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Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3,…

Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 (2002)

by Gordon C. Rhea

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1742104,914 (4.21)11
In his gripping fourth volume on the spring 1864 Overland campaign -- which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Civil War -- Gordon Rhea vividly re-creates the battles and maneuvers from the North Anna stalemate through the Cold Harbor offensive. Once again Rhea's tenacious research elicits stunning new facts from the records of a phase oddly ignored or mythologized by historians. The Cold Harbor of these pages differs sharply from the Cold Harbor of popular lore. We see Grant, in one of his most brilliant moves, pull his army across the North Anna River and steal a march on Lee. In response, Lee sets up a strong defensive line along Totopotomoy Creek, and the battles spark across woods and fields northeast of Richmond. Their back to the Chickahominy River and on their last legs, the rebel troops defiantly face an army-wide assault ordered by Grant that extends over three days. Rhea gives a surprising new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded. Here, Grant is not a callous butcher, and Lee does not wage a perfect fight. Every imaginable primary source has been exhausted to unravel the strategies, mistakes, gambles, and problems with subordinates that preoccupied two exquisitely matched minds. In Cold Harbor, Rhea separates fact from fiction in a charged, evocative narrative. He leaves readers under a moonless sky, Grant pondering the eastward course of the James River fifteen miles south of the encamped armies.… (more)



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Cold Harbor is the fourth volume of Gordon Rhea’s comprehensive study of the Civil War campaign in northern Virginia in May-June 1864. The series focuses primarily on the commanders in both armies, their tactical decisions, and their working relations with other officers, while providing plenty of detail from soldiers’ and civilians’ perspectives as well. In this volume Rhea challenges conventional views of the Battle of Cold Harbor as a needless slaughter of Union troops presided over by a cold-blooded Ulysses S. Grant.

As the subtitle suggests, Rhea uses the battle to compare Grant to his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. He argues that the conventional view of both men is mistaken, and that in fact the two generals were evenly matched and had much in common. Grant, commonly derided as a “butcher” who preferred to bludgeon his enemy with sheer numbers of troops, is presented here as a subtle tactician who matched Lee’s talent for deft maneuvers. Although repeatedly stalemated by Lee and the smaller Confederate force, Grant continually maneuvered closer to Richmond while wearing away at Confederate manpower. When Grant’s projects failed, Rhea argues, it was most often due to weaknesses within the command structure and culture of the Army of the Potomac.

As for Lee, the lionized general maintained an effective defense, but according to Rhea he does not deserve his reputation for an almost mystical ability to divine and forestall his enemy’s intentions. Lee made as many mistakes as Grant, and he guessed wrong about his adversary’s intentions, most notably in the last days of May, as the armies faced each other across the North Anna River. Lee prepared for a Union movement around his army’s left flank even while Grant was busy redeploying on the right. Rhea also dismisses the myth that Lee was planning to take the offensive against Grant at Cold Harbor, showing instead how a series of errors, rather than a deliberate tactical decision, placed the Cold Harbor crossroads at the center of events.

Finally, Rhea justifies Grant’s decision to launch assaults against fortified Confederate positions on the grounds that Grant had reason to believe the Confederate army was in worse straits than it actually was. He uses new estimates of daily casualties to point out that June 3 at Cold Harbor was not as costly to the Army of the Potomac as several other days in the campaign, mitigating charges that Grant was heedless of his losses.

The book effectively conveys a sense of many aspects of warfare in 1864, including the fact of incessant fighting and killing along the heavily entrenched front, whether or not there was a formal battle under way. Soldiers on both sides had learned to dig rifle pits and build earthworks with amazing speed: “Dig, picket, skirmish, fight, so it goes day and night,” as one Pennsylvania soldier summed it up in a letter home.

