Friday, February 22, 2019

'Shells as big as one's head': A reporter's 1881 Cold Harbor visit

A Confederate reenactor deep in the woods at Cold Harbor on the 153rd commemoration of the battle.
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On a dreadfully hot Virginia afternoon two years ago, I lay alone in a Cold Harbor field, staring into a cloudless sky. The humidity was thick. So was the gloom. There may be no sadder Civil War battleground to visit.

As scores of Union wounded lay in no-man's land at Cold Harbor in early June 1864, vultures circled above. Occasionally the massive birds descended to earth to pick at the helpless and the dead. Try imagining that horrid scene.

In the summer of 1881, Philadelphia Times correspondent George Morgan included Cold Harbor on his tour of Southern battlefields.  His first stop was the national cemetery.

"I was already familiar with the things to be seen in a government graveyard -- the well-kept grass, the choice plants, the thriving trees and the clean, neat, pretty lodges -- so Keeper May brought out some relics gathered from the trenches in which fell those who now sleep at our feet," Morgan wrote in a Page 1 story in the Philadelphia newspaper.

And then Morgan toured the battlefield. He didn't have to imagine the horror that took place there 17 years earlier. He found the evidence. Here's his full account of the Cold Harbor visit, published in the Philadelphia Times on Aug. 30, 1881.

              PANORAMA: Union dead and wounded lay in this field in early June 1864.
                                      (Click at upper right for full-screen experience.)

Special Correspondence of The Times

COLD HARBOR, August 27

The little darkey who brought me hither behind a well-lathered horse, pokey and tired from a ten-mile trot, chuckled as he said: "Boss, I'se a a-thinkin' an' a-wunnerin' why dey calls dese heah surrounding 'Cole Ha'boh,'" Something of that kind had occurred to me, for the ride from Richmond had been tedious, the ruts of the sandy roads this side the Chickahominy were deep and shimmering lines of heat constantly waved above the white earth to the right and left. The morning had been a "bilin' time," as the boy frequently remarked, and the approach of noon had made the air no better. But however hot a harbor this place of sun, sand and dust may now seem to me it was indeed a cold harbor for the thousands whom Grant left in the chill of death here in the early days of June seventeen years ago.

The country around is flat and the woods cover more space than the clearings. As we passed slowly along the road from the New Cold Harbor store I saw a line of intrenchments, running off from either side, and a short distance further a second line, higher add apparently of more substantial build. The first line was [Robert E.] Lee's, the second [Ulysses] Grant's, and at this point I think I could have thrown a stone from one to the other. Just down the road we saw a flag, hanging motionless from its staff above the trees, and to that point the horse was whipped with as much speed as wheels that sank in soft sand would permit. The flag floats above the Federal Cemetery. At sunrise, rain or shine, it is sent up its towering pole and, unfolding, there floats or idly droops until the day is done.

What is under the flag

Gravestone for three Federal unknowns at Cold Harbor National Cemetery. 
Beneath it are hundreds of little blocks of stone, which mark the graves of men who fell roundabout, while maples, weeping willows and flowering plants grow thickly along the walks of the pretty enclosure. Keeper May and his son were at work among the flowers, but they dropped their hoes and watering pots to show their visitor the sights of the cemetery and field. I was already familiar with the things to be seen in a government graveyard -- the well-kept grass, the choice plants, the thriving trees and the clean, neat, pretty lodges -- so Keeper May brought out some relics gathered from the trenches in which fell those who now sleep at our feet. Of Minie balls there were great numbers. Some were flattened, some rusty, some mouldy and a few kept their original shape and color. Leaning against a rosebush at the side of the lodge were a half dozen rusty gun-barrels, all loaded and any one of which could yet kill its man. Specimen bits of grapeshot, pieces of shrapnel and shells as big as one's head were also plentiful.

"We have a quiet time here to what we had at the Vicksburg Cemetery," said Mr. May. "There's sixteen thousand men buried there the visitors are numerous. Here most of our visitors are the birds, and even the birds behave better than they did at Vicksburg."

"Birds behave! Why, they always do. don't they?"

"Oh, no. I was just thinking about the robins down at vicksburg. They used 10 get dead drunk and act like regular sots."

"Robins get drunk?"

"Yes, indeedy, off'n china berries that grow in the cemetery. They used to get on reg'lar tears, whole flocks of 'em, and they seemed to like it as much as the Virginia man does his mint-julep or the average fellow-mortal his applejack."

Where 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery made its final, futile push on June 1, 1864.

The Cold Harbor House

Thus pleasantly chatting, the superintendent led me a half mile down the road to Farmer Burnet's, a house that bears the name "Cold Harbor." It is an old-fashioned frame building, dark and stained from a hundred storms. There have been no material changes about the place since the battle, during which the house received several hard hits from shrapnel and round shot sent humming hither by Lee. The yard retains its oaks, the shade of which looked so inviting to the troops as they marched by under the summer sun.

