Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Civil War travelogue: Chasing Cold Harbor ghosts

Nearly 2,000 Civil War soldiers are buried at Cold Harbor Cemetery.
Development and historic preservation typically don't mix. That's especially true in Hanover County in Virginia, where urban sprawl has encroached on or wiped out important Richmond-area Civil War battlefields such as Beaver Dam Creek, Gaines Mill, Cold Harbor and others.
Well-preserved trenches at Cold Harbor.

On Saturday night in Mechanicsville, Va., I dined with my wife and daughters at Friday's, a U2 song playing in the background. After we were done, I drove five miles to Cold Harbor battlefield and was deep in the woods, gazing at well-perserved trenches dug by soldiers in late spring 1864. Of course, to get to the historic battlefield where thousands were killed and wounded in June 1864, I had to pass the usual suburban jumble: a couple ugly subdivisions, Subway, Great Clips, Valero and a Papa John's Pizza. A large chunk of the Cold Harbor battlefield, including farmland, remains in private hands and retains its rural character. Much of it has also been carved up by housing developments.
The 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery attacked over this
ground on June 1, 1864.  Eighty-five soldiers in the
regiment were killed. The monument to the
2nd Connecticut
is in the background.

To its credit, the National Park Service has spruced up some of the Richmond-area battlefields, including Cold Harbor, with new interpretative signs in expectation of an influx of tourists for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Because the vast majority of the Cold Harbor battlefield is in private hands, there's no guarantee it won't be carved up for more housing or another convenience store or two. What's left is memorable.

Cold Harbor's small national cemetery is one of my favorite Civil War spots. Nearly 2,000 Civil War soldiers from battlefields in the Richmond area are buried on the 1.4-acre plot, many of them under headstones marked "Unknown." In a guidebook to the gravestones that is available for visitors near the entrance to the cemetery, there are 6 1/2 pages of entries for unknown Civil War soldiers. Some of the markers denote the final resting place of up to as many as five soldiers.
As this list in the Cold Harbor cemetery 
gravestone  guidebook shows, many of the
soldiers buried there are unknown

Cold Harbor also is where 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery captain Luman Wadhams of Litchfield, Conn., was mortally wounded on June 1, 1864 in the regiment's first major action of the war.  At Cold Harbor, the 2nd Connecticut suffered 85 killed, 221 wounded and 19 missing in action in an assault on Confederate breastworks. Many of the wounded later died, either on the field or in field hospitals. (Luman and his brothers, Henry and Edward, were killed within a span of 18 days on Richmond-area battlefields.)

This quote from the 2nd Connecticut regimental chaplain describing the terrible scene at Cold Harbor sticks with me: "You cannot conceive the horrors & awfullness of a battle," Winthrop Phelps wrote. "I never wish to hear another much less see it. I went out to see this but found myself in such danger I soon fled ... Pray for me. I cannot write -- am not in a fit state of mind." (1)

Hair stood up on my neck two years ago when I first glimpsed the 2nd Connecticut monument as I walked up from a depression where Connecticut soldiers briefly assembled before continuing their ill-fated assault. With no one else around Saturday night, I again walked the same ground Wadhams and the 2nd Connecticut fought for 147 years ago. It was eerie.

As darkness settled over the battlefield, I met a local couple walking their large dog. They said they often walk the battlefield to enjoy the now-peaceful setting. "This was an awfully bloody place," the man said. The woman nodded and then glanced at their dog. "He often goes into the woods," she said, "to chase the ghosts."

I believed her.

(1) "Not War But Murder," Ernest B. Furguson, 2000, Page 102

On June 3, 1864, the Union Sixth Corps attacked across this ground
-- open field during the Civil War -- and was easily defeated.
The imposing Pennsylvania monument at Cold Harbor National Cemetery.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:53 PM

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