Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Gordon C. Rhea

has written four volumes about the Overland Campaign which began when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan in early May, 1864. In his last book Cold Harbor: Grant and Lee, May 26-June 3, 1864 he continues to correct misconceptions and false myths about the personalities and the battle ... Rhea writes:

"This narrative is about Grant’s Cold Harbor offensive and events leading up to the major attack on June 3, 1864. It is a campaign study about commanders and armies. So much happened from May 25 to June 3, 1864, and so little has been written about those momentous days, that the telling fills this book. I ask forbearance from those seeking expositions about the campaign’s political and social ramifications. My next book, covering the last week of operations at Cold Harbor and Grant’s crossing of the James River, attempts to place the Overland campaign in a broader context."

My biggest disappointment has been the non-appearance of that "next book". In setting the stage for what will be so important in the history of the 179th, Rhea makes things clear: both Grant and Lee are aggressive generals who make mistakes, miss opportunities and continue to adapt; they have subordinates who can be frustrating or even incompetent; the stories written about them and this almost continuous 6 week battle were written for many reasons, some of which were to portray events accurately and many of which had such pronounced biases that we must work to distill the "real" from the "characterization". Apparently Grant wasn't the only "butcher", when considering effects of generalship:

"Judging from Lee’s record, the rebel commander should have shared in Grant’s “butcher” reputation. After all, Lee lost more soldiers than any other Civil War general, including Grant, and his casualties in three days at Gettysburg exceeded Union casualties for any three consecutive days under Grant’s orders." 

One reason for this mention of Rhea's work is that he corrects and enlightens:

"Grant’s and Lee’s battles spawned persistent legends almost as farfetched as the parodies of the generals themselves. Grant’s critics hold up the early-morning assault of June 3 at Cold Harbor as Exhibit 1 in their brief, deriding the offensive as a senseless undertaking fueled by Grant’s bloodlust. “The decisive action was over in eight minutes,” a popular author claimed, intoning the mantra that generations of historians have repeated without question. “Within less than an hour seven thousand men fell, killed or wounded, in moving against a fire power so uniform in its destructiveness that no living thing could advance in the face of it.” A reviewer in the prestigious New York Times Book Review recently opined that Grant’s frontal assault at Cold Harbor “lost 7,000 men in an hour, most in the first ten minutes,” perpetuating for modern readers a picture of the battle and of Grant that has no basis in reality."
[footnote in original: Dowdey, Lee’s Last Campaign: The Story of Lee and His Men Against Grant, 1864 (New York, 1960), 297; Jay Winik, “A Narrative of Hell,” New York Times Book Review, September 16, 2001, p. 23.]

Ed and I will have to change the "fact" we report at the end of our Chapter 6, "Grant Given Command", that it took only a half hour of battle on June 3rd to produce 7000 Union casualties (from Bruce Catton, The Stillness at Appomattox). Read Rhea: the total for three days of operations around Cold Harbor cost 7500 men killed, wounded, captured and missing. Of the 6000 lost on June 3rd, 1200 were wasted in the northern sector, Warren's 5th and Burnsides 9th Corps launching fruitless, uncoordinated and untimely assaults. In the main area of battle Hancock's 2nd Corps lost 2500, Smith's 18th Corps 1500 and Wright's 6th Corps about 600. Further adjustments can be made to these numbers to account for casualties suffered during the grand, but disjointed, assault and its aftermath when sharpshooters and artillery took their toll. By comparison Pickett's charge cost the Army of Northern Virginia over 5000 men, with total losses that day in July almost a year earlier more than 8000.

There is so much more. Rhea has been a trial lawyer and uses his experience to build a tight case to support his ideas and understanding of the events. Read his books. And please, Mr. Rhea, write that fifth volume!

A final example: Grant's quote of "regret" in his Memoirs that we cite can be seen with greater nuance:

"Grant agreed that the offensive had been botched. “I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” he wrote from his deathbed. Carefully employing the passive voice, Grant’s mea culpa left future generations to speculate whether the general’s regrets were over his decision to attack on June 3 or, more pointedly, over Meade’s bungled management of the affair."

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