Grant and Lee at Cold Harbor

This June 1864 photo shows Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent in Cold Harbor, Va. (Handout via AFP)
This June 1864 photo shows Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent in Cold Harbor, Va. (Handout via AFP)

The key engagement of the Battle of Cold Harbor began 150 years ago this morning. Gen. U.S. Grant, commander of all Union armies, and having attached himself to Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac, ordered his men to charge the center of the Confederate line in an attempt to break through the rebel forces and march on to Richmond just nine miles away. The two armies had already been smashing one another for a month, starting at the Wilderness and moving on through Spotsylvania. Grant had vowed to fight all summer if necessary. Robert E. Lee’s army was half the size, but he had the advantage of fighting, this time, on the defensive, from earthworks.

Cold Harbor became Gettysburg in reverse; what Pickett’s Charge would be to Lee, Cold Harbor would be to Grant. Thousands of men were killed or wounded in barely half an hour on that June morning. The story goes that many pinned their names to their clothes before they charged, so that their bodies could be identified. Shelby Foote ["The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox"] related the most heartbreaking anecdote:

A blood-stained diary, salvaged from the pocket of a dead man later picked up on the field, had this grisly final entry: ‘June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.’

Likely apocryphal. But this was, without question, a horrible day in American history. Grant later said, “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered.” This was the battle that earned Grant the reputation of a butcher.

When I reported my story on U.S. Grant earlier this year, I kept thinking about the correspondence between Grant and Lee in the aftermath of this battle. Grant wanted to call a cease fire to retrieve the wounded men on the battlefield. But Lee and Grant could not come to terms on how this would be carried out. There was a basic communication problem: They had to dispatch letters across the battle lines. There was a time delay that seemed (to me, as I read the letters) to confound their efforts to set a time for the cease fire. [Here is a link to the letters they exchanged.]

The first was from Grant to Lee:

General R. E. LEE
COLD HARBOR, VA.
June 5,1864.
Commanding the Confederate Army:

It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines occupied respectively by the two armies. Humanity would dictate that some provision should be made to provide against such hardships. I would propose, therefore, that hereafter when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party. Any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired, will be accepted by me.

U. S. GRANT,
Lieutenant-General.

Lee responded:

HEADQUARTERS ARMY OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA,
Lieut. Gen. U. S. GRANT
June 5, 1864.
Commanding U. S. Armies:

GENERAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of this date proposing that hereafter, except in time of action, either party be at liberty to remove the dead and wounded from between the lines. I fear that such an arrangement will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty. I propose, therefore, instead, that when either party desires to remove their dead or wounded, a flag of truce be sent, as is customary. It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
General.

 

Grant tries again:

Your communication of yesterday’s date is received. I will send immediately, as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines of the two armies, and will also instruct that you be allowed to do the same. I propose that the time for doing this be between the hours of 12 p.m. and 3 p.m. today. I will direct all parties going out to bear a white flag, and not to attempt to go beyond where we have dead or wounded, and not beyond or on ground occupied by your troops.

U. S. GRANT,
Lieutenant General

 

Lee:

    GENRAL: I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, on this date and regret to find that I did not make myself un-derstood in my communication of yesterday. I intended to say that I could not consent to the burial of the dead and the removal of the wounded between the armies in the way you propose, but that when either party desire such permission it shall be asked for by flag of truce in the usual way.

Until I receive a proposition from you on the subject to which I can accede with propriety, I have directed any parties you may send under white flags as mentioned in your letter to be turned back.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
R. E. LEE,
General.

From Grant:

The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention, between the two armies, compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in, say two hours. Permit me to say that the hours you may fix upon for this will be agreeable to me, and the same privilege will be extended to such parties as you may wish to send out on the same duty, without further application.

From Lee:

I regret that your letter of this date asking a suspension of hostilities to enable you to remove your wounded from between the two armies was received at so late an hour as to make it impossible to give the necessary directions so as to enable you to effect your purpose by daylight.
In order that the suffering of the wounded may not be further protracted, I have ordered that any parties you may send out for the purpose between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m. to-day shall not be molested, and will avail myself of the privilege extended to those from this army to collect any of its wounded that may remain upon the field.
I will direct our skirmishers to be drawn close to our lines between the hours indicated, with the understanding that at the expiration of the time they be allowed to resume their positions without molestation, and that during the interval all military movements be suspended.

From Grant:

I regret that your note of 7 p.m. yesterday should have been received at the nearest corps headquarters to where it was delivered after the hour that had been given for the removal of the dead and wounded had expired. 10.45 p.m. was the hour at which it was received at corps headquarters, and between 11 and 12 it reached my headquarters. As a consequence, it was not understood by the troops of this army that there was a cessation of hostilities for the purpose of collecting the dead and wounded and none were collected. Two officers and six men of the Eighth and Twenty-fifth North Carolina Regiments, who were out in search of the bodies of officers of their respective regiments, were captured and brought into our lines owing to this want of understanding. I regret this, but will state that as soon as I learned the fact I directed that they should not be held as prisoners, but must be returned to their commands. These officers and men having been carelessly brought through our lines to the rear, I have not determined whether they will be sent back the way they came or whether they will be sent by some other route.

Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battle-field have been rendered nugatory…

From Lee:

Your note of 10:30 a.m. to-day has just been received. I regret that in my letter to you of 7 p. m. yesterday should have been too late in reaching you to effect the removal of the wounded.

I am willing, if you desire it, to devote the hours between 6 and 8 this afternoon to accomplish that object upon the same terms and conditions as set forth in my letter of 7 p. m. yesterday. If this will answer your purpose, and you will send parties from your lines at the hour designated with white flags I will direct that they be recognized and be permitted to collect the dead and wounded.

