The Emotional Pull of Cold Harbor

Those of us who have spent significant time walking Civil War battlefields know that they evoke different emotions. Much of that is the result of the broader narrative that we bring to these sites. I was reminded of this yesterday as I was writing the post on Cold Harbor and as a result of following the comments. The Cold Harbor battlefield invokes in me a feeling of dread and anxiousness that I rarely feel on other battlefields. Perhaps it’s the name or some feint memory of the voices of David McCullough and Shelby Foote from Ken Burns’s The Civil War that triggers it.

This comment left by Brooks Simpson is worth considering.

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.

Brooks is absolutely right yet this objective assessment will have little impact on any Cold Harbor experience that I may have in the future. The Civil War, indeed, is as Robert Penn Warren called it, “the most felt experience in American history.”

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

13 comments… add one

  • Ken Noe Jun 5, 2014

    For me it’s those pitiful piles of earth pinned-down Federals threw up under fire. They get me every time. But Cold Harbor, including the legend of the pinned-on names, is also a standard verse in the ‘American Iliad’ we still recite ritually, even if it’s only to occasionally debunk part of it. To use a different metaphor, it’s in the traditional liturgy.

  • GdBrasher Jun 5, 2014

    Personally, I feel that the battle does not retain enough attention in the popular imagination. Sadly, the things that stand out to people are the myths (the name pinning being unique to Cold Harbor, and the casualty rates), but not the things that make the battle truly stand out, or its true importance. It featured a frontal assault that was 4 times as large as Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg; Meade’s otherwise capable corp commanders utterly failed to reconnoiter the grounds in their fronts and failed to coordinate their assaults; Hancock’s corps’ experiences at Cold Harbor help to explain their failure to overwhelm Petersburg’s lightly held defensive on the first day of the assaults there (which could have shortened the war); unlike most battlefields prior to Petersburg, the two armies remained in their positions for two weeks looking out at the battlefield, staring at its bloated and mangled corpses, smelling the dead in every breath they took and tasting it in the water they drank; the two armies got an extensive preview of the trench warfare that would dominate the rest of their war—the monotony and boredom, the daily and random sudden deaths from sharp-shooters, the sense of wasting away under the baking sun, the daily digging to improve the lines, etc; and lastly, and I think most importantly, Grant’s strategic decision to maneuver to Petersburg, and the planning and execution of that movement that for once fooled Lee and ultimately won the war, was devised at Cold Harbor as a direct result of what happened there. For most people, all of this gets lost in the “7,000 casualties in 20 minutes” nonsense.

    As for the feelings that being on the battlefield invoke, I think much of this comes from the fact that at Cold Harbor you can feel the presence of the armies there to an even larger degree than on most other battlefields. The lack of monuments does not draw your attention to their post-war visits, and the trenches that they dug, under fire, with whatever they had to do it with (tin cups, plates, bayonets, spoons) are in a state of preservation rivaled by few other battlefields (in many places–especially on the walking trail– they are still as deep as when the men were in them). Yes, you can find siege lines in other places that are as remarkable, but the Cold Harbor lines were constructed by the soldiers during the fight when throwing as much dirt in front of them as quickly as possible was a matter of immediate life or death. Further, unlike other battles prior to Petersburg, the armies did not fight and move on. They stayed there for two weeks dealing with the battle’s horrific sites and smells day after day. When walking the quiet, non-commercialized trails of Cold Harbor, with their trenches all around you, you can’t help but “feel” the two armies and the hell that was their existence at the end of the Overland Campaign–the war’s most brutal.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2014

      The lack of monuments does not draw your attention to their post-war visits, and the trenches that they dug, under fire, with whatever they had to do it with (tin cups, plates, bayonets, spoons) are in a state of preservation rivaled by few other battlefields (in many places–especially on the walking trail– they are still as deep as when the men were in them).

      Really good point. Thanks.

  • Ben Allen Jun 5, 2014

    “The Civil War, indeed, is as Robert Penn Warren called it, ‘the most felt experience in American history.'” More felt than the Revolution!? More felt than the Second World War!? To think that this statement was written the day before the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day! Come now. :)

    Also, I don’t think Cold Harbor has much of a hold on the popular imagination, unless by “popular” you mean “exclusively those who are at least very acquainted with the American Civil War.” I don’t think most of my friends who wear and wave the Rebel flag know there was such a battle. Of course, that fact should come as no surprise to anybody.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2014

      Yes, more felt than WWII, including D-Day.

      I was speaking for those who are familiar with the war.

      • Ben Allen Jun 5, 2014

        If you think the American Civil War is more felt than the Second World War because of the Lost Cause factor and its residue, what about the skinheads, Holocaust deniers, the various Nazi and Fascist organizations all over the world, and Japanese memory of the later conflict? I have to admit: what Japan teaches in its schools seems to be very similar to the Lost Cause narrative. There’s no Nanjing, no Bataan Death March.

        • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2014

          Yes, there are skinheads, deniers and fascists all over the world.

          • Ben Allen Jun 5, 2014

            Then what makes the Second World War less felt than the Civil War? Are you considering only the United States in this matter? If so, I am in agreement. There seems to be far less skinheads, Nazis, and Holocaust deniers than there are Lost Causers and Neo-Confederates in the U.S. (and an even lesser amount of people who are both).

            • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2014

              All I did was quote Penn Warren. Why are you making such a big deal about this. I don’t really have anything to say about this. Actually, I misquoted Warren. It should read, “The Civil War is our only felt history.”

              • Ben Allen Jun 5, 2014

                “All I did was quote Penn Warren.” You quoted him because you agree with him.

                I was making a big deal about this because I feel there are many people in the U.S. who exaggerate how unique was the American Civil War, even if the rest of the world is not taken into account, just the United States. Not that it isn’t unique. It ended slavery in the U.S.; saw the first income tax in that country; made its citizens feel like they belonged a to nation thanks to increased Federal power; it proved to the rest of the world the durability of democracies; and saw the first draft calls in the country’s history. But was it “the first modern war?” They had ironclads in the Crimean War, and the Great War saw more of a military revolution, even though it doesn’t come close to being the first modern war. Is it “our [I assume Penn Warren is referring only to fellow Americans and himself] only felt history?” Of course not. Is it the only war that has a Lost Cause? Definitely not. There are plenty of individuals and groups around the globe that embrace concepts akin to the Lost Cause, as indicated by what I mentioned about the Second World War above.

                • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2014

                  I quoted him because I thought the quote reinforced the point I was making about Cold Harbor and other battlefields. Do I believe that it is our only “felt experience” in American history? NO. You are making way too big a deal about my use of the quote.

                  • Ben Allen Jun 9, 2014

                    Ah, but it is a reinforcement that is false. If I use such hyperbolic quotes by historians, I rationally qualify or refute such statements. Since there were no refutations or qualifications, it sounds like you do agree with him. I’ll be gracious considering that this is a blog without the benefit of an editor, with occasional posts done on the spur of the moment. :)

                    • Kevin Levin Jun 9, 2014

                      If this allows us to move on than so be it.

Leave a Comment