Notes on Cold Harbor.
I always think of our arrival at Cold Harbor as marking a new phase of the war. By the time that we reached that position we had pretty well got over our surprise and disappointment at the conduct of General Grant
I put the matter in that way, because, as I remember, surprise and disappointment were the prevailing emotions in the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia when we discovered, after the contest in the Wilderness
, that General Grant
was not going to retire behind the river and permit General Lee
to carry on a campaign against Washington
in the usual way, but was moving to the Spotsylvania position instead.
We had been accustomed to a programme which began with a Federal advance, culminated in one great battle, and ended in the retirement of the Union
army, the substitution of a new Federal commander for the one beaten, and the institution of a more or less offensive campaign on our part.
This was the usual order of events, and this was what we confidently expected when General Grant
crossed into the Wilderness
But here was a new Federal general, fresh from the West
, and so ill-informed as to the military customs in our part of the country that when the battle of the Wilderness
was over, instead of retiring to the north bank of the river and awaiting the development of Lee
's plans, he had the temerity to move by his left flank to a new position, there to try conclusions with us again.
We were greatly disappointed with General Grant
, and full of curiosity to know how long it was going to take him to perceive the impropriety of his course.
But by the time that we reached Cold Harbor we had begun to understand what our new adversary meant, and there, for the first time, I think, the men in the ranks of the Army of Northern Virginia realized that the era of experimental campaigns against us was over; that Grant
was not going to retreat; that he was not to be removed from command because he had failed to break Lee
's resistance; and that the policy of pounding had begun, and would continue until our strength should be utterly worn away, unless by some decisive blow to the army in our front, or some brilliant movement in diversion,--such as Early
's invasion of Maryland
a little later was intended to be,--we should succeed in changing the character of the contest.
We began to understand that Grant
had taken hold of the problem of destroying the Confederate strength in the only way that the strength of such an army, so commanded,
could be destroyed, and that he intended to continue the plodding work till the task should be accomplished, wasting very little time or strength in efforts to make a brilliant display of generalship in a contest of strategic wits with Lee
. We at last began to understand what Grant
had meant by his expression of a determination to “fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.”
Our state of mind, however, was curiously illustrative of the character of the contest, and of the people who participated in it on the part of the South
The Southern folk were always debaters, loving logic and taking off their hats to a syllogism.
They had never been able to understand how any reasonable mind could doubt the right of secession, or fail to see the unlawfulness and iniquity of coercion, and they were in a chronic state of surprised incredulity, as the war began, that the North
could indeed be about to wage a war that was manifestly forbidden by unimpeachable logic.
In the same way at Cold Harbor we were all disposed to waste a good deal of intellectual energy in demonstrating to each other the absurd and unreasonable character of General Grant
We could show that he must have lost already in that campaign more men than Lee
's entire force, and ought, logically, to acknowledge defeat and retire; that having begun the contest with an over-whelming advantage in point of numbers, he ought to be ashamed to ask for reinforcements; and that while by continuing the process of suffering great losses in order to inflict much smaller losses on us, he could ultimately wear us out, it was inconceivable that any general should consent to win in that unfair way., In like manner we were prepared to prove the wicked imbecility of his plan of campaign, a plan that could only end by placing him in a position below Richmond
, which he might just as well reach by an advance from Fort Monroe
, without the tremendous slaughter of the Wilderness
In view of General Grant
's stolid indifference to considerations of this character, however, there was nothing for us to do but fight the matter out. We had no fear of the ultimate result, however plainly our own perception of facts pointed to the inevitable destruction of our power of resistance.
We had absolute faith in Lee
's ability to meet and repel any assault that might be made, and to devise some means of destroying Grant
There was, therefore, no fear in the Confederate
ranks of any thing that General Grant
might do; but there was an appalling and well-founded fear of starvation, which indeed some of us were already suffering.
