Aftermath (June 4, 1864)

The assault at Cold Harbor on June 3 had been a disaster. In Grant’s initial message to Halleck, sent at 2:15 in the afternoon on June 3—when he must have known better—he wrote that the army’s loss was “not severe.” Later, he would come to regret having ordered the attack at Cold Harbor. According to Horace Porter, Grant’s officers soon learned not to bring up the battle in conversation.

Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed,” Emory Upton wrote bitterly to his sister. “Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties.”

There’s no doubt that the Union attack at Cold Harbor was a miserable failure. So was the Confederate attack on the third day at Gettysburg. James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Civil War historian, expressed bewilderment at how differently people remember the two failed attacks. At Cold Harbor, “Fifty thousand Union soldiers suffered seven thousand casualties, most of them in less than half an hour,” wrote McPherson in Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, “For this mistake, which he admitted, Grant has been branded a ‘butcher’ careless of lives of his men, and Cold Harbor has become a symbol of mule-headed futility.” McPherson points out that Lee’s army also suffered around seven thousand casualties on July 3. “Yet this attack is perceived as an example of great courage and honor. This contrast speaks volumes about the comparative image of Grant and Lee, North and South, Union and Confederacy.”

I doubt Meade perceived much glory in either attack. In fact, by this point he believed Grant’s relentless hammering at Lee had not worked and was becoming increasingly irritated by the way the general in chief eclipsed Meade’s role in the campaign. Some of that frustration appears in his letter of June 4.

I have only time to write you that we had a big battle yesterday, on the field of the old Gaines’s Mill battle-ground, with the positions of the contending forces reversed. The battle ended without any decided results, we repulsing all attacks of the enemy and they doing the same; losses estimated about equal on both sides; ours roughly estimated at seven thousand five hundred in all.

I had immediate and entire command on the field all day, the Lieutenant General honoring the field with his presence only about one hour in the middle of the day. The papers will, however, undoubtedly inform you of all his doings, and I will therefore confine myself to mine.

George, myself, and all your friends, are well and unhurt. The enemy, as usual, were strongly fortified, and we have pretty well entrenched ourselves. How long this game is to be played it is impossible to tell; but in the long run, we ought to succeed, because it is in our power more promptly to fill the gaps in men and material which this constant fighting produces.

Baldy Smith’s corps has joined, and he is placed under my orders.

As usual, Lyman has a great deal more to add, whether commenting on the relationships among the generals or discussing the way various pieces of ordnance return to earth.

William F. "Baldy" Smith and his staff at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

William F. “Baldy” Smith and his staff at Cold Harbor (Library of Congress).

Although there was no battle to-day, both sides were as sensitive as Hotspur when he was “all smarting from my wounds being cold.” The slightest movement would provoke a volley, and any unusual stir would open a battery. This is characteristic of troops in a new position. When they have remained awhile, they begin to be more quiet, the skirmishers fire less and less, and finally cease entirely. The General took three or four of us and went on a sort of tour to his Generals; after a brief visit to General Hancock (who had a battery roaring away close to his Headquarters) and a few words with General Wright, we paid a long visit to “Baldy” Smith, whose tents were pitched between the Woody house and the line of battle. His tent was much better than General Meade’s and he displayed, for his benefit, a lunch with champagne, etc., that quite astonished us. Whether it was the lunch, or Baldy, or “Bully” Brooks (a General of that name), I do not know, but the Commander staid there several hours, talking and smoking.

Let me see, I left the party sitting, as it appeared to me, an unnecessarily long time at Baldy Smith’s. I say “unnecessarily,” first, because it was several hours, and General Meade had nothing to discuss of any moment; and, secondly, because a round-shot would, every now and then, crash through the neighboring trees, or go hoppity-hop along the open field on the edge of which the tents were. You ought to see them skip! It would be odd, if it were not so dangerous. When they have gone some distance and are going slower, you can see them very plainly, provided you are in front of, or behind them. They pass with a great whish, hit the ground, make a great hop, and so go skip, skip, skip, till they get exhausted, and then tumble —flouf— raising a puff of sand. That is the reason round-shot are more dangerous than conical, which strike perhaps once, vault into the air with a noise like a Catherine’s wheel, topple over and over, and drop without further trouble. … At last the General’s confab was broken up by the arrival of Burnside,* who, in Fredericksburg days, had a furious quarrel with Baldy and Brooks—or they with him. So they don’t speak now; and we enjoyed the military icicle in great perfection! All the day there was sharpshooting and cannonading along our front.

*”Burnside has a short, military jacket, and, with his bell-crowned felt hat, the brim turned down, presents an odd figure, the fat man!” —Lyman’s Journal.

Meade’s correspondence taken from The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade, Major-General United States Army, Vol. 2, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913), pp. 200-1. Available via Google Books.

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, pp.148-9. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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