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Civil War Trust

Flag of Truce

Cold Harbor - June 7, 1864
Robert E.L. Krick

Cold Harbor spawned much controversy. Was Ulysses Grant a butcher? Did his army develop a "Cold Harbor Syndrome" and lose its spirit because of the slaughter? How many men did the Federal army actually lose at Cold Harbor, and who was to blame? The flag of truce, which occurred on June 7, is high on the list of debated topics. 

The Union attacks ended midmorning on June 3 without any visible gains. The current National Park Service estimate is that Grant lost about 6,000 men that morning, most of them in one hour's time. A substantial number of badly wounded attackers lay where they fell, now between the lines, beyond the reach of aid and unable to help themselves. 

Burial Detail
The estimated 6,000 Federal casualties were gathered from the field by burial details. (Library of Congress)

As Cold Harbor evolved into an entrenched standoff in the succeeding days, Grant belatedly initiated correspondence with Robert E. Lee. He hoped to secure a temporary cease fire in order to rescue those wounded men. The lines stood so close to each other that even official communication was dangerous. The two generals exchanged several notes. Grant asked for an informal truce. Lee agreed in principle, but insisted that it should be formal, at a prearranged time, and up and down the lines. The back and forth negotiating took several days, and it was not until the early evening of June 7, more than four days after the big assault, that a two-hour truce took effect. 

Unburied
This photograph was taken many months after the battle and shows that not all of the felled combatants were buried. (Library of Congress)

By then, most of the wounded had expired. Burial crews in blue and gray met between the lines and dug hasty graves. They rescued a few men—a hardy handful—and buried the rest. For the Union soldiers in particular, it was a dolorous and demoralizing end to the story. Partisans blamed, and continue to blame, both Lee and Grant for their roles in the delayed flag of truce. 

Grant
"I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made," Grant later wrote. "No advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained." (National Archives)

Five days after the flag of truce, on the night of June 12, the Union army slipped out of its entrenchments in the darkness and set off on an epic march toward the James River and Petersburg.

 

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