Cold Harbor by the Numbers

“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made.”  – US Grant

 

With that observation in his best-selling memoir… Grant started the historical firestorm around the second-to-last battle of the Overland Campaign.  Through the years and volumes documenting every facet of the war, Cold Harbor has come to symbolize the carnage and suffering endured by the fighting men.  Writers have elevated the battle to the conclusive example of obsolete tactics brutishly utilized during an ill-conceived campaign.   Images of doomed soldiers pinning name tags to their uniforms and ranks of men mowed down in place haunt students of the Civil War.     But does the Battle of Cold Harbor truly measure up to the perception of needless slaughter?

The reputed butcher...

The reputed butcher…

Battlefield historian Gordon Rheatakes this and other misconceptions to task in his multi-volume study of the Overland campaign.  The facts simply do not support the popular reputation of June 3, 1864 being a day of unspeakable slaughter.  Grant’s forces suffered between 5,500-6,000 casualties- making it only the 5th bloodiest day of that Summer.  Every day of the Wilderness battle saw more casualties- Spotsylvania stands as one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  Rhea smartly points out that there were bloodier days in the two years preceding the Overland Campaign.   What happened to our Remembrance?

The truth stays in the trenches

The truth stays in the trenches

The Summer of relentless combat… that marked the Overland Campaign took a drastic toll on the Army of the Potomac.  The soldiers remembering June 3, 1864 were tired and weary of combat- particularly massed frontal assaults against entrenched Confederates.  “Fog of War” is a concept bordering on cliche, but clearly, the judgement of many of the battle’s participants was clouded.  Grant’s own recollection of the day only solidified the  misapprehensions and flawed narrative.

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Book Review

2 responses to “Cold Harbor by the Numbers

  1. Dave

    Is our historical perception of the losses that day perhaps influenced by the time it took to inflict them? In more than one place I have read that the Union losses of almost 7K happened in about 20 minutes.

    • Even that claim is exaggerated. The June 3rd assault happened over a wide front and involved multiple Union divisions. Like most of the campaign, the attack was poorly coordinated- the poor timing contributing much to the lack of success.

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