“It is well that war is so terrible — lest we should grow too fond of it.” These were the sobering, profound and prophetic words of Gen. Robert E. Lee to Gen. James Longstreet, as the two Confederate commanders surveyed the carnage before them on the heights overlooking Fredericksburg, Va., on the 13th of December, the year of our Lord 1862.
The bodies of thousands of blue-clad soldiers lay before Marye’s Heights, as a literal hail of bullets, shot and shell rained down upon the charging ranks, and still they came on, almost as if they were enacting an epic poem of old, penned by Homer writing of Troy in the “Iliad.”
So, what manner of men were these who lined up shoulder to shoulder, in straight lines and perfect formation, marching to fife and drum into almost certain death on the battlefields of Virginia during America’s Civil War?
Napoleonic tactics they were called, where men stood toe to toe and shot at one another, forsaking cover and life’s future on earth to fight over a moral principle, states’ rights or a perceived slight at the hands of their enemy. While Napoleon Bonaparte may have conceived of these arcane tactics for 18th and 19th century battlefields, they certainly were perfected by commanders North and South during the War Between the States.
While the slaughter of Union troops on that cold December day along the banks of the Rappahannock River is well documented in history, another battle during the war eclipsed it in slaughter and simply, in the foolishness of its commander, the renowned Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
It was early morning on June 3, 1864. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia stood in the way of Grant’s Army of the Potomac, as Union forces worked diligently to outflank the Confederates on their inexorable march toward Richmond and a hoped end to the dreadful war. After having inflicted severe casualties on superior Union forces in the Wilderness and at Spotsylvania Court House, Lee, the South’s brilliant tactician and engineer, had his men entrenched at Cold Harbor, Va., near the same ground both armies had fought during the Seven Days Battles in June 1862.
But the First Battle of Cold Harbor couldn’t hold a candle to the second. Lee had expertly sited the southern entrenchments, with angled and crossing fields of fire that made Cold Harbor a killing field.
Yet, in a move Grant later regretted, at precisely 4:30 a.m. in the early morning Virginia heat, the Army of the Potomac formed in double lines along a six-mile front, charging the nearly impregnable Confederate position.
As attested by witnesses on both sides, the storm of shot and shell was withering as row upon row of Union soldiers fell. In just half an hour, some 7,000 Union soldiers lay wounded, dead or dying before the Confederate works.
Such was the suicidal nature of this gallant yet foolish charge, many Union soldiers had written their names on pieces of paper pinned inside their uniforms so their bodies could be recognized and accounted for when they fell.
And the only reason 7,000 Federals fell that day and not many more: Grant’s corps commanders simply ignored his orders to resume the futile attack.
Grant later said, “I have always regretted the second assault at Cold Harbor was made. No advantage whatsoever was gained to make up for the terrible loss of life.”
The carnage is attested to in regimental losses. Fully 14 Union regiments, hailing from New York, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, New Jersey and Rhode Island, all list Cold Harbor as having recorded their greatest number of men killed at any time during the war.
As a postscript, the Battle of Cold Harbor, as bloody as it was for Union forces, was to be the last major engagement outside the trenches at Petersburg won by Confederate forces in Virginia before Lee surrendered the following April at Appomattox Court House.
So, again, what manner of men were these that would march into the jaws of hell on battlefields such as Cold Harbor and Fredericksburg?
They were mostly young volunteers, hailing from farms and villages across the North, from the streets of large cities and right off the boats coming over from Ireland and Germany. They were forced to march and drill in all types of weather and over some of the worst terrain imaginable.
They lived in tents, mud huts or under the stars, as duty warranted, endured disease and unsanitary conditions that would leave us entirely discomfited.
They ate wormy hardtack and spoiled beef, forded rain-swollen rivers and endured miles of marching in foot-deep mud or over roads of lung-choking dust.
The soldiers of the Union and Confederate armies fought and died on fields from Pennsylvania to the Indian Territory for notions we now may find quaint and outdated.
Their stories are interwoven into the fabric of America, born of blood and tribulation.
Christy is news editor at the News & Eagle and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org