“Grant was going to win the Civil War by massacring his army if that's what it took to overwhelm his foe. Human had value, but he wasn't going to sit around and evaluate what that was.” ~ Outlaws founding member Henry Paul
By the time the Battle of Cold Harbor was over, more than 15,000 men lay dead or wounded. Fought 10 miles northeast of Richmond, Virginia, the battle would end up being a remarkable defensive victory for Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and a loss that would haunt Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to the end of his days.
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made,” Grant wrote. “No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
It started on May 31, 1864, when Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry seized the crossroads of Old Cold Harbor as part of Grant’s Overland Campaign. Sheridan managed to fight off a Confederate attack, thanks largely to the new repeating carbines that had recently been added to the army’s arsenal. But the skirmish would prove to be only the beginning of 12 days worth of attacks and counterattacks.
Ultimately, Lee built a series of trenches and fortifications to repel Grant’s forces, and did so with great success. The vast majority of the casualties (13,300) belonged to the Union, and the almost-unfathomable death toll turned many citizens and soldiers of the Northern states against the war. From that time onward, many would call Grant the “fumbling butcher.”
Despite the terrible losses of that single battle, Cold Harbor would in many ways prove to be a Northern victory. It forced Lee to dig in and defend Richmond rather than focus his forces on the offensive. Whatever the greater strategic implications might have been, however, neither side escaped the battle without losses and scars.
The ground on which the battle was fought is now Mechanicsville, Virginia, which was also the site of the 1862 Battle of Gaines' Mill.
Mechanicsville is located in the central part of the state, a bit of an oddity for a place once known as Cold Harbor. Interestingly, the latter was not so-named because it was a port town. Rather, it was the area of a rural crossroads. The name Cold Harbor was taken from nearby Cold Harbor Tavern, the “harbor” of the name meaning a warm, safe place.
Part of the Cold Harbor battleground is preserved today in the National Park Service’s Cold Harbor Battlefield Park. This site also contains the exterior of the Garthright House, which was used as a field hospital in the battle. As a whole, the site is listed on the Civil War Trust’s Ten Most Endangered Battlefields list.
The Outlaws released the song "Cold Harbor" on their 1986 Soldiers of Fortune
album, which reached 160 on the Billboard 200.
Outlaw founding member and Civil War buff Henry Paul penned the lyrics to the song. In discussing it, he explained in an interview with Songfacts.com that, “... a lot of times I like to come up with the song titles that look or sound like paintings. Like, there’s a song I wrote much later called 'Cold Harbor' that just sounded awesome to me.”
Paul’s passion for Cold Harbor, both the song and the historic event, comes through loud and clear in his discussion of the topic. However, it’s equally clear that he did not intend to glorify or romanticize the event with his song.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was a bloody, miserable affair, which saw huge loss of life for the sake of uncertain gains. Lee won the battle, but lost the war; Grant won the war, but forever regretted the battle. In between were thousands and thousands of men whose families would never see them again.
Paul sums it up simply, “It was hideous.”
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.