Cover image for Not war but murder : Cold Harbor, 1864
Not war but murder : Cold Harbor, 1864
Furgurson, Ernest B., 1929-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Knopf, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiii, 328 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Format :


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E476.52 .F87 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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On the morning of Friday, June 3, 1864, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and George G. Meade brought their overland campaign against Richmond to its climax in an all-out assault on Robert E. Lee's entrenched Rebels at Cold Harbor, less than ten miles outside the Confederate capital. The result was outright slaughter--Grant's worst defeat, and Lee's last great victory. Though Grant tried afterward to forget the battle, and historians have often misunderstood its importance, Cold Harbor remains what Bruce Catton called "one of the hard and terrible names of the Civil War, perhaps the most terrible one of all." Now Ernest Furgurson, an eloquent narrator and analyst of the war, tells the harrowing story of this pivotal conflict. Like his earlier account of the Battle of Chancellorsville, his latest work is rich in detail and revealing anecdotes: Federal generals consume a champagne lunch while more than a thousand of their wounded lie untended on the field. The Confederate Congress votes itself a 100 percent pay raise while bread prices skyrocket in the South. An angry Union surgeon saws off the leg of a malingerer. Yankee and Rebel soldiers, slipping between the lines after dark to rescue the wounded, find themselves in the same hole and negotiate a private truce. Furgurson explores the minds of both privates and commanders, showing how friction between the overconfident Grant and the irascible Meade proved disastrous; how Lee, with fewer than half as many troops as Meade, repeatedly outmaneuvered Union forces; and how Northern election-year politics influenced Grant's strategy, pressing him to try to win the war with one final head-on attack. Cold Harbor was a watershed moment of the Civil War. After Grant's defeat, the struggle dragged on; the war of maneuver became a war of siege, and stand-up attack gave way to trench warfare--tactics that would become familiar in France half a century later. Above all, Cold Harbor was the most uselessly bloody, one-sided battle of the war, whose terrible human cost is captured in one chilling diary entry, scrawled by a mortally wounded soldier: "June 3, Cold Harbor. I was killed."

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

In any list of great military blunders, Grant's June 1864 attack at a crossroads named Cold Harbor would be included. Yet in accounts of the war, the battle is rarely given the prominence it merits. In dispelling the battle's obscurity, Furgurson adds to his record of two first-rate Civil War histories, Chancellorsville 1863 (1992) and Ashes of Glory (1996), a depiction of wartime Richmond. Battle books so often bore when they wallow in detail, but Furgurson's, by healthy contrast, regularly departs from the minutiae to provide an olympian view of Cold Harbor's prelude, action, and aftermath. Recounting what regiment went where when is unavoidable, but Furgurson appositely injects soldiers' and generals' moods by, for instance, recounting how Union men pinned their names to their jackets to aid in identifying their bodies. Furgurson thereby moves the narrative along while introducing emotion into the picture. The reasons Furgurson detects for the Union debacle cannot be hotly disputed, and his clarity and organization solidify his place as one of today's better popular Civil War writers. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Doing an end run around Thomas Rhea's three-volume analysis of the Wilderness Campaign, journalist and historian Furgurson (Ashes of Glory; Chancellorsville 1863) addresses the climax of the operation: the Union attack on the Confederate entrenchments at Cold Harbor, Va., on June 3, 1864. Instead of breaking through to Richmond, the reinforced Army of the Potomac lost over 10,000 men, most of them in a single morning. Confederates called it the easiest victory of the war. In the North, Cold Harbor confirmed Grant's reputation as a butcher heedless of casualtiesÄan image that endured until very recently. Furgurson, however, fixes primary responsibility for the debacle on convoluted command arrangements that left Gen. George Meade in direct command of the Army of the Potomac, but had Commander-in-Chief Grant in the field looking over his shoulder. Meade, increasingly resentful at being eclipsed, took fewer and fewer pains in planning the details of operations. The result was a haphazard attack on Confederate troops who had become masters at field entrenchment. Furgurson concludes that Lee's skillful handling of his smaller army maximized Union mistakes throughout the Wilderness Campaign, and led to his last great victory at Cold Harbor. This book does not prove the point, but it does make a solid case that will impress scholarsÄand it does so in prose so direct and compelling that even those without a previous interest in the Civil War are sure to be drawn in. Fergurson's engagement with the people he writes about comes through in every line, making one of the most wrenching incidents of the war grimly immediate. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

