The Irony of Cold Harbor

The battle contained twists and turns, and lessons not learned

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHARLESTON IS MIGHTY NICE

This port is waiting for you to come calling.

 

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Charleston was one of the primary ports of the United States from the days of the American Revolution to the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Next to Richmond, it is the most prominent Civil War city of the South. This is where it all started and Charleston has an incredible history. Honestly, there’s just so much dealing with the American Civil War to see and do in this very charming port city.

CIVIL WAR SIGNIFCANCE

This is where the war started, and any fan of the American Civil War ought to pay a visit to Charleston. The city was able to resist being captured until February, 1865. This was due primarily to the fortifications that protected Charleston from federal troops.

Important Historical Places

Fort Sumter National Monument

Fort Moultrie

Secessionville Historic District

 

Special Activities

You can stroll around Charleston and be seduced by the ambience and historic homes you will find, such as the Nathaniel Russell House Museum. There are all kinds of walking tours. You can get an idea of how southern aristocracy lived by doing some sightseeing at the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens. You can also enjoy the natural beauty of the Charleston area at the Isle of Palms County Park. The park features some of the wonderful beaches you will find in the Charleston area.

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA RESTAURANTS

Goodness gracious, we hope you’re hungry when you come to Charleston! There are some great restaurants and there surely is one to satisfy your appetite.

167 Raw (843-579-4997). Seafood is the order of the day, and you can get the best catch right here! The lobster roll is delicious and you can have a scallops’ po’boy if that suits your fancy. The restaurant is located near the waterfront and you can stroll off the key lime pie you enjoyed for dessert with the soft sea breezes for your delight.

Stella’s (843-400-0026). It is a new kid on the block and starting to get excellent reviews. Greek music creates a pleasant atmosphere and Greek cuisine is the order of the day (although the Eggs Benedict got some nice compliments. The restaurant is a reminder that in the Deep South there is international cuisine waiting for you to taste.

R Kitchen (843-789-4342). The restaurant has a Prix Fixe dinner menu of five courses and the selection will change every day. Absolutely wonderful service and the chefs are true professionals. You will need to make reservations as early as practicable.

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA HOTELS

French Quarter Inn (843-722-1900). New Orleans is not the only place with a French Quarter and Charleston is very proud of its own. This hotel has a reputation for excellent service and the rooms are spotless clean. French Quarter goes out of its way to do little extras and there is a wine and cheese event every night. Breakfast served is everything you hope to have in a high-class hotel.

The Spectator (843-207-4040). The hotel believes white glove service is what you should expect. The butlers are particularly helpful when it comes to wedding parties and the bar at the restaurant is a great place to quench your thirst after a warm day in the Charleston sun.

King Charles Inn (843-723-7451). The Inn is within walking distance of everything you would like to see in Charleston. The staff is very friendly and the rooms are clean and comfortable. There is also free parking, which is something hard to get in a downtown hotel.

FOR THE FAMILY

Charleston Fun Park (843-971-1223). There are all kinds of museums and historic sites to see in Charleston, but the kids can get tired of it and want a little fun. Well, they’re going get a lot of Charleston Fun Park. There are two major golf courses, a go-kart track, and a climbing wall. The arcade has quite a few electronic games for your children to play. Granted, it is not Disneyland but it is a very nice amusement park for children.

Shem Creek Park (843-884-4176). The place whispers to you to take it easy. There is a boardwalk covering marsh ground and you can see all kinds of marine life just a few feet below you. The view is amazing and you should bring a camera with you to catch the sunset

The Curious General Butler

 

He had a face only a mother could love and, quite frankly, many women detested. Benjamin Butler was a Union general whose Civil War career was filled with peaks and valleys. He was the commanding general whose troops entered New Orleans, and he was also in charge of the Army of the James, which had a less than a spectacular record under his command. He doesn’t rank as one of the great officers of the North, but all the same Butler’s contributions during the American Civil War were interesting.

 

A Political General

War is an opportunity for politically ambitious folks. A few years in uniform can win quite a few votes, and the elections of the post-Civil War era attests to that. Benjamin Butler was aggressive in seeking an appointment as an officer in the federal army, using his contacts to get a general’s rank. He was ultimately commissioned a major general of volunteers and provided important service in securing Baltimore and the rail service between Annapolis and Washington D. C.

Contraband of War

Benjamin Butler made a significant contribution to the American Civil War at Fort Monroe, Virginia, where he took command of the Department of Virginia in May, 1861. Three slaves ran away from their owner and sought refuge at the Fort. When the slave owner demanded the return of his property, Butler refused to do that. His reasoning was that the slaves were being used to conduct war against the American government. In effect, he was labeling these three as contraband of war. His action led to the First Confiscation Act passed by Congress. It was now official policy that slaves would be considered property United States government should they cross into territory controlled by federal troops.

The significance of what Butler did becomes more apparent as the story of the war progresses. Contraband of war can be sold or repatriated to its former owners. The action at Fort Monroe started the process that led to the Emancipation Proclamation and then to the 13th Amendment. It became increasingly more apparent that abolition of slavery was going to be one of the reasons for conducting the war. Butler can claim responsibility for setting things in motion. His action Fort Monroe gained him a lot of popularity in the North. The general would soon be moving on to make history elsewhere.

New Orleans

The Federal fleet commanded by Flag Officer David G. Farragut got past Confederate defenses at the Forts Saint Philip and Jackson on April 24, 1862, making the capture of New Orleans a fait accompli. Butler entered the city on May 1, 1862, with a sizable Federal force behind him. Capturing New Orleans was major feather in his cap, but keeping the city was going to be different story.

