The dead were buried where they lay

From the 3rd of June through the 12th there was nearly continuous sharpshooting and artillery fire from both sides in their Cold Harbor entrenchments, whittling their numbers down further, while the surviving troops suffered.

“The men in the advanced part of the lines, which were some miles in length,” Union Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys, Meade’s chief of staff, wrote after the war, “had to lie close in narrow trenches with no water except a little to drink, & that of the worst kind, being from surface drainage.”

Moreover, there was the stink of the bloated bodies of dead horses and mules and the human dead “lying unburied in a burning sun,” Humphreys recalled.

It had not been unusual, in previous battles, for the dead of both sides simply to be left on the ground where they fell, as the armies retreated. Sharpsburg is one such example. Gettysburg is another.

But with the armies still facing each other at Cold Harbor, the situation became intolerable and Grant finally sent in a flag of truce, ostensibly for the wounded to be gathered up. But, going out in the heat of the day on June 7, the Federal search parties found only two who had not already crawled in after dark or been likewise retrieved by their comrades.

The search parties returned as burial details and, Humphreys recalled, “The dead were buried where they lay.”

The Union dead, anyhow. First Corps artillery chief Edward Porter Alexander wrote after the war that the surviving Rebels were likewise crowded together in narrow and shallow trenches in the extensive flat terrain.

“Then the baking down of the summer sun became so intolerable,” he recalled, “that the line of men would canopy the whole trench with their blankets” by reversing their muskets, sticking the attached bayonets in the ground and using the hammers to pinch down on the four corners of a blanket.

“The Federals built for themselves many zig zag covered approaches leading to the rear,” Alexander continued. “We had no spare labor for that….Provisions  & ammunition were usually brought in for the next day and the dead were removed under cover of night.”

And so it went, as the sharpshooting, and artillery and mortars continued, until June 13 when Lee’s army discovered that the majority of Grant’s had retreated and was moving south again. For many Rebels, what came next would prove to be the last crisis of the war. Not so, however, for the 13th Mississippi of Kershaw’s Brigade which had several more to come yet.

About Dick Stanley

Retired Texas daily newspaperman
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