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Chapter 11

  • Strength of Lee's position at Cold Harbor
  • -- why Grant assaulted at Cold Harbor -- a notable instance of courage -- battle of Cold Harbor -- after the battle -- Grant's comments on Cold Harbor -- Grant's “Hammering”

Lee had maneuvered and fought over this ground two years before, and was perfectly acquainted with every detail of topography, while to Grant it was entirely new. There were, however, in the Army of the Potomac a great many prominent officers who had served with McClellan on the Peninsula, and were familiar with the locality.

General Grant, as usual, had not only to give direction to the active movements taking place under his own eye, but was compelled to bestow much thought upon the cooperating armies at a distance; and the double responsibility was a severe tax upon his energies. He expected that much would be accomplished in the valley of Virginia by Hunter, now that the forces opposed to him had withdrawn, and was urging him to increased exertion; but he had to communicate with him by way of Washington, which created much delay, and added greatly to the anxieties of the general-in-chief. In the afternoon of the 2d, Lee became aware that we were sending troops against his right, and was active in moving his forces to meet an attack on that [171] [172] flank. His left now rested on Totopotomoy Creek, and his right was near New Cold Harbor, and was protected by an impassable swamp. A strong parapet was thrown up on his right in the rear of a sunken road which answered the purpose of a ditch. On the left center the ground was lower and more level, but difficult of approach on account of swamps, ravines, and thickets. Added to this were the usual obstacles of heavy slashings of timber. General Grant had manoeuvred skilfully with a view to compelling Lee to stretch out his line and make it as thin and weak as possible, and it was at present over six miles long.

A serious problem now presented itself to General Grant's mind — whether to attempt to crush Lee's army on the north side of the James, with the prospect in case of success of driving him into Richmond, capturing the city perhaps without a siege, and putting the Confederate government to flight; or to move the Union army south of the James without giving battle, and transfer the field of operations to the vicinity of Petersburg. It was a nice question of judgment. After discussing the matter thoroughly with his principal officers, and weighing all the chances, he decided to attack Lee's army in its present position. He had succeeded in breaking the enemy's line at Chattanooga, Spottsylvania, and other places under circumstances which were not more favorable, and the results to be obtained now would be so great in case of success that it seemed wise to make the attempt.

The general considered the question not only from a military standpoint, but he took a still broader view of the situation. The expenses of the war had reached nearly four million dollars a day. Many of the people in the North were becoming discouraged at the prolongation of the contest. If the army were transferred [173] south of the James without fighting a battle on the north side, people would be impatient at the prospect of an apparently indefinite continuation of operations; and as the sickly season of summer was approaching, the deaths from disease among the troops meanwhile would be greater than any possible loss encountered in the contemplated attack. The loss from sickness on the part of the enemy would naturally be less, as his troops were acclimated and ours were not. Besides, there were constant rumors that if the war continued much longer European powers would recognize the Confederacy, and perhaps give it material assistance; but this consideration influenced Grant much less than the others. Delays are usually dangerous, and there was at present too much at stake to admit of further loss of time in ending the war, if it could be avoided.

The attack was ordered to be made at daylight on the morning of June 3. The eve of battle was, as usual, an anxious and tiresome night at headquarters, and some changes in the detailed orders specifying the part the troops were to perform in the coming action were made nearly as late as midnight. Lee's position was such that no turning movement was practicable, and it was necessary that one of his flanks should be crushed by a direct assault. An attack on the enemy's right promised the better results, and Grant had decided to strike the blow there. Of course the exact strength of the enemy's position could not be ascertained until developed by a close attack, as changes were constantly being made in it, and new batteries were likely to be put in position at any time. The general's intention. therefore, was to attack early in the morning, and make a vigorous effort to break Lee's right, and if it were demonstrated that the assault could not succeed without too great a sacrifice of life, to desist, and have [174] the men throw up cover for their protection with a view of holding all the ground they had gained. Our troops were disposed as follows: Hancock on the extreme left, Wright next, then Smith and Warren, with Burnside on the extreme right.

Everything was now in readiness for the memorable battle of Cold Harbor. Headquarters had been moved two miles farther to our left, and established near Old Cold Harbor, so as to be within easy reach of the main point of attack. It has been stated by inimical critics that the men had become demoralized by the many assaults in which they had been engaged; that they had lost much of their spirit, and were even insubordinate, refusing to move against the earthworks in obedience to the orders of their immediate commanders. This is a gross slander upon the troops, who were as gallant and subordinate as any forces in the history of modern warfare, although it is true that many of the veterans had fallen, and that the recruits who replaced them were inferior in fighting qualities.

