Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Cold Harbor

Today in the Civil War was the climax of the Battle of Cold Harbor. It's an infamous day - another frontal assault by the Union army on entrenched Confederates, that ended in slaughter. There was a kind of traditional story - that the Union lost some 7000 men, in about 15 minutes of fighting - Gordon Rhea suggests that the numbers were really about half that. (I've been reading Rhea all spring - that explains why so many of these Grant posts, and no Sherman posts; since Sherman was busy this whole while as well. But all those Rhea books to read!) While that makes the carnage a little less awful, it's still pretty horrific - and the battle still plays as something of a precursor to the Somme.

The best thing about Rhea's account, though, is that he covers the whole campaign. I won't do so here - but the fact is, that this was the end of a week or so of marching and fighting, with Grant trying to get around Lee, Lee trying to head him off. That was the pattern of the whole campaign, really - Grant tried to get around Lee, Lee headed him off. Grant usually managed to steal a march on Lee - over and over, he gave him the slip - but a combination of sloppy planning, very bad coordination by the Union high command, excess of caution on the Union side at times, plus a bit of bad weather and luck, and especially Lee's ability to react to threats, and his soldiers' ability to march and dig, meant Lee ended up cutting him off, every time, forcing another confrontation over trenches. They did it at Spotsylvania, where Grant tried to hammer his way through with - well - some success, but nothing that lasted. They almost did it at the North Anna, but Grant realized he'd divided his forces around Lee's army (and the North Anna river), and got out as quick as he could. So they did it at Cold Harbor - marching south, Lee following, all of them coming together at Cold Harbor - Lee digging in - Grant attacking... stalemate. It wouldn't be the last time it happened.

Rhea goes through the minutia of the campaign - the skirmishes and marches, the commanders' thought processes, the breakdowns of communication. By this time in the war, there isn't all that much drama to the big confrontations - once the full armies were involved, they were usually dug in deep, and this is what happened - whoever left their trenches to attack got smoked. So the maneuver and the attempts to get at parts of the other side are where the challenge was. Oddly - the nature of battle in 1864 turned the war into a matter of position and movement, more than it had been. That was Sherman's campaign - flank the rebels out of their holes; and Johnston's - retreat to new holes to cu them off. Grant and Lee were probably not all that suited to it - both of them liked to get at the other guy and give them a thrashing - but they were also very good at it, conceptually at least. Though reading about the movements of the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1864 is a painful thing - logistical carelessness and confusion, missed opportunities and so on. The only comfort is that for all their reputation, Lee's army didn't do much better - they were better at getting where they needed to be when they knew where they had to be - but by this time, Lee's subordinates were badly eroded, and Lee himself was breaking down. They did all they could to head off the Yankees.

Finally - the other thing Rhea's account does is show some of the details of the fighting in this time. For example, the disparity in casualties between veteran units and new units. I have something of a personal stake in this, since my great great grandfather was in a heavy artillery regiment - his is a recurring story. And it was played out here: a unit was ordered to attack - they went out, the veteran rather quickly determined if they had any chance, and if not, went to ground - the rookies and the heavy artillery men kept going, bravely forward. And so - Rhea claims that 900 of the II corps' 2500 casualties came from 2 regiments; half the 2500 came from a total of 5 regiments. By this time in the war, the men, if not the generals (and especially not the new regiments, who hadn't been doing this for 3 years), knew the futility of attacking trenches.

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