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A burial party on the battle-field of Cold Harbor

Photograph showing an African American soldier seated next to a stretcher containing the remains of his comrades who perished in battle.

1865
Photograph
Library of Congress

Reekie, John, and Alexander Gardner, photographer. A burial party on the battle-field of Cold Harbor / negative by J. Reekie ; positive by A. Gardner. United States Cold Harbor Virginia, ca. 1866. [1865 April printed later] Photograph.https://www.loc.gov/item/2002713100/..

 

During May and June of 1864, Union forces repeatedly attacked and pursued General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the so-called Overland Campaign. This Union offensive demonstrated General Ulysses S. Grant’s determination to use his superior numbers to wear down Lee’s army through persistence and attrition. Both sides suffered horrific casualties, and Grant’s campaign resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. Cold Harbor, where the above photograph was taken, was the site of the final infantry battle of this two-month campaign. It was here that Grant launched multiple, and admittedly reckless, frontal assaults on heavily fortified Confederate positions only to watch the enemy slaughter his men in waves. For these and other tactics, Grant was roundly criticized in Northern newspapers for his alleged carelessness and was even called a “butcher” by the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. However, Grant’s strategy eventually achieved its desired goal of forcing Lee’s retreat to defend Richmond. Although the fighting between the two armies would bog down in stalemate at Petersburg for the next ten months, there was nowhere for Lee’s army to go without completely abandoning the Confederate capitol to certain capture by Union forces. Lee’s army would eventually surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865. How does this image help to answer the question, How did the country change because of the Civil War?

During May and June of 1864, Union forces repeatedly attacked and pursued General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in the so-called Overland Campaign. This Union offensive demonstrated General Ulysses S. Grant’s determination to use his superior numbers to wear down Lee’s army through persistence and attrition. Both sides suffered horrific casualties, and Grant’s campaign resulted in some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire war. Cold Harbor, where the above photograph was taken, was the site of the final infantry battle of this two-month campaign. It was here that Grant launched multiple, and admittedly reckless, frontal assaults on heavily fortified Confederate positions only to watch the enemy slaughter his men in waves. For these and other tactics, Grant was roundly criticized in Northern newspapers for his alleged carelessness and was even called a “butcher” by the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. However, Grant’s strategy eventually achieved its desired goal of forcing Lee’s retreat to defend Richmond. Although the fighting between the two armies would bog down in stalemate at Petersburg for the next ten months, there was nowhere for Lee’s army to go without completely abandoning the Confederate capitol to certain capture by Union forces. Lee’s army would eventually surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House in April of 1865. 

 

Many critics would point to the Overland Campaign in general and the failed assaults at Cold Harbor in particular as proof that Grant was ruthless, unwise, and unfit for command. Others would argue that his persistence in the face of adversity was the best evidence for Grant’s competence and effectiveness as the military commander best suited to the challenges of fighting Lee’s army. These questions can help students understand the significance of the photograph and to consider the connections between this and other sources: What is going on in this image? Who are the men in the photograph and what are they doing? Whose corpses appear in the photograph? What might the men (alive and dead) in the photo have thought about the sacrifice of lives by the men who died at Cold Harbor and in the Civil War more generally? Why? Does this image capture both the Civil War’s costs and benefits? If so, how does it do so? Compare this photograph to the picture of Sojourner Truth in Source 5. What do they have in common? How are they different? Would the men in this photograph, dead and living, think that Jefferson Davis should go on trial for treason? Why or why not? Did Cold Harbor help expand the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation? If so, how?

No. 24 A burial party Cold Harbor, Virginia April, 1865.