In passing along on foot among the troops at the extreme front that evening while transmitting some of the final orders, I observed an incident which afforded a practical illustration of the deliberate and desperate courage of the men. As I came near one of the regiments which was making preparations for the next morning's assault, I noticed that many of the soldiers had taken off their coats, and seemed to be engaged in sewing up rents in them. This exhibition of tailoring seemed rather peculiar at such a moment, but upon closer examination it was found that the men were calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper, and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at [175] home. They were veterans who knew well from terrible experience the danger which awaited them, but their minds were occupied not with thoughts of shirking their duty, but with preparation for the desperate work of the coming morning. Such courage is more than heroic — it is sublime.

At 4:30 A. M., June 3, Hancock, Wright, and Smith moved forward promptly to the attack. Hancock's troops struck a salient of the enemy's works, and after a desperate struggle captured it, taking a couple of hundred prisoners, three guns, and a stand of colors. Then, turning the captured guns upon the enemy, they soon drove him from that part of the line into his main works, a short distance in the rear. The second line, however, did not move up in time to support the first, which was finally driven back and forced out of the works it had captured. The men resisted stubbornly, and taking advantage of the crest of a low hill at a distance of fifty or sixty yards from the captured works, they rapidly threw up enough cover to enable them to hold that position. Another division had rushed forward in column to effect a lodgment, if possible, in the enemy's works; but an impassable swamp divided the troops, who were now subjected to a galling fire of artillery and musketry; and although a portion of them gained the enemy's intrenchments, their ranks had become too much weakened and scattered to hold their position, and they were compelled to fall back.

Wright's corps had moved forward, and carried the rifle-pits in its front, and then assaulted the main line. This was too strong, however, to be captured, and our troops were compelled to retire. Nevertheless, they held a line, and protected it as best they could, at a distance of only thirty or forty yards from the enemy.

Smith made his assault by taking advantage of a [176] ravine which sheltered his troops somewhat from the cross-fire of the enemy. His men drove the enemy's skirmishers before them, and carried the rifle-pits with great gallantry; but the line had to be readjusted at close quarters, and the same cross-fire from which Wright had suffered made further advances extremely hazardous. Smith now reported that his troops were so cut up that there was no prospect of carrying the works in his front unless the enfilading fire on his flank could be silenced. Additional artillery was then sent forward to try to keep down the enemy's fire.

Burnside had captured the advance rifle-pits in front of Early's left, and had taken up a position close to the enemy's main line. Warren's line was long and thin, and his troops, from the position they occupied, could not do much in the way of assaulting. These demonstrations against the enemy's left were principally to keep him engaged, and prevent him from withdrawing troops to reinforce his right. Warren had cooperated with Burnside in driving Early from the Shady Grove road, upon which he had advanced and made an attack. Gordon had attacked Warren's center, but was handsomely repulsed. Wilson's division of cavalry, which had returned from destroying the Virginia Central Railroad, moved across the Totopotomoy to Haw's Shop, drove the enemy from that place, made a further advance, carried some rifle-pits and held them for an hour, but was unable to connect with Burnside's infantry, and withdrew to Haw's Shop.

The reports received by General Grant were at first favorable and encouraging, and he urged a continuance of the successes gained; but finding the strength of the position greater than any one could have supposed, he sent word at 7 A. M. to General Meade, saying: “The moment it becomes certain that an assault cannot succeed, [177] suspend the offensive; but when one does succeed, push it vigorously, and if necessary pile in troops at the successful point from wherever they can be taken.” Troops had again pushed forward at different points of the line. General Grant had established himself at a central position, which had been made known to all the commanders and staff-officers, so that he could at that point receive promptly all reports. Some of these messages were rather contradictory, and became still more conflicting as the attack proceeded. His staff-officers were active in bringing information from every important point, but the phases of battle were changing more rapidly than they could be reported.

At eleven o'clock the general rode out along the lines to consult with commanding officers on the spot. Hancock now reported that the position in his front could not be taken. Wright stated that a lodgment might be made in his front, but that nothing would be gained by it unless Hancock and Smith were to advance at the same time. Smith thought that he might be able to carry the works before him, but was not sanguine. Burnside believed that he could break the enemy's line in his front, but Warren on his left did not agree in this opinion.

The general-in-chief now felt so entirely convinced that any more attacks upon the enemy's works would not result in success that at half-past 12 o'clock he wrote the following order to General Meade: “The opinion of the corps commanders not being sanguine of success in case an assault is ordered, you may direct a suspension of farther advance for the present. Hold our most advanced positions, and strengthen them. .... To aid the expedition under General Hunter, it is necessary that we should detain all the army now with Lee until the former gets well on his way to Lynchburg. [178] To do this effectually, it will be better to keep the enemy out of the intrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there. Wright and Hancock should be ready to assault in case the enemy should break through General Smith's lines, and all should be ready to resist an assault.”

After finishing this despatch the general discussed at some length the situation, saying: “I am still of the opinion I have held since leaving the North Anna, that Lee will not come out and take the offensive against us; but I want to prepare for every contingency, and I am particularly anxious to be able to turn the tables upon the enemy in case they should, after their success this morning in acting on the defensive, be tempted to make a counter-attack upon our lines.”

