August 31, 2012
Review: "Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26--June 3, 1864" By Gordon C. Rhea
Observations and what I learned reading this book and from Rhea’s series—
The Federal cavalry arm of the Army of the Potomac was now the master of the battlefield in the eastern theater. They had grown up, learned their lessons, and were now ruthlessly efficient and thoroughly professional. The days of pell-mell charges and saber-slinging were over, the Federal cavalry with their repeating carbines and well-fed horses were now being utilized as mobile infantry that, when they met their foes on the field of battle, generally dismounted and fought behind defensive protection or earthworks. While Federal cavalry units were now largely decisively defeating their Confederate counterparts when they met in combat, the primary problem associated with the Federal cavalry during the Overland Campaign revolved around the on-going feud between Army commander George Gordon Meade and the cavalry commander, Major General Philip Sheridan. Consequently, Meade typically wouldn’t ask for assistance from Sheridan (or even the tactically correct assistance), and Sheridan wouldn’t respond even when he did. Inexplicably, Grant could have stepped in and dealt with Sheridan’s insubordination, but never did. Worse yet, in my humble opinion, Grant never did utilize this professional cavalry corps as he should have—i.e., to effectively scout out Lee’s intentions, or use them as a blocking force, or to effectively determine the disposition of Lee’s forces on each of the battlefields, or even to use the cavalry to recon proposed Federal army corps movement routes. Again, in my opinion, this was one of a number of significant short-comings associated with Grant’s overall leadership of the Federal forces during this campaign.
In the context of the Battle of Cold Harbor, had Grant and Meade more efficiently or effectively utilized Sheridan’s troopers, they probably could have ‘sniffed’ out the inherent weaknesses in the southern portion of Lee’s lines near Cold Harbor early on June 1st. Lee’s right flank was more than ripe for turning and Grant could have opened him up like a tin-can and moved the Confederate army (or a portion thereof) out of its impregnable earthworks, and probably easily gotten himself between Lee and Richmond. This very well could have been the proverbial “straw that broke the back” of Lee’s army, but we’ll never know because at the time Grant and Meade hadn’t the foggiest idea of Lee’s positions and strengths along much of his Cold Harbor lines. Additionally, the Federal corps commanders weren’t any better at actively collecting or assessing information and then closely cooperating and coordinating with one another, or even passing that information on to Grant and Meade in a timely fashion. Ultimately, and tragically, the Battle of Cold Harbor really was nothing much more than a bunch of individual set-piece affairs of frontal assaults by brave Federal troops against Lee’s entrenched lines, and the results were all too familiar—bloody repulses and significant casualties.
Some of my observations about Grant vs. Lee that I picked up reading this series—
It probably goes without saying that the two commanders of the Federal and Confederate armies in the Overland Campaign—Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee—were the very best combat leaders on either side, and were mostly pretty evenly matched in skills. Both had a profoundly accurate sense of the overarching strategies required for prosecuting the war from both the Federal and Confederate perspectives. Maybe the nod goes to Grant in the sense that he and President Lincoln not only had a good working relationship, but he and Lincoln shared a firm grasp on the national strategy that involved ensuring that there was a combined and coordinated push by all Federal forces in all theaters of the war. This is something that Confederate President Jefferson Davis just wasn’t able to grasp; or, if grasped, just wasn’t able to effectively implement it with the resources he had available. Even Lee, to a large degree, was fixated and focused only on the strategic situation and potential tactical opportunities in the immediate theater surrounding Richmond and Washington, D.C. During the course of the Overland Campaign it very well may be that Lee knew that it really was just a matter of time before the Army of Northern Virginia was pinned, by Grant, with its back against Richmond; and that the best that he could do was try and hurt Grant and the Federal army enough to force a political solution that could lead to the independence of the Confederate states (i.e., through the defeat of Lincoln in the 1864 election by an anti-war candidate).
A lot has been made over the past 150 years of the notion that Grant was a “butcher” and needlessly wasted the lives of his men in senseless headlong assaults against Lee’s entrenched army. At first blush, this seems like an accurate assessment as Grant’s Overland Campaign cost something like 55,000 Federals killed, wounded or captured over a 45-day period (or, approximately 45% of the total number of men in his army). The Battle of Cold Harbor is always held up as the prime example of “Grant the butcher”. Frankly, in my opinion, the facts simply don’t warrant this conclusion. For example, at the North Anna River Grant and his corps commanders had tactically won some minor engagements, but he soon realized that the entrenched Confederate position was virtually unassailable and would lead to great bloodshed, and no material gain, if he attacked. Consequently, during the night he deftly withdrew three Federal army corps back across to the north side of the North Anna River and smartly maneuvered the entire army east and south again in an effort to turn Lee’s flank and engage him in open country.
