Cold Harbor vs other blunders

MikeyB

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I always knew Cold Harbor was pretty terrible. But Catton provides some very descriptive narrative in Stillness at Appomattox making it sound hopeless.

As you compare Cold Harbor to two of the other famous frontal assault disasters- Marye's Heights and Pickett's Charge, how would you rank their chances? I actually think Cold Harbor had the least chance, then Fredericksburg with Pickett's Charge looking like a brilliant plan in comparison. At least there was a breach at Gettysburg. Curious those who have walked all 3 of the fields what are their impressions.

Also, does anyone know how the casualties compared across the 3?
 

Pat Answer

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Interesting question. I’ve been to the mentioned battlefields, though I can’t say my look at Cold Harbor was very comprehensive.

Off the top of my head, Marye’s Heights was fourteen (?) attacks over the course of the day with 9,000 casualties. Cemetery Ridge was one attempt with, as you note, one (very) brief penetration of the front line at the Angle and ~5-6,000 total casualties. The ~6-7,000 casualties at Cold Harbor were spread out over all the corps going in with the Federals making contact in one place before being thrown back (? I’ll have to look this up later…). And Malvern Hill was ~5,000 casualties again spread out over the front of a disjointed advance.

But change some coordination, intel, and/or luck and you get a frontal assault that does some damage, or looks closer to what a commanding general had in mind, e.g., Gaines Mill or Spotsylvania May 12. So, there is always more to the story than a relatively clear field of fire covered by plenty of defensive artillery. Cold Harbor probably did have the least chance of success because of the sheer strength of the defensive position. In terms of casualties out of the number of men thrown into the attack, “Pickett’s Charge” may have been the worst.
 
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JerryD

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Hancock actually broke the CSA lines at Cold Harbor and captured several cannon, before being driven back. To my mind, asking which had the best chance of success of these three charges is like asking which of my friends had the best chance of knocking out Muhammed Ali in his prime with one punch. I do agree with Pat Answer that in terms of casualties in numbers engaged, Pickett's Charge was the worst and to me looks like the most hopeless, just from being on the ground at all three fields. But they were all pretty hopeless.
 

Pat Answer

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It doesn't look like the chances of any were all that good but I always hesitate to say 'hopeless' because you never really know in war (the defender misjudges something and moves a crucial battery, two attacking columns actually hit at the same time as intended and one or both break through, etc.). So it's good to try to get at the reasoning behind an order to attack.

Now, the difficulties of attacking in general and the track record of frontal assaults being what they are, whether soldiers at the time or students of the war today buy the reasoning is another matter. :D
 

jackt62

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There are notable differences between Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg so making direct comparisons may not be all that meaningful. The assault on Mayre's Heights was never intended to be the main focus of the AotP's offensive at Fredericksburg. It was supposed to be a secondary, or diversionary attack to hold down Longstreet's forces while Franklin engaged Jackson's force on the Union left, where a strong flanking maneuver was bungled. To make matters worse, Burnside continued to send wave after wave of troops against Longstreet's fortified position, even after the futility and utter stupidity of doing so was apparent. At least at Cold Harbor, Hancock and the other corps commanders advised against further attacks once the initial assault was doomed. And Pickett's Charge in concept was to be a larger repetition of the Day 2 strike against the Union left, with artillery and supporting infantry on the flanks. But for various reasons, that didn't work out the way Lee had intended.
 

Belfoured

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There are notable differences between Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg so making direct comparisons may not be all that meaningful. The assault on Mayre's Heights was never intended to be the main focus of the AotP's offensive at Fredericksburg. It was supposed to be a secondary, or diversionary attack to hold down Longstreet's forces while Franklin engaged Jackson's force on the Union left, where a strong flanking maneuver was bungled. To make matters worse, Burnside continued to send wave after wave of troops against Longstreet's fortified position, even after the futility and utter stupidity of doing so was apparent. At least at Cold Harbor, Hancock and the other corps commanders advised against further attacks once the initial assault was doomed. And Pickett's Charge in concept was to be a larger repetition of the Day 2 strike against the Union left, with artillery and supporting infantry on the flanks. But for various reasons, that didn't work out the way Lee had intended.
Great point about Fredericksburg. The original Union plan gets lost in the conventional history that's been handed down. Were it not for weak command performances by Reynolds and Franklin (made worse by Franklin's discrepant map), the Federals might have exploited that void Stonewall had left in his front. Once that attack stalled, it's almost as if Burnside vented by turning the attack on the right into a stubborn, "hell or high water" substitute.
 

jackt62

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Once that attack stalled, it's almost as if Burnside vented by turning the attack on the right into a stubborn, "hell or high water" substitute.
Difficult to figure out Burnside's motivation at that point. Besides him being out of his depth, the most likely reason for continuing to assault Mayre's Heights would probably be Burnside's "fear of failure" in his first major army command; he even wanted to continue the attack the following day, with him leading his men.
 

trice

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The attack on the last day at Cold Harbor ended up a disaster. Grant knew it and said so in his Memoirs:
I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made. I might say the same thing of the assault of the 22d of May, 1863, at Vicksburg. At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained. Indeed, the advantages, other than those of relative losses, were on the Confederate side. Before that, the Army of Northern Virginia seemed to have acquired a wholesome regard for the courage, endurance, and soldierly qualities generally of the Army of the Potomac. They no longer wanted to fight them “one Confederate to five Yanks.” Indeed, they seemed to have given up any idea of gaining any advantage of their antagonist in the open field. They had come to much prefer breastworks in their front to the Army of the Potomac. This charge seemed to revive their hopes temporarily; but it was of short duration. The effect upon the Army of the Potomac was the reverse. When we reached the James River, however, all effects of the battle of Cold Harbor seemed to have disappeared.