At two o'clock Grant announced the result of the engagement to Halleck. At three o'clock, while waiting for news in regard to the casualties of the morning and reports in detail from the corps commanders, he busied himself in sending instructions in regard to Banks's command in Louisiana, and advised a movement against Mobile.

There was a good deal of irregular firing along the lines, and in the afternoon it became heavy on Burnside's right. The enemy had made an attack there, and while it lasted he attempted to haul off some of his batteries; but Burnside's return fire was so vigorous that this attempt was prevented. In the night the enemy's troops withdrew from Burnside's front, leaving some of their wounded in his hands and their dead unburied.

General Grant's time was now given up almost entirely to thinking of the care of the wounded. Our entire loss in killed, wounded, and missing was nearly 7000. Our surgeons were able to give prompt relief to the [179] wounded who were recovered, as every preparation had been made for this emergency, and our army was fortunately only twelve miles from a water base. Many, however, were left between the lines; and as the works were close together, and the intervening ground under a constant fire, it was not possible to remove a great number of the wounded or to bury the dead. The enemy's wounded in our hands were taken in charge by our surgeons, and the same care was given to them as to our own men.

That evening, when the staff-officers had assembled at headquarters after much hard riding and hot work during the day, the events which had occurred were discussed with the commander, and plans talked over for the next morning. The general said: “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered. I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it would bring compensating results; but, as it has proved, no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered. The early assault at Vicksburg, while it was not successful, yet brought compensating advantages; for it taught the men that they could not seize the much-coveted prize of that stronghold without a siege, and it was the means of making them work cheerfully and patiently afterward in the trenches, and of securing the capture of the place with but little more loss of life; whereas if the assault had not been made the men could not have been convinced that they could not have captured the city by making a dash upon it which might have saved them many months of arduous labor, sickness, and fatigue.” The matter was seldom referred to again in conversation, for General Grant, with his usual habit of mind, bent all his energies toward consummating his plans for the future.

There has been brought out recently a remarkable [180] vindication of Grant's judgment in ordering the assault at Cold Harbor. In a lecture delivered at San Antonio, Texas, April 20, 1896, by ex-United States Senator John H. Reagan, who was postmaster-general in Jefferson Davis's cabinet, he states that he and several of the judges of the courts in Richmond rode out to General Lee's headquarters, and were with him during this attack. In describing the interview he says:

He [Lee] then said to me that General Grant was at that time assaulting his lines at three different places, with columns of from six to eight deep. Upon this, I asked him if his line should be broken what reserve he had. He replied, ‘Not a regiment,’ and added that if he should shorten his lines to make a reserve the enemy would turn him, and if he should weaken his lines to make a reserve they would be broken.

This is a confirmation of the fact that Grant had succeeded in compelling Lee to stretch out his line almost to the breaking-point, and a proof that if our attacking columns had penetrated it, Lee would have been found without reserves, and( the damage inflicted upon him would have been irreparable.

There were critics who were severe in their condemnation of what Grant called “hammering” and Sherman called “pounding” ; but they were found principally among the stay-at-homes, and especially the men who sympathized with the enemy. A soldier said one night, when reading by a camp-fire an account of a call issued by a disloyal newspaper at home for a public meeting to protest against the continued bloodshed in this campaign: “Who's shedding this blood, anyhow? They better wait till we fellows down here at the front hollo, ‘Enough!’ ” The soldiers were as anxious as their commander to fight the war to a finish, and be allowed to return to their families and their business. [181]

Grant could have effectually stopped the carnage at any time by withholding from battle. He could have avoided all bloodshed by remaining north of the Rapidan, intrenching, and not moving against his enemy: but he was not placed in command of the armies for that purpose. It had been demonstrated by more than three years of campaigning that peace could be secured only by whipping and destroying the enemy. No one was more desirous of peace; no one was possessed of a heart more sensitive to every form of human suffering than the commander: but he realized that paper bullets are not effective in warfare; he knew better than to attempt to hew rocks with a razor; and he felt that in campaigning the hardest blows bring the quickest relief. He was aware that in Wellington's armies the annual loss from disease was 113 out of 1000; in our Mexican war, 152; and in the Crimea, 600; and that in the campaigns thus far in our own war more men had died from sickness while lying in camp than from shot and shell in battle. He could not select his ground for fighting in this continuous siege of fortified lines; for, though he and his chief officers applied all their experience and skill in endeavors to maneuver the enemy out of strong positions before attacking him, his foe was often too able and wily to fall into the trap set for him, and had to be struck in positions which were far from Grant's choosing. When Lee stopped fighting the cause of secession was lost. If Grant had stopped fighting the cause of the Union would have been lost. He was assigned one of the most appalling tasks ever intrusted to a commander. He did his duty fearlessly to the bitter end, and triumphed. In thirteen months after Lincoln handed him his commission of lieutenant-general, and intrusted to him the command of the armies, the war was virtually ended.

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