June 4, 1864 – The Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia glowered at each other after the Battle of Cold Harbor, while the Federal dead festered and the wounded languished on the battlefield.
After the horrific Federal repulse, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, refused to request a truce to collect his dead and wounded. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, refused to send a messenger suggesting a truce because all the dead and wounded were Federals and therefore Grant’s responsibility. Finally, Grant wrote Lee two days after the battle:
“It is reported to me that there are wounded men, probably of both armies, now lying exposed and suffering between the lines. I would propose that hereafter when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party… any other method equally fair to both parties you may propose for meeting the end desired will be accepted by me.”
Colonel Theodore Lyman, staff officer to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, delivered the message between the lines under a flag of truce. Lee, knowing there were no wounded Confederates in the field, replied at 11 p.m.:
“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.”
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.” Grant proposed dispatching the burial details between 12 and 3 p.m.
However, Grant was proposing sending burial details under white flags while hostilities continued. This was not in accordance with military protocol in which all hostilities must be suspended while the details were in the field. Therefore, Lee responded that night expressing “regret to find that I did not make myself understood in my communication.” He stated that he would only consent to Federal burial parties if they were requested “by a flag of truce in the usual way.”
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 the 7th, 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. A member of the burial detail recalled:
“Four days of sun and rain, with the severe heat of summer, had passed over our slain, and the air was laden with insufferable putrescence. We breathed it in every breath, tasted it in the food we ate and water we drank. What seemed intolerable to us, was doubly so to the enemy, from their nearness to the dead, and from the fact that the prevailing winds, wafting over the field, carried the fumes directly to them. The granting of the truce was a necessity rather than a virtue.”
Another soldier recalled:
“Trenches were quickly dug, and into their depths the decomposed and unrecognizable bodies of men, who a short time before had been so full of life and daring, were hurriedly lowered–the brief time allotted for the humane purpose not permitting ceremony of any nature. It was nauseating to those who handled the disfigured corpses, while those to whom the duty of removing the wounded had been delegated performed their task with tender hands and bleeding hearts. In many instances maggots swarmed upon the wounds of those who had been maimed, presenting a revolting sight–one that no man, made however callous-hearted by war, would ever again wish to look upon.”
After burying the dead, Grant concluded 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.”
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.
Meanwhile, Meade endured criticism of his own. In one instance that particularly enraged him, a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer named Edward Crapsey had written an article applauding Grant for saving the army from an error that Meade had supposedly committed during the second day of the Battle of the Wilderness. Meade ordered Crapsey expelled from the army, asserting that he had merely reported “talk of the camp.”
The Federal provost marshal seized Crapsey and placed a sign on him reading “LIBELER OF THE PRESS.” As army bands played the “Rogue’s March,” Crapsey was placed backwards on a mule and paraded through the camps and out of the army. Under Meade’s order:
“The commanding general trusts that this example will deter others from committing like offenses, and he takes this occasion to notify the representatives of the public press that… he will not hesitate to punish with the utmost rigor all (such) instances.”
Fellow reporters opposed Crapsey’s expulsion by agreeing to omit Meade’s name from all future articles except when reporting Federal setbacks. They would also commend Grant for all future successes, essentially referring to Meade’s Army of the Potomac as Grant’s army.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 420-21; 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 6212-42, 6261-321, 6340-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7414; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 154-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516-17; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 122-23; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 294-95; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q264