Gordon Rhea's gripping fourth volume on the spring 1864 campaign-which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Civil War-vividly re-creates the battles and maneuvers from the stalemate on the North Anna River through the Cold Harbor offensive. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 showcases Rhea's tenacious research which elicits sGordon Rhea's gripping fourth volume on the spring 1864 campaign-which pitted Ulysses S. Grant against Robert E. Lee for the first time in the Civil War-vividly re-creates the battles and maneuvers from the stalemate on the North Anna River through the Cold Harbor offensive. Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 showcases Rhea's tenacious research which elicits stunning new facts from the records of a phase oddly ignored or mythologized by historians. In clear and profuse tactical detail, Rhea tracks the remarkable events of those nine days, giving a surprising new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded. Here, Grant is not a callous butcher, and Lee does not wage a perfect fight. Within the pages of Cold Harbor, Rhea separates fact from fiction in a charged, evocative narrative. He leaves readers under a moonless sky, with Grant pondering the eastward course of the James River fifteen miles south of the encamped armies....more
Paperback, 532 pages
April 1st 2007
by Louisiana State University Press
(first published September 2002)
Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June3, 1864 is the final volume in Gordon Rhea’s brilliant series of four books describing the “Overland Campaign” of U.S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 1864. This book picks up with the two armies maneuvering from their stand at the North Anna River crossings, and Grant’s efforts to continue to sidle south around Lee’s right flank and interpose the Union armCold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June3, 1864 is the final volume in Gordon Rhea’s brilliant series of four books describing the “Overland Campaign” of U.S. Grant and the Union Army of the Potomac against Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the spring and summer of 1864. This book picks up with the two armies maneuvering from their stand at the North Anna River crossings, and Grant’s efforts to continue to sidle south around Lee’s right flank and interpose the Union army between Lee and Richmond. Rhea masterfully describes the movements of the two armies as they come together again at the important road junction of Cold Harbor just nine or ten miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond. Much of the book then focuses on the particularly vicious and bloody fighting that occurred on June 1st and June 3rd during the Battle of Cold Harbor. Unfortunately, for Grant and the Federal army this is the continuing story of missed opportunities during the Overland Campaign, and just like during the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, those missed opportunities translate into great loss of life on both sides and the extension of the war by several months, if not longer.
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 worshipped 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. ...more
The fourth and, for now, final volume in Rhea's Overland Campaign series. This book covers the disengagement of Grant at North Anna, his crossing of the Pamunkey, the subsequent battles at Totopotomy Creek aka Bethesda Church (and various cavalry engagements like Haw's Shop and Ashland), and culminates with the main fighting at Cold Harbor. The famous assault on the morning of June 3rd is only about 40 pages out of nearly 400. As with the rest of the series there are good maps, an order of battlThe fourth and, for now, final volume in Rhea's Overland Campaign series. This book covers the disengagement of Grant at North Anna, his crossing of the Pamunkey, the subsequent battles at Totopotomy Creek aka Bethesda Church (and various cavalry engagements like Haw's Shop and Ashland), and culminates with the main fighting at Cold Harbor. The famous assault on the morning of June 3rd is only about 40 pages out of nearly 400. As with the rest of the series there are good maps, an order of battle, and copious citations.
If you liked the first three books in this series then you'll like the fourth about the same. Published over the span of nearly a decade, this series is pretty consistent in tone and quality. This is probably the most important book in the series as it debunks many of the myths and corrects the common misunderstandings related to Cold Harbor. If you read only one book in this series, read this one.
I read the entire series consecutively which I think was mostly a good decision. It took me a little over a month.
A reoccurring theme in this series, especially this book, is the dysfunction of the Union upper command. A good full-length book could probably be written solely on command mistakes by Grant, Meade, and the corp commanders (Hancock, Warren, Sedgwick, Wright, Burnside, Smith, and Sheridan) which could impart valuable leadership lessons to everyone - generals, politicians, coaches, managers.
I'm told that the long-awaited fifth entry in this series, "Crossing the James", should finally be finished this year. It will presumably cover the rest of the fighting at Cold Harbor (June 4-12), Sheridan's Second Raid including Trevilian Station (June 11-12), and the shift of fighting to Petersburg (June 12-16). I'll be looking forward to it....more
Gordon Rhea has written a series of four books, providing a chronicle of the bloody fighting in 1864 as Ulysses Grant headed south and Robert E. Lee tried to prevent him from success. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River to Cold Harbor. These four books take us through this sanguinary period, day by day. There is no obvious end of one battle and start of the next. It was a continuing slugging match between Confederate and Union forces.
