Song: Cold Harbor by The Outlaws

 Place: Mechanicsville, Virginia


Cold Harbor battlefield, c 1865
credit: John Reekie
Lyrics passage It wasn't far from Richmond,
the second day of June,
the year was 1864,
the end was coming soon
on a long and bitter struggle
for the boys in blue and gray,
and the battle of Cold Harbor was only hours away.
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Ulysses S. GrantUlysses S. Grant Cold Harbor memorialCold Harbor memorial
“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.



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 Video: Cold Harbor


 Place: Mechanicsville, Virginia


 SongFacts

The Civil War buff in Outlaws founding member Henry Paul took the lead in this historically accurate song about the Battle of Cold Harbor, which, Paul says, was the first battle fought with rapid-fire weapons. As a result, the loss of life was unspeakable. In his words, "It was just horrific. It was the final phases of Lee and Grant in the Eastern Theatre, and Grant was going to win the Civil War by massacring his army if that's what it took to overwhelm his foe, and it didn't matter - human life had value, but he wasn't going to sit around and evaluate what that was. He sent these people in, and it was kind of like that conflict of trench warfare versus frontal attack where the technology had far surpassed the old school business of waging war. You'd line up in a field and you'd just charge one another, but they had all these rapid-fire weapons now, and it wasn't like the battle of Hastings where you were swinging axes. They had rapid-fire rifles and accurate rifle barrels, and by the time they got to the earth works where these people were dug in, there'd be tens of thousands of people killed. So it was sort of like that first modern war, and the last of the old-style wars, and they collided in the Civil War, and that's why the loss of life was so astronomical. It was just hideous." It was one of the first examples of killing your enemy without having direct contact or having to look them in the eyes first. "You could lob a little grapeshot right into the works, and blow a hole the size of a Mack truck. 'Cold Harbor' for me was part of my infatuation with the Civil War, and kind of my romantic relationship with the South."
Album : Soldiers of Fortune Released : 1986
US chart position : 172

More facts for Cold Harbor @songfacts.com


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