From June 3, 1864, to this day, for those who know anything about the American Civil War, the name Cold Harbor has been a synonym for mindless slaughter.
U. S. Grant admitted that he never should have ordered the all-out attack against Robert E. Lee's entrenched troops there on that Friday, and afterward he did his best to pretend that it had never happened. One of Lee's staff colonels called the one-sided Southern victory "perhaps the easiest ever granted to Confederate arms by the folly of Federal commanders." When the North realized how seriously the Union army was bloodied there, the muttered barroom description of Grant as butcher swelled into the public prints. Speaking as newspapers ran long lists of the dead and wounded, Abraham Lincoln, who would have fired any previous commander after such a debacle, grieved that "it can almost be said that the 'heavens are hung in black.' " His closest friend in the press, Noah Brooks, reflected the mood in Washington when he wrote that "those days will appear to be the darkest of the many dark days through which passed the friends and lovers of the Federal Union." A hundred years later, Bruce Catton called Cold Harbor "one of the hard and terrible names of the Civil War, perhaps the most terrible one of all."
Those words, among the many written about Cold Harbor, remain true. It was Grant's worst defeat, and Lee's last great victory. Thousands of soldiers who survived agreed with Confederate general Evander Law that "It was not war, it was murder." But it was much more than one head-on attack and ruthless repulse.
The Cold Harbor campaign, from the Union army's crossing of the Pamunkey River to its departure for the James, was more than two weeks of infantry and cavalry clashes, each sharp enough to stand in history as a separate battle if it had come at some other time and place. The climactic fight of June 3 was more complicated than alleged by earlier writers, and it lasted longer than the ten minutes, twenty minutes, or one hour so often reported by veterans who witnessed only their own part of the struggle.
Too often brushed past as barely a chapter in the story of the 1864 overland campaign, Cold Harbor demands much closer study than most historians have given it. The West Point Atlas of American Wars, for example, devotes six maps to First Bull Run, where about one-fourth as many casualties were suffered on both sides as at Cold Harbor. It covers the Wilderness with nine maps, and Spotsylvania Court House with eight. Cold Harbor proper gets one half-page, small-scale map, in which the action covers about two inches at the upper margin. That is roughly the same proportion of attention that Grant gave to Cold Harbor in his official report of the campaign and his memoirs. Less than 10 percent of the published Official Records of the overland campaign, from the Rapidan River to the crossing of the James, are from the Confederate side, a fact that has strongly influenced later assessments of what happened.
Strategically and tactically, Cold Harbor was a turning point of the Civil War. After it, the war of maneuver became a war of siege; stand-up attack and defense gave way to digging and trench warfare, the beginning of tactics that became familiar in France half a century later. And psychologically, Cold Harbor provided a case study of command relationships that should be taught in every military academy. When Grant arrived from the West to become general-in-chief of all Union armies, he believed that the prowess of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was a myth that could be shattered by unrelenting pressure. As it turned out, his relations with George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war, may have been as crucial to what happened as his misreading of their stubborn enemy.
Excerpted from Not War But Murder by Ernest B. Furgurson. Copyright © 2001 by Ernest B. Furgurson. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.