Forty thousand Union troops charged out of the woods at Cold Harbor, Virginia, into a spray of Confederate fire. Attackers fell by the hundreds as they approached the enemy entrenchments. The effort quickly proved hopeless, but the troops remained in the field. For the next nine hours of June 3, 1864, Union soldiers hugged the ground, digging in as well as they could. Many of them used the bodies of fallen comrades for protection while attempting to answer the Confederate fire. Union commanders repeatedly ordered their men to renew the assault, but the soldiers refused to budge. Finally Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant called off the attack.
In the initial charge, which had lasted less than 10 minutes, nearly 7,000 Union soldiers had been killed or wounded. Not until World War I would an army suffer such a high-casualty rate. Grant, the Union’s recently appointed general-in-chief, would one day write in his memoirs, “I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered.” But in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant took a very different tone as he drafted his post-action report to the War Department. “Our loss was not severe,” he wrote, “nor do I suppose the enemy lost heavily.”
Why would the battle-tested commander of all Union forces call the casualties of Cold Harbor not severe when they were the worst he had ever seen? How could he get away with such a gross misrepresentation when a virtual host of press correspondents followed the Union army’s every move? And why, once the truth came out, did he never come under even the mildest censure from his superiors? The answer seems to lie in a cover-up that involved not only Grant, but high-ranking members of President Abraham Lincoln’s administration—a cover-up that related directly to the powerful stresses that civil war was placing on the American system of representative government.
If Grant purposely understated the extent of the defeat at Cold Harbor, he may have done so because he realized that bad news from the Virginia front could turn the already frustrated Northern citizenry completely against the war effort. This would present major problems for the Lincoln administration, especially now, on the eve of the Republican convention, with the party just five days away from settling on its candidate for the November presidential election. Lincoln was clearly the party favorite, but as the war dragged on and the patience of the haggard Northern populace wore thinner, he was vulnerable. And if Lincoln was vulnerable, so was his general-in-chief.
The growing impatience of the Northern people was part of the reason why Grant had returned to the battle-scarred region between Fredericksburg and Richmond—and led him to initiate the Battle of Cold Harbor and the disastrous charge. Grant believed he was very close to destroying General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. If he could do so, the war would be over, and Lincoln would have no more worries about keeping the support of a people weary of war. Grant was convinced that if he could draw Lee’s army out into the open, he could inflict losses that Lee would be unable to replace. It was a matter of simple mathematics. Because the North had twice as many soldiers, if battlefield casualties accelerated equally on both sides, the Union army would soon be the only one left standing.
As part of this strategy, the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan River on May 4, 1864, and headed toward Richmond. In the Wilderness, a second-growth woodland full of short brush and twisted shrubbery, Grant’s army fought Lee’s army from May 5 through 7. The Battle of the Wilderness ended with Union losses nearly doubling those of the Confederacy, but the Army of the Potomac successfully continued toward the Confederate capital. A few days later, on May 11, Grant sent a dispatch to Washington, D.C.: “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Newspapers in the North picked up on this phrase and made it as famous as the unconditional surrender demand he had made two years earlier in capturing Fort Donelson, Tennessee.
Many Northerners hoped Grant was on a campaign that would decide the war once and for all. “We know it cannot be long before one or more bloody battles will take place in which…probably the Civil War will be decided as to its continuance, or termination,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on May 17. “My faith is firm in Union success, but I shall be glad when faith is fact.”
Even Grant, usually an understated man, boasted of his inevitable success in a letter dated May 26. “Lee’s army is really whipped,” Grant wrote to his predecessor in command of the Union armies, Major General Henry Halleck. “The prisoners we now take show it, and the action of his army shows it unmistakably…. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy and attack with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured.”