The local story, retold from father to child for many generations, has it that one severe winter a traveler was frozen to death by the fire-place of the house, thus giving it a name now historical for all time. Somewhat nearer the cemetery is the Gathwright house, which is also a point of interest. It stands in the centre of an untilled field, and its chimney are a score of grape-shot holes. When [Horatio] Wright and [Baldy] Smith fiercely assaulted Lee's line at the edge of the woods beyond, two thousand brave fellows fell around the dwelling. Mrs. Gathwright was on her knees in the cellar, and yet peals and shocks so cracked the air that she could not herself tell the words she said. Down through the roof, the partitions and the floor came crashing a great ball of iron, but, as the neighbors say, Mrs. Gathwright was at her prayers, and, without exploding, the shell rolled harmlessly upon the hem of her gown.

Many earthworks

The remains of earthworks near the Cold Harbor battlefield entrance.
April 1865 image of the remains of Confederate defenses at Cold Harbor.
(Library of Congress)
With the purpose of following the line of Federal earthworks from a point near the cemetery to the extreme left I made my way alone through a hedge of briars that topped a fence and struck out across a field. Though the plow has many a time scratched its mark in the soft soil it has failed to obliterato the entrenched line, which lies in a low ridge, stretching far before the eye. Even where the ridge sinks to the level of the rest of the ground the color of the sub-soil makes the breastworks plainly traceable.

Having passed over the fields, in which I found not so much as a bullet or a bone, I came to a tract heavily timbered with oak, pine and holly. Here again the parapet was high and the trench deep, for the works have never been disturbed and have suffered only nature's slight changes. The line looks as if some huge mole, some monster of the underground, had run its snout along just beneath the crust of earth, upheaving an uneven mound miles in length. Here it is brown with cast-off foliage shattered from a thousand pines; again it has a touch of green as it sinks into a swampy stretch, but for all its length it is as clearly marked as though banked up a year ago.

What to me was most mysterious and that to which my attention constantly was drawn I found just under the heaviest banks of earth. At first I thought certain little scooped-out places must have been made by men who sought protection in the sand, but I was not long in concluding that from everyone of the holes, after battle, a dead man had been dug. And so it was. Many a poor fellow had quick interment in the trenches where he fell, and these little scars in the ground each did duty as a soldier's rude shroud.

Quickest of modern battles

Alfred Waud's illustration of the ill-fated charge by 7th New York Heavy Artillery on June 3, 1864.
(Library of Congress)
The line leaves the dense woods to cross a road that runs from the Cold Harbor House to the Chickahominy. In a field to the left are remains of artillery works, and along the road. just at the eastern side, the infantry breastworks stretch as far as Barker's Mill, fully three miles from my starting point. But by the time I reached the intersection of this Chickahominy road with a road leading to New Cold Harbor Store I was tired enough to give over the attempt to follow the line on foot. No doubt many people have it in their minds that a battlefield is a single field -- a piece of land that may be walked across in ten minutes, a circumscribed place, a spot. When Grant assaulted Lee on this ground, at daybreak on the third of June. his line of battle was seven miles in length. More than a hundred thousand Federal soldiers moved forward at the tick of the watch.

While [Ambrose] Burnside was on the double-quick at Bethesda Church, six miles to the north, at the same moment [Winfield] Hancock was leading his columns across the road into the woods where lurked the foe. Before a swift bird could fly from one end of the assaulting line to the other Lee had received and withstood the shock at every point. Ten minutes only had passed, but in that beggarly bit of time the ground was strewn with slain and the quickest fought battle of modern times was decided. Only Hancock held tenaciously to what he had gained, and the fight in his front was prolonged for an hour.

Storekeeper Tucker, whom I met at Gaines' Mill a few weeks ago, went with me from his store at New Cold Harbor to the place on Lee's line where Hancock caught on, and there I saw a number of wonderful evidences of the fierce fight. The trunk of a "honeysuckle" tree -- a kind of locust, thorny and of hard wood -- rests against the earthworks and Mr. Tucker says that it was so hacked with small shot that the next high wind blew it down. I found a skull and a dozen buttons in a marshy spot a dozen yards away, and on the other side of the breastworks is a mound that shelters a number of fallen Alabama braves.

Present-day view of preserved earthworks at Cold Harbor.
Old Theodore Gucker, an uncle of the narrator of the incident, was near the tree at the time of the heavy fighting.

"I'd a kind o'notion," he once told his nephew, "at they was gwine to lick us, and anyhow, as it mought bo, I was willin' to quit. I swow by jeeminy, as I seed some Yanks comin' I drapped my gun and starts up a-singin':

O, ho! Bob Ridley, Ho!
O, ho! Bob Ridley, Ho!

"Why did you do that?"

"'Kase I wanted to give in an' quit an' go home, beins as Iwas onlv two miles off'n home. Well, as I was gwine fer ter say, one Yank come at me an' I says 'I surrender.' 'All right, sezze,' here's my gun.' 'But, by jeeminy,' says I, 'it s me'at wants to surrender. 'No, sirree. says the Yank,' I'm the feller 'at wants to surrender,' and so we had it, fust one an' then tuther, nip an' tuck, rip an' snort, which 'un of us should surrender."

"And which finally did surrender?"

"I swow by jeeminy, nary one of us. I crawls off an he crawls off, an' las I seed of 'im we was both a-crawlin' fit to kill."


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  1. Fascinating article!!! Very well done, John. - Marcia

  2. Cold Harbor.. what Carnage

  3. Thanks for another great article!

  4. Huntress8:19 AM