Cold Harbor Aftermath: Burying the Dead

June 5, 1864 – Federal General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant refused to concede defeat at Cold Harbor, allowing his dead to fester and wounded to languish for several days before requesting a truce.

Following the battle, Federal survivors built defenses facing the entrenched Confederates. Those wounded in the attack of June 3 who could not bring themselves back to Federal lines lingered on the battlefield, as Grant refused to request a truce to collect his men. Finally amid the stench of the dead and misery of the wounded, Grant wrote to Lee on June 5: “It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines.” He proposed forming details on both sides to collect the survivors, or “any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired will be accepted by me.”[1]

Lieut Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lieut Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Knowing he had no wounded in the field, Lee replied: “I fear that such an arrangement will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty. I propose therefore, instead, that when either party desires to remove their dead or wounded a flag of truce be sent, as is customary. It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit.”[2]

The next day, Grant responded to Lee’s requirement of a truce flag to collect the survivors: “Your communication of yesterday is received. I will send immediately, as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines of the two armies, and will also instruct that you be allowed to do the same.” Lee expressed “regret to find that I did not make myself understood in my communication,” stating that a ceasefire could not be casually requested, but only “by a flag of truce in the usual way.”[3]

Grant finally wrote: “The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in; say two hours.” Lee formally consented late that evening, and the gathering of dead and wounded finally began on June 7, four days after the battle. By that time, only two survivors remained. The rest had either crawled back to their lines or died of wounds, thirst, or exposure.[4]

After burying the dead, Grant ended his correspondence with Lee: “Regretting that all my efforts for alleviating the sufferings of wounded men left upon the battlefield have been rendered nugatory, I remain, &c., U.S. Grant, Lieutenant General.” A Federal officer explained Grant’s reluctance to collect the casualties: “An impression prevails in the popular mind, and with some reason perhaps, that a commander who sends a flag of truce asking permission to bury his dead and bring in his wounded has lost the field of battle. Hence the resistance on our part to ask a flag of truce.”[5]

Criticism of Grant intensified in the North and among his troops. Many noted that Lee had tactically won every engagement of the past month and inflicted a horrifying number of Federal casualties. Losing five men to Lee’s one, some began calling Grant “The Butcher.” However, Grant’s supporters argued that the Federals were now closer to Richmond than they had been since 1862. They also noted that while Lee held Grant off for now, Lee had lost some 30,000 men of his own, and unlike Grant, he could not replace his losses. This forced Lee to stay on the defensive, while Grant retained the initiative.[6]

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[1] Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 170-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 6212-6222; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 514-15

[2] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 6212-6222

[3] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 6222-6242

[4] Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95

[5] Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Locations 6212-22 | 6232-42

[6] Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6202-12; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Kindle Locations 54396-54405

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