BEHIND THE IMAGE: Raising the dead, 1865

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Cold Harbor is misleadingly named. The area just north of Richmond, Virginia is hot for most of the year. Nor will you find any kind of river or port there.

In June 1864, it was the site of a fortnight-long battle during the American Civil War, part of General Grant’s Overland Campaign.

A year later, photographer John Reekie visited the battlefield and captured pictures of men as they roamed the fields, collecting and reburying the bones of dead soldiers.

The bulk of the fighting had taken place on 3 June, when Grant ordered that the fortifications of Confederate General Robert E Lee be attacked early in the morning.

The plan was a suicide mission. Neither Grant nor his second-in-command had inspected the battlefield properly. If they had, they might have realised that their opponent was too well entrenched.

So when the attack was put into action, the result was carnage. The Union army entered a blizzard of converging fire, with those not immediately cut down scrambling for cover behind the bodies of their fallen comrades. Others used cups, bayonets, and their bare hands to dig makeshift shelters for themselves.

The Confederates lost some men, but nothing in comparison to the Union death-toll of between three and seven thousand, most of them killed within the first hour of the attack. By midday, Grant had called it off.

It would be the last large-scale field victory for Lee. And although Grant’s wider campaign was a success, he came to regret the bloodbath at Cold Harbor, reflecting in his memoirs that: ‘no advantage whatsoever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained.’

Quite right. In this respect, with its entrenched defences and disproportionate losses, the battle resembled some of the more futile engagements of the First World War.

As had become official practice by the time of that conflict, some at Cold Harbor attached identification tags to their uniforms before they fought. This might have made the job of those pictured here a little easier.

This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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