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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By the time of Spotsylvania, men were still charging across open ground in an effort to close with and break their enemies. But maneuver was impossible and had been replaced by the frontal assault, and the bayonet had become an anachronism. One study after the war concluded that:

Less than 0.4 percent of Union casualties were the result of sabre or bayonet wounds. This, however, did not make them less deadly. Approximately 50 percent of such wounds occurred to the scalp, skull, face or neck. Sometimes the victim had been involved in “fierce hand to hand combat,” but a large number of the cases were found to be due to “private quarrels, brawls, or inflicted by sentinels in the discharge of their duty.”

War was now a matter of firepower; of rifled muskets firing miniballs that were accurate and lethal out to 300 yards; and of artillery killing at ranges both long and short, as when those masses of men charging into their enemy’s lines were met with canister, grapeshot, and in desperate situations nails and bolts and pieces of scrap wood and iron. The effect was to turn an artillery piece into a huge shotgun.

All this firepower gave an advantage to the men defending a position. They had used sunken roads and stone walls, as at Antietam and Fredricksburg, to increase this advantage, and by the time of the Overland Campaign, the Confederates had begun to dig and to construct extensive field fortifications—trenches. The defense was now supreme on the battlefield and the men obliged to attack it were becoming aware of this truth. “Before we left the North Anna,” one of them wrote, “I discovered that our infantry were tired of charging earthworks. The ordinary enlisted men assert that one good man behind an earthwork was equal to three good men outside it.”

This was the essential military truth of the American Civil War. There were many innovations in weaponry and tactics: armored ships, hot-air balloons for observation, telegraph lines for communications, trains for transport. There were experiments with submarines. Some consideration was even given to the feasibility of using poisonous gas as a weapon. It was, in short, a modern war, an industrial war, but one that was unaccompanied by new thinking about tactics on a battlefield where firepower ruled.

By the time of the Overland Campaign, then, the fighting, when maneuver failed, came down to massed formations attacking dug-in positions with secure flanks. There appeared to be no alternative, so the heavy casualties were, it seemed, inevitable.

There was another difference about the fighting in Virginia in 1864. In previous campaigns, the armies had met in a great battle lasting no more than a few days at most, then withdrawn into their camps or winter quarters until the next encounter. Grant’s campaign had forced the armies into almost constant contact, and even when there was no actual battle underway, the fighting continued as artillery and snipers killed men from long range.

During a lull in the Spotsylvania fighting, General John Sedgwick, one of the Union Army’s corps commanders, was conducting a mounted inspection of his lines when he noticed some of his men taking cover against occasional shots from a sniper in the Confederate positions, which were over 500 yards away.

Sedgwick told the men, “I’m ashamed of you dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

His men called Sedgwick “Uncle John,” and he was probably the most beloved general in the Union Army. Still, they had seen what the Confederate snipers could do with their scope-mounted rifles. They had seen a staff officer hit in this spot, at this range, earlier in the day. So they continued to flinch and take cover, and Sedgwick said again, “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this range.” A few seconds later, a bullet struck him in the face, just under the eye, knocking him out of the saddle and killing him. He was the highest-ranking Union officer killed in action during the war. Grant reacted to the news almost in disbelief, saying, “Is he really dead?”

Cold Harbor was not a port, and the weather there was not especially cold. The name was derived from a tavern that offered the traveler shelter—hence “harbor”—but no hot meals, thus “cold.” It was a crossroads located between two rivers, with the ground between them offering an invading army an avenue to Richmond, 10 miles to the southwest. 

Grant and Lee had been maneuvering and their men had been fighting around Cold Harbor for several days before the June 3 battle. Lee was still looking for an opportunity to attack Grant and win a decisive battle that might finally galvanize Northern opinion in favor of some kind of negotiated settlement. He had made attempts, but his generals had been dilatory and the attacks failed, bolstering, no doubt, the confidence of Grant, who believed that he was on the verge of finishing Lee’s army. One breach in the enemy’s line, after which he would exploit the breakthrough and .  .  . that would be the end of it.

Grant ordered an attack, then delayed it so that he could put as many men as possible into the assault and so that they would be rested and fed and ready. That’s what gave the men time, unbeknownst to their commander, to sew their names onto their uniforms.

Lee’s men, for their part, used the opportunity of Grant’s delay to dig and to fortify and to make their positions as strong as possible—as formidable, most likely, as any the world had yet seen. They were, as a Union officer said of similar but less lethal entrenchments around Spotsylvania, constructed in “a manner unknown to European warfare, and, indeed, in a manner new to warfare in this country.”

Europe would learn, in another half-century, all too well about fortifications of this sort. Deep trenches, continuous positions, interlocking fire .  .  . those features that would become the essentials of the Great War were still new in the American Civil War, and the generals, including Grant, were slow to adapt. French and British generals, with less excuse, tragically failed to learn from their experience.

Grant was confident, perhaps overconfident. He had written to Washington a week earlier that he felt “success over Lee’s army is already assured.” Neither he nor General George Meade, his immediate subordinate, had personally reconnoitered the ground where their men would be fighting. Nor, it seems, had any officer from either staff. What the soldiers knew about the strength of the Confederate positions was unknown to the command.

And command was not very precise in its orders and conception of the battle. These came down, essentially, to a frontal assault by all units. One Union commander later wrote that he had been “aghast,” and that the order “proved conclusively the utter absence of any military plan.”

Grant, it seems, wanted the attack and was convinced it would work. Much as Lee had felt about Pickett’s charge.