From the beginning of that campaign our food supply had been barely sufficient to maintain life, and on the march from Spotsylvania
to Cold Harbor it would have been a gross exaggeration to describe it in that way. In my own battery three hard biscuits and one very meager slice of fat pork were issued to each man on our arrival, and that was the first food that any of us had seen since our halt at the North Anna River
, two days before.
The next supply did not come till two days later, and it consisted of a single cracker per man, with no meat at all.
We practiced a very rigid economy with this food, of course.
We ate the pork raw, partly because there was no convenient means of cooking it, but more because cooking would have involved some waste.
We hoarded what we had, allowing ourselves only a nibble at any one time, and that only when the pangs of hunger became unbearable.
But what is the use of writing about the pangs of hunger?
The words are utterly meaningless to persons who have never known actual starvation, and cannot be made otherwise than meaningless.
Hunger to starving men is wholly unrelated to the desire for food as that is commonly understood and felt.
It is a great agony of the whole body and of the soul as well.
It is unimaginable, all-pervading pain inflicted when the strength to endure pain is utterly gone.
It is a great despairing cry of a wasting body — a cry of flesh and blood, marrow, nerves, bones, and faculties for strength with which to exist and to endure existence.
It is a horror which, once suffered, leaves an impression that is never erased from the memory, and to this day the old agony of that campaign comes back upon me at the mere thought of any living creature's lacking the food it desires, even though its hunger be only the ordinary craving and the denial be necessary for the creature's health.
When we reached Cold Harbor the command to which I belonged had been marching almost continuously day and night for more than fifty hours without food, and for the first time we knew what actual starvation was. It was during that march that I heard a man wish himself a woman,--the only case of the kind I ever heard of,--and he uttered the wish half in grim jest and made haste to qualify it by adding, “or a baby.”
Yet we recovered our cheerfulness at once after taking the first nibble at the crackers issued to us there, and made a jest of the scantiness of the supply.
One tall, lean mountaineer, Jim Thomas
by name, who received a slight wound every time he was under fire and was never sufficiently hurt to quit duty, was standing upon a bank of earth, slowly munching a bit of his last cracker and watching the effect of some artillery fire which was in progress at the time, when a bullet carried away his cap and cut a strip of hair from his head, leaving the scalp for a space as bald as if it had been shaved with a razor.
He sat down at once to nurse a sharp headache, and then discovered that the cracker he had held in his hand was gone, leaving a mere fragment in his grasp.
At first he was in doubt whether he might not have eaten it unconsciously, but he quickly discovered that it had been knocked out of his hand and crushed to bits by a bullet, whereupon as he sat there in an exposed place, where the fire was unobstructed, he lamented his loss in soliloquy.
“If I had eaten that cracker half an hour ago, it would have been safe,” he said.
“I should have had none left for next time, but I have none left as it is. That shows how foolish it is to save anything.
Whew! how my head aches!
I wish it was from over-eating, but even the doctor couldn't lay it to that just now. The next time I stand up to watch the
firing, I'll put my cracker — if I have any — in a safe place down by the breastwork, where it won't get wounded, poor thing!
By the way, here's a little piece left, and that'll get shot while I sit here talking.”
And with that he jumped down into the ditch, carefully placed the mouthful of hard-tack at the foot of the works, and resumed his interested observation of the artillery duel.
Trifling of that kind was constant among the men throughout that terrible campaign from the Wilderness
, and while it yielded nothing worth recording as wit or humor, it has always seemed to me the most remarkable and most significant fact in the history of the time.
It revealed a capacity for cheerful endurance which alone made the campaign possible on the Confederate
With mercenary troops or regulars the resistance that Lee
was able to offer to Grant
's tremendous pressure would have been impossible in such circumstances.
The starvation and the excessive marching would have destroyed the morale
of troops held together only by discipline.
