General Ulysses GrantUlysses Grant was not a butcher. He was a keen strategist, a gifted writer, a deeply intelligent and sensitive man. He is also partly responsible for three of the bloodiest battles in American history -- The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor -- battles that have resonated throughout military history, battles where the lives of soldiers became just another commodity, something to stockpile, then spend in the war effort.
On 2 June, after an exhausting forced march, the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac was massed several hundred yards from a Confederate force led by John C. Breckinridge, Colonel Porter's cousin by marriage. The Rebels were located at the edge of a large, slightly sloping field, their position fortified by breastworks built of massed earth and timber. At 4:30 on the morning of 3 June, a heavy fog blanketing the field, the Union forces were commanded to march.
The men of the 8th, hardly battle seasoned, were unprepared for what was to come. The other members of 2nd Corps, hardened by months of heavy fighting, knew exactly what to expect. They had seen what Rebel gunfire could do to a man's body, and they had seen what the Virginia sun did to the dead. These men appeared to not fear death -- they seemed resigned to its inevitability -- but they could not stand the thought of dying unknown, consigned to a mass grave on some battlefield far away from home. They pinned scraps of paper inside their tunics, noting name, company, and hometown. When the battle was over, this would be the only means of identifying the dead. There is a report, dismissed as apocryphal by many historians, that after the battle, a bloodstained diary was found on the body of one Union solider, bearing the final, fatalistic entry: "June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed."
It had rained all night, leaving the ground between the Union encampments and the Confederate barricades a swampy mire. The 2nd Corps, including the men of the 8th Heavy Artillery, were ordered to fix bayonets, and "at the double quickstep" advance on the enemy.
The first casualties fell just twenty feet into their advance. Robert Gibson, a Private from the town of Alabama in Genessee County, wrote an account of the advance, which was published in the Batavia Republican Advocate on June 21, 1864:
During that night the rain fell heavily. The morning was chilly, cloudy and dark. We were awakened and had just time to sling on our things, when the order for "charge" came, and the 8th... instantly, bravely, and freely mounted and were over our works, with arms at a trail, bayonets fixed, and on the "double quickstep." Order was tolerably persevered, but in our company there was a tendency to crowd to the right, and it was more like a crowd or rabble (being sometimes six or eight deep) than two ranks as there should have been.
Braver hearts never rushed to battle, and never was a charge more deadly and of so little avail. We had orders in no case to fire until the command was given, and we all knew it would be useless to do so until we mounted their works. The moment we mounted our works a deadly, sweeping fire was opened upon us from thousands of muskets, as well as a few batteries. The men began to fall before we got twenty feet from our works, and there was two hundred rods to pass over before we got to their works, and almost all the way we would be exposed. On, on we went - the double-quick turned into a run. This kept up until we were too tired to go faster than a brisk step; for the distance was so great, and the ground so uneven and muddy, that we soon tired out.
We kept on at the same pace, until some of the most advanced reached the rebel parapet; but of all that started not more than one third reached there. And what could they do? Nothing but die, and those who had not fallen took refuge in rifle-pits. - This was the maneuver of our company and I think the others were similar, and the casualties about the same. Dead and wounded lie from the pits we left to the rebel works, but at the works they were almost heaped in places.
The carnage sickened even the most jaded observers. One Confederate officer writes that what happened at Cold Harbor was not war, but murder." In twenty minutes, two hundred members of the 8th Heavy Artillery were killed, close to five hundred were wounded. Union forces had improbably breached the left side of the Confederate embankments, but were quickly repulsed by a cannonade of grapeshot. Those who had managed to avoid injury were pinned down by Rebel guns, taking refuge in hastily dug rifle pits and hiding among the wounded and the dead.
And it was barely morning.
Thousands of Union soldiers lay dead and dying. Others, terrified, crouched and prayed that they would not be targeted by the Rebel sharpshooters. The overnight rains gave way to the full force of the Virginia sun, and the battlefield baked and festered. The dead began to bloat and blacken; the wounded begged for water, for relief. And the unharmed, both Union and Confederate, were tortured by the smells and the screams.
Colonel Porter, the man who had so gallantly vowed to stay with his men until the end of their service, was among the dead. Porter had been shot, fell, then rose to rally his men. He was hit five more times, one bullet entering his heart. His body lay on the ground for thirty-six hours before it was recovered. Among the wounded was Eugene Pearce.
I have found no record of the nature or extent of Eugene's wounds. There is a single entry, a casualty list in the 23 June 1864 edition of the Republican Advocate, listing "E. Pierce" among the wounded members of F Company. He certainly lay on that field, was certainly a witness to that madness.
When night came, those who were able crawled back behind the Union lines. Rebel guns fired sporadically throughout the night, shooting at any moving shadows. The dead and the most seriously wounded remained on the battlefield. General Lee would not allow the Union army to recover its casualties, unless they advanced under a flag of truce.
General Grant, convinced that the white flag would amount to an admission of defeat, refused the terms.
