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Death was everywhere at Cold Harbor in 1864, but the point of the killing and the war itself seemed lost.

THE REVERED CIVIL WAR HISTORIAN and writer Bruce Catton won a Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for A Stillness at Appomattox, his account of the war’s final year. In May 1864, soon after Ulysses S. Grant was named the Union’s general in chief, he took the Army of the Potomac south and crossed the Rapidan River into central Virginia, hoping to draw Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia into the open and destroy it.

On June 1 and June 3, the Union made several assaults on fortified Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, only to suffer enormous losses in one of the North’s bloodiest and most lopsided defeats. What follows is an excerpt from Stillness that describes the first days of trench warfare that followed, as well as Grant’s decision to leave Cold Harbor and seek a decisive battle against Lee by attacking Petersburg, a key to Confederate supply lines.

Life began with darkness. All day long the men out in front huddled close to the ground, dust in their teeth, a glaring sun pressing on their shoulders. To peer over the rim of earth that lay between the firing line and the enemy was to ask for a bullet, and it was almost certain death to try to go to the rear for any reason at all—to have a wound dressed, to get food, to fill a canteen with muddy warm water, or to attend to a call of nature. Death was everywhere, its unspeakable scent in every breath men drew, the ugly whine of it keening through the air over the flat whack of the sharpshooter’s rifle. On distant elevations, obscure in the quivering haze, there were the guns, cleverly sited, and the gunners were prompt to fire at anything that moved. From one end of the army to the other, men endured heat and thirst and nameless discomforts and waited for night. At night the front came alive. Along the lines men took the shovels and picks and axes which details brought out to them and worked to make their trenches deep and strong. Where there were trees, they cut them down, put the slashed branches out in front for an abatis, and used the logs to make the breastworks solid. They dug their trenches deep, so that a man could stand erect in them without being shot, and they cut zigzag alleyways through the earth back toward the rear, so that they might go to and from the front without being killed.

Being very human, the soldiers on both sides often dug their trenches so deep that while they offered almost perfect protection against enemy fire, they were quite useless for fighting purposes. In each army it was found that there were long stretches of trench in which a man could not possibly point his musket toward the enemy, and from both blue and gray headquarters orders went out to the front-line commanders warning that there must always be fire steps on which riflemen could stand to shoot their foes.

Along with much of the line, the trenches were so close that the men could hear their enemies chatting together. In many places the lines were not far enough apart to give the pickets proper room, and in these places there was constant skirmishing all the way around the clock. Even where there was a decent distance, the lines were seldom quiet. Half a dozen shots from the skirmish lines could bring great rolling salvos from the guns, so that at times it sounded as if an immense battle were rocking back and forth over the desolate bottomlands. Most of this cannonading did no great harm, for the men in the deep trenches were well protected against missiles fired with relatively flat trajectory, and fuses were so imperfect that even the best gunners could rarely explode a shell directly over a trench. To get around this difficulty the artillery brought up coehorns— squat little jugs of iron that rested on flat wooden bases and pointed up toward the sky, mortars that could toss shells in a high arc so that they might fall into a distant slit in the earth. At night the fuses from these shells traced spluttering red patterns across the sky.

The infantry hated the mortars, regarding them, as one veteran said, as “a contemptible scheme to make a soldier’s life wretched.” The weapons were usually out of sight behind a bank of earth, and when they were fired the men in the trenches could neither hear the report nor see the flash and puff of smoke. They had no warning: nothing but the hissing spark that rose deliberately, seemed to hang in the air high overhead, and then fell to earth to explode.

Even more than the mortars, however, the soldiers hated sharpshooters. They had a feeling that sharpshooters never really affected the course of a battle: They were sheer malignant nuisances, taking unfair advantages and killing men who might just as well have remained alive. One artillerist wrote that the sharpshooters would “sneak around trees or lurk behind stumps” and from this shelter “murder a few men,” and he burst out with the most indignant complaint of all: “There was an unwritten code of honor among the infantry that forbade the shooting of men while attending to the imperative calls of nature, and these sharpshooting brutes were constantly violating that rule. I hated sharpshooters, both Confederate and Union, and I was always glad to see them killed.”

