from their victory at New Market and three out of four brigades from Pickett’s James River defense force, Butler and his Army of the James now being safely bottled up.  If the Confederates were to go over on the offensive, this was their window of opportunity from a numerical standpoint.

After skirmishing on the 23rd, Lee confronted an interesting strategic situation.  Warren had his corps ready to cross the North Anna on his left at Jericho Mills.   Wright, Burnside and Hancock’s corps were still north of the North Anna confronting his center and right.  In the face of this Lee fortified his line in an inverted V with its apex on Ox Ford.  Lee hoped that Grant would assume that he was retreating and cross, allowing Lee to use his inverted V fortifications to divide Grant’s force and allow him to attack the Union troops crossing on his right while his left held off the Union troops crossing the North Anna on the left side of the inverted V. Continue reading

May 21, 1864: The Movement to the North Anna Begins

Overland_Campaign_Wilderness_to_North_Anna

 

 

Extricating himself from the Spotsylvania battlefield, Grant moved southeast, with Lee moving to keep ahead of him, ultimately stopping Grant with defensive lines south of the North Anna river and north of Hanover Junction.  Grant was now just a little over 25 miles from Richmond, and Lee’s options regarding maneuver were becoming limited if he was to keep Grant from taking the city.  Grant’s account below of the movement is interesting for two reasons.

First Grant states that the army had no maps of the area, which is stunning after three years of war that highly detailed maps of Virginia from Richmond and its environs north had not been prepared and distributed throughout the army.  Even elementary staff work was sometimes missing in the Civil War.

Second Grant believes that Lee missed a golden opportunity to defeat Union corps separately during this march.

Here is Grant’s account: Continue reading

May 18, 1864: Final Attacks at Spotsylvania

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_17

 

You see him standing,

Reading a map, unperturbed, under heavy fire.

You do not cheer him as the recruits might cheer

But you say “Ulysses doesn’t scare worth a darn.

Ulysses is all right. 

He can finish the job.”

And at last your long lines go past in the Grand Review

And your legend and his begins and are mixed forever

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One hundred and fifty years ago the battle of Spotsylvania was drawing to a close.  Since the attack at the Bloody Angle on May 12, Grant had been shifting towards his left and he assumed that Lee would be weakening Ewell’s lines as a result to move forces over to his right.  Grant had Hancock’s corps move back into position to attack Ewell during the evening of May 17, with the attack to go in at dawn.  Lee had not weakened Ewell’s position however, and Ewell’s artillery alone was sufficient to break up Hancock’s attack before it got past the abatis  in front of his lines.  Grant’s reaction was to decide that no further attacks could succeed at Spotsylvania, and to continue to move to the southeast to drive Lee back towards Richmond.  Casualties at Spotsylvania were 18,000 for the Union and 12,000 for the Confederacy.  Adding in the Wilderness casualties, in less than two weeks the Union had lost 35,000 casualities and the Confederacy 23,000.  Northern public opinion was appalled at the shocking casualty lists in such a short period, but the Union could easily replace every man lost, while Lee was losing the veterans that his outnumbered army needed to maintain an essential combat edge.

Grant in his Personal Memoirs recalled this time as one of the low points for the Union of the Campaign of 1864:

But that night Hancock and Wright were to make a night march back to their old positions, and to make an assault at four o’clock in the morning. Lee got troops back in time to protect his old line, so the assault was unsuccessful. On this day (18th) the news was almost as discouraging to us as it had been two days before in the rebel capital. As stated above, Hancock’s and Wright’s corps had made an unsuccessful assault. News came that Sigel had been defeated at New Market, badly, and was retreating down the valley. Not two hours before, I had sent the inquiry to Halleck whether Sigel could not get to Staunton to stop supplies coming from there to Lee. I asked at once that Sigel might be relieved, and some one else put in his place. Hunter’s name was suggested, and I heartily approved. Further news from Butler reported him driven from Drury’s Bluff, but still in possession of the Petersburg road. Banks had been defeated in Louisiana, relieved, and Canby put in his place. This change of commander was not on my suggestion. All this news was very discouraging. All of it must have been known by the enemy before it was by me. In fact, the good news (for the enemy) must have been known to him at the moment I thought he was in despair, and his anguish had been already relieved when we were enjoying his supposed discomfiture, But this was no time for repining. I immediately gave orders for a movement by the left flank, on towards Richmond, to commence on the night of the 19th. I also asked Halleck to secure the co-operation of the navy in changing our base of supplies from Fredericksburg to Port Royal, on the Rappahannock. Continue reading

May 12, 1864: The Bloody Angle

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After his attacks on May 10, 1864, Grant used May 11 as a planning day.  Impressed by the initial success of Upton’s charge on May 10, 1864, Grant decided to use Upton’s tactics of a swift attack along a narrow front, by troops with unloaded rifles, on a much larger scale.  Hancocks II corps was to attack the mule shoe salient using Upton’s tactics, while Burnside launched a supporting attack on the Mule Shoe from the east and Wright attacked the Mule Shoe from the west, while Wright launched decoy attacks on the Laurel Hill sector of the Confederate lines west of the Mule Shoe.