Finally, after nearly three days, Grant's conscience got the better of him, and he agreed to send recovery teams forward under Lee's conditions. Confederate soldiers joined the northerners in this gruesome work. John Cooper, an officer in the 8th, writes:
Last evening at 7 o'clock the joyful tidings of a flag of truce was announced, and we went out to look after our dead. I hope and pray it may never be my fortune to behold such a sight again. The ground was strewn with our dead, but they were in such an awful condition, it was impossible to recognize any one except by their clothes, or papers found on them. They were all as black as the blackest negro you ever saw, and were covered with maggots, and a most sickening stench arose from their remains which it was almost impossible to endure. They were all buried as soon as possible, as only one hour was allowed us; at the expiration of which time we were obliged to retire behind our works again.
It was rather a singular sight to see the rebels and our men mixed up and conversing together in a pleasant manner, as though they were the best of friends instead of mortal enemies. I conversed with several rebel officers, and one of them showed me a Richmond 'Examiner' of yesterday, and wished to exchange it for one of our late papers, but as I had none, I could not effect the exchange. They said they received Richmond papers daily, it being only 8 miles distant. While conversing with them they remarked if we would not fire any more on them, they would not on us, until another general engagement, and not a single shot has been fired since from either side, although it is now 11 o'clock, A.M. It is as quiet as though the two armies were a hundred miles apart, instead of being only a few yards, and the rebels stand upon their breastworks and talk to us, and several exchanges of papers have taken place this morning. It seems like Sunday at home...Our band is now playing, and the rebels seem to enjoy the music as well as ourselves.
The Glory of War: Conscripts collect the remains of Union dead,
Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1965The Union suffered a massive defeat at Cold Harbor. Thirteen thousand men were killed, captured, or wounded, including close to six hundred of the 8th Heavy Artillery. The Confederates suffered 2,500 casualties; fewer than one hundred men were killed. Grant was derided in the northern press. The South was jubilant; surely this defeat would force public opinion against Abraham Lincoln, and move Northern popular opinion toward a resolution of the conflict, one that would preserve the South's "peculiar institutions."
The anticipated changes never came to pass. Lincoln was re-elected. Grant recovered from his blunder, and surprised Lee with bold cavalry strikes at the Shenandoah Valley. Further south, Sherman's army burned Atlanta, and crippled the Confederate military effort in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas. Lee's men were trapped in an elaborate string of bunkers, vainly trying to protect Richmond from the advancing bluecoats. On 9 April 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Virginia, and the war was ended.
Somehow, Eugene Pearce survived. He saw action at Petersburg and Weldon Railroad and Deep Bottom and Strawberry Plains. He fought at Ream's Station and Boydton Plank Road and Dabney's Mills. He was at Appomattox the day of the surrender.
Injured, malnourished, dirty, undoubtedly traumatized, Eugene Pearce was present at the war's end.
And he could not go home. The Federal government informed the men of the 8th that they had enlisted for 3 years, and that their term of service did not expire until August 1865. Company F, what was left of it, boarded a train -- by now, train travel did not hold the allure it had when they left Lockport in 1862 -- and traveled to New York City, where they were assigned to the 10th New York Infantry, and posted to Hart's Island, a spit of land on just east of the Bronx.
Hart's Island was home to a large prisoner of war camp. More than 3,400 Rebel soldiers, many of them captured at Gettysburg, were housed there, in an open stockade of about four acres. Disease, including pneumonia and dysentery, were rampant: close to 300 prisoners died while in captivity.
Eugene Pearce, sick, hurt, and weak, was assigned to guard detail, preparing these men for a return to their homes. Four months of guard duty, and Eugene himself would be going home to Wheatfield.
He never made it.
Details are very sketchy, but Eugene Pearce died, "from disease and the effects of his battle wounds," at Hart's Island, on 15 July 1865. Given the health dangers posed by transporting diseased bodies, it is likely that he was buried on the island. In the 1920's, long after Hart's Island has become the Potter's Field for New York City, the bodies of dozens of Union soldiers who had died there were exhumed and reburied in a Brooklyn cemetery.
Eugene would have been no older than twenty-five. In August, the month he was to return home, his wife Louisa filed for her widow's pension:
Eugene Pearce left no children. He is my uncle, the brother of my great-great-grandfather. There is no progeny to tell his story, no one to look at the flag and remember that those red stripes are colored with his patriot's blood. I've written this for Eugene, and for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren he never had, and for all of those sons and husbands who lay on the bloody ground of Cold Harbor on that horrible day in June.
I have no photograph of Eugene Pearce, but here are a few of his fellow members of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery:
Capt. Marshall Norton Cook, I Company
Corporal John J. Sherman. Before and After spending several months in Salisbury Prison, a Confederate POW camp
Private James Short, M Company
1st Lt. Samuel Green, A Company
These men, like all of the men of the 8th, were natives of Genessee, Orleans, and Niagara counties.
Grant writing his memoirs
Today, Cold Harbor is swallowed up by metropolitan Richmond. Most of the battlefield has been used to build tract homes.
Reunion of the survivors of 8th New York Heavy Artillery,
Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1909I am indebted to Linda Schmidt and to Wilbur Russell Dunn for their outstanding research on the history of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, which was invaluable in preparing these recent entries.