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Not War but Murder: Cold Harbor 1864

Not War but Murder: Cold Harbor 1864

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by Ernest B. Furgurson

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Ernest Furgurson, author of Ashes of Glory and Chancellorsville 1863, brings his talents to a pivotal and often neglected Civil War battle–the fierce, unremitting slaughter at Cold Harbor, Virginia, which ended the lives of 10,000 Union soldiers.

In June of 1864, the Army of the Potomac attacked heavily entrenched Confederate forces outside of


Ernest Furgurson, author of Ashes of Glory and Chancellorsville 1863, brings his talents to a pivotal and often neglected Civil War battle–the fierce, unremitting slaughter at Cold Harbor, Virginia, which ended the lives of 10,000 Union soldiers.

In June of 1864, the Army of the Potomac attacked heavily entrenched Confederate forces outside of Richmond, hoping to break the strength of Robert E. Lee and take the capital. Facing almost certain death, Union soldiers pinned their names to their uniforms in the forlorn hope that their bodies would be identified and buried. Furgurson sheds new light on the personal conflicts that led to Grant’s worst defeat and argues that it was a watershed moment in the war. Offering a panorama rich in detail and revealing anecdotes that brings the dark days of the campaign to life, Not War But Murder is historical narrative as compelling as any novel.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Engaging…eloquent…compelling…. Cold Harbor finally has emerged from the shadows of Civil War literature.”–Civil War Book Review

“Furgurson excels [at] individual stories of valor, horror, triumph and despair.”–The Baltimore Sun
The town of Cold Harbor, Virginia was not a harbor but a spot where five dusty roads crossed some nine miles northeast of Richmond. It was not cold there, either, early on the morning of June 3, 1864, when, on Grant's orders, Federal troops attacked the deeply entrenched army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Union soldiers died by the thousands in a matter of minutes in a slaughter so total that Grant, who admitted that he regretted giving the order to attack, later simply refused to talk about the battle. Ernest Furgurson, an accomplished military historian, writes such an engrossing account of the 16-day Cold Harbor campaign that the young reader, especially one interested in military history, will stay with this book from start to finish. While much of his material concentrates on troop movements, the author also presents Lee, Grant and Meade as thinking, planning, but often worried and sometimes angry men. Quoting liberally from letters, diaries and memoirs of both officers and enlisted men, Furgurson paints a poignant, if gory, tableau of human blunders and misery. While somewhat depressing because of its subject matter, this book offers insight into a crucial moment in the history of the Civil War. Includes copious notes and very helpful maps. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Random House, Vintage, 328p. illus. maps. notes. bibliog. index., $14.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Patricia A. Moore; Brookline, MA , November 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 6)

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Civil War Library Series
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Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.80(d)

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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.

Meet the Author

Ernest B. Furgurson lives in Washington, D.C.

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Not War but Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Not War But Murder' is an extremely well-researched and thorough examination of the bloody defeat of the Union forces at Cold Harbor, Virginia in 1864. The author's detail and degree of organization makes for a splendid account, but is comparatively bland in style in comparison to Rhea, Cozzens or Foote.

The author does, however, make the assertion that Gen. Meade ordered a renewal of the first assault against Lee's line as a result of having been stung by criticism for his not pursuing Lee's army vigorously after their repulse at Gettysburg. No evidence in support of this statement is offered, and considering the tremendous casualties suffered by the Federals in the attack, it can be considered a damning indictment. Why would Meade choose to compensate in this manner for his hesitancy at Gettysburg, when throughout the campaign of 1864 he complained that Grant was receiving all of the credit for the planning and execution of the effort? Why would he suddenly believe the newspapers would laud him for a victory that would've been (supposedly) achieved had the assault been renewed?

Beyond this issue, the book was a great enjoyment to read.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent read. Highly recommended. Felt like a novel, bit thoroughly researched.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I hate it