Digging (June 7, 1864)

The situation at Cold Harbor has turned into a stubborn stalemate. As Theodore Lyman notes in his letter of June 7, the soldiers began digging complex entrenchments where they could exist without being killed by shells or snipers. Merely peeking over the breastworks tempted death, with sharpshooters lurking on each side to shoot anything that moved. The land around Cold Harbor became crisscrossed by vast networks of trenches, which reminded one Union soldier of the work of prairie dog colonies.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

A marker on the Cold Harbor battlefield today.

When I visited Cold Harbor I found it eerie to see the earthworks that remain, knowing they had once provided the setting for scenes of bloodshed and horror and the deaths of hundreds of men whose names have been lost to history. At the same time, as I wandered around the battlefield and read the markers, I came across names that were familiar, almost like old friends. Emory Upton’s name popped up time and time again, and on one marker at Cold Harbor I found a quote from Wilbur Fisk, a Vermont soldier whose letters have been collected in a book called Hard Marching Every Day. “The breastworks against which I am leaning is not more than 200 yards from the enemy’s lines, and in front of us are skirmishers and sharpshooters still nearer,” he wrote on June 11. “Our line is just outside the edge of a woods, and theirs is partly in an open field, and partly covered by timber in our immediate front. The field is open between us, but it is a strip of land across which no man dare to pass. An attacking party from either side would be mown down like grass.”

After extraordinary delays an armistice was concluded between six and eight p.m. this evening. It was very acceptable for burying the dead; but the wounded were mostly dead too, by this time, having been there since the 3d. I fancy there were not many, for our men make extraordinary exertions in the night to get in their comrades, and those who were not thus reached usually had their sufferings shortened by some stray ball, among the showers that continually passed between the works. We here found the body of Colonel McMahon, brother of Sedgwick’s Adjutant-General. He was wounded and sat down by a tree, where he was soon hit by two or three other bullets. . . . Some extraordinary scenes occurred during the armistice. Round one grave, where ten men were laid, there was a great crowd of both sides. The Rebels were anxious to know who would be next President. “Wall,” said one of our men, “I am in favor of Old Abe.” “He’s a damned Abolitionist!” promptly exclaimed a grey-back. Upon which our man hit his adversary between the eyes, and a general fisticuff ensued, only stopped by the officers rushing in. Our entrenchments were most extraordinary in their extent, with heavy traverses, where exposed to enfilade, and all done by the men, as it were, spontaneously. An officer told a man it was not worth while to go on with a little private bomb-proof he was constructing, as he would only be there two or three days. “I don’t care,” replied he, “if we only stay two or three hours; I ain’t going to have my head knocked off by one of them shells!”…

Theodore Lyman’s letter is from Meade’s Headquarters, 1863-1865: Letters of Colonel Theodore Lyman from the Wilderness to Appomattox, p. 154. Edited by George R. Agassiz. Boston, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922. Available via Google Books.

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