Sunday, July 10, 2011

Civil War travelogue: Cold Harbor

Remains of  Union trench near the Cold Harbor battlefield visitors center.

At least 97 Union soldiers died at Garthright House,
used as a field hospital at Cold Harbor. 
By 1864, trench warfare was in vogue, especially in the East, where Ulysses Grant was determined to batter Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia no matter the cost. On the small portion of the Cold Harbor battlefield that is National Park Service property, evidence abounds of trenches dug by both sides in late spring 1864.

To preserve these slices of history, the Park Service has posted signs warning visitors to not walk on the trenches. But judging from the footprints on the remaining mounds of earth, that warning sometimes goes ignored. Near the Garthright House, a field hospital at Cold Harbor, Hanover County maintains a 50-acre park that includes a one-mile walking trail and preserved trenches and rifle pits. Trenches are also evident on privately held land on the battlefield.

Relic hunting is
highly  discouraged
at Cold Harbor.
On the morning of June 3, 1864 at Cold Harbor, Grant attacked across a broad front against well-protected Confederates behind breastworks and paid an awful price: thousands of casualties (somes historians estimate 7,000) in perhaps an hour. Afterward, both armies dug in even more, creating miles of zig-zag trenches. In the 12 days Grant and Lee were entangled at Cold Harbor, life in the trenches was miserable.

"The work of intrenching could only be done at night," Union officer Martin McMahon wrote. "The fire of sharp-shooters was incessant, and no man upon all that line could stand erect and live an instant. This condition of things continued for twelve days and nights: Sharp-shooters' fire from both sides went on all day; all night the zigzags and parallels nearer to the enemy's works were being constructed. In none of its marches by day or night did that army suffer more than during those twelve days. Rations and ammunition were brought forward from parallel to parallel through the zigzag trenches, and in some instances where regiments whose term of service had expired were ordered home, they had to leave the field crawling on hands and knees through the trenches to the rear." (1)

(1) "Battles And Leaders of the Civil War," Volume 4.
Remains of Confederate breastworks and trenches at Cold Harbor.
Remains of a Union trench are behind this historical marker at Cold Harbor.


  1. Anonymous6:59 PM

    This frightens and confuses me.

  2. Anonymous8:38 PM

    Doctah! Good to hear from you.

  3. Great presentation. Reminds me I need to get back down to Cold Harbor. Let me know when you're back around Spotsylvania.