By Colin Woodward
By Colin Woodward
This week marks the anniversary of the end of the battle of Cold Harbor, fought during the Overland Campaign of spring 1864. The battle represented one of the last great tactical victories for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. It also revealed a grimmer side to Robert E. Lee’s personality.
On June 3 at 4:30 a.m. (5:30 in our current era of Daylight Savings Time), Ulysses S. Grant, thinking Lee’s army was whipped after nearly a month of bloody combat, threw 60,000 men at Lee’s well-entrenched lines. Grant’s assault failed miserably, costing him upwards of 7,000 men that day for no gain. Lee’s losses were small, and he wrote to James Seddon, the Secretary of War, boasting that “our success, under the blessing of God” was “all that we could expect.”
The battle, however, was not over. For days, wounded Union men suffered between the lines as Grant attempted to organize a truce so litter bearers could collect the blue coats unable to make it back to safety. For several days, Lee and Grant exchanged notes. On June 5, Grant told Lee, “Humanity would dictate that some provision should be made to provide against such hardships.” Lee showed that he was in no hurry to show mercy toward the Federal army.
Lee rejected Grant’s proposition that whenever battle was not raging, either side were at liberty to collected dead and wounded. Such action, Lee said, “will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty.” Lee instead asked that Federals retrieve their casualties under a white flag. “It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit,” Lee added, relishing his victory. General Lee was taking his time. He would make Grant pay for the bloody failure of June 3.
One June 6, Grant asked for a cessation of hostilities for three hours in the afternoon. Lee responded later that day, but said he still would not agree to a truce. Grant wrote him again, asking the fighting stop for two hours. At 7 p.m., Lee set the truce for 8-10 p.m., which meant Union forces would have had to perform their work in the dark. And they would have to do it quickly to make sure they could do it that night.
It proved too late. Lee’s note arrived at the Union general’s headquarters at 10:45 p.m., by which time the truce had expired. The next morning, Grant notified Lee of this fact. He also told Lee he had captured some men from North Carolina regiments, who had been wandering the battlefield looking for their own men. Now, Grant had something to use in bargaining with Lee.
Lee answered Grant at 2 p.m., realizing he had likely delayed matters as long as he could. He granted a truce between 6 and 8 p.m., so that Grant could collect whomever was still left alive between the lines.
Almost none were. According to Lee biographer Emory Thomas, only 2 Union troops were found alive. On June 9, Union general William F. Smith reported that his men had found 69 dead Federals. He did not report having found any wounded, and no Confederates. “Some of the dead,” he noted, “had been buried on [the] previous night by our men at risk of their lives.”
The battle at Cold Harbor ended on June 12. Grant’s losses are estimated at 12,738 men. Lee lost 5,287. Lee would never again inflict such disproportionate losses on Grant’s army. His conduct during the truce shows how Lee, as was true of other Civil War commanders such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, was a student of modern, hard war tactics. He made his enemy pay a heavy price for waging war against him and in a way that would’ve been deemed inhumane earlier in the war. Lee’s job was to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy. And at Cold Harbor, Robert E. Lee showed how ruthless he could be.