Robert Granderson Cole was born in Manchester, Virginia (now part of the city of Richmond), on 1830 September 29. He later moved to Florida and attended the United States Military Academy. He joined a Confederate infantry regiment in March 1861 and served on the staff of Robert S. Garnett. The Confederacy promoted Cole to major and then lieutenant colonel later in the year.
The colonel, however, would not make a name for himself in battle.When Robert E. Lee took over command of the Army of Northern Virginia in the late spring of 1862, Cole became chief commissary of Lee’s new fighting force. Cole faced the daunting task of keeping 65,000 men and horses fed despite the Confederacy’s creaky infrastructure, a naval blockade, and Yankee armies pressing down on all sides. Cole, nevertheless, served as chief commissary until Lee’s army’s surrender at Appomattox.
The Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee’s army in particular, faced chronic shortages, from food to clothes to horses. For Lee and Cole, however, it was not just a matter of getting enough food to their men and animals. The problem was political: they had problems with the Confederacy’s commissary general, Lucius B. Northrop, a friend of Jefferson Davis. Northrop could prove uncooperative, obtuse, and smug.
Cole’s letters and papers are hard to find, but one can easily pick up on the tension between Cole, Lee, and Northrop. In November 1864, Cole wrote to Northrop complaining of the light bread ration in the Army of Northern Virginia. Cole asserted that the lack of food in the army was contributing to desertion in the ranks. He spoke with Lee about increasing the amount of meal given to the men.
Northrop proved of no help. He congratulated himself for having lowered the bread ration a few months previously. Had he not done so, he asserted, Lee’s army would have been starving. Northrop blamed the Yankees for the desertion problem as well as the need for Confederate troops to defend their homes against Northern attacks.
Complaints from Lee’s army only got worse. In early February 1865, Cole noted that there was no meat to be had for the men still under siege at Petersburg. Two months later, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. Cole’s problems, however, were not over. He still had to figure out how to feed paroled Rebels.
The Army of Northern Virginia faced severe supply challenges. But if General Lee had problems with Robert G. Cole, he never had him removed. After the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, for example, Lee congratulated Cole for his ability to provide the army with flour during the Union invasion. And he stuck with Cole for the rest of the war.
After leaving the Army of Northern Virginia, Cole became a planter in Florida and a businessman in Savannah. He apparently never married. According to the federal census, in 1880 he was living in a hotel in Savannah that was owned by a New Yorker. Cole he died on 1887 November 7. He is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.
Cole was one of the most important men in helping Robert E. Lee’s army sustain itself. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an army marches on its stomach. That proved true in the Army of Northern Virginia. If General Lee’s loyalty to Robert Cole is any indication, the supply problems inherent in the Army of Northern Virginia were not of Cole’s making.
Unfortunately, little is known about Cole or his work in the army. The LFDA, for example, was not able to find an image of the colonel for this blog post. But his work with the Army of Northern Virginia was important. The Lost Cause often reminded Americans that Confederate troops were hopelessly ill-supplied and starving, but waged war with determination and gallantry nonetheless. But was that an accurate summation of reality? Cole’s wartime service suggests that more historians need to undertake serious research concerning the role supply problems played in Confederate defeat.