Grant was mistaken, and the hopes of Welles and many other optimistic patriots were dealt a severe blow. Grant erred in believing that Lee’s army was whipped and that his own troops would attack with confidence. True, the Union troops had fought with courage and valor in the Wilderness and again, on May 12, in a predawn assault at the Bloody Angle outside Spotsylvania Court House. But at Cold Harbor they were asked to make a frontal attack across open fields on entrenched Rebel positions. The soldiers, knowing far better than their commanders what awaited them, pinned to their uniforms slips of paper bearing their names and addresses, so their bodies could be identified after the battle. A blood-stained diary was recovered after the fight from the body of one Federal soldier. His final entry read, “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”
For the Union soldiers, the true horror of Cold Harbor was only beginning when Grant called off the disastrous nine-hour assault. As the survivors crawled back to their trenches or dug new fortifications, thousands of wounded soldiers remained on the battlefield, crying out for help. Attempts to reach them almost certainly met death. A Captain Holmes wrote home on June 4, “sharpshooters put a bullet wherever you show a head, and on June 7, you show your nose anywhere and sizzle come the bullets at it in less than the twinkling of a bedpost.” For two days after the battle, Grant made no attempt to propose a truce or to otherwise make provisions for the wounded Union soldiers dying between the battle lines. Tradition held that the first commander to ask the enemy’s permission to bring in wounded was the loser, and Grant would not admit losing.
Grant finally opened correspondence with Lee on June 5, informing him that wounded men, probably of both armies, lay exposed and suffering between the lines, and that for humanity’s sake, unarmed stretcher-bearers should be sent to pick up the dead and wounded. Lee agreed but wanted a flag of truce to be accepted first. Grant did not give in to Lee’s demand until the next day, June 7, a full four days after the men had fallen. In the meantime, Grant would admit in his memoirs, all but two of the wounded had died.
For the first time during Grant’s campaign in that summer of 1864, correspondents from Democratic newspapers failed to exploit a bloody Federal setback and the horror of a battle’s aftermath, even though the Battle of Cold Harbor had given them plenty of ammunition on both counts. In a matter of minutes, three Union corps had suffered more casualties than they had in 20 hours of terrible fighting at the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania. And for three days after the battle, the no-man’s land between the armies bore unspeakable horrors.
What occurred on June 3 should have appeared in banner headlines and sparked severe condemnation in the Democratic press. When a Union defeat of similar proportion had occurred at Fredericksburg in December 1862, newspapers immediately published the reports from the field, and the nation plunged into its deepest despair of the war. Yet the stories of June 4, 5, and 6, 1864, were simply reprints of verbatim releases from the War Department or accounts furnished by reporters from pro-administration newspapers.
It was more than a week before the Democratic press began reporting the actual events of June 3, and even then they relied on the syndicated reports of Republican correspondents. Stories syndicated by the Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Tribune, and New York Times served as the basis for the first detailed reports published by the anti-Lincoln press. Even as late as June 8, the Columbus Crisis, a rabidly Democratic newspaper, gave top billing to less important stories and buried accounts of Cold Harbor.
By the time newspapers such as the World and the Age finally published details of the Battle of Cold Harbor, it was too late. The Republicans had already renominated Lincoln and adopted a platform calling for the passage of a constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery throughout the United States. On the military side, the Army of the Potomac had already begun preparing for its next big move. The potentially devastating news of the worst Union defeat of the war had been kept from the public long enough that its impact was muted by other, more current events.
The Democratic press failed to exploit this defeat for several reasons. The three correspondents from the World who reported on the Army of the Potomac were unavailable to file reports. The principal reporter had been captured by Confederates, and the other two correspondents were ill. So they relied on the account of the June 3 fighting filed by the Times reporter.
Another reason was that foul weather on the Virginia Peninsula had caused problems with telegraph transmission. A War Department statement released at 10:00 p.m. on June 3 read:
Nothing has been heard from General Grant since his dispatch dated at 7 o’clock yesterday morning. Grant’s telegraph message with the clause. Our loss was not severe was sent at 2:00 p.m. on June 3, the day of the infamous charge, but was not reported as received until 7:55 the next morning.
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton promptly assigned blame: “Telegraphic communication has been delayed by a violent storm on the peninsula yesterday evening and last night and cannot be re-established before sometime tomorrow.” Perhaps the breakdown of the telegraph at the same time as the Cold Harbor defeat was a coincidence. If so, it was a coincidence that spared the Lincoln administration a major backlash from the populace.