Attack preparations showed a complete break down in elementary staff work.  Hancock’s corps was completely ignorant of the configuration of the Confederate position they were to attack, the obstacles in their way, or indeed the basic nature of the ground to be covered.  Hancock had his attack columns assemble in torrential rain.  The attack was to begin at 4:00 AM. Hancock wisely delayed the attack until 4:35 AM, fearing that his men could not find the Confederate position, let alone attack it, in the rainy dark.

Now luck began to shine on the Union.  The rain stopped and dawn broke with a mist to conceal the Union attack.  Unbeknownst to the Union attackers, the Confederate division holding the section of the Mule Shoe they were going to attack, had been denuded of its artillery due to a false report received by Lee that the Union army was going to withdraw to Fredericksburg.  If this occurred, Lee wanted his artillery to be withdrawn and readied for an attacking that he planned to make on the withdrawing Federals.  Confederate Major General Allegheny Johnson, commanding the target division of the Union assault, became fearful of a forthcoming attack and appealed to his corps commander Lieutenant General Ewell for the return of his artillery.  Ewell granted the request at 3:30 AM, too late for the artillery to be put back into place before the start of Hancock’s assault.

Hancock’s 15,000 men attacking on a half mile front crashed into the Mule Shoe and overran Johnson’s division.  The rain had made useless much of the Confederate and Union gunpowder and the fighting was grim hand to hand combat.  Hancock’s men, fighting on such a narrow front, quickly lost all unit cohesion and became an armed mob, wading through the mud to battle the Confederates.  General Lee swiftly sent reinforcements to attempt to plug the breakthrough made by Hancock. Continue reading

May 8, 1864: The Battle of Spotsylvania Begins

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Grant, undaunted by his losses at the battle of the Wilderness, sent his army racing down Brock Road on the night of May 7-8 to seize the crossroads of Spotsylvania Court House and get between Lee and Richmond.

Lee was unsure of Grant’s plan, reasoning that Grant would either be heading east towards Fredericksburg or moving south.  In either case it was obvious to Lee that the Spotsylvania Court House crossroads would be essential and sent his cavalry ahead to delay the advance of the Union troops and to seize the crossroads.  He also ordered the First corps under its new commander General Richard Anderson to seize the crossroads.

Union cavalry under Sheridan was bogged down during the nights in running battles with the Confederate cavalry.

By dawn on May 8 the Confederates had control of the crossroads.  Fighting ensued throughout the day as Confederate and Union arriving units were fed into  battle with the Confederates beating off badly coordinated Union attacks.  As night fell, both armies began to dig in and prepare fortifications.

 

Spotsylvania_Court_House_May_09

The Union and Confederate armies would spend another 11 days at Spotsylvania, with more bloody fighting to come.  Here is Lee’s brief reports to the Secretary of War regarding the fighting on May 8. Continue reading

May 7, 1864: Grant Wins the War

Grant wins the War

Grant has come East to take up his last command

And the grand command of the armies.

                                    It is five years

Since he sat, with a glass, by the stove in a country store,

A stumpy, mute man in a faded Army overcoat,

The eldest-born of the Grants but the family-failure,

Now, for a week, he shines in the full array

Of gold cord and black-feathered hat and superb blue coat,

As he talks with the trim, well-tailored Eastern men.

It is his only moment of such parade.

When the fighting starts, he is chewing a dead cigar

With only the battered stars to show the rank

On the shoulderstraps of the private’s uniform.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

 

 

Fighting was not resumed at the Battle of the Wilderness on May 7, 1864.  The Confederates had fortified their positions and further Union assaults would have been fruitless.  Veteran Union troops knew what was going to happen next.  The latest offensive under the latest General had been stopped, with over 17,000 casualties, the same as at the Union defeat at Chancellorsville the year before.  The army would retire north for a period of rest and recuperation before trying again.  Likely Grant would be removed and a new General brought in to try his luck.  The Union troops had been through this many times before over the past three years. Continue reading

May 6, 1864: Battle of the Wilderness-Second Day

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..”Attention Texas Brigade” was rung upon the morning air, by Gen. Gregg, “the eyes of General Lee are upon you, forward, march.” Scarce had we moved a step, when Gen. Lee, in front of the whole command, raised himself in his stirrups, uncovered his grey hairs, and with an earnest, yet anxious voice, exclaimed above the din and confusion of the hour, “Texans always move them.” …never before in my lifetime or since, did I ever witness such a scene as was enacted when Lee pronounced these words, with the appealing look that he gave. A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around, and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heart-felt tears. Leonard Gee, a courier to Gen. Gregg, and riding  by my side, with tears coursing down his cheeks and yells issuing from his throat exclaimed, “I would charge hell itself for that old man.”