Staying with this theme then, if any one general during the American Civil War is deserving of the moniker of “butcher” it perhaps could be fairly stated that it was Lee himself. For example, Lee, over the three days at Gettysburg, lost more men in battle than any other general, north or south. Another pertinent example is that Lee, during that horrific one day at Antietam in 1862, lost more men than any other general did during a single day. Finally, Lee’s combined losses during the 45-day period of the Overland Campaign were more than 33,000, or greater than 50% of the total strength of his vaunted Army of Northern Virginia. Bluntly put, once Lee’s blood was up he worshiped at the ‘Altar of Carnage’ with the best of them.
It is true that Grant’s army suffered significant losses while assaulting the Bloody Angle in The Muleshoe at Spotsylvania Court House, or during the frontal assaults at Cold Harbor, but these attacks were directly stimulated by the efforts of the Federals to exploit existing or perceived weaknesses in Lee’s lines during the heat of battle. I submit that most battlefield commanders would have made similar assaults given the facts at hand—witness Lee’s assault on the Federal center at Gettysburg on the third day, as he was confident that the center had been significantly weakened based upon the hard fighting that had occurred during the first two days of the battle.
Much has also been made that to Grant, Meade, and even Lincoln to some degree, the Overland Campaign was nothing more than a battle of attrition, and was just a numbers game. While in hindsight this is certainly true, and that at the time the Federal high command probably recognized it too, it certainly didn’t mean that Federal commanders were callous or negligent in their use of the troops at their disposal during the Overland Campaign. At best, the summer of 1864 was dicey period politically within the Union, and if it seemed that the war had simply turned into a blood-fest with no end in sight, it was clear that the President would likely not be reelected, and Grant and Meade, and even the Army itself, understood this probability well. Additionally, the Army of the Potomac could ill afford to ‘throw away’ any troops as it was bleeding strength anyway as a good number of regiments’ three-year enlistments were expiring and the existing conscription efforts simply couldn’t make up for the losses. More importantly, the three years of hard fighting had sapped the Army of the Potomac of many of its combat-hardened veterans. The new troops coming into the Federal army just weren’t of the same caliber as those who had fought their way through The Seven Days, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Second Bull Run, and Gettysburg. Having said all of this though, it was clear to both Grant and Lee that it was certainly easier for the Federals to replace their losses than it was for the Confederates. After four hard years of a war that had evolved into—as Sherman put it—a “Total War”, the Confederate ability to come up with additional troops, replace material, and even provide for the civilian population was becoming more and more limited with each passing day. It really was just a matter of time now.
Finally, I think Rhea’s books highlight the other significant element of Grant’s strategic vision that was critical to the long-term success of the Federal forces against Lee and the Confederacy and that was his management of the logistical issues for the Army of the Potomac once it moved south of the Rapidan River and began its relentless struggle with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Up to this point in time, all other Federal commanders had swooped south and fought Lee, and then shifted back (normally in defeat) across the river to rest and refit. Grant was determined to latch on to Lee and his army and not let go. Therefore, he needed to utilize the existing road and rail network in this part of Virginia to ensure that he could efficiently receive supplies, transmit and receive communications, and transport reinforcements and wounded to and fro. His ability to work with the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps and the U.S. Navy ensured that he could cut himself off completely and just focus on the task at hand—running Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to ground. Grant kept his eyes on the prize, and he ultimately won the game because of this single-minded focus.
In writing these four volumes about the Overland Campaign of 1864, Gordon Rhea has performed an extremely valuable service for all who are interested in American history and especially those interested in the military history of the American Civil War. While each of the books are important in the detailed description of the tactical movements and outcomes on each of the battlefields, perhaps the real strength of the series is Rhea’s ability to continually review and update the strategic issues and realities from both the Union and Confederate perspectives. These four well-written volumes document and support Rhea’s assertion that it was not just the story of a series of independent battles—the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, or the Battle of Cold Harbor—it was the assertion that Grant set out and entered upon a coordinated campaign with the overarching goal being the absolute and utter destruction of Lee’s army. The movements of the troops led to the battles, and the battles led to next series of movements and the next battle, and so on. The point being that these battles and movements were clearly inter-related and inter-dependent from start to finish, and I think that when you have completed reading all four books you’ll agree that by the time the two armies settled into the siege at Petersburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was largely finished as an effective combat force of any significant power.
In conclusion, I highly recommend the entire series that Gordon Rhea has written about Grant's Overland Campaign of 1864. I guarantee that you won't be disappointed, as these four books are a superbly well-written "you are right there" military history of a campaign and set of battles that hasn't really received all that much attention by scholars in the past. These books would be a valuable addition to the library of any Civil War history aficionado.
Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26--June 3, 1864
By Gordon C. Rhea
Hardcover, 552 pages
Louisiana State University Press, 2002