On June 3, 1864, the Union Second, Sixth, and Eighteenth Corps assaulted Confederate breastworks at Cold Harbor outside Richmond, VA. The resulting bloodbath amounted to U.S. Grant's worst defeat and "Bobby" Lee's final great victory. In his latest book, native Virginian and Baltimore Sun correspondent Furgurson (Chancellorsville, 1863) vividly retells the well-known story of how the friction between Grant and his insecure direct subordinate, George Meade, poisoned the Army of the Potomac's whole chain of command. By contrast, he depicts Lee as a commander beset by poor health and impossible logistical problems who brilliantly deployed his meager forces and soundly thrashed his overconfident adversary, thereby saving the rebel capital and extending an unwinnable war by nearly a year. The book is rich in word pictures and engaging anecdotes if not in untilled history. Furgurson considers the wounded left to suffer with the dead between the lines while Lee and Grant quibble over protocols of recovery; the disastrous affect of poor maps and impassable terrain on the Federal assault; and Grant's immediate need to bring Lincoln a battlefield victory before the 1864 presidential election. Furgurson's contribution is his evocative retelling of a great American military tragedy. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--John Carver Edwards, Univ. of Georgia Libs., Athens (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is a detailed account of the June 1864 battle of Cold Harbor. Furgurson's research is impressive and his writing splendid. The book would be enjoyable reading if its subject matter were not so ghastly. Beginning with federal maneuvering after the stalemate at Spotsylvania, Furgurson presents a lively and in-depth account of the Army of the Potomac's movement southward toward Cold Harbor, climaxing in the June 3 assault. He continues his narrative through Grant's movement across the James River to threaten Richmond via its communications nexus at Petersburg. Furgurson's interpretation of these events, a sort of retro-revisionism, is open to question. He presents a faultless Lee, superior to all other generals, opposed by Grant, the blundering butcher, who will finally win the war only because of overwhelming numbers and resources. A new twist is Furgurson's sympathy for a disgruntled and jealous George G. Meade, a secondary contrast for his depiction of an oafish Grant. Notably, he also claims that Grant's movement to the James River did not surprise Lee. Nonetheless, Furgurson's is, to date, the most complete account of the battle of Cold Harbor. All levels. S. E. Woodworth; Texas Christian University



Preface From June 3, 1864, to this day, for those who know anything about the American Civil War, the name Cold Harbor has been a synonym for mindless slaughter. U. S. Grant admitted that he never should have ordered the all-out attack against Robert E. Lee's entrenched troops there on that Friday, and afterward he did his best to pretend that it had never happened. One of Lee's staff colonels called the one-sided Southern victory "perhaps the easiest ever granted to Confederate arms by the folly of Federal commanders." When the North realized how seriously the Union army was bloodied there, the muttered barroom description of Grant as butcher swelled into the public prints. Speaking as newspapers ran long lists of the dead and wounded, Abraham Lincoln, who would have fired any previous commander after such a debacle, grieved that "it can almost be said that the 'heavens are hung in black.' " His closest friend in the press, Noah Brooks, reflected the mood in Washington when he wrote that "those days will appear to be the darkest of the many dark days through which passed the friends and lovers of the Federal Union." A hundred years later, Bruce Catton called Cold Harbor "one of the hard and terrible names of the Civil War, perhaps the most terrible one of all." Those words, among the many written about Cold Harbor, remain true. It was Grant's worst defeat, and Lee's last great victory. Thousands of soldiers who survived agreed with Confederate general Evander Law that "It was not war, it was murder." But it was much more than one head-on attack and ruthless repulse. The Cold Harbor campaign, from the Union army's crossing of the Pamunkey River to its departure for the James, was more than two weeks of infantry and cavalry clashes, each sharp enough to stand in history as a separate battle if it had come at some other time and place. The climactic fight of June 3 was more complicated than alleged by earlier writers, and it lasted longer than the ten minutes, twenty minutes, or one hour so often reported by veterans who witnessed only their own part of the struggle. Too often brushed past as barely a chapter in the story of the 1864 overland campaign, Cold Harbor demands much closer study than most historians have given it. The West Point Atlas of American Wars, for example, devotes six maps to First Bull Run, where about one-fourth as many casualties were suffered on both sides as at Cold Harbor. It covers the Wilderness with nine maps, and Spotsylvania Court House with eight. Cold Harbor proper gets one half-page, small-scale map, in which the action covers about two inches at the upper margin. That is roughly the same proportion of attention that Grant gave to Cold Harbor in his official report of the campaign and his memoirs. Less than 10 percent of the published Official Records of the overland campaign, from the Rapidan River to the crossing of the James, are from the Confederate side, a fact that has strongly influenced later assessments of what happened. Strategically and tactically, Cold Harbor was a turning point of the Civil War. After it, the war of maneuver became a war of siege; stand-up attack and defense gave way to digging and trench warfare, the beginning of tactics that became familiar in France half a century later. And psychologically, Cold Harbor provided a case study of command relationships that should be taught in every military academy. When Grant arrived from the West to become general-in-chief of all Union armies, he believed that the prowess of Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was a myth that could be shattered by unrelenting pressure. As it turned out, his relations with George G. Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, and Edwin M. Stanton, secretary of war, may have been as crucial to what happened as his misreading of their stubborn enemy. Excerpted from Not War but Murder - Cold Harbor, 1864 by Ernest B. Furgurson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of Mapsp. ix
Prefacep. xi
Prologue: The Circumstances of the Casep. 3
1 The Rising Sunp. 6
2 We Must Strike Them a Blowp. 26
3 Rely Upon It the End Is Nearp. 38
4 Damn Them Let Them Kill Me Toop. 55
5 Hold Cold Harbor at All Hazardsp. 74
6 The Splendor of Our Victoriesp. 87
7 You Cannot Conceive the Horrorp. 99
8 Richmond Dead in Frontp. 116
9 It Was Not War, It Was Murderp. 136
10 A Simple and Absolute Impossibilityp. 155
11 All a Weary, Long Mistakep. 169
12 You Kneed Not to Be Oneasyp. 181
13 Like a Scene in an Operap. 194
14 Killing Without Any Battlep. 211
15 A Nice Friendly Chatp. 220
16 The Heavens Hung in Blackp. 232
17 Across the Last Riverp. 243
Epilogue: Dust to Kindly Dustp. 257
Appendix 1p. 261
Appendix 2p. 277
Notesp. 281
Sourcesp. 295
Indexp. 313