 

Private Robert Campell, 5th Texas Infantry

 

 

The fighting erupted early on the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness.  Grant assumed that Hill’s corps had been fought out on the first day and could be overrun with a strong attack.  At 5:00 AM Hancock attacked with three divisions, with two in support.  By 6:00 AM Hill’s corps was in full retreat and disaster loomed for Lee.  At that time the 800 man Texas Brigade, perhaps the elite fighting unit in the Army of Northern Virginia, the vanguard of Longstreet’s corps arrived and saved the day.  Longstreet launched a two division counterattack up the Orange Plank Road, with the Texans, who suffered 650 casualties, leading the attack on the north side of the Road.  By 11:00 AM Hancock’s corps was in full retreat after Longstreet launched a four brigade attack against the left wing of Hancock’s line.  Hancock’s men rallied behind fortifications along the Brock Road.  In an episode reminiscent of Jackson’s fatal wounding a year ago, Longstreet was shot in the neck by a group of Virginians who thought he and his party were Union troops.  Longstreet, unlike Jackson, would survive his wounding, but he would be unable to rejoin the army until October.  Lee the next day would place General Richard Anderson in command of the First Corps in place of Longstreet.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike inconclusive fighting raged all day.  Shortly before dark General John B. Gordon launched a divisional assault against Sedgwick’s right that made good progress until Union reinforcements restored the Union line.  That brief crisis elicited this famous event:  a nervous Union officer stated his fears to Grant:  “General Grant, this is a crisis that cannot be looked upon too seriously. I know Lee’s methods well by past experience; he will throw his whole army between us and the Rapidan, and cut us off completely from our communications.”  Greatly annoyed, Grant responded , “Oh, I am heartily tired of hearing about what Lee is going to do. Some of you always seem to think he is suddenly going to turn a double somersault, and land in our rear and on both of our flanks at the same time. Go back to your command, and try to think what we are going to do ourselves, instead of what Lee is going to do.”

Here is Lee’s report on the second day. Continue reading

May 5, 1864: The Battle of the Wilderness Begins

Wilderness_May5

If you take a flat map And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,

The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.

The science of war is moving live men like blocks.

And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.

But it takes time to mold your men into blocks

And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies

Hamper your wooden squares. 

They stick in the brush,

They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,

And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.

Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body

One assumes that there would be worse places for an attacking army to attempt to fight a battle than the Wilderness, but none come readily to mind.  With the dense shrubs and trees it was like trying to fight a battle blindfolded, determining where the enemy was more by sound than sight.

The battle of the first day of the wilderness was effectively divided into two actions.

On the Orange Court House Turnpike, Warren and his corps attacked Ewell’s corps.  Warren was rightfully concerned that his right flank was in the air and wanted to delay his attack until Sedgwick’s corps moved to support him on his right.  Meade was irritated by the delay and ordered Warren to attack before Sedgwick could arrive.  Warren’s attack at 1:00PM was hampered from the start due to Confederate attacks on his right flank as he advanced.  Ultimately the attack was repulsed with heavy loss.  Sedgwick’s corps attacked at 3:00 PM and was beaten back after an hour of fighting.  Piecemeal attacks by the two corps ensured that their attacks would fail.

South along the Orange Plank Road Hill’s corps beat off repeated Union attacks with fierce fighting continuing to nightfall.

The battle had been a day of bewildering confusion to all involved, with generals often being unable to locate their own forces in the dense undergrowth, let alone enemy units.  The woods quickly caught fire and smoke obscured what little visibility existed.  The screams of the wounded as the fire reached them added a Hellish quality to the battle that many survivors never forgot.

Lee had held his ground and now was in position to attack with Longstreet’s corps the next day.

Lee at 11:00 PM of a very long day sent a succinct description of the day’s fighting to the Secretary of War: Continue reading

Into the Wilderness

All the planning and preparation was done, and on May 4, 1864 Grant headed the Army of the Potomac south.  He had approximately 120,000 men to Lee’s 65,000.  Crossing the  Rapidan , Grant wanted his army to march quickly through the Wilderness, an almost unsettled area of 70 square miles of dense shrubs and second growth trees where Hooker had come to grief at Chancellorsville just a year before.  If Grant could move the Army of the Potomac fast enough through this, he would have turned Lee’s right and could then bring the Army of Northern Virginia to battle in the open country south of the Wilderness where Union numerical superiority would have maximum effect.  However, as the Army tramped through the Wilderness where visibility was nil a few yards from the roads and trails, Grant agreed with Meade that the Army would camp in the Wilderness at the conclusion of the day’s march to allow the supply train to catch up.  Grant assumed that Lee would be too far away to launch an attack in the Wilderness on the 5th, and one day more was all that Grant needed to be clear of the Wilderness. Continue reading

Lee’s Greatest Victory

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He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward.

Benjamin H. Hill on Robert E. Lee

 

 

“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.

The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.

After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.

So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.

Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”

From “April 1865:  the Month that Saved America” Continue reading

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