So much of the killing these days seemed to be meaningless. In a great battle men died to take or defend some particular point, and it could be seen that there was some reason for their deaths. But there were so many deaths that affected the outcome of the war not a particle—deaths that had nothing to do with the progress of the campaign or with the great struggle for union and freedom but that simply happened, doing no one any good. There was one day when a Federal battery took position in the yard of a farmhouse and began to duel with a Confederate battery a mile away. The firing grew hot, and the people who lived in the farmhouse huddled inside in desperate fear; and presently a poor colored servant in the house, driven beside herself with terror, sprang up in a lunatic frenzy, scooped up a shovelful of live coals from the hearth, ran to the doorway, and threw the glowing coals out in a wild swing. The coals landed in an open limber chest, which blew up with a mighty crash. Two or three gunners were killed outright, two or three more were blinded forever, the woman was quite unhurt—and there were more names for the casualty lists, testifying to nothing except that war was a madman’s business.

Now and then higher authority considered making a new assault. One day a note from [the Union’s] II Corps headquarters came up to General [Francis] Barlow, asking if he thought that the works in his front could be carried. Barlow was one of the few general officers in the army who actively enjoyed a good fight, but this time he advised against an attack, explaining that “the men feel just at present a great horror and dread of attacking earthworks again….I think the men are so wearied and worn out by the harassing labors of the past week that they are wanting in the spirit and dash necessary for successful assaults.” The men had become very war-wise. They knew better than anyone else the impossibility of carrying the Rebel trenches, and as [General Winfield Scott] Hancock said, when they were ordered to attack “they went as far as the example of their officers could carry them”—and no farther. Officers who could persuade them to do the impossible were becoming scarce. There had been more than a month of fighting and the best company and regimental officers were getting killed off. The best officers were always going into the most dangerous places, and there had been dangerous places without number in the past month, and the law of averages was working….

Looking back on the Cold Harbor assault, a staff man in the VI Corps wrote…a bitter letter to his sister:

I am disgusted with the generalship displayed. Our men have, in many instances, been foolishly and wantonly sacrificed. Assault after assault has been ordered upon the enemy’s entrenchments when they knew nothing about the strength or position of the enemy. Thousands of lives might have been spared by the exercise of a little skill; but, as it is, the courage of the poor men is expected to obviate all difficulties.

Reflecting further on the matter, he wrote a few days later:

Some of our corps commanders are not fit to be corporals. Lazy and indolent, they will not even ride along their lines; yet, without hesitancy, they will order us to attack the enemy, no matter what their positions or numbers. Twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should today be in our ranks.…

The Army of the Potomac seems to have spent more time talking and thinking about its opposite number, the Army of Northern Virginia, than about its own high command.

Its relationship with the Confederate army was unusual, a queer blend of antagonism and understanding. At times the feeling between the two armies was downright savage. A man in [General William F. “Baldy”] Smith’s corps complained bitterly that long after the June 3 attacks had ended, Confederate riflemen amused themselves by shooting at the wounded men between the lines. Sometimes, he said, they even fired at corpses. There was a wounded New Hampshire officer who lay helpless, twenty yards in front of the Union trenches, and all day long the Confederate sharpshooters kept anyone from going out to help him. One man was killed in the attempt, and after that the Union soldiers tried throwing canteens of water and bags of hardtack out to the wounded man, but nothing effective could be done for him as long as the Rebels could see to shoot. After dark, men dug a shallow trench out to where the officer lay, and after three hours’ work they managed to get him back to safety. All of the soldiers in the line set up a cheer when the officer was brought in, and the cheer promptly drew a volley from the Confederate rifle pits.

That was one side of the coin. For the other side, there was the fact that the pickets constantly arranged informal truces, meeting between the lines to trade knives, tobacco, newspapers, and other small valuables, and as they traded they talked things over….

A Massachusetts soldier on the II Corps front told how his regiment made friends with a Confederate regiment opposite it and worked out a fairly extended cessation of hostilities, and he said that if the enlisted men of the two armies had the power to settle the war, “not another shot would have been fired.” The friendly Confederate regiment was at length moved away from there, and just before it left a Rebel soldier stood up on the rampart and called out a warning: “Keep down, Yanks—we ’uns are going away.” As soon as the replacements came in, the firing was resumed. When the V Corps was shifted around to the left of the Union line, so that that it faced the Confederates across the Chickahominy River, the 118th Pennsylvania and the 35th North Carolina put in the day sitting on opposite banks of the narrow stream, fishing and chatting.

