The Irony of Cold Harbor

The battle contained twists and turns, and lessons not learned


Ulysses S. Grant noted in his memoirs the decision to attack Cold Harbor was his worst command. Thousands of Union soldiers pushed forward against well-entrenched Confederate lines, and the slaughter was quick and terrifying. In less than thirty minutes thousands of soldiers laid dead or horribly wounded. This is a battle that does not rank with Gettysburg or Antietam, but it does have features that are worth interesting study. Several historical ironies emerge from the battlefield.

  1. The Federal Army Ignored General Lee’s Past

The image of Robert E Lee in the American Civil War is a bold gambler who attacked without hesitation. His reputation, however, was established before the war for entirely different reasons. Lee was an engineer who specialized in fortifications. He either supervised or participated in the construction of Ft. Pulaski (Savannah, Georgia), Ft. Macon (Atlantic Beach, North Carolina) and Ft. Monroe (Ft. Monroe, Virginia). The campaigns in 1862 and 1863 would make it easy to forget what Lee was capable of doing besides attacking. Nevertheless, Grant ordered his men to march against the Cold Harbor defense works whose construction was supervised by one of the best defensive engineers of the pre-Civil War American Army.

  1. Dueling Memoirs

Grant and Lee were formidable opponents who respected each other on the battlefield. The martial admiration did not stop either from trying to get an advantage, one way or the other. Grant requested a cease-fire at Cold Harbor to collect the dead and wounded on the field. Lee insisted on a truce, which would technically recognize him as the winner of the battle. Grant agreed to the truce.

What is interesting is that the memoirs of both men are a little bit different about a crucial point in the battle. Lee’s memoirs, written by A.L. Long, notes something which doesn’t often happen on the battlefield. It involved the last order for the Union Army to renew the assault on Cold Harbor. The passage from Lee’s memoirs reads as follows:

Though the orders to advance were given, not a man stirred. The troops stood silent, but immovable, presenting in this unmistakable protest the verdict of the rank and file against the murderous work decided on by their commanders. (Long, 1983)

It implies that the Army of the Potomac ignored a direct order. Although Grant confessed in his memoirs that the Battle of Cold Harbor was a horrible mistake, but there is no mention made of the Army disobeying that last directive.

  1. History Repeated Itself

Cold Harbor was not just the scene of a confrontation in the Wilderness Campaign. In 1862, it was the site of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, an engagement in the Peninsula Campaign. Lee was the aggressor in the first battle and the defender in the second. He won both.

  1. Lessons Overlooked

European military observers were watching the American Civil War from either side of the battle line, including Lieut. Col.  Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle (British, observing the Confederates) and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (Prussian, following the Federal Army). The overall interest in the conflict was mixed, and some Europeans considered the war little more than two armed mobs fighting. Observers did note the use of telegraph and railroads, however, and von Zeppelin was especially interested in the use of observation balloons. It is probable there were military observers at Cold Harbor and the Petersburg Siege which followed.

The irony here is a failure to fully comprehend the problems of dealing with trench warfare. Europeans were no doubt more interested in the modern technology and fighting in ditches may have held only passing interest. Such sloshing around in mud was not considered important, and that disregard was going to prove a horrible mistake later.

The military observers wrote reports, but many of these papers were filed away in storage areas. Observations about the carnage of Cold Harbor doesn’t appear to factor in any significant strategic analysis. Europe in 1914 would go to war using mounted cavalry and brightly colored uniforms, 19th century anachronisms which were useless against machine guns and high caliber artillery. In Autumn of 1914, fifty years after Cold Harbor,  the First Battle of the Marne and the First Battle of Ypres were fought. Trenches were used, and the casualties were staggering. No doubt the surviving fighters and observers of Cold Harbor may have read the headlines of either battle and sighed, remembering how pointless the attack on the Cold Harbor trenches proved to be.


Long, A. (1983). Memoirs of Robert E. Lee. In A. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee (p. 707). Secaucus, N.J.: The Blue and Grey Press.







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