The Magazine

Slaughter at Cold Harbor

The fight that Grant regretted

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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When the fighting was done and the armies were stalemated, Grant again broke contact and moved around Lee’s flank to get between him and Richmond. Lee was, once more, a step ahead and laid a trap on the North Anna River. It nearly worked. However, this late in the war, Lee did not have the subordinates to execute his designs (if, as some historians might point out, he ever did), and he was ill and weary. His frustration boiled over in a rare, public dressing-down of one of his generals. An indecisive A. P. Hill had, in Lee’s estimation, missed an opportunity to destroy a quarter of Grant’s army. “Why did you not do as Jackson would have done,” he said to Hill, and “thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?”

Stonewall Jackson, of course, had been dead for a year, and Lee had missed him badly at Gettysburg. Longstreet had been seriously wounded, earlier in the month, at the battle of the Wilderness, and he was out of action and recovering. And a week or so earlier, J. E. B. Stuart had been killed in a battle with Union cavalry led by Philip Sheridan.

Lee’s army was, then, losing both leaders and soldiers, and there were no replacements. The army was also inadequately fed and supplied, and these problems were getting worse as the blockade slowly strangled the Confederacy. What was being called Grant’s “Overland Campaign” was developing into a war of attrition, one the South would inevitably lose. The Union Army was well—indeed, lavishly—supplied, and replacements were being sent down from Washington to fill the gaps in the ranks left by casualties.

There were a lot of casualties. So many that some people back in Washington were beginning to speak of Grant as a “butcher,” and concerns were building over the prospect of President Lincoln’s defeat when he ran for reelection. If the struggle continued as a series of bloody, stalemated battles throughout the summer .  .  . then perhaps someone like McClellan would be elected president and a negotiated peace might be possible.

Aware of this, Lee searched for opportunities, like the one that A. P. Hill had missed, to take the offensive and strike. He could not afford to let himself be trapped and besieged. “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River,” he told one of his generals. “If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

Grant, who had famously vowed to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer,” believed, after he had escaped Lee’s North Anna trap and the two armies had grappled in an action that was inconclusive, that things were going his way and that “Lee’s army [was] really whipped.”

He explained the evidence to one of his generals: “The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of this army shows it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of entrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken, but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured.”

He was moving his army, at this time, toward a place called Cold Harbor and a battle, as he would write in his memoirs, that he would regret having ordered.

The Overland Campaign, to this point, had been something of a chess match between the generals. For the soldiers, it had been almost unrelieved slaughter. Wounded men were burned alive in the Wilderness and buried beneath a pile of bodies at the “Bloody Angle,” and it felt as though there were fresh horrors to come. So far, neither general could maneuver his forces into a position to gain the kind of advantage that would bring on a decisive battle and end the war. And the soldiers could not be broken: neither their lines nor their spirits. Without quite realizing it, they were fighting a new kind of war and perhaps even the first modern war. 

At Gettysburg, not quite a year earlier, the armies had met on open ground and fought the way armies always had. The generals had positioned troops on ground that was good for defense and had maneuvered them on offense, as Lee had with Longstreet’s corps, on the second day, when he attacked en echelon and almost rolled up the Union left. Large formations charged over open ground in an effort to close with the enemy and kill him, if possible, with the bayonet. If they could break the enemy’s line, send him into retreat, then they would win the battle, the day, and perhaps even the war. Defenders, for their part, attempted to break the charge and hold their ground and, if possible, counter-attack. It was all very Napoleonic. Pickett’s Charge may have been the high-water mark not only of the Confederacy but also the Napoleonic way of war.

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