Grant and the Wounded of Cold Harbor

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Ulysses S. Grant was a great man and a great general, but he did make mistakes.  At Cold Harbor, Virginia he made two very big mistakes.  He made foolish assaults on Lee’s heavily entrenched lines on June 3, 1864 which cost the lives of 1844 Union soldiers compared to the lives of 83 Confederate troops who fell in this battle.  This was the lesser of his mistakes.

Grant, out of stubborness and a reluctance to admit a humiliating defeat, refused to follow the customary practice of the defeated army sending out a flag of truce to the victorious army and requesting permission to retrieve dead and wounded.  Such permission was always given.  Instead, Grant engaged in correspondence with Lee detailed in the video above, seeking to finesse approaching Lee with a flag of truce.  Lee understood the rules of war as well as Grant, and he was unwilling to allow Grant to collect his dead and wounded until the flag of truce was sent, by which time almost all, I believe two living were recovered, of the Union soldiers left on the field of battle were dead.  Grant in his memoirs meretriciously attempted to blame Lee for what was clearly his fault.  I view this as Grant’s low point as a general and as a man.

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  1. Given that Lee was a military engineer, Grant was foolish in ordering a rush. He was playing to one of Lee’s strengths.

  2. I am a contrarian when it comes to the brilliance of Lee. He disregarded strategic realities, especially later in the war when some sort of political solution was not remotely possible. Even with disparities like these, the south could never beat the north, Lee should have (surely did) know it, and fought battles that were mathematical losers no matter how elegant his maneuver. Grant finally got it, and could have fought the Confederacy literally to the last man standing. Indeed, Lee’s very brilliance merely extended the war and cost lives usually attributed to Grant. Not that Lee was not brilliant in what he pulled off, usually at a disadvantage.

  3. “the south could never beat the north,”

    It didn’t have to my Bruin friend, it merely had to outlast the North, and it came close to doing that, largely because of Lee’s success in blocking the Union conquest of Virginia. But for the iron determination of Lincoln, the North probably would have tossed in the towel in 1864 after Grant ran up 50,000 Union casualties in a month in the Overland Campaign. Lincoln was above all a shrewd politician, and in August 1864 he thought he was not going to be re-elected, and he was probably right. Thanks to Sherman taking Atlanta and Sheridan’s victories in the Valley Lincoln was re-elected, but that election could easily have gone the other way if the stalemate that Lee had placed on Grant’s drive against Richmond had been replicated for another two months in the rest of the Confederacy.

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