Old Myths Die Hard at Cold Harbor

tags: Civil War, Cold Harbor



Kevin M. Levin is an Instructor of American history at Gann Academy near Boston.


With all the coverage of the 150th anniversary of Cold Harbor I was surprised by the persistence of two myths that refuse to give way. The first is the story of Union soldiers pinning their names to their coats so their bodies could be identified and the second relates to the casualty figures that are commonly cited. Taken together they reinforce a compelling narrative of futile bloody assaults ordered by Ulysses S. Grant – the “great butcher” of the war.

The story of names stitched into coats is included in just about every news story that I read this past week. Ron Soodalter’s Disunion column states confidently that “many of them simply wrote their names and addresses on slips of paper, and pinned the notes to the inside of their blouses, so that their bodies could be identified for burial.” “Cold Harbor became Gettysburg in reverse,” according to Joel Achenbach. “The story goes that many pinned their names to their clothes before they charged, so that their bodies could be identified.”

Lt. Col. Robert Bateman cites Horace Porter’s postwar account of this unusual step by Union soldiers as does Geoffrey Norman at the Weekly Standard. It turns out that Porter’s reference is the only account we have of this sad nod of what many soldiers likely anticipated.

Published twelve years ago, Gordon Rhea’s, Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, is my go-to book on the battle. Rhea addresses the persistence of this story.

Writing more than thirty years later, Grant’s aide Porter left a vivid account of Federal troops at Cold Harbor “calmly writing their names and home addresses on slips of paper, and pinning them on the backs of their coats, so that their dead bodies might be recognized upon the field, and their fate made known to their families at home.” The scene painted by Porter has become a standard fixture in accounts of the battle. His dramatic scenario is suspect, however, as nothing in letters, diaries or contemporaneous newspaper accounts corroborates it. Union soldiers did resort to name tags in November 1863, when they thought they would be called to attack an imposing rebel position at Mine Run. But no one who was at Cold Harbor–at least until Porter’s narrative appeared–mentioned similar happenings there, raising the likelihood that this is no more than another of the sensational inventions that frequent his memoir. Judging from surviving letter and diaries, Union soldiers were no more concerned about the assault scheduled for the morning of June 3 than they had been before the campaign’s other major attacks. (p. 312)


The second prong of the Cold Harbor narrative relates to casualties. The wide range of Union casualty figures cited as having occurred during the first phase of the early morning June 3 attack sometimes remind me of wild claims about how many black Confederates served in the army. Wayne Phaneuf writes that, “In the first 10 minutes of the charge 7,000 Union soldiers were either killed or wounded.” Surprisingly, historian Howard Coffin states that “within minutes, some 6,000 Union soldiers were shot.” Finally, Bateman confidently assumes, “Most historians are comfortable with the figures of roughly 7,000 American casualties in about 30 minutes this morning, between 04:40 and roughly 05:10.”

Rhea arrives at a very different conclusion: “Losses for the day thus amounted to some 1,500 for the 18th Corps, at most 2,500 for the 2nd Corps, and probably 600 for the 6th Corps, yielding approximately 4,500 men officers and men dead, wounded, and missing.” (p. 362) On the northern sector of the battlefield Rhea arrives at 1,200 casualties for the 5th and 9th Corps fronts, which brings the total number to around 6,000.

I guess we could blame Ken Burns and Shelby Foote. Stay tuned for stories of starving and shoeless Confederate soldiers at Petersburg.



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