A soldier in a New York heavy artillery regiment wrote that it seemed, now and then, as if an increasing number of Confederates were willing to slip over to the Union side after dark and surrender, yet he added wryly that “when it comes to fighting, one would not suppose that any of them had the faintest idea of surrendering.” Between fights, he said, Northerners and Southerners talked things over, concluded that peace would be a very fine thing, and agreed that “if a few men on both sides who stayed at home were hung, matters could easily be arranged.”….

Of all the men who controlled and directed the war, Lincoln was the one who most deeply shared the spirit that moved across the steaming trenches at Cold Harbor—fight to the limit as long as the fighting has to go on, but strike hands and be friends the moment the fighting stops. Before the war even began, in that haunted springtime when its dark shape was rising, Lincoln had tried to warn North and South that they could never travel on separate roads. Win or lose, someday they would have to get along with each other again, and whatever they did before that day came had better be done in such a way that getting along together would still be possible. The soldiers had got the point perfectly, and they expressed it very simply: Hang a few troublemakers and we’ll all go home. Mysteriously, the fighting seemed to be bringing them mutual understanding, and they may almost have been closer to each other, in spirit, than they were to their own civilians back home. Yet there was nothing they could do about it. They had not made the war and they would not end it. They could only fight it.

And the men who had made the war—the sharp politicians and the devoted patriots, the men who dreamed the American dream in different ways and the other men who never dreamed any dreams at all but who had a canny eye for power and influence—most of these, by now, were prisoners of their own creation.

The hospitals in Washington were full as never before, and every day steamers came up the river with more broken bodies to be unloaded, and it was easy for those who watched this pathetic pageant to be embittered by what had happened to these men rather than inspired by what they had dreamed of. It was hard to think clearly, and the act of embracing unmitigated violence could be a substitute for thought.

There was a colonel on Grant’s staff who typified the trend perfectly. He could see that Southern resistance was still very strong, although he did not seem to be able to see anything else very clearly, and he was going about the tents these days smiting an open palm with a clenched fist and growling: “Smash ’em up! Smash ’em up!” As a tactical slogan, this had its faults, since logically it led to nothing better than Cold Harbor assaults, but it was a perfect expression of the growing state of mind behind the fighting fronts. Smash ’em up: The war cannot be settled, it can only be won; smash ’em up—and afterward, on the pulverized fragments, we can sit down quietly and decide what we are going to do next.

If the war was to be won, it was important that it be won soon. It had been born of anger and misunderstanding and it was breeding more as it went along. It was pushing men to the point where vengeance seemed essential, driving even a man like [Navy Secretary Gideon] Welles to think well of the process of dangling a political opponent by the neck, with convulsive feet kicking at the unsustaining air. The longer the war lasted, the harder it was for people to think beyond victory, the more probable that victory when it finally came would have to be total and unconditional. What Lincoln and the soldiers wanted was a dream, and 2,000 casualties a day created an atmosphere in which dreams could not live.

So a Cold Harbor stalemate was unendurable, and among the people who saw this was General Grant. He had been commissioned to break the fighting power of the Confederacy, and he still hoped that it could be done by one bold stroke rather than by a slow process of grinding and strangling and wearing out. Before he even bothered to seek a truce so that dead men might be buried and wounded men brought back within the lines—they lay there, untended, for several days, bullets flying low above them—he set things in motion for a new move. The network of trenches grew deep and strong, but even as they took on the air of grim permanence, the army that crouched in them was given a new objective.

From the moment he crossed the Rapidan, Grant’s ruling idea had been to go for Lee’s army without a letup—to keep that dangerous body of fighting men so everlastingly busy that it could never again seize the initiative, to compel it to fight its battles when and where Grant chose rather than by Lee’s selection. The chance for decisive victory lay that way, and in the past month’s fighting the army had come tolerably close to it two or three times. To stay in the Cold Harbor lines would be to give up all hope of decisive victory, for if anything was clear, it was that no offensive at or near Cold Harbor could possibly succeed. General [Henry] Halleck was clucking like a worried mother hen, urging that the army stay put and conduct a siege, running no risks and counting on time and general military erosion to wear the enemy down. But even though Grant had given the Army of the Potomac more trench warfare in a month than it had had in all of its earlier existence, he still believed in a war of movement. He had taken Vicksburg by maneuver and he had one maneuver left, and now he would try it.


Originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here