This is the fourth in a series by this author, detailing Grant’s Overland Campaign in the spring of 1864. This one takes us from the two armies' entrenchments north and south of the North Anna River on May 26 to Grant’s uncoordinated attack at Cold Harbor on June 3. I’ve read volumes 2 (Spotsylvania and Yellow Tavern) and 3 (North Anna River), and found them both remarkable in their mutual abilities to: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives focus on one of these areas. Rhea consistently accomplishes all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.
He’s also good at explaining things that have never been explained before (at least not to me). For example, Grant’s doggedness and determination are often touted during this phase of the war, especially compared to former Union commanders who had faced Robert E. Lee. Grant was determined to keep moving forward and not retreat after each battle (even if it was a Confederate victory) so as to keep the Army of Northern Virginia on its toes and unable to heal itself. I can still hear Shelby Foote’s voice from Ken Burns’ The Civil War, “Move by the left flank, move by the left flank, move by the left flank,” describing the almost simpleminded strategy Grant employed to do just that.
Well, all those moves by the left flank were more than just stubbornness. Grant was counseled and he considered numerous times a movement around the other side of the Confederate Army, but always decided against it because his line of supply was dependent on the rivers flowing into Virginia from the Atlantic coast. With each movement, and new “flying depot” was set up on the next river closer to Richmond, and the ships supplying that depot simply went further down the coast before turning in. Going around the Confederate left (i.e., moving by the right flank) would have put the Army of Northern Virginia between Grant and his base of supplies.
Rhea consistently helps me understand certain perplexities of the war. For example, here’s a written order from General Lee that comes fairly early in the book:
I approve what is therein suggested and have authorized General Early to carry out what is proposed, if his judgment approves. I desire you, if circumstances permit, to carry out your part.
And I can’t help but think, how can anyone manage an army as well as Lee did with so many qualifiers in his orders? If his judgment approves? If circumstances permit? How about just ordering people to do the things you want them to do? Aren’t these just the same kind of equivocations that kept Ewell from taking Cemetery Hill the first day of Gettysburg, assuring the Union forces the high ground and probably the ensuing victory?
But as you read more of Rhea’s text, the chaos and shifting realities of the battlefield become clear, and with it the need for front line commanders to exercise independent judgment and for their behind-the-lines generals to give them the flexibility to do exactly that. Rhea even provides one vivid example of the slaughter that can occur when such qualifications aren’t placed on orders coming from the rear.
After Grant’s assault on June 3, a collection of Union soldiers found themselves pinned down a few dozen yards or so in front of a salient in the Confederate line. Long after the assault had ended they were still there, trading shots with their rebel opponents still within the salient. One attempt to dislodge them by a Confederate company had ended in their slaughter, the Union men, protected behind improvised earthworks, shooting every man that came over the rebel fortifications intending to destroy them. Late in the day, a second such command came up from a rearward commander.
Fully aware that the assignment was futile, he [Captain Charles Seton Fleming of the 2nd Florida] asked for confirmation of the order and learned to his astonishment that he had heard it correctly. “I have been told that the order was all a mistake and was not so intended,” wrote Captain [James F.] Tucker [of the 9th Florida], who witnessed Fleming’s reaction and was inclined to give [Brigadier General Joseph] Finegan the benefit of the doubt. “Probably a verbal order was passed down the line from mouth to mouth,” Tucker surmised, “and some qualifying or optional directions were dropped in its transmission.”
The front line officers expected that kind of discretion, and the smart commanders gave it to them, knowing that more harm could come from blindly following orders that were given without a full understanding of the tactical situation at the front.
Another thing Rhea is always good for is dispelling the persistent myths about the Civil War and its battles. Cold Harbor has several good examples. Union soldiers did not, it appears, write their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pin them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home. That idea has only one source, Captain Charles H. Porter, an aide on Grant’s staff, who evidently wrote a number of sensational inventions in his memoir thirty years after the Civil War.
General Lee, in fact, did have a fair number of reserves to help him plug holes punched in his line by the Federals (what few there were). The impression that he did not again attributed only to a single source, the Confederacy’s postmaster general, John H. Reagan, writing forty years after the events he describes.
And the biggest mythbuster of all is the facts surrounding Grant’s grand assault on June 3, which had been roundly described as absolute slaughter, with even our friend Shelby Foote saying more than 7,000 men were gunned down in 20 minutes. Turns out that’s not true either.
