Monday, July 21, 2014

Cold Harbor visit: Spiritual, frustrating

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Malvern Hill, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas. 

     2nd Connecticut Heavies suffered more than 300 casualties here on June. 1, 1864. 

It's 6:15 on a Monday morning, and as I stand on a bed of pine needles behind the remains of Rebel earthworks, I gaze across a field where vultures circled, circled, circled ... and then dived to pick at scores of Union dead and wounded more than 150 years ago. Even this early, the air is thick with humidity, and aside from a man in his early 70s chugging along a path, I may be the only other soul in the national park.

Nothing much has changed at Cold Harbor battlefield since my first visit here three years ago. Towering pines stretch to the sky, giant gnats are as pesky as ever and the grass is still tall and unmowed. Trenches, which offered some protection to both armies during the Civil War, zig-zag through the woods, heaps of earth still packed fairly high in places.

There's something spiritual about Cold Harbor early in the morning. Something frustrating, too.

I feel a little bit guilty when I kick at the sandy soil, hoping to uncover evidence of the terrible slaughter that occurred here in early June 1864. A piece of artillery shell or a button. Perhaps a bullet or a knapsack hook.

This sign denotes where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery paused before making final, 
and futile, push toward Rebel lines.

When I walk in the footsteps of the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery, mostly men and boys from Litchfield County, I hope to find answers but never do. I wonder where Private Charles Hoyt of Company K took a bullet that he carried in his body until his death at 86 in 1932.

German-born Edward Reicker, a private in Company E, lost an arm at Cold Harbor. After the war, he returned to his native country but came back to the U.S. in June 1891, telling a comrade he "wanted to get back to God's Country to be laid away." Less than a month later, he died in Bridgeport and was buried in New Britain, Conn. Another German, Private Augustus Hain of Company E, was shot through the chest at Cold Harbor and lay on the battlefield for hours, "his fallen trunk a breastwork" for retreating troops.

Where were they wounded? Where did they suffer? What were they thinking?

In their first major fighting of the Civil War, more than 300 "Heavies" were casualties at Cold Harbor. In a clearing, the names of the regiment's dead appear on a bronze plaque on a block of white granite -- the only monument to a regiment for either side on the battlefield. When I saw it for the first time after a walk through a strip of  woods in 2011, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

It was here in this clearing, so tidy today, that the "shrieks and howls of more than 250 mangled men." according to 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery adjutant Theodore Vaill, "rose above the yells of triumphant rebels and the roar of their musketry."

                          Visitors are discouraged from walking on remains of earthworks.

                                 Union dead and wounded lay in this field in June 1864.

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