All the Horrors of a Living Dead – The Truce at Cold Harbor

June 7, 1864 (Tuesday)

It had taken two days, but finally a truce to care for the wounded and bury the dead was approved by General Lee. Four days had passed since the last major fighting, and it remained doubtful if any were still alive. They were allowed only two hours for the task, beginning at 6pm.

The bucktail's last shot. - Drawn by Edwin Forbes, June 8, 1864.
The bucktail’s last shot. – Drawn by Edwin Forbes, June 8, 1864.

Finding no words of my own to adequately describe this macabre story, we’ll begin with William P. Derby of the 27th Massachusetts Infantry, who took part in the work:

Four days of sun and rain, with the severe heat of summer, had passed over our slain, and the air was laden with insufferable putrescence. We breathed it in every breath, tasted it in the food we ate and water we drank. What seemed intolerable to us, was doubly so to the enemy, from their nearness to the dead, and from the fact that the prevailing winds, wafting over the field, carried the fumes directly to them. The granting of the truce was a necessity rather than a virtue.

The ground was strewn with bloated and discolored forms, every feature so distorted that recognition from this source was impossible. […] The recognition of the private soldiers was almost impossible from the similarity of uniforms, excessive decomposition, and the great haste required. Unless papers or ornaments on their persons revealed their identity, they were buried as “Unknown.”

Now and then some poor wounded one was found, in all the horrors of a living death. For four long days and nights they had remained upon that field, with ghastly wounds, without food, water or care, and surrounded by remains exuding a stifling stench. Who can depict the terrible sufferings of those long, long hours of horror, or the intense joy with which — if reason was not unthroned — they received the rough but hearty care now given them? Nature gave but few the endurance to bridge such an awful chasm, so that the work was chiefly with the dead.

Long trenches were dug, in which they were laid, side by side, with such winding-sheets as their blankets afforded. As the sepulchral work progressed, the notes of a dirge unutterably mournful and sad, came floating over the field from the bands within our lines. This requiem was our only service for the dead.

The utmost haste failed to entomb the immense mass of our slain, before a signal-gun gave notice that the “truce had expired.” At the next gun the dogs of war would be let loose upon any remaining on the field, and hence our burial party hastily retired. A few moments later we were again engaged in the deadly fray. Those comrades participating in the burial were so overcome by the stench as to be unfit for duty for several days.

James Mason Drake of the 9th New Jersey, also engaged in the recovery, continues:

This morning the hearts of the Unionists, and I doubt not, those of the Confederates also, rejoiced at a cessation of the conflict which had been unceasing, when orders were given to bury the dead and bring in the wounded. What a task! Trenches were quickly dug, and into their depths the decomposed and unrecognizable bodies of men, who a short time before had been so full of life and daring, were hurriedly lowered—the brief time allotted for the humane purpose not permitting ceremony of any nature.

It was nauseating to those who handled the disfigured corpses, while those to whom the duty of removing the wounded had been delegated performed their task with tender hands and bleeding hearts. In many instances maggots swarmed upon the wounds of those who had been maimed, presenting a revolting sight—one that no man, made however callous-hearted by war, would ever again wish to look upon.

Unburied dead. Taken April 15, 1865.
Unburied dead. Taken April 15, 1865.

Though the vast majority of the soldiers were dead, stories circulated of those somehow still living.

While bringing in the dead we found one man wounded many times, but yet alive. He was first shot in the leg, and being unable to move had taken shots from both sides; had been without food or water four days, yet he revived in a few hours and was able to talk. He had lost all trace of time, but said that he had suffered little, being unconscious most of the time. During the day Bartlett took the body of the colonel to the rear, and was returning to his old place when a sharpshooter fired, hitting him over the eye, which placed him on the retired list for a time. – John G.B. Adams, 19th Massachusetts

Those not engaged in the ghoulish work were ordered not to leave their trenches and certainly not to mingle with the enemy. “No other officers or men will be permitted to leave the lines,” came Grant’s orders, “and no intercourse of any kind will be held with the enemy.” This was, of course, completely ignored by many.

