'Cold Harbor 1864': War at its bloodiest

June 11, 2000|By Tom Linthicum | By Tom Linthicum,Sun Staff

"Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864," by Ernest B. Furgurson. Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pages. $27.50.

For his third contribution to Civil War nonfiction literature, Ernest B. Furgurson has chosen to focus on a dusty country crossroads 9.9 miles northeast of Richmond where, on June 3, 1864, the entrenched Confederate army of Robert E. Lee repulsed head-on attacks of Ulysses S. Grant's Union troops with staggering loss of life.

Cold Harbor is often treated by historians as a bloody bump in the road during Grant's sledge-hammer and flanking campaign that resulted in his bottling up Lee's army in Petersburg and, ultimately, leading to Lee's surrender the following April.

But Furgurson, a longtime Washington and foreign correspondent for The Sun, freezes the frame of history on this tragic battle and the events, both great and small, surrounding it. This was Lee's last great victory, Grant's worst defeat.

More than all of that, though, Cold Harbor was also thousands of individual stories of valor, horror, triumph and despair. This is where Furgurson excels. A skillful writer and meticulous researcher, he has emerged as an accomplished writer-historian.

Using the narrative formula he has perfected in his earlier Civil War books, "Ashes of Glory" and "Chancellorsville 1863," Furgurson blends historical overview with official memoirs and newspaper accounts, amply punctuated with excerpts from diaries and letters of combatants.

He brings history to life, giving the reader the perspective and value of hindsight as well as the immediacy and pathos of real people living and dying in brutally demanding circumstances. It is a winning combination, even if Furgurson occasionally strays into puzzling asides.

As the battle approaches, Furgurson deftly builds suspense while the armies parry and thrust into position. He details the tortured relationship between Grant and the sullen, jealous man who technically commanded the Union Army, General George G. Meade. He shows how both generals failed their troops -- Grant by grossly underestimating the strength of Lee's army and Meade by allowing inadequate reconnaissance and planning. He writes chillingly of federal soldiers, the night before the attack, writing their names and addresses on slips of papers and pinning these to their uniforms in hopes that their bodies would be identified for burial.

Furgurson's vivid battle description captures the slaughter and chaos of the massed federal assault. "It was not war," wrote Confederate General Evander M. Law, "it was murder," as 7,000 attacking troops died in less than an hour. Confederate losses were perhaps 1,500.

Compounding the tragedy, Furgurson explores Grant's prideful reluctance to send a flag of truce to Lee so that the wounded could be cleared from the field. As a result, most of the wounded Union soldiers died before a truce was finally declared four days later.

Furgurson leaves it to Confederate General George E. Pickett, whose division was shattered less than a year earlier in a similarly bloody and futile frontal assault at Gettysburg, to express the futility of Cold Harbor with haunting poignancy.

" ... thousands of Grant's soldiers have gone to re-enforce the army of the dead," Pickett wrote his wife. "Oh, this is all a weary, long mistake."

Tom Linthicum is director of employment and organization development for The Sun. A journalist for more than 25 years, he is a Civil War enthusiast.

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