The recovery period for the AoP Grant gives is probably overstated. Certainly the AoP doesn't look too eager to attack entrenchments on the first day or two at Petersburg.

The part that gets forgotten is that the point of the entire Cold Harbor operation (a Meade plan, BTW) was to get around Lee's right flank, and it almost worked. Start about May 31st, with Sheridan at Old Cold Harbor and Smith on his way to Cold Harbor. If the ball had bounced the right way for the Union in the next 48 hours, Meade would have had the AoP south of Lee and closer to Richmond, on an open road with Sheridan's cavalry available to exploit the opening.

There are a bunch of reasons that didn't work out. Chief among them would be excellent Confederate performances and outstanding personal leadership by Robert E. Lee combined with some sub-par work by Smith's troops and logistical failures on the Union side. After a month of campaigning, the AoP looked a bit ragged. When Meade tried to bring his right around to his left and launch a sledgehammer blow, delays cropped up. The final attack at Cold Harbor was originally ordered for about 36 hours earlier than it actually went in. The ANV made excellent use of the extra time, preparing the defense that stopped the AoP dead in its tracks. Just as Grant said, it should have been cancelled as the delays mounted. That is easier said in hindsight than done in the midst of determined efforts to follow orders.

This was a good, workable plan that had promise of great success, but fell short because of a failure to execute. It ends with the assault of June 3rd that should have been cancelled, but was not. The failure to recognize that need is where the disaster begins.
 
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Ole Miss

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Excellent discussion that should be the model for most if not all on these threads. Points made based on actual facts and situations is what we should see more often! I love the information provided for each battle that comes from long studying the forces involved and the terrain. Too often the geography is ignored in analyzing each fight
Really enjoying this discussion and looking for more posts!
Congratulations
Regards
David
 

A. Roy

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As you compare Cold Harbor to two of the other famous frontal assault disasters- Marye's Heights and Pickett's Charge, how would you rank their chances?

This is an interesting question, with some great responses so far. Obviously there's a similarity among the three assaults, in that they were frontal attacks against strong defenses. I know there are folks here who have studied these battles much more in-depth than I have, but it does seem to me that the contexts were different.

The part that gets forgotten is that the point of the entire Cold Harbor operation (a Meade plan, BTW) was to get around Lee's right flank, and it almost worked.

This is what I was thinking. Grant later regretted the loss of life, but the futility was not absolute, as it was part of his continuous-contact strategy in the Overland context, which ultimately forced Lee into the Richmond and Petersburg fortifications.

Roy B.
 

rbasin

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This is an interesting question, with some great responses so far. Obviously there's a similarity among the three assaults, in that they were frontal attacks against strong defenses. I know there are folks here who have studied these battles much more in-depth than I have, but it does seem to me that the contexts were different.



This is what I was thinking. Grant later regretted the loss of life, but the futility was not absolute, as it was part of his continuous-contact strategy in the Overland context, which ultimately forced Lee into the Richmond and Petersburg fortifications.

Roy B.
But, wouldn't the same thing occurred had Grant not fought at cold harbor?
 

Scott1967

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Missionary Ridge was a farce when it comes to Blunders but being that Bragg was involved you can understand it.

The defences of the Confederates were so ill conceived that what was suppose to be a demonstration in force by 4 Union divisions actually ended up taking the ridge and sending Bragg into a complete retreat leaving the whole of Georgia open to invasion.

Bragg never ceases to amaze me.
 
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rbasin

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Or that Davis, when confronted by all the senior officers of the AOT, in FRONT of Bragg, that they did not think Bragg was competent or had the faith of the army, and seeing the morale of the troops, kept him in place anyway. Truly amazing.
Yep. Between Davis and Lincoln, it's amazing anything got done
 

rbasin

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How did he learn?. Kept Butler and Banks past their usefulness, sat by as casualties mounted in 1864, allowed Sherman to go on his March. Lincoln was very lucky
 

jackt62

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The part that gets forgotten is that the point of the entire Cold Harbor operation (a Meade plan, BTW) was to get around Lee's right flank, and it almost worked
Excellent point! Grant was faced with 2 choices as he began to run out of room to turn Lee's flank, as was his plan from the start of the Overland Campaign. He could either admit defeat in that campaign and presumably change gears by crossing the James River and approaching the underbelly of the Richmond-Petersburg front (which of course is what eventually occurred), or mount one last assault against the Confederate lines at Cold Harbor. It was a desperate gamble but had the AotP broken the southern lines at Cold Harbor, the war might have been shortened considerably. In retrospect, there seems to be a belief that frontal assaults such as Cold Harbor, were doomed from the start. But the use of direct assaults during the CW was one of several attack maneuvers that sometimes panned out, and given Grant's options, probably presented a realistic scenario.
 

Scott1967

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How did he learn?. Kept Butler and Banks past their usefulness, sat by as casualties mounted in 1864, allowed Sherman to go on his March. Lincoln was very lucky
Butler was useful but Banks was useless however both were political generals and as such were not taken that seriously , However Bragg was a professional soldier who had manged to botch every campaign in the west while alienating his whole command even in victory if you could call it that.

Casualties mounted in 1864 because the Union took to the offensive however Grant in all his campaigns took far less casualties than Bobby Lee , At the end Lee totalled 90k more casualties.

Lincoln was learning Davis never did as another poster pointed out.
 
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