Old Myths Die Hard at Cold Harbor

With all the coverage of the 150th anniversary of Cold Harbor I was surprised by the persistence of two myths that refuse to give way. The first is the story of Union soldiers pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified and the second relates to the casualty figures that are commonly cited. Taken together they reinforce a compelling narrative of futile bloody assaults ordered by Ulysses S. Grant – the “great butcher” of the war.

The story of names stitched into coats is included in just about every news story that I read this past week. Ron Soodalter’s Disunion column states confidently that “many of them simply wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper, and pinned the notes to the inside of their blouses, so that their bodies could be identified for burial.” “Cold Harbor became Gettysburg in reverse,” according to Joel Achenbach. “The story goes that many pinned their names to their clothes before they charged, so that their bodies could be identified.”

Lt. Col. Robert Bateman cites Horace Porter’s postwar account of this unusual step by Union soldiers as does Geoffrey Norman at the Weekly Standard. It turns out that Porter’s reference is the only account we have of this sad nod of what many soldiers likely anticipated.

Published twelve years ago, Gordon Rhea’s, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, is my go-to book on the battle. Rhea addresses the persistence of this story.

Writing more than thirty years later, Grant’s aide Porter left a vivid account of Federal troops at Cold Harbor “calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper, and pinning 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.” The scene painted by Porter has become a standard fixture in accounts of the battle. His dramatic scenario is suspect, however, as nothing in letters, diaries or contemporaneous newspaper accounts corroborates it. Union soldiers did resort to name tags in November 1863, when they thought they would be called to attack an imposing rebel position at Mine Run. But no one who was at Cold Harbor–at least until Porter’s narrative appeared–mentioned similar happenings there, raising the likelihood that this is no more than another of the sensational inventions that frequent his memoir. Judging from surviving letter and diaries, Union soldiers were no more concerned about the assault scheduled for the morning of June 3 than they had been before the campaign’s other major attacks. (p. 312)

The second prong of the Cold Harbor narrative relates to casualties. The wide range of Union casualty figures cited as having occurred during the first phase of the early morning June 3 attack sometimes remind me of wild claims about how many black Confederates served in the army. Wayne Phaneuf writes that, “In the first 10 minutes of the charge 7,000 Union soldiers were either killed or wounded.” Surprisingly, historian Howard Coffin states that “within minutes, some 6,000 Union soldiers were shot.” Finally, Bateman confidently assumes, “Most historians are comfortable with the figures of roughly 7,000 American casualties in about 30 minutes this morning, between 04:40 and roughly 05:10.”

Rhea arrives at a very different conclusion: “Losses for the day thus amounted to some 1,500 for the 18th Corps, at most 2,500 for the 2nd Corps, and probably 600 for the 6th Corps, yielding approximately 4,500 men officers and men dead, wounded, and missing.” (p. 362) On the northern sector of the battlefield Rhea arrives at 1,200 casualties for the 5th and 9th Corps fronts, which brings the total number to around 6,000.

I guess we could blame Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. Stay tuned for stories of starving and shoeless Confederate soldiers at Petersburg.

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33 thoughts on “Old Myths Die Hard at Cold Harbor

  1. James Harrigan

    I’m all in favor of bashing Ken Burns and Shelby Foote, Kevin, but I seem to recall first reading the names-pinned-on-coats story in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (I could be wrong about this, I don’t have the book handy). I was pretty disappointed with yesterday’s Disunion post for a different reason, as it opens with the Lost Cause canard that
    “…Grant had brought a new approach to the war – one of absolute and brutal attrition. Knowing that he could replace as many men as he lost, even as the rebel army suffered from a desperate shortage of manpower, he had bulldozed his way across Virginia in what was named the Overland Campaign, throwing tens of thousands of men against the Confederate wall.”
    From my reading this is just not true – the Overland Campaign was a bloodbath because Grant and Lee were both determined to win, not because Grant was some sort of mindless butcher. This doesn’t change the fact that Grant made horrible decisions at Cold Harbor, though.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I am not “bashing” Burns and Foote. I am simply acknowledging their influence. Rhea would no doubt disagree with the characterization of Grant as having bulldozed his way across Virginia. His maneuvering was much more intentional.

