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 Posted: Tue Feb 5th, 2008 08:51 pm
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PvtClewell
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Gordon Rhea is my source for just about anything on the Overland campaign.

Should Grant have fought at Cold Harbor?

Rhea writes:

"Grant has been roundly criticized for assailing Lee's line the morning of June 3. Viewed in the campaign's larger context, the decision made sense. Recently reinforced by the 18th Corps, the Army of the Potomac was stronger than ever. Grant believed that the Confederates were on their last legs and everything that had happened since crossing the Pamunkey, from Early's botched assault on Bethesda Church to Wright's and Smith's breakthrough on June 1 supported him in that conclusion. Lee now stood a mere seven miles from Richmond, his back to a river..." (P. 389, 'Cold Harbor', 2002).

Grant's casualty count at Cold Harbor is always a source of controversy and Rhea contributes to that controversy, downsizing the numbers we're accustomed to seeing. I haven't been to Cold Harbor in several years, but I believe the NPS says Grant suffered 6,000 casualties inside of half an hour, or close to something like that. Rhea says the number is more like 3,500 to 4,000 casualties. You can take those numbers for what they're worth, but I'm guessing Rhea did some serious research on this for his book.

Then Rhea writes this:

"The two years preceding Cold Harbor had seen a host of days in which Union and Confederate armies each sustained far more casualties than Grant suffered on June 3. Lee's casualties in three days fighting at Gettysburg, for example, exceeded 22,000, with Confederate losses on the last day of the battle topping 8,000. Pickett's famous charge at Gettysburg — a frontal attack that lasted about as long as Grant's main morning attack at Cold Harbor — cost the Confederates between 5,300 and 5,700 men, a number well in excess of the 3,500-4,000 that Grant lost during his main June 3 attack. And while cumulative casualties in Grant's successive battles against Lee were high, no single day of Grant's pounding saw the magnitude of Union casualties that McClellan incurred in one day at Antietam, and no three consecutive days of Grant's warring proved as costly to the Union as Meade's three days at Gettysburg. In the Overland campaign, Grant waged several consecutive battles, one after the other. Unlike his predecessors, who disengaged after their battles and left Lee to repair his losses, Grant followed up his fights with a vengeance. In the end, he had something to show for his efforts." (p. 386)

Grant gets the 'butcher' label but it appears other commanders, North and South, actually had worse days in the war than he. The 'butcher' label seems little unfair to me, especially in a civil war like this one, when there was butchery enough for all. (Come to think of it, Burnside at Fredericksburg also had a significant butcher's bill. But who's jumping down his throat? History almost treats him as a sympathetic figure. I guess because he lost. Or because of his sideburns).

My own feeling is that Cold Harbor was a burp in the inevitable progression of the AofP toward Richmond. Sheridan's cavalry had captured the Cold Harbor crossroads a few days earlier and asked for support. Both armies thus naturally gravitated to the strategic spot in their war of manuever, setting the stage for the battle that followed.

I think Grant catches a lot of grief because of war weariness in the nation which was in its fourth year of conflict. There were indeed complaints even within the AofP about the casualties Grant suffered. People were just tired of the war and this battle ended in a stalemate with high casualties, aggravating the frustration. But you can bet if Grant broke through at Cold Harbor and was marching through Richmond the next day, there is no controversy.

Last edited on Wed Feb 6th, 2008 11:33 pm by PvtClewell

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