Some Democratic correspondents may have left the battlefield to attend the Republican nominating convention in Baltimore. Though the convention did not begin until four days after the Cold Harbor tragedy, it is very likely that on June 3 the reporters were already in transit.
Southern newspapermen knew that Grant’s army had been dealt a devastating defeat at Cold Harbor. So when they saw innocuous descriptions of the battle in the Northern press, they assumed that Grant had telegraphed false accounts of the battle to protect Lincoln’s renomination prospects. In fact, in the only message Grant ever sent the War Department about Cold Harbor, the complete text read:
We assaulted at 4:30 this a.m., driving the enemy within his entrenchments at all points, but without gaining a decided advantage. We now occupy a position close to the enemy and in some places within fifty yards. Our loss was not severe, nor do I suppose the enemy lost heavily. We captured over three hundred prisoners mostly from Breckenridge’s command.
It was not simply by accident that the travesty and tragedy of the Battle of Cold Harbor was not officially acknowledged by the government until after the war. If Grant had been hesitant to report the extent of the defeat, he probably had the support of War Secretary Stanton, who also was trying to spare Lincoln from the public outcry that bad news from the front would spark. Stanton released a slightly more candid report on Cold Harbor on June 4.Another official report, not from Grant estimates our killed and wounded at 3,000, read an article in the June 6 edition of the World. Even this updated number was less than a third of the army’s total loss from May 31 to June 3 and less than half of those who fell during 10 minutes of the battle’s initial charge.
The Philadelphia Age, apparently more aware of the lost opportunity than its sister paper, the World, published an editorial on the Lincoln administration’s misleading reports in its June 9 edition:
We think Mr. Stanton might be a little more explicit in his telegrams about the condition of affairs in Virginia. He has of late been very meagre in giving intelligence. From his dispatches we can scarcely find out that there was fought one of the bloodiest battles of the war, yet, until yesterday, no one knew its result. If Mr. Stanton knew the public anxiety there is in the public mind to hear the truth about Virginia, he would be a little more explicit in his dispatches…. They have lost all significance as candid reports of military operations.
But Stanton knew all too well—perhaps better than anyone else in the country—what an impact the Cold Harbor tragedy could have had on the public just before the Republican convention. And no one else in the country was in a better position to screen the information that passed from the battlefield to the press. So, inclement weather or not, Stanton released vague dispatches, and in doing so confirmed that he was not only the civilian administrator of the army, but a member of the incumbent political family.
The inaccurate battle reports may have stemmed from the refusal of a proud commander and a politically astute cabinet officer to acknowledge that the army had been ordered to make a suicidal attack. Or perhaps it was the general policy of the army high command to withhold or understate the truth of unfavorable battle results. Union Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain commented on the situation in the summer of 1864 in his book The Passing of the Armies. He wrote about the movement of the Army of the Potomac as it emerged from the Wilderness in May:
Then the rushing, forced flank-movements, known and overmatched by the ever-alert; followed by reckless front attacks, where highest valor was deepest loss; buffetings on bloody angles; butcherings in slaughter pens, —all the way down to the fateful Chickahominy once more—a campaign under fire for twenty-seven days and nights together; morning reports at last not called for and when we asked explanation our superiors answered,—confidentially, lest it seem disloyal; ‘Because the country would not stand it, if they knew.’
The Army of the Potomac never adopted any official policy that released officers from writing official reports that might sour public opinion. Yet if Chamberlain’s claim is true, a certain casualness prevailed that spring in regard to post-action reports—reports that would only help preserve horribly vivid pictures of bloody defeats. Veteran officers understood that the disclosure of certain facts would jeopardize the army’s campaign. No superior would ever report them for not recording battlefield incidents that promoted the image of Grant as a butcher and fueled the campaign of the peace advocates.