      This doesn’t change the fact that Grant made horrible decisions at Cold Harbor, though.

      Were they any more “horrible” than Spotsylvania or the Crater?

      Reply
    2. Brooks D. Simpson

      Simply put: what were these decisions? Who made them? Why were they horrible decisions? Given that Meade bragged to his wife on June 4 that he managed the assault, thinks look a more complicated on my end. I think Grant’s most horrible decision at Cold Harbor was in engaging in a vain and fruitless debate with Lee over a flag of truce to gather casualties — an incident that did not reflect well on either man.

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    3. Freedmen's Patrol

      I have Battle Cry of Freedom at hand. McPherson talks about the battle on page 735 of my edition, including both the names pinned on coats story and the 7,000 casualties for the day. It’s the first page listed for Cold Harbor in the index.

      Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I came across your comment following the Bateman piece, which made my job much easier. You saved me a good deal of time as I was looking through the many sticky notes attached to my copy of Rhea.

      Reply
  2. Brooks D. Simpson

    As for the makeshift dog tags story, I’ve come across accounts of soldiers doing the same thing in other battles, a reflection of the fact that there were no dog tags issued by the army. You can see ads for identification medals (next to ads for body armor) in various Civil War periodicals.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Did Porter simply misidentify the battle or was he up to something else with this story? I’ve come across a few references as well.

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      1. Brooks D. Simpson

        I don’t think Porter misidentified the battle. It’s also often misread (because people tend to quote what other people have said about this statement). Porter emphasizes their grim determination … not a fatalistic resignation to being killed. It’s been the misinterpretation of this description … that it was somehow unique, and that it signifies resignation to one’s fate … that people who simply don’t read the original have perpetuated.

        To me the interesting issue is why Cold Harbor retains a hold on the popular imagination that is not merited by the facts. It was a poorly-planned and executed assault that ended quickly, but that happened many times during the war, and other such assaults were far more costly and significant. It wasn’t even the bloodiest assault during the campaign, and it did not deter Grant in the slightest.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          To me the interesting issue is why Cold Harbor retains a hold on the popular imagination that is not merited by the facts.

          Agreed. Has Cold Harbor always been characterized as such or is its place in our Civil War memory a more recent occurrence?

          Reply
        2. Stephen Terry

          My guess is that Cold Harbor is singled out in Grant’s memoirs as the one he most regretted. If you’re looking to bash Grant, you can point to his own words on that battle.

          Reply
    2. Vince Slaugh

      Perhaps the adverb “calmly” applies because it was not uncommon or given much thought three years into the war. I just procured a June 1863 letter of a father to his son upon the son’s enlistment in a Pennsylvania militia regiment. The father wrote: “If you should go into battle keep cool and do not act rashly. If you could put your name on your body not clothes as they will be stolen off. In case of death we could recognize it. It would be a satisfaction to us as I hope all those that are true to the Union…”

      It’s just one anecdote, but it might indicate that the topic is difficult to research if soldiers were less inclined to mention it than families in their letters (which of course rarely made it to the archives).

      Reply
  3. Nathan Towne

    Kevin,

    Actually, over the course of the war, the Confederate High Command suffered from massive supply and logistical problems that along with shortages in manpower and problems in civilian support, greatly impeded the Confederate War effort, far more so than any other factor, including command and cohesion and certainly more so, by levels of magnitude, than national military policy (which was very adaptable and quite fluid). It is very clear, from a purely military perspective, that the massive gains made by the Federal military in the Winter and Spring of 1862, left the National Government and hence the integrity of the Confederate nation in a position of extreme vulnerability. A box in fact that it ultimately never recovered from. Clearly, from a National perspective, the central government in Richmond, moving into the Summer of 1862 was left devoid of any good overall, situation altering options which could have dramatically changed the general outlook of the war. The seeds of the Confederate nation’s ultimate destruction, on a national scale, were firmly imbedded and the nation suffered a slow, agonizing death at the hands of combined U.S. operations across the extent of the Confederate nation.