The comprehensive narrative is engagingly written and carefully preserves a sense of the contingency of events. For example, Rhea discusses how the lie of the land might have favored either army at various points in the campaign, instead of just showing how it benefited the victor, as most military historians are content to do. As one would expect, Rhea’s analysis of the two commanders has been quibbled with, but regardless of how his assessment stands up in detail, he has given readers an exemplary study of Lee and Grant, as well as of the Battle of Cold Harbor.
1 vote Muscogulus | Oct 7, 2013 |
The battles at Cold Harbor have generated controversy and error since just about the time the fighting there stopped. There is any amount of “accepted wisdom” about what was really a series of battles, not just one; these assumptions can be read in just about any general history of the U.S. Civil War that goes into any detail at all about the fighting. Some or all of the taken-for-granted attitudes:

1) Grant chose to go to Cold Harbor and Lee knew that he was going to do so.
2) Grant sent word to Sheridan to seize and to hang on to Cold Harbor resulting in an all-out cavalry fight with Fitz Lee’s Confederate cavalry on May 31.
3) June 3 was THE Battle of Cold Harbor.
4) Union soldiers were so sure of the impossibility of storming Lee’s works that they were seen on the evening of June 2 sewing pieces of paper with their names onto their uniforms so that they could be recognized after death.
5) Grant was a callous butcher who only knew how to throw away lives on frontal assaults against entrenched troops.
6) Union casualties from the attack on June 3 amounted to 7,000 in 10-15 minutes
7) Union officers and troops refused to obey Grant’s order for a second assault on June 3 after the first one had failed.

These points and others are made in Shelby Foote’s 3rd volume of [The Civil War: A Narrative]. Even so respected a scholar as James McPherson repeats many of them in [Battle Cry of Freedom].

Rhea, using official documents such as orders, official reports from commanders on both sides, and casualty lists makes a powerful case refuting all of the above points. Grant never planned to go to Cold Harbor from the North Anna, and Lee was far more worried about his right flank than anything else; that a battle was fought at Cold Harbor was more or less accidental. The cavalry fight at Cold Harbor was the result of Sheridan’s division head, Torbert, and Custer, who were afraid of losing the initiative at Cold Harbor, having beaten Lee’s cavalry soundly during this time. June 1 saw a major battle as well as June 3. Grant’s decision to assault on June 3 was one made more as a process of elimination than incompetence, and was based on faulty information and assumptions. Only Horace Porter, Grant’s aide, records seeing Union soldiers sewing their names into their uniforms; there is no other mention in any diary, memoir or newspaper article of such a happening--at that time. Union casualties amounted to probably less than 4,000 from the June 23 assault. There was no refusal to make a second assault, since Grant called it off just as, in fact, Burnside’s 9th Corps soldiers were stepping up to make what would have been a suicidal charge.

Rhea’s book points out an important fact: that, despite the volumes that have already been written about the Civil War, there is still plenty of room for critical research into original documents that examine the facts underlying what turn out to be myths. Both Foote and McPherson simply assumed that what had been written before was valid; both were writing general histories and believed the work of those who had gone before. I know from personal experience in science that this can be a really bad mistake. I once traced a reference back through paper after paper, each author quoting someone who had published previously, some 20+ years to the original paper--and found it had been misquoted. Yet at least a dozen authors, each one building on the first misquoted paper, had cited incorrect information.

Rhea’s book is very well written, and he contributes some extremely thoughtful critiques and analyses of both Lee and Grant, as well as the reasons why Federal assaults were so poorly executed. His analysis of Grant's major weakness--that after conceiving of brilliant maneuvers that fooled Lee every time, Grant had no plant ready to exploit the results of advantages gained, and so lost opportunities to strike crushing blows on the Confederate army. The command structure of the Union army was a disaster. More major ego problems among subordinate commanders on both sides, particularly between Meade and Sheridan, and between several of the Confederate division commanders. Rhea has superb summaries of the actions and the decisions that led up to the engagements.

The maps are adequate to the text, although there were a few times when I wished there had been more. But what maps are there are excellent, and one can make do in those instances when an additional map would be more illuminating.

This is the 4th book in Rhea’s series on Grant’s Overland campaign, and is an outstanding contribution to the field. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote Joycepa | May 13, 2009 |
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For forty-six days in May and June 1864, the American Civil War's foremost commanders, Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, fought a grinding campaign through Virginia from the Rapidan River to Petersburg.
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