Chamberlain went a step further in a speech to the Society of the Army of the Potomac in 1889:I desire to say here today that in this Army of the Potomac whose suffering and losses were such in that same year of 1864 that we were not called upon or permitted to report our casualties during that whole campaign from the Rapidan and Rappahannock to the James and Appomattox, for fear the country could not stand the disclosure….
After the war, one of Grant’s corps commanders commented on Cold Harbor in the Century War Series, published in Century magazine and later compiled as Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. On the 9th of July following, he wrote, “I had a conversation with General Grant about the campaign, in which I expressed the opinion that the battle of Cold Harbor was fought in contravention of military principles, with which, after some discussion, he seemingly agreed, saying that he had never said anything about it, because it could do no good….”
In a report dated July 22, Grant devoted only the following sentences to the subject: “On the 3d of June we again assaulted the enemy’s works in the hope of driving him from his position. In this attempt our loss was heavy, while that of the enemy I have reason to believe was comparatively light.”
For the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, the horror of Cold Harbor had culminated a month of nearly constant exposure to enemy fire with frequent periods of high-intensity combat at places such as the Wilderness and the Bloody Angle. The cumulative effect of this relentless terror, during which a good night’s sleep and normal diversions for relaxation were nonexistent, severely demoralized the army. The average soldier became less willing to accept on faith the competency of his commanders, and many began to long for the past when Major General George B. McClellan had commanded the army. McClellan never would have sent them into battle to be slaughtered needlessly in hopeless assaults that accomplished little.
Less than a month after the Cold Harbor fiasco, the memory of that battle returned to haunt the army when it lost a chance to break the Rebel lines at Petersburg and capture Richmond late that July. The opportunity was lost partly because the soldiers were unwilling to attack as they had in May and June. In a June 24 letter to his parents, Captain Holmes wrote, “The feeling for McClellan has grown this campaign”. Adam Gurowski wrote in his diary on June 11, “Ambulances cross the city in all directions; crippled, lame, wounded in all the streets; thousands and thousands under the sod in the cursed Virginia soil, and all this sacrifice seems to have been made for the glory of the politicians. Sanitary Commission member George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary on June 9,People are blue. They have found out somehow that Grant will never get into Richmond after all….”
Navy Secretary Gideon Welles noted misgivings about Grant on June 2, the day before the Cold Harbor charge.There is intense anxiety in relation to the Army of the Potomac, he wrote in his diary, “Great confidence is felt in Grant, but the immense slaughter of our brave men chills and sickens us all. The hospitals are crowded with the thousands of mutilated and dying heroes who have poured out their blood for the Union cause.” Two days later he recorded, “Still there is heavy loss, but we are becoming accustomed to the sacrifice. Grant has no great regard for human life. “Many people, military and civilian, were beginning to share Welles’s assessment of the general-in-chief.
Grant had done nothing for which he could be charged or disciplined. His distortion of the truth in communications to the War Department might have been influenced by conflicting reports from the battlefield, or perhaps by faulty intelligence, or any of a number of other circumstances that can leave a commander misinformed. But his subsequent telegraphic messages did little to correct the initial error, and for the rest of his life, on the few occasions when Grant mentioned Cold Harbor, he did so with embarrassment and shame.
Occurring when it did, the Battle of Cold Harbor could have caused dissension at the Republican convention in Baltimore, threatening the renomination of Lincoln or at least marring the appearance of almost universal Union support for his second term. It certainly would have brought a tremendous outcry from the Democratic press, triggering an increase in the activities of subversive Peace Democrat, orCopperhead, societies and Confederate agents in Canada. And it would have enhanced support for the already substantial peace movement in the North. If the Northern public had learned of the disastrous charge and the tragic neglect of the wounded soldiers, Lincoln and Grant might have lost their jobs after the election.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was the type of incident for which the Democratic press had waited for three years. This was particularly true of Copperhead newspapers, which relished occasions to castigate Lincoln and his administration. In June 1864, they bungled their biggest opportunity.
This article was written by David E. Long and originally published in the June 1997 issue of Civil War Times Magazine. For more great articles, be sure to subscribe to Civil War Times magazine today!