    Not only were supply problems in the Petersburg region very real and present on a massive scale, but were by no means unique to 1864 (not even close) nor to the region. We must not attempt to be contrarian, solely for the sake of being contrarian. I could take you through crisis after crisis after crisis on the national, state and local level if you would like, but honestly I’m not even sure where to start as it is such a monolithic subject.

    Finally, although you haven’t mentioned it, I have a feeling that you may be being influenced by Donald Stoker’s book entitled “The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War.” If so, I would warn you to be very careful.

    Nathan Towne

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      While I don’t want to underestimate the logistical challenges that the Confederate war effort faced your summary reflects too much of an “internalist” explanation of defeat. That very brief sentence in the post was not influenced by having read Stoker’s book, but by reading hundreds of letters and diaries from actual Confederate soldiers who were present around Petersburg in 1864.

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      1. Nathan Towne

        No, no, no. Entirely the opposite. I don’t believe that the Confederate national experiment died because of a lack of support for the cause or overarching dogma in the prosecution of the war effort. In fact, the truth is entirely the opposite, the Confederate people waged the war with tremendous vigor and went to great lengths (sometimes extraordinary lengths) to protect and defend the institution of slavery and as a whole, the Davis administration was highly competent and managed the war effort quite well, despite obviously a severe ebbing and flowing of criticism of it as the health of the Confederate nation fluctuated.

        Clearly, the United States, as a nation, ultimately prosecuted the war to its ultimate conclusion and was ultimately able to bring the Confederate experiment to its knees. Of course during that process the Confederate military suffered, it suffered immensely and the Confederate people suffered via the extreme hardships that the war brought upon them.

        Nathan Towne

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          1. Nathan Towne

            Of course. It seems that you don’t agree with some aspect of what I am saying?

            Nathan Towne

            Reply
              1. Nathan Towne

                Would I be wrong to say that it isn’t clear how much we really disagree? The disagreement may be one of small degree. As of now, I can’t say.

                Nathan Towne

                Reply
  4. GdBrasher

    Kevin, as you know, I was a park ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park for 8 years back in the 1990′s. The number of visitors that came in believing the casualty myth was astounding, and no doubt still is. (Further, many seemed to believe that the huge number of casualties were all suffered in one particular tight spot on the battlefield, rather than across the 7-8 mile front—making it even more of a slaughter). And your inference is correct, most of them attached the belief (and the pinned names) to the Lost Cause narrative of Grant as a butcher who was willing to uncaringly slaughter men just to overwhelm Lee with sheer numbers. I dealt with this almost every day in the park.

    But what I want to point out is that the attack on this myth did not begin with Gordon Rhea. Years before the book came out, Robert Krick Jr. (Park service historian in Richmond) used his research to assault the claim, and every ranger assigned to Cold Harbor went out there armed with his fact-supported argument against the myth. Rhea consulted with park historians when working on his narrative, and I can confidently state that Krick’s influence is largely behind Rhea’s analysis of the casualty rates. I just wanted to add this to your post as a means of highlighting the work of the professional historians working at our NPS sites. (A point I know you are sympathetic to).

    And yet, all these years later the myth persists and was all over the internet yesterday. Which highlights yet again another point I know you are sympathetic to . . . professional historians need to continue to engage and combat the misinformation bouncing around the web.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks for the additional information. Given Krick’s familiarity with- and extensive research on the Richmond area battlefields I am not surprised to hear this.

      Reply
  5. Brendan Bossard

    Maybe I’m reading the wrong stuff, but I have not sensed a broad current notion that Grant was a butcher. My impression is that this was an idea promoted by his and Lincoln’s contemporary political enemies that then diminished as time and historical perspective took its place. I personally don’t see how a modern historian of average or better quality can endorse this one-sided idea, since he was certainly one of the most successful generals of the war, and was facing a determined and resourceful enemy in Lee and his army. Together with Sherman, Grant certainly used one of the most basic principles of warfare: grab ‘em by the belt (Grant) and kick ‘em in the pants (Sherman).

