One June 2, commander-in-chief Ulysses S. Grant spent a rainy day prepping for an attack to be made the following day. It was at dawn on June 3 that 60,000 Union men rushed the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor. This horrific attack would be over by noon as the Federals charged head on into the Confederate defenses, being attacked not only from the front but also the flanks. Reminiscent of Pickett’s Charge.
This failed Union attack resulted in staggering numbers: 13,000 Union casualties to 2,500 Confederate casualties (It should be noted that the actual number of casualties is disputed and these are estimates). This made Cold Harbor the bloodiest charge of the war. One Union soldier, prior to the charge, had written, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.” Indeed he was.
Grant Speaks on Cold Harbor
The man responsible for this action at Cold Harbor, Ulysses S. Grant later wrote of his decision to send his soldiers into battle at Cold Harbor (or Second Cold Harbor as some refer to it). In his famous memoirs Grant wrote the following on the Battle of Cold Harbor:
I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22nd of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side. Before that, the Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have acquired a wholesome regard for the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities generally of the Army of the Potomac. They no longer wanted to fight them “one Confederate to five Yanks.” Indeed, they seemed to have given up any idea of gaining any advantage of their antagonist in the open field. They had come to much prefer breastworks in their front to the Army of the Potomac. This charge seemed to revive their hopes temporarily; but it was of short duration. The effect upon the Army of the Potomac was the reverse. When we reached the James River, however, all effects of the battle of Cold Harbor seemed to have disappeared.
Grant makes no excuses for the decisions he made at Cold Harbor. Now, many claim that Grant is a “butcher” and that he carelessly threw lives away in the fire of battle with little regard for anything other than victory. This, as can be seen in the previous writing of Grant, is false. A butcher would not show the regret that Grant did for his assault. This was not the first time Grant showed remorse for the loss of life under his guard either.
Horace Porter, in Campaigning with Grant, wrote the following
General Grant had ridden over to the right to watch the progress of this attack. While he was passing a spot near the roadside where there were a number of wounded, one of them, who was lying close to the roadside, seemed to attract his special notice… There was a painfully sad look upon the general’s face, and he did not speak for some time. While always keenly sensitive to the sufferings of the wounded, this pitiful sight seemed to affect him more than usual.
These are just two examples of many that Grant did indeed care for his men and for the carnage that they were sent into. However, “war is hell” and someone had to have the stomach for that loss of life. It was something that McClellan, Burnside, and the like had not had. Something that Lincoln was searching desperately for. Something that is needed of a commander. One must make hard decisions and live with them. However, a butcher would not show regret for those decisions. Grant did show regret.
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