I will also notify the officers on my lines that they will be permitted to collect any of our men that may be on the field. I request you will notify me as soon as practicable if this arrangement is agreeable to you. Lieutenant McAllister, Corporal Martin, and two privates of the Eighth North Carolina Regiment, and Lieutenant Hartman, Corporal T. Kinlow, and Privates Bass and Grey were sent last night, between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m., for the purpose of recovering the body of Colonel Murchison, and as they have not returned, I presume they are the men mentioned in your letter. I request that they be returned to our lines.

From Grant:

Your note of this date just received. It will be impossible for me to communicate the fact of the truce by the hour named by you (6 p. m.), but I will avail myself of your offer at the earliest possible moment, which I hope will not be much after that hour. The officers and men taken last evening are the same mentioned in your note and will be returned.

So, reading these letters, my thought was, “These guys needed cellphones.”

I focused a bit reflexively on the technological situation: The two generals, pounding away at each other, had limited means of communication. Telegraph lines could be strung along the battle front but not across. So much of the war was fought by generals who had limited information about the enemy. Think back to Gettysburg, when Jeb Stuart went careering across Pennsylvania, leaving Lee without his eyes to see the coming of the Union forces.

During the Cold War era, we were always told that the president of the United States had a special phone with a direct link to his counterpart in the Kremlin — or something like that. In the movies you’d see the phone. There’s a scene in “Dr. Strangelove” in which the president has a long and contentious and comically defensive conversation with the unheard Kremlin leader. In retrospect it seems a little quaint. But there was an implication there that an open line boosts everyone’s security. Information makes us safer; transparency reduces the odds of a catastrophic military blunder.

But the Grant-Lee letters do not tell the story of a communication breakdown. There was a subtle negotiation going on, as explained to me via e-mail by Dr. Richard G. Mannion, a professor at Kennesaw State University.

Mannion writes:

Both Grant and Lee were involved with a good deal of gamesmanship and pride. Note USG’s original and carefully chosen wording in his request to Lee on June 5th – that both armies pause “to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party….”  Lee responds with his denial, due to potential “misunderstanding and difficulty,” advising Grant that his request would be granted only when accompanied by a “flag of truce.”  This, Grant was not about to do because it would signal his concession that Lee had won the day..

(At this point it becomes a battle of wills. Lee wanting Grant to admit defeat by offering up a flag of truce; Grant unwilling to do so while pressing the point to collect his dead and wounded. You have to remember that Grant was not long attached to the Army of the Potomac and had to keep the respect he earned from his men when he turned south at the Wilderness (famous Forbes etching) on May 7th, just weeks earlier. Further, Grant was being true to his nature. Never gave the enemy an inch).

Intentionally misrepresenting Lee’s intent and again choosing his words very carefully, Grant will concede nothing and responds on June 6th, “I will send immediately as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines of the two armies, and will also instruct that you be allowed to do the same- I will direct all parties going out to bear a white flag and not to attempt to go beyond where we have dead or wounded…”  Bearing white flags and offering a white flag of truce are two completely different matters, Grant’s distinction certainly not lost on Lee.

Lee again refuses, demanding from Grant his request must be accompanied by a “flag of truce in the usual way.”  Lee continues…“I have directed any parties you may send under white flags as mentioned in your letter to be turned back.”

I don’t think he was in a hurry to give Grant what he wanted. Further, I suppose it was to Lee’s psychological advantage to have Grant’s dead and wounded (the preponderance of casualties) lying on the field for as long as possible.

So forget the courtly manner of address — the verbal affectations of two gentlemen writing letters to one another and signing off as “your obedient servant” etc. This was a brutal business. [As my friend Tony Horwitz puts it: "Lee had the ghoulish upper hand and Grant wouldn't let him display it. Also let's not forget that for all the formal language, these guys were at war and presumably hated each others guts."]

The Civil War was a meat grinder; historians don’t even know how many casualties were suffered by the opposing armies at Cold Harbor.

There should be no romanticizing of this war, or any war, which is the least we can do for the soldiers — known or unknown — who fell 150 years ago today.

[Here is a collection of The Washington Post's Civil War 150 coverage.]

In the boodle, ScienceTim gives us a history lesson from way, way back:

Down below, on the discussion about Monday-morning quarterbacking of generals who do not follow up or pursue defeated armies the way that later folks think they shoulda: one of the foundational battles of military history was the Battle of Marathon. Also one of the (perhaps THE) earliest reported cases of strategy to outfox an enemy in open battle with superior capability on the field. A weak Athenian force faced the awesome power of the Persian army. The Athenians had the advantage of holding the land against invasion, but were vastly outnumbered. The sensible move, according to the time, would have been for the Athenians to hold back and await reinforcements before facing the enemy on the field. Instead, Themistocles directed his men to attack the invading Persians directly, so that the Persians could not disembark in leisurely fashion and form ranks. The Athenian center was beaten by the numerically superior Persians and forced to withdraw, grudgingly, losing men as they went, pursued by the Persians in close combat. Which is when the other ⅔ of the Athenians attacked from either flank as the center withdrew in what had been a planned maneuver. Tactics of the time employed long spears projected forward from within massed infantry, which had a very hard time turning (skill in turning is what particularly distinguished the Spartans and made them a feared power). The small Athenian force slaughtered the Persian invading army. Of course, that defeat is what motivated the rather larger Persian War whose first major battle was at Thermopylae (see: “300″), but whose really major victory was the Athenians again, a naval battle at the straits of Salamis, also won through superior strategy and leading the enemy into foolishness by Themistocles. Themistocles was a wily bustard.

Civil War generals were taught military history and knew that you do not follow a retreating enemy unless you know exactly what you are chasing them into.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · May 29