Kurtz & Allison’s fanciful depiction of the attack at Cold Harbor
Today marks the 144th anniversary of the worst day of the Battle of Cold Harbor in northern Virginia, perhaps U.S. Grant’s most startling defeat. Today, portions of that battlefield are maintained as a park, peaceful and often deserted and ignored by the tourist crowd that frequents Gettysburg, and, to a lesser extent, Antietam and Petersburg. nearly 6,000 Union soldiers fell on June 3rd alone (according to Gordon Rhea’s fine book, Cold Harbor) out of the approximately 13,000 Federal casualties during the entire May 31 – June 12 series of fights in the region. Rebel losses were a fraction of their Union counterparts.
I have walked the grounds with local Virginia historians who have a good grasp of the tactics and nuances of this fight, and I must say that any man who rose up to make the attack that day certainly must be commended for their bravery. Countless stories abound of men and boys who pinned their names to their blouses or jackets, knowing the odds were high they could be hit. One cannot help but wonder about the gamut of emotions – the temptation to desert or feign illness, the temptation to slip and fall a few yards into the attack and hug the ground, or the sense of duty and loyalty to their flag and their comrades that marked the majority of the men, thousands of which would never return to the ranks. The surgeons’ bill would be steep for this fight, as it had been for much of the summer of 1864.