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Thought for the Week...

The quality, not the longevity, of one’s life is what is important.  Martin Luther King Jr.

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Freedom Is Not Free

The Battle of Cold Harbor was one of the Civil War's most dramatic and decisive engagements.  Despite the Confederate tactical success, the Battle of Cold Harbor was a strategic turning point in the Civil War, after which there was little chance for overall Confederate victory.

Approximately 6,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured during the June 3 assault.  When the orders for a full-scale assault began to filter through the army on June 2, many Union officers were gravely concerned.  Neither Grant nor George Meade, his second-in-command, had personally observed the heavily fortified Confederate line.  Furthermore, the orders did not specify a particular target of the attack and they did not appear to coordinate the efforts of the different parts of the army.  Major General William F. “Baldy” Smith, commanding the 18th Corps, was “aghast at the reception of such an order, which proved conclusively the utter absence of any military plan.”

Colonel Horace Porter remembered infantrymen attaching name tags to their uniforms for later identification if killed on the field—a precursor to the official G.I. dog tags introduced in World War I.  When the attack went forward at 4:30 a.m. on June 3, the soldiers “went down like rows of blocks” under crushing Confederate fire.  The scene was chaotic and terrifying—successive lines mixing into pushing, shoving crowds as tens of thousands of men tried to stay alive in the open fields in front of the seething Southern breastworks.  Grant suspended the offensive at noon, and would later claim to have “always regretted that the…assault was ever made.”  The Confederates suffered about 1,500 casualties, losing one man to every four fallen Federals.

Edward Porter Alexander, the Southern artillery officer who orchestrated the guns before Pickett’s Charge and served as one of Lee and Longstreet’s most consulted aides, called the Battle of Cold Harbor “our last, and perhaps our highest tide.”  After the suffering of the Overland Campaign, in which more than 50,000 Union soldiers fell in less than two months, Alexander believed that halting Grant’s army north of the James River, “no nearer Richmond…than his ships might have landed him at the beginning without the loss of a man,” would have turned the Northern public strongly against further prosecution of the war.  Robert E. Lee himself believed that “we must destroy this army of Grant’s before he gets to the James River.  If he gets there, then it will be a siege, and then it will be a mere question of time.” 

Despite the staggering losses at Cold Harbor, Grant managed to withdraw in good order and then deceive the Confederates for critical days as his army crossed the James River and marched towards Petersburg, where Lee’s grim prediction was confirmed.

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