This flag of truce went out on our front. When the time for the commencement of the truce began, a flag was put up on each side and. in a minute, the men from both sides were over their respective works and, notwithstanding the orders to the contrary, it was impossible to restrain them. Regular burying parties had been detailed and officers and men outside of the details mingled together in conversation, trading tobacco for coffee and other things which our men had and which were a novelty and a luxury to the Confederates. Even after the time for the truce had expired, there seemed to be an indisposition to resume hostilities. – General. James A. Beaver, 148th Pennsylvania

John Billings of the 10th Massachusetts Battery would agree:

Then ensued a scene so anomalous in the prosecution of war! All the firing soon died away, the details went out from both sides to engage in the burial of the dead. The rest clambered upon their respective works and looked unrestrained upon the men with whom they had so lately contended, and would yet again contend, in deadly strife. Now “Yank” and “Johnny” could banter, trade, or jest fearlessly with each other; for the more confident went outside the works from both sides, and stood in friendly converse together.

But all too soon the hours slipped away, and a single rifle-shot announced the truce ended. The works on either side, whose tops a moment before were swarming with animate existence, were cleared in an instant, and man, incomprehensible being! was seeking the life of his brother as zealously as ever. It should be said, however, that for the whole of the subsequent night and succeeding day, firing generally ceased between the lines by agreement between the pickets, and at intervals afterwards both sides would cease hostilities and talk freely with one another, and perhaps exchange papers or rations.

Collecting remains of the dead at Cold Harbor, April 1865.
Collecting remains of the dead at Cold Harbor, April 1865.

But perhaps it wasn’t all joyous camaraderie as suggested above. According to Theodore Lyman of General Meade’s staff, the Northern and Southern soldiers were not necessarily chums.

Some extraordinary scenes occurred during the armistice. Round one grave, where ten men were laid, there was a great crowd of both sides. The Rebels were anxious to know who would be next President. “Wall,” said one of our men, “I am in favor of Old Abe.” “He’s a damned Abolitionist!” promptly exclaimed a grey-back. Upon which our man hit his adversary between the eyes, and a general fisticuff ensued, only stopped by officers rushing in.

In his diary, however, Lyman made no mention of the brawl. Instead, he hinted at things much darker.

Nearly all in our front were dead for our men had got in the most of our wounded, during the nights; and those not reached either died from exposure or were relieved by a friendly bullet.

No doubt, especially during the years of reconciliation after the war, the stories of an amicable truce extending beyond the alloted two hours were inflated, over-emphasized, and perhaps even fabricated. Charles Cowtan of the 10th New York seemed to indicate as much:

Occasional soldiers began jumping from the Union works to meet their antagonists of an hour previous, both sides being eager to commence trading in coffee, sugar and tobacco. This promiscuous mingling, however, became obviously perilous, and may possibly have put a premature ending to the truce; the almost unnatural—because unwonted—quiet, which had reigned for perhaps two hours, with the relaxation of the intense strain upon the nerves, being suddenly terminated by a shot from a battery towards the left of the Second Corps, which acted much the same as a magician’s wand, causing the soldiers between the lines to scurry like rabbits to their respective works, and, in the twinkling of an eye, transforming the blue and gray lines into gloomy and apparently deserted intrenchments. In a moment or two the sharpshooters began their deadly work and artillery resumed its play. The truce was ended and apparently forgotten by the main portion of the armies concerned.

But at least for two hours, the killing and dying long much of the embattled lines was ceased, giving all a short reprieve.1

  1. Sources: Bearing Arms in the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers by William P. Derby; The History of the Ninth New Jersey Veteran Vols by James Madison Drake; Reminiscences of the Nineteenth Massachusetts Regiment by John Gregory Bishop Adams; The Story of Our Regiment: A History of the 148th Pennsylvania Vols edited by Joseph Wendel Muffly; The History of the Tenth Massachusetts Battery by John Davis Billings; Services of the Tenth New York Volunteers by Charles W. Cowtan; Meade’s Army by Theodore Lyman; With Grant & Meade by Theordore Lyman. []
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