This book begins with GraGordon Rhea has written a series of four books, providing a chronicle of the bloody fighting in 1864 as Ulysses Grant headed south and Robert E. Lee tried to prevent him from success. From the Wilderness to Spotsylvania Court House to the North Anna River to Cold Harbor. These four books take us through this sanguinary period, day by day. There is no obvious end of one battle and start of the next. It was a continuing slugging match between Confederate and Union forces.
This book begins with Grant pulling away from the trap that Lee had set for him at the North Anna River. The moves in the chess match between Grant and Lee featured both misreading the other. Each missed opportunities to maul the other. Grant cleverly sidestepped Lee from the North Anna line, but did not follow up the march that he had gained on Lee.
Each side moved in response to what they thought the other was doing, and did a slow dance of maneuver toward Cold Harbor. Major cavalry fighting broke out (e.g., Haw's Shop). Both sides saw some problems with generalship at Corps level (Early's hotheadedness led to some foolish attacks on Union positions; Burnside continued his blundering; Warren dithered; Anderson was at the very limit of his competence). The bleeding of Confederate generals slowly reduced the effectiveness of the Army of Northern Virginia, and Lee had to assume more direct control.
Finally, the two armies fought it out at Cold Harbor, with the Union forces being driven back with many casualties.
And here is where Rhea's book is distinctive. He argues that Cold Harbor was not nearly as disastrous to Grant's forces as often thought. Indeed, as a percentage of forces lost to casualties, the Confederate Army was in worse shop after Cold Harbor than Union forces (that is, they had lost more troops percentagewise than Northern forces). Grant could replenish his forces; Lee had a much more difficult time.
At the end of the slugging matches from The Wilderness to Cold Harbor, Grant pondered his next move. And that's how the book ends.
This is well written. Many maps help the reader visualize the movements of the two armies. The order of battle at the end shows the organization of each army, down to brigade and regimental levels. All in all, a worthy addition to the library of students of the Civil War. ...more
The battles at Cold Harbor have generated controversy and error since just about the time the fighting there stopped. There is any amount of accepted wisdom about what was really a series of battles, not just one; these assumptions can be read in just about any general history of the U.S. Civil War that goes into any detail at all about the fighting. Some or all of the taken-for-granted attitudes:[return][return]1) Grant chose to go to Cold Harbor and Lee knew that he was going to do so.[return]The battles at Cold Harbor have generated controversy and error since just about the time the fighting there stopped. There is any amount of accepted wisdom about what was really a series of battles, not just one; these assumptions can be read in just about any general history of the U.S. Civil War that goes into any detail at all about the fighting. Some or all of the taken-for-granted attitudes:[return][return]1) Grant chose to go to Cold Harbor and Lee knew that he was going to do so.[return]2) Grant sent word to Sheridan to seize and to hang on to Cold Harbor resulting in an all-out cavalry fight with Fitz Lee s Confederate cavalry on May 31.[return]3) June 3 was THE Battle of Cold Harbor.[return]4) Union soldiers were so sure of the impossibility of storming Lee s works that they were seen on the evening of June 2 sewing pieces of paper with their names onto their uniforms so that they could be recognized after death.[return]5) Grant was a callous butcher who only knew how to throw away lives on frontal assaults against entrenched troops.[return]6) Union casualties from the attack on June 3 amounted to 7,000 in 10-15 minutes[return]7) Union officers and troops refused to obey Grant s order for a second assault on June 3 after the first one had failed.[return][return]These points and others are made in Shelby Foote s 3rd volume of [The Civil War: A Narrative]. Even so respected a scholar as James McPherson repeats many of them in [Battle Cry of Freedom].[return][return]Rhea, using official documents such as orders, official reports from commanders on both sides, and casualty lists makes a powerful case refuting all of the above points. Grant never planned to go to Cold Harbor from the North Anna, and Lee was far more worried about his right flank than anything else; that a battle was fought at Cold Harbor was more or less accidental. The cavalry fight at Cold Harbor was the result of Sheridan s division head, Torbert, and Custer, who were afraid of losing the initiative at Cold Harbor, having beaten Lee s cavalry soundly during this time. June 1 saw a major battle as well as June 3. Grant s decision to assault on June 3 was one made more as a process of elimination than incompetence, and was based on faulty information and assumptions. Only Horace Porter, Grant s aide, records seeing Union soldiers sewing their names into their uniforms; there is no other mention in any diary, memoir or newspaper article of such a happening--at that time. Union casualties amounted to probably less than 4,000 from the June 23 assault. There was no refusal to make a second assault, since Grant called it off just as, in fact, Burnside s 9th Corps soldiers were stepping up to make what would have been a suicidal charge.