Cold Harbor remains a central lynchpin in anti-Grant mythology and a fascinating story in its own right. On June 3, 1864, alone, Grant lost nearly 4,000 men in a half an hour as the result of a single fruitless charge. Altogether, he’d lose nearly 13,000 men in those days around Richmond; the Confederates some 4,500.
“I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made . . .” Grant famously wrote in his Memoirs. “No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.”
It’s an oft-quoted line—in part because he didn’t write a whole lot about Cold Harbor, despite the staggering loses. Historians have tended to accept his relative silence about the incident as tacit acknowledgement that he screwed up. By “writing around it,” so to speak—by avoiding the issue—he hoped the embarrassment would fade.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
By the time Grant got to writing about the Overland Campaign in his Memoirs, he was in his last weeks of life. Fighting excruciating pain from throat cancer—not to mention the mind-addling effects of his painkillers and exhaustion—his attempt to finish the second volume of his memoirs represents a Herculean effort. All three of his sons were aiding him by that point, as well as stenographer Noble Dawson.
“If I could have two weeks of strength I could improve it very much,” he wrote to his publisher, Mark Twain, on June 30, 1885. “As I am, however, it will have to go about as it is, with verifications and corrections by the boys, and by suggestions which will enable me to make a point clear here and there.”
As it would happen, Grant would get three weeks, not two. He would die on July 23, 1885. The clock was ticking.
Grant was satisfied with most of what he’d written about the last year of the war. “It seemed to me that I got the campaign about Petersburg, and the move to Appomattox pretty good on the last attempt,” he told his son Fred, who worked as his primary editorial assistant. He was also pleased with the Wilderness.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case with the rest of the Overland Campaign.
“I should change Spotts if I was able,” he told Fred, “and could improve N. Anna and Cold Harbor.”
He made these comments in early July. The clock was ticking loudly by that point. “If I could read it [the manuscript] over myself many little matters of anecdote and incident would suggest themselves to me,” he’d told Twain. And indeed, he had his daughters-in-law read the manuscript back to him in the afternoons and evenings even as his sons and Dawson continued with their editing and fact-checking. “Tell Mr. Dawson to punctuate,” he added.
He was unable to speak by this point, his throat cancer had ravaged his voice and sapped his strength so badly. He held conversations and passed out instructions by writing on slips of paper. His scrawlings show a dozen aspects of the book all competing for his attention:
- “We will consider whether or not to leave out the appendix.”
- “Is that entitled ‘preface’ or ‘introduction’?”
- “What are you engaged at now?”
- “Does what I have written fit the case?”
- “Are you reviewing or copying?”
- “I think I am a little mixed in my statement. . . .”
- Mentions of Chattanooga, Knoxville, Sherman, Burnside, Longstreet.
- “Have I left out many points.” (a question without a question mark—no wonder he needed Dawson to punctuate)
- “I begin to feel anxious about the review of the second volume,” he admitted around July 10. “There may be more difficulty in placing all the parts than we think. It has been written in a very detached way.”
It’s no wonder, in this maelstrom of edits, that Grant did not have time to do all he wished, although he tried mightily. Even as Twain sent him printed galley proofs, Grant kept making handwritten corrections. “I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time,” he wrote in his introduction.
So I am left wondering: “I should change Spotts if I was able, and could improve N. Anna and Cold Harbor.”
I’ve just had an ECWS book published on North Anna, Strike Them a Blow, and certainly would have loved to know more of Grant’s mind during that phase of the campaign.
I have spent a decade telling the story of Spotsylvania on the battlefield and in writing. I would love to know how Grant would have retold that story could he have changed it.
And I, like so many others, wonder what he really felt about that last charge at Cold Harbor. He always regretted that charge, but we students of the Civil War have always regretted that he didn’t say more.
I am comforted, at least a little, to know that he wanted to.
He just ran out of time.