Stories of fields littered with blue-clad corpses convey distorted pictures of what really happened. A few sectors saw tremendous slaughter, but along much of the battle line Union losses were minor, and many Confederates had no idea that an offensive had even been attempted. The popular image of a massive Union onslaught at Cold Harbor belongs more to the dustbin of Civil War mythology than to real history.
Union casualties have been grossly exaggerated and probably did not exceed 3,500. Commentators have suggested numbers ranging from 7,500 to well above 12,000, all supposedly incurred during a few terrible minutes after dawn. (In reality the assault sputtered on for about an hour, not the eight minutes some writers have claimed.)
But it is Rhea’s description of the personal experiences of the soldiers in combat that really make these books worth reading from my perspective. The first one I read was the one about Spotsylvania, and the images he describes of men fighting, dying and disintegrating at the Mule Shoe stay with me to this day. Here’s something similar from Cold Harbor.
Combat swirled around Sergeant George Allen Woodrum, the 26th Virginia Battalion’s illiterate, twenty-year-old color bearer who had fearlessly led his company in the attack on Sigel’s lines at New Market. The night before, Woodrum had found a brass bar shaped like a spear. Polishing it, he had fastened it on the end of his flagstaff and shown it to Captain Morton, who remarked that it looked pretty. “It is not only pretty,” Woodrum responded, “but if anybody tries to get these colors, I’ll run this through him.” Captain Morton thought it unlikely that the enemy would get close enough for Woodrum to use his spear, but the young man was insistent. “We are going to have a graveyard fight tomorrow,” he predicted, “and are mighty apt to get mixed up.”
Woodrum, Colonel Edgar, and the battalion’s adjutant, Brown Craig, stood in the middle of the salient, surrounded by the swirling melee. Spotting the flag, a Union officer and two men elbowed through the mob to Woodrum and demanded that he surrender the banner. “This is the way I surrender, damn you,” Woodrum shouted and ran the spear through the officer’s body. The men accompanying the officer shot Woodrum, who fell tightly gripping the staff. More Yankees rushed for the flag, but the rebels drove them back. According to Captain Morton, Woodrum opened his eyes, “saw that his precious flag was still safe, and with one last superhuman effort pulled himself forward and, reaching over, tore the colors from the staff, threw them behind [the enemy], and fell back a corpse.” Christopher B. Humphreys of the regiment clasped the flag until four Federals wrested it from him and passed it back out of sight. Corporal Terrence Begley of the 7th New York Heavy Artillery was credited with capturing the flag. Killed a few months later at Reams Station, he posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his feat. Federals bayoneted Edgar in the shoulder, captured him, and killed his adjutant Craig. Resistance was futile, and Edgar’s Virginians began surrendering. One enraged Confederate fired into the 7th New York’s color guard, then threw down his musket and hollered, “I surrender.” The regiment’s color sergeant jammed his flagstaff’s steel point into the rebel’s mouth. “You spoke too late!” he roared. Herding captives into low ground immediately behind the salient, Federals made them bow low and mark time to the tune of “Yankee Doodle.”
The other thing Rhea can be relied on for is his cogent summaries of the strategies used by the generals and their reasons for employing them. And when they come after all the exhaustive detail of his battle narrative, it is hard to dispute them, even when they run counter to conventional wisdom. For a case in point:
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 at 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. Delay, Grant determined, would serve no purpose, and further maneuvering would be difficult and uncertain in outcome. A successful assault at this juncture stood to wreck the Confederate army, capture Richmond, and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. What better gift could Grant offer President Lincoln on the eve of the Republican convention? Aggressive by nature and accustomed to taking risks, Grant seized the moment. If the offensive worked, the rewards would be tremendous. If it failed, he would simply treat the reverse as he had his earlier disappointments at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and the North Anna River and try another tack. In short, the consequences of not assaulting, thereby forfeiting the chance for a quick victory and extending the war, seemed worse than those of attacking and failing. “Could we succeed by a general assault in breaking [Lee’s] lines, the annihilation of his army was certain, as he would be driven back into the Chickahominy, whence escape was impossible,” was how a Union engineer put the case for attacking. “The hazard was great but General Grant concluded to take the chance.” In many respects, Grant’s reasoning underlying his decision to attack on June 3 at Cold Harbor parallels the reasons that Lee had to launch his ill-fated assault on July 3 at Gettysburg. Both attacks were gambles, but in both instances, the payoff in the event of success promised to be large.