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Carnage In Rural Virginia

ISSUE:  Spring 2001
Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor, 1864. By Ernest B. Furgurson. Alfred A. Knopf. $2750

“What is the matter with this Army?” asked a frustrated Ulysses S. Grant after the battle of Cold Harbor ended in bitter defeat for the Army of the Potomac on June 3, 1864. None on Grant’s staff dared point the finger of blame at the Union Commanding General himself, although at the time others found fault. One hundred and thirty seven years later, Ernest B. Furgurson, a respected journalist who has published on the Civil War, weighs in with his own response to Grant’s query, and he does not paint a pretty picture.

While Furgurson does not advance any startling new arguments about Cold Harbor, or military strategy in the Civil War, Not War But Murder is a good read, and has all the elements of a tragic novel. The human dimension is smoothly interwoven into the book, bringing a refreshing counterpoint to the military narrative. Stories of common and uncommon soldiers, of the fear and terror of combat, of the cost of the War on the civilian populations, of political posturing and blunders, enjoin the reader to care deeply about the fate of the poor doomed men at Cold Harbor, the misnamed tiny crossroads town deep in rural Virginia. The details of the carnage retain their power to shock and sadden even in today’s violence-saturated culture. Grant’s massive frontal assault on entrenched Confederate lines failed miserably. That terrible day saw some 7,000 Federal casualties (to less than 1,500 for the Rebels), shattered three Union corps, and lent truth to the anguished memories of a Southern soldier who wrote, “It was not war, it was murder.” Incredibly, Furgurson’s book is the first full-blown account of Cold Harbor. A well-researched and thoughtful account of a battle that many have called a brutal harbinger of modern warfare, it is a welcome addition to Civil War military history.

The beginning chapters of the book place Cold Harbor in the context of the Overland Campaign, part of the great Union effort to win the war after the stunning victories of the summer and fall of 1863.(The maps, photographs, illustrations, and the appendixes are all excellent and helpful to the reader). When the approximately 120,000 strong Army of the Potomac (versus Lee’s army estimated at 65,000) crossed the Rapidan River in the first week of May 1864, it carried with it the high hopes of a war-weary Northern people for a quick end to the seemingly endless conflict. A weakened South, low in both material and morale, could not possibly withstand the mighty numbers and logistical power of the two major Northern armies gathered in Virginia and Tennessee. They were poised to strike and destroy under the direction of Generals Grant and William T. Sherman, the victors of Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga, and heroes of the Union’s western armies.

At least that was the common wisdom in early 1864. Despite the optimism, there was much reason to be suspicious of an easy victory, as President Lincoln and General Grant knew all too well. Experience had demonstrated that superior numbers and overwhelming industrial power did not translate into winning the war without the kind of military leadership that would bring decisive victory on the battlefield. Leadership was particularly deficient in the hard-luck Army of the Potomac, the Union’s principal military unit in the Eastern Theater, despite its recent (and only) clear-cut victory at Gettysburg under the command of General George Meade. That is why Grant, now commander of all Union forces, chose to accompany the eastern army, and direct its operations, even at the risk of confusing the chain of command. General Robert E. Lee was a formidable foe, and his soldiers had bested their opponents in many battles fought in 1862 and 1863 on some of the same ground that the Army of the Potomac was now marching across. Grant’s plan for victory was simple and straightforward: force the Army of Northern Virginia out into the open and defeat them in battle, and then, “On to Richmond.” With other Union armies also on the attack, the war could be over shortly, if all went well.

All did not go well, to say the least. Furgurson recounts the movements of the Overland Campaign, and with it, the dramatic unraveling of the Union strategy against Lee. Grant’s attempt to move swiftly through a thick patch of overgrown brush and trees known locally as the Wilderness was foiled as Lee adeptly blocked his way and forced a battle, which resulted in a tactical victory for the Rebel defenders. A shock for the Confederates came when Grant refused to pack up and go home, as so many had done before him. As Furgurson notes in his largely uncritical portrayal of the Confederate general, the spring of 1864 was one of Lee’s finest moments, when he switched from his favored aggressive style to one of defensive warfare, and thus prolonged the life of the Confederate nation. Weakened by illness, handicapped by the loss of Generals Longstreet and Stuart, and faced with a much larger opponent, Lee nonetheless thwarted the Union Army’s leftward thrusts toward Richmond in the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, at North Anna, and at Cold Harbor. The Confederacy’s best hopes rested on a failure of Northern will to carry on the war, once the high cost of these battles was widely known. In turn, Lincoln would lose the presidency, and a Democratic administration favorable to Southern independence would bring the participants to a conference table. The stakes were high indeed.

