Cold Harbor by Gordon C. Rhea

cold-harbor-grant-and-lee-may-26-june-3-1864-by-gordon-c-rheaIn Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864, Gordon C. Rhea charts the battles and maneuvers between the Union Army of the Potomac and Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, from the stalemate on the North Anna River through the Cold Harbor offensive in late spring, 1864. This is the fourth of a five volume series on General Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign during the American Civil War.

Rhea’s tenacious research brings to light new facts from an often mythologized or overlooked chapter of that conflict. In clear detail, he describes the remarkable events of those nine days and provides a new interpretation of the famous battle that left seven thousand Union casualties and only fifteen hundred Confederate dead or wounded.

As the subtitle suggests, Cold Harbor is largely a study in command. After writing four volumes devoted to the Overland Campaign, Rhea concluded Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee were very similar generals, “about as evenly matched in military talent as any two opposing generals have ever been.” They were different in personal style, but shared a military temperament. Both Grant and Lee favored offensive operations, and both attempted bold maneuvers. Both were often frustrated by subordinates who couldn’t seem to effectively carry out their orders.

Rhea goes to great lengths to challenge Grant’s reputation as a “butcher,” and puts to bed the myth that Cold Harbor was a senseless slaughter compared to previous battles. Lee’s casualties during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg were higher than Union casualties for any three consecutive days under Grant, and Grant never suffered as many casualties in a single day as McClellan at Antietam. The infamous attack at Cold Harbor on June 3 was only the fifth bloodiest day for the Union army since the Overland Campaign began.

One surprising fact Rhea uncovers is that a disproportionate number of Union casualties fell on large regiments created from heavy artillery units formerly defending Washington, D.C. These units were inexperienced in battle and exposed themselves to withering fire. Veteran units usually sought cover and hastily dug in as soon as bullets started flying.

In some ways, the Battle of Cold Harbor foretold the Siege of Petersburg. The Army of Northern Virginia built extensive, zig-zag entrenchments with clear fields of fire. In some places, the opposing earthworks were yards apart. Confederate soldiers built sheltered tunnels leading from the rear to their entrenchments, so they could move supplies back and forth without being exposed to fire. After the assault on June 3, the two armies settled into more than a week of low-intensity skirmishing and artillery duels, but that is the subject of Volume Five.

Gordon C. Rhea (born March 10, 1945) is a military historian specializing in the Overland Campaign in Virginia during the American Civil War. He is a graduate of Indiana University, Stanford Law School, and Harvard University and is a practicing attorney in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. His other books include To the North Anna River (2000), The Battle of the Wilderness (1994), and The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House (1997).

Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea was published by Louisiana State University Press (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) in 2007. The 552-page paperback edition retails for $27.95. The Kindle edition sells for $13.77.


About Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

Posted on November 6, 2017, in Books, History, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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