Butler continued the martial law which was in effect when the Confederates controlled the city. He went a little bit further, however, in letting people know that there was a new man in town. The ladies of New Orleans had been not just vocal in their disregard for federal soldiers. Indeed, the contents of chamber pots were tossed on the heads of federal troops, and even Farragut himself was the victim of the smelly pot debris. Butler didn’t tolerate this and didn’t care that it was coming from women. His General Order Number 28, written in response to the insults hurled at his troops, let it be known that any lady who abused one of his soldiers or officers was to be considered a prostitute. Southern belles might think his soldiers were a pack of dogs; Butler thought the ladies were a group of whores. The harassment stopped quickly after the order was issued.

He kept New Orleans from being retaken by adroitly playing one side off against the other. His attachment to the less fortunate made it easier for the federal government to maintain its presence in New Orleans. Butler became the advocate for the poor and the working class of the city. He had a free food program that fed thousands and reopened the port. His actions may have angered the southern aristocracy, but the working poor respected the general. The order against women is what gets the most attention about his administration in New Orleans. What is not always noted, however, is what he did regarding yellow fever. New Orleans used to be devastated by yellow fever on an annual basis. Butler initiated a quarantine and cleaned up the city with public works projects that cleared out canals and stagnant pools of water. It resulted in only two yellow fever fatalities during the late summer and early fall of 1862.

Future Assignments

Butler suffered from a problem faced by many managers: his boss didn’t like him. Ulysses S Grant did not have much use for political generals. To be fair to the Union commander, Grant’s experience with Nathaniel P Banks, another political general, was horrible. Grant no doubt looked on Butler as an amateur trying to play soldier. Butler lived up to that bit of slander.

The general was in command of the Army of the James during the Overland Campaign. His forces were positioned at Bermuda Hundred, a fishing village south of Richmond. Butler’s orders were to break the railroad supply lines to Richmond. Sensing that his subordinate had little military experience, Grant sent two highly competent generals to assist. Butler was able to completely mismanage a campaign with the result that the Army of the James was bottled up and surrounded by Confederate forces approximately half its size (in a historical twist of irony, the Confederate Army was commanded by P. G. T. Beauregard, a former resident of New Orleans). This humiliation ought to have been sufficient to end a career, but General Butler performed one more military embarrassment.

It was the attack on Fort Fisher which guarded Wilmington, North Carolina. Wilmington was the only major seaport left open to the Confederacy and Grant wanted it captured. He assigned Butler the task of doing this. The Massachusetts political soldier once again proved that he was not cut out for command.

Exasperated, Grant telegraphed President Abraham Lincoln on December 28, 1864:

The Wilmington expedition has proven a gross and culpable failure…. Who is to blame will, I hope, be known (Grant, 1990).

It is a safe bet to believe Grant held Butler responsible for the fiasco. Butler demanded a congressional inquiry where he defended what he had done, and he insisted Fort Fisher was almost impossible to capture. Unfortunately for him, word arrived during the hearings that Fort Fisher and Wilmington had both been captured. Ben Butler’s military career was over. He returned to politics and would eventually be governor of Massachusetts.

 

Ben Butler in Hindsight

We need to remember in those situations where Benjamin Butler could use his skills as a politician, he did a decent job. Thousands of lives were saved by his public sanitation efforts and the Port of New Orleans was again open for business. He kept this vital city from being recaptured by Confederates by siding with the lower classes in their efforts to have a decent life. He was very politically astute, a quality many battlefield generals lacked.

Butler also recognized the value of African-Americans and their potential contribution to the war effort. His actions at Fort Monroe did force the issue of slavery abolition, but this was the direction where Abraham Lincoln was heading. Butler did not hesitate to create regiments of African-American soldiers, which he allowed to be led by black officers. He helped start the ball rolling until tens of thousands of African-Americans were serving in the Union Army.

At a time when racism was accepted in polite society, Butler demonstrated African Americans were not a sub-species. He forced the hand of the American government regarding runaway slaves, and his actions cleared the way to the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. It would be eighty-six years after Benjamin Butler started using African-American troops that Executive Order 9981, issued on July 26, 1948, would formally end racial segregation in the American armed forces. There is no question that the general was ahead of the times when it came to civil rights in the military.

 

Grant, U. S. (1990). Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Selected Letters 1839-1865. New York, N.Y.: Literary Classics of the United States.

 

All About Us

Vacations are meant to be fun. It is a time when you can get with your friends and loved ones and simply enjoy each other’s company, along with some activities and sights that make everything memorable. Civil War vacations can be that as well as adventures into history. It is what we want to do with this site.

We are pretty sure all of us have gone on vacations from hell. Things are disorganized, it was a bad hotel, or there was nothing for the kids to do. It always seemed that meals were fast food affairs. We want to give people the opportunity to indulge in their Civil War passion, and can remember the vacation as an enjoyable one.

The information we have posted is meant to help you plan your Civil War vacation. You will be pleasantly surprised how many great restaurants and comfortable hotels are located close to Civil War battlefields. There are some other attractions in the area and you could turn what is usually a one-day trip into several days of fun.

If you happen to be a Civil War reenactor, then bless your heart! People like you not only preserve our American history but also see to it there are a few more green spaces in the environment. You’ll notice there is a reenactor vacation page. Granted, many reenactors want to enjoy the experience of living in a campaign tent but not everyone. Those people who are interested in reenactment but do not because they can’t find a good hotel nearby, I hope this page encourages you to visit a reenactment and perhaps be a part of living history. You will be glad you did.

This is all a work in progress and we will be adding onto the site as time goes by. If you would, please complete the quick survey we have posted on the site. It lets us know what you would like to see. Also, do feel free to send us your comments.