Thus decisions made by both Grant and Lee (and backed fully by their presidents) turned the war into a relentless, exhausting, horrific experience for the soldiers. Cold Harbor is a case study of the new style of impersonal warfare, leading Furgurson to assert that it was “a turning point of the War.” There, 59,000 well-entrenched Rebels faced 109,000 Federals across a seven-mile front. Grant’s belief that Lee’s men were exhausted and demoralized was wrong; in fact, those adjectives would apply to more of his own soldiers. The assault was a disaster, and before the end of the day, Grant stopped the fighting. “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered,” he said. The Army of the Potomac was never the same after Cold Harbor. Historians have described the men’s behavior in terms of the battle fatigue suffered by soldiers in World Wars I and II. “Cold Harbor syndrome” probably was the reason that Federal soldiers did not fight aggressively to capture Petersburg, Grant’s next stop. Instead, the two armies settled down into a nine-month stalemate, which doomed the Confederacy. As Lee correctly surmised earlier: “We must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River. If he gets there it will become a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.”

Who is to blame for Cold Harbor? Here is Furgurson’s answer: “Grant badly misunderstood the enemy, from Robert E. Lee down to the leanest Alabama rifleman. That helps explain why he ordered the final assault on Cold Harbor. He also misunderstood his own army, from George G. Meade down to the weariest Massachusetts private. That helps explain why the assault failed so miserably.” Grant cannot shoulder the whole blame, and much of the book describes in riveting detail a proud yet troubled Army of the Potomac doubtful of its top officers’ ability to defeat, finally, the Army of Northern Virginia. The rivalries, backstabbing, and the jealousies that characterized the army had serious negative consequences. Repeatedly, in almost every battle of this campaign, and certainly at Cold Harbor, miscues, blunders, and downright insubordinate actions revealed corps, division, and regimental officers inexcusably deficient in both preparation and execution.

Both sides, however, were determined to prevail, and even in those dark months, found the will to continue fighting. Undeniably, the costs of the war escalated dramatically in 1864 and undeniably, Ulysses S. Grant, called “the butcher” after Cold Harbor, played a large role in that escalation, as did Robert E. Lee. Furgurson correctly calls Cold Harbor a turning point in both strategy and tactics, when inexorably, “the war of maneuver became a war of siege.” He goes on to portray Cold Harbor as a defeat for the Union leadership, notably the general-in-chief, whose misreading of both armies set the stage for the “mindless slaughter” of June 3, 1864.

I found reading Ernest B. Furgurson’s Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 an enlightening experience. I recommend this book to those who really want to understand “the wages of war.” The sacrifices made, and the losses suffered, by the men and women of this time are almost unimaginable to today’s Americans. I noted with interest the dedication to his grandchildren (I am presuming) “may they never see such things.” I agree with that sentiment completely, but I hope that the readers of this fine study of one battle will try to put the war in a larger perspective.

Frankly, I longed for Furgurson to present more of the bigger picture, to identify the forest as well as the trees. That bigger picture is neatly summed up by General Horace Porter of Grant’s staff, who described his superiors’ attitude after June 3: “General Grant, with his usual habit of mind, bent all his energies toward consummation of his plans for the future.” Grant’s plans, which were Lincoln’s as well, were consummated, as all the armies he commanded successfully defeated the Confederates, restored the Union, and not incidentally brought (an admittedly imperfectly realized) freedom to four million slaves. Thus, the sacrifice and courage displayed by so many at Cold Harbor was actually not in vain, was not just a senseless exercise in violence far outside the boundaries of what passed for traditional warfare in the 19th century. It was not murder, but war.


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