So the attack was launched at dawn. Forty thousand men went forward. Writing after the war, a Union general wrote that “there ran out suddenly on the summer air such a crash of artillery and musketry as is seldom heard in war. .  .  . The time of the actual advance was not over eight minutes. In that little period more men fell bleeding as they advanced than in any other like period of time throughout the war.”

Some historians put that number at 7,000. Other, more recent works suggest that Union casualties for the entire day were somewhat less than that. Whatever the number, the dead and wounded did not accomplish the objective of breaking Lee’s line, and many lay for three days in the open, where they could not be rescued, suffering and dying, while the two generals tried to arrange for their evacuation. The problem, as often in such negotiations, hung on a technicality. Grant wanted the evacuation to be conducted under the premise that injured men from both armies lay between the lines. Lee insisted that only Grant’s men required evacuation.

Such are the refinements of war. By the time the necessary stipulations had been made and agreed to, most of the injured had bled out. One Union officer who walked the ground wrote:

Every corpse I saw was as black as coal. .  .  . I saw no live man lying on this ground. The wounded must have suffered horribly before death relieved them, lying there exposed to the blazing southern sun o’ days, and being eaten alive by beetles o’ nights.

Cold Harbor was unquestionably a Union defeat, though Grant was slow to concede the point, even, perhaps, to himself. In his first report on the battle, he wrote, “We assaulted at 4:30 this a.m., driving the enemy within his entrenchments at all points, but without gaining a decided advantage. We now occupy a position close to the enemy and in some places within fifty yards. Our loss was not severe, nor do I suppose the enemy lost heavily.”

But Grant was always one to face facts. A few days later, he wrote that in the attack, “our loss was heavy, while that of the enemy, I have reason to believe was light.”

And, in his memoirs, Grant had this to say about Cold Harbor:

I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. .  .  . [N]o advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side.

The battle had been costly, too, in terms of morale among Grant’s troops and the confidence in him felt by some of his generals, one of whom wrote, after the war, that Cold Harbor “was the dismal, bloody, ineffective close of [Grant’s] campaign .  .  . and corresponded in all of its essential features with what had preceded it.”

Grant may not have agreed in the assessment, but he did break off contact and move to cross the James River and lay siege to Petersburg, the outcome that Lee had feared. The two armies remained there, locked in a war of trenches until the next spring, and the end at Appomattox. The war of movement and conquest—the destruction of armies, cities, and an entire people—was now the work of General Sherman. By some thinking, his campaign—especially his taking (and burning) of Atlanta—may well have saved Lincoln’s reelection. At the very least, it validated Grant’s overall strategic design.

Grant’s Overland Campaign, which ended at Cold Harbor, had been exceedingly costly. The final (and frequently disputed) numbers put the Union casualties at something close to 60,000 and those of the Confederates at more than 30,000. In relative terms, the Confederate losses were heavier, and by the calculus of attrition, the battles of May and early June had been a defeat for the South. Still .  .  . in Washington, the casualties had been demoralizing. As Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells wrote in his diary, “the immense slaughter of our brave men chills and sickens us all. The hospitals are crowded with the thousands of mutilated and dying heroes who have poured out their blood for the Union cause.” 

And there was a sense that the country could not take much more bad news and continue to support the war. McClellan, who had led the army on this same ground two years earlier, would run against Lincoln in the coming campaign and might win if the news continued to be bad and bloody. More than 20 years after Appomattox, Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Gettysburg, said in a speech that in the Army of the Potomac, “suffering and losses were such in .  .  . 1864 that we were not called upon or permitted to report our casualties during that whole campaign from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the James and Appomattox, for fear the country could not stand the disclosure.”

But it is hard to know what the alternative might have been. The planning before Cold Harbor might have been better. But if the Union was to take the fight to the Confederate Army, then there was, it now seems, no alternative to the doleful casualty numbers. As General Sherman had said and would demonstrate, it had to be total war. Otherwise, victory was impossible.

At Cold Harbor, the Army of the Potomac learned lessons that later armies ignored at much greater cost. Those 7,000 casualties in the frontal assault at Cold Harbor became the 60,000 lost on the first day at the Somme, where British troops walked, on line, in an assault of their enemy’s trenches. The rifles were now repeaters, and the defenders had machine guns. But the trenches .  .  . those were not new. Better and stronger, maybe, but not new. You can still walk the templates from which they evolved at the Cold Harbor battlefield, which is not heavily visited, unlike Gettysburg and Antietam and Shiloh. Cold Harbor was unquestionably a place of bravery and sacrifice. But not of glory.

Today the trenches there are softened by time. Standing on their berms, you can easily imagine the futility of a frontal attack and appreciate the action of the Union general who, after the initial charge, when the survivors from his command had found whatever cover they could in the open ground, refused the order from headquarters to resume the attack, saying it would have been a “wanton waste of life.” He was never disciplined.

The historian J. F. C. Fuller writes in The Decisive Battles of the Western World, “Had the nations of Europe studied the lessons of the Civil War and taken them to heart they could not in 1914-1918 have perpetrated the enormous tactical blunders of which that war bears record.”

Some Europeans disdained our experience. The great Prussian commander Helmuth von Moltke may or may not actually have said that it would have been pointless to study the American Civil War since that conflict consisted merely of “two armed mobs chasing each other about the countryside.” But if he didn’t say it, he might as well have. The lessons fell on deaf ears.

Cold Harbor showed how pitiless war had become. As Sherman said, “You could not refine it.” It’s something the soldiers who sewed their names onto their jackets before the battle, creating the original dog tags, already knew.

Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.

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