No historical criticism of our civil war can be otherwise than misleading if it omits to give a prominent place, as a factor, to the character of the volunteers on both sides, who, in acquiring the steadiness and order of regulars, never lost their personal interest in the contest or their personal pride of manhood as a sustaining force under trying conditions.
If either side had lacked this element of personal heroism on the part of its men it would have been driven from the field long before the spring of 1865.
It seems to me, the most important duty of those who now furnish the materials out of which the ultimate history of our war will be constructed is to emphasize this aspect of the matter, and in every possible way to illustrate the part which the high personal character of the volunteers in the ranks played in determining the events of the contest.
For that reason I like to record one incident which I had an opportunity to observe at Cold Harbor.
Immediately opposite the position occupied by the battery to which I belonged, and about six or eight hundred yards distant across an open field, lay a Federal battery, whose commander was manifestly a man deeply in earnest for other and higher reasons than those that govern the professional soldier: a man who fought well because he fought in what he felt to be his own cause and quarrel.
His guns and ours were engaged almost continuously in an artillery duel, so that I became specially interested in him, particularly as the extreme precision of his fire indicated thoroughness and conscientiousness of work for months before the campaign began.
One day — whether before or after the great assault I cannot now remember — that part of our line which lay immediately to the left of the position occupied by the battery to which I belonged was thrown forward to force the opposing Federal line back.
It was the only large movement in the way of a charge over perfectly open ground that I ever had a chance to observe with an unobstructed view, and merely as a spectator.
When we, with a few well-aimed shells, had fired a barn that stood between the lines, and driven a multitude of sharp-shooters out of it, the troops to our left leaped over their works and with a cheer moved rapidly across the field.
The resistance made to their advance was not very determined,--probably the Federal
line at that point had been weakened by concentration elsewhere,--and after a brief struggle our men crossed the slight Federal earth-works and pressed their adversaries back into the woods and beyond my view.
It was a beautiful operation to look at, and one the like of which a soldier rarely has an opportunity to see so well; but my attention was specially drawn to the situation of the artillery commander, to whom I have referred as posted immediately in our front.
His position was the pivot, the point where the Federal
line was broken to a new angle, when that part of it which lay upon his right hand was pressed back while that on his left remained stationary.
He fought like a Turk or a tiger.
He directed the greater part of his rapid fire upon the advancing line of Confederates, but turned a gun every few moments upon our battery, apparently by way of letting us know that he was not unmindful of our attentions, even when he was so busily engaged elsewhere.
The bending back of the line on his right presently subjected him to a murderous fire upon the flank and rear, a fire against which he had no protection whatever, while we continued a furious bombardment from the front.
His position was plainly an untenable one, and, so, far as I could discover with a strong glass, he was for a time without infantry support.
But he held his ground and continued to fight in spite of all, firing at one time as from two faces of an acute triangle.
His determination was superb, and the coolness of his gunners and cannoneers was worthy of the unbounded admiration which we, their enemies, felt for them.
Their firing increased in rapidity as their difficulties multiplied, but it showed no sign of becoming wild or hurried.
Every shot went straight to the object against which it was directed; every fuse was accurately timed, and every shell burst where it was intended to burst.
I remember that in the very heat of the contest there came into my mind Bulwer
's superb description of Warwick
's last struggle, in which he says that around the king-maker's person there “centered a little war,
” and I applied the phrase to the heroic fellow who was so superbly fighting against hopeless odds immediately in front of me. Several of his guns were dismounted, and his dead horses were strewn in rear.
The loss among his men was appalling, but he fought on as coolly as before, and with our glasses we could see him calmly sitting on his large gray horse directing the work of his gunners and patiently awaiting the coming of the infantry support, without which he could not withdraw his guns.
It came at last, and the batteries retired to the new line.
When the battalion was gone and the brief action over, the wreck that was left behind bore sufficient witness of the fearfulness of the fire so coolly endured.
The large gray horse lay dead upon the ground; but we preferred to believe that his brave rider was still alive to receive the promotion which he had unquestionably won.