Lee had 55,000-some troops with which to oppose Grant’s invading force of 108,000 at Cold Harbor, though the latter consisted of many raw, inexperienced garrison troops unfamiliar with infantry tactics. They were nonetheless thrown into mass assaults against Lee’s entrenched veterans in suicidal assaults, and Grant’s apparent disdain for the lives of his own men was later matched by his refusal of prisoner exchanges which be believed benefited the South. This led to the death of many Northern prisoners from disease and starvation, despite President Davis’ offer of allowing food and medicine for the prisoners.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.org
One Thousand a Minute Casualty Rate
“Many officers and men in grey were taken by surprise at Grant’s move to interpose his forces between them and the Rebel capital. After the long and brutal contest in The Wilderness, Rebels had expected men in blue to retire for a period. Instead, here they were – apparently headed toward Spotsylvania.
This showed Grant had no intention of retreating. Furthermore, the usual pattern of actions in Washington had not been followed. That meant failure or defeat would not remove [Grant] from command. He would be expected to continue his war of attrition, regardless of losses sustained by his own forces.
Despite [concerns of Northern officers], the general advance ordered by Meade and Grant began about 4:30PM on June 2 . [General William F.] Smith castigated the movement as providing conclusive proof of the “entire absence of any military plan” among the Federal forces. Despite “a murderous fire,” men in blue managed to reach the edge of the woods, where the second line caught up with them . . . resuming their advance [but] the enemy fire was so heavy that the fell back.
Whether the decision was made by Grant or by Meade, orders soon came for a full frontal assault at 4:30 on the following morning. Smith saw the Rebel positions as being more than merely formidable . . . Generations later, [historian] Jeffrey D. Wert characterized the Rebel works at Cold Harbor in two words: “nearly impregnable.”
Impregnable or not, orders were to take the Confederate works. Diaries and letters reveal that on the night before the scheduled grand assault, large numbers of men in blue wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper and pinned them to their shirts . . . essential if bodies of the slain were to be shipped home to their relatives.
Soon afterward it became generally known that the Federal move at Cold Harbor, whose width is variously estimated at having been from one-half to six miles, lasted less than 10 minutes. During that time, men in blue became casualties at a rate of about 16 per second. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg is far better known and may have involved more casualties. Yet no other Civil War action approached Cold Harbor in its June 3rd per-minute casualty rate of approximately one thousand men.
Smith dashed off a dispatch to Meade in which he reported the triple repulse of one body of Federals [adding that] there was no hope that they could carry the works in front of them without relief from galling Rebel fire. In reply, he received orders to move forward [and later] an oral command that he lead another assault. “That order I refused to obey,” Smith later confessed.
Because the leader of the XVIII flatly disobeyed his commander, some eight thousand men in blue – more or less – watched as their comrades were once more mowed down. In the melee of battle, it is unlikely that anyone except a handful of loyal aides knew that he had defied Meade. If his action had been known at headquarters and regulations had been followed, his disobedience would have led to a charge of mutiny.”
(Mutiny in the Civil War, Webb Garrison, White Mane Books, 2001, excerpts pp. 134; 136-139)