Cold Harbor Mythology

I make it a point to show segments of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary to my Civil War classes. It is easy to see why it was so successful when it was first released. The blending of images, music, and Foote’s southern drawl is quite effective. When in class, however, I encourage my students to interpret the documentary as a historical source. We talk about the kinds of music used, the placement of certain images, and of course the narrative by David McCullough. I have to admit that sometimes I just want to sit back and take it all in, but at this point it is too tempting to critique. There are parts that I enjoy, but what stands out are the sections that go off the deep end. I hate the contrast in music and voice between Grant and Lee (Jason Robards does Grant, but I don’t remember who does Lee). The coverage of Lee’s surrender comes off as one big love fest; reunion seems to take place automatically.

The class recently watched the section on the 1864 Overland Campaign. The viewer is bombarded with the ghostly images of skeletons in the Wilderness left from the year before. Burns follows the armies to Cold Harbor which presents a perfect opportunity to share the standard bill of fare surrounding this particular bloodletting. Cold Harbor is interpreted as the paradigm example of the campaign’s ferociousness. We know whats coming: (1) 7,000 casualties in about 35 minutes; (2) The attack was suicide-Grant’s one regret; (3) And for the grand finale, Union soldiers sewed their names into their jackets for identification.

We do love our Civil War mythology and it is always difficult to part with it. Too bad none of the above is true. No one does a better job of debunking this than Gordon Rhea in his recent study, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June, 3, 1864. As to the 7,000 casualties, Rhea argues that the Union army suffered roughly 3,500 casualties, the majority in the first ten minutes of the attack. And those casualties were concentrated in four “green units recently transferred from the defenses of Washington and Baltimore. Veterans fighting alongside these units suffered light casualties. Though Rhea admits that the Union charge, “had little chance of succeeding” this does not imply that defeat was inevitable (p. 362). Only in hindsight can we say that the attack was a mistake. Union commanders bore part of the blame, including General Meade who “made no pretense of leadership.” (p. 363). As to the sewing of names on the part of Union soldiers in anticipation that their bodies would need to be identified (goes well with the inevitability argument), Rhea notes that apart from Horace Porter’s postwar account no other source confirms this persistent belief.

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