[return][return]Rhea s book points out an important fact: that, despite the volumes that have already been written about the Civil War, there is still plenty of room for critical research into original documents that examine the facts underlying what turn out to be myths. Both Foote and McPherson simply assumed that what had been written before was valid; both were writing general histories and believed the work of those who had gone before. I know from personal experience in science that this can be a really bad mistake. I once traced a reference back through paper after paper, each author quoting someone who had published previously, some 20+ years to the original paper--and found it had been misquoted. Yet at least a dozen authors, each one building on the first misquoted paper, had cited incorrect information.[return][return]Rhea s book is very well written, and he contributes some extremely thoughtful critiques and analyses of both Lee and Grant, as well as the reasons why Federal assaults were so poorly executed. His analysis of Grant's major weakness--that after conceiving of brilliant maneuvers that fooled Lee every time, Grant had no plant ready to exploit the results of advantages gained, and so lost opportunities to strike crushing blows on the Confederate army. The command structure of the Union army was a disaster. More major ego problems among subordinate commanders on both sides, particularly between Meade and Sheridan, and between several of the Confederate division commanders. Rhea has superb summaries of the actions and the decisions that led up to the engagements.[return][return]The maps are adequate to the text, although there were a few times when I wished there had been more. But what maps are there are excellent, and one can make do in those instances when an additional map would be more illuminating.[return][return]This is the 4th book in Rhea s series on Grant s Overland campaign, and is an outstanding contribution to the field. Highly recommended....more
This is a very in-depth and thoroughly researched book. Rhea goes into a wealth of detail about every single maneuver and counter-maneuver, tactical decision, reconnaissance, skirmish, and battle involving the two opposing armies, not just during the Battle of Cold Harbor itself, but for the entire previous week leading up to the battle too. If you're a Civil War buff or have an interest in military history and tactics, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're just curious about the Battle of Cold HaThis is a very in-depth and thoroughly researched book. Rhea goes into a wealth of detail about every single maneuver and counter-maneuver, tactical decision, reconnaissance, skirmish, and battle involving the two opposing armies, not just during the Battle of Cold Harbor itself, but for the entire previous week leading up to the battle too. If you're a Civil War buff or have an interest in military history and tactics, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're just curious about the Battle of Cold Harbor itself (like I was), you'll learn more than enough to satisfy you....more
Most interesting part of this book was Rhea's debunking that the final grand assault was a complete bloodletting, which is very much the description I was expecting. Instead, he points out that many of the statistics of casualties were for the entire length of the campaign, but that some journalists or rival generals of the day, used those numbers for a one day total, from either ignorance or possibly political reasons, etc.
Gordon Rhea is one of the best Civil War History authors out there. No one can take something as complex and complicated as a major civil war battle/campaign and make it comprehensible without having to sacrifice detail. Hi other two books, 'The Battle of the Wilderness' and 'Spottsylvania and Yellow Tavern' are equally well written and researched.
Mr. Rhea is a nationally acclaimed historian. He has lectured extensively on topics of military history at the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, at several National Military Parks, and at historical societies and civil war round tables across the country. He had been a member of numerous boards of directors of historical societies, magazines, and historic preservation organizationsMr. Rhea is a nationally acclaimed historian. He has lectured extensively on topics of military history at the United States Army Training and Doctrine Command, at several National Military Parks, and at historical societies and civil war round tables across the country. He had been a member of numerous boards of directors of historical societies, magazines, and historic preservation organizations, including the Civil War Library and Museum, Philadelphia, and North and South magazine. Mr. Rhea has appeared on History Channel, A&E Channel, and Discovery Channel in programs related to American history and has written scores of articles for various scholarly and popular publications. His books, which are considered authoritative in their fields, include: ...more