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  6. Sara

    I have been dreading the anniversary of Cold Harbor, fearing a rehash of the tired and false “Grant the Butcher” stories, and the Disunion article certainly shows that my fears were justified. Thank you, Mr. Levin, for your efforts to correct these misrepresentations. They do a great deal of injustice to a man who deserves better.

    In “A Stillness at Appomattox,” Bruce Catton – all the way back in 1953 – pointed out how Cold Harbor has been routinely misrepresented in an effort to tarnish Grant’s reputation. In one of the notes on the Cold Harbor chapter, Catton says: “…for some reason – chiefly, perhaps, the desire to paint Grant as a callous and uninspired butcher – no other Civil War battle gets as warped a presentation as this one.” He goes on to say that the 13,000 casualty number often connected with the battle is actually
    the total for the two weeks in the Cold Harbor lines. I don’t know if this figure is correct, or if there have been more recent reassessments of the numbers for the two week period, but I do know that I have routinely encountered the representation that Cold Harbor was a battle in which 13,000 were lost in a single day’s engagement. It’s very sad that such misrepresentations survive in 2014. I always gave Ken Burns a great deal of credit for reviving interest in the War, and particularly for inspiring my interest in it – but rewatching the series recently, I was greatly disappointed in its negative depiction of Grant’s eastern campaign. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the myths persist in light of such treatments.

    On the subject of Horace Porter, I tend to believe Porter’s account – perhaps just because I like him and enjoy reading “Campaigning with Grant” so much. I agree with Prof. Simpson, however, that Porter’s description of the incident was likely intended to illustrate the tenacity and determination of the soldiers. As a lifelong friend and admirer of Grant, it is unlikely that he meant for the incident to be seen as a condemnation of the attack.

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  7. EK

    My apologies if this is off topic, but it reminds me a diary from Belle Island that I found last summer . Although meaning has to be inferred, it seems simultaneously grim and nonchalant:

    “Fair day and tolerable warm. Quite a difference between Sunday here and at home. Had my name tattooed on my arm to day. Rained again at night.” John Whiten diary, December 13, 1863, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

    EK

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  8. Buck Buchanan

    Funny how the 6,556 casualties suffered during the Pickett/Pettigrew/Trimble charge at Gettysburg never gets Lee called a butcher.

    Reply
      1. GdBrasher

        Placing all the blame on Lee for Malvern Hill is also another unshakable myth. But that is complicated story for another day/blog post.

        Reply
        1. Kevin Levin Post author

          Lee is, however, more often credited for placing his army in a position where it could carry out its own strategic goals as a result of his costly offensives during the Seven Days. It seems to me that Cold Harbor typically overshadows the fact that Grant managed to bring his army to a point where it could effectively crush the Confederacy’s ability to prosecute the war in Virginia.

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  9. Bryan Cheeseboro

    How many Confederate casualties were there in the time of Pickett’s Charge? Weren’t there a similar number in about half an hour in that assault, too?

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  10. Mr Dave

    Emory Upton’s (who was there and participated in the battle) comments in letters to his sister:
    June 4, 1864.
    My Dear 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 intrenchments, 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. I must confess that, so long as I see such incompetency, there is no grade in the army to which I do not aspire.

    and
    Headquarters Second Brigade, June 5, 1864.
    My DEAR Sister: We are now at Cold Harbor, where we have been since June 1st. On that day we had a murderous engagement. I say murderous, because we were recklessly ordered to assault the enemy’s intrenchments, knowing neither their strength nor position. Our loss was very heavy, and to no purpose. Our men are brave, but can not accomplish impossibilities. My brigade lost about three hundred men. My horse was killed, but I escaped unharmed. Since June 1st we have been behind rifle-pits, about three hundred yards from the enemy. A constant fusillade from both sides has been kept up, and, though but little damage has been done, it is, nevertheless, very annoying.
    I am very sorry to say I have seen but little generalship during the campaign. 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 position or numbers. Twenty thousand of our killed and wounded should to-day be in our ranks. But I will cease fault-finding, and express the hope that mere numbers will yet enable us to enter Richmond. Please give my love to all. I am as anxious to hear from home as you are to hear from me. The fatigue of the campaign hardly disposes one for letter-writing.

    Reply

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