‘Wounded Men are Now Suffering’ – Grant and Lee Argue about a Truce

June 6, 1864 (Monday)

Grant at his headquarters, Cold Harbor.
Grant at his headquarters, Cold Harbor.

Cold Harbor had become yet another stalemate. General Grant could no longer throw men against Lee’s entrenchments. It resulted in nothing but death, gaining not an inch. But also, he realized that it was “not practical to hold a line northeast of Richmond,” as he told Chief of Staff Henry Halleck the day previous.

To Halleck, Grant then admitted his failures:

My idea from the start has been to beat Lee’s army, if possible, north of Richmond, then, after destroying his lines of communication north of the James River, to transfer the army to the south side and besiege Lee in Richmond, or follow him south if he should retreat. I now find, after more than thirty days of trial, that the enemy deems it of the first importance to run no risks with the armies they now have. They act purely on the defensive, behind breast-works, or feebly on the offensive immediately in front of them, and where in case of repulse they can instantly retire behind them. Without a greater sacrifice of human life than I am willing to make, all cannot be accomplished that I had designed outside of the city.

In the past, it might be argued, the Army of the Potomac might have then returned to their camps along the Rapidan. For many soldiers, Brandy Station was probably looking pretty good. General George Meade, it might be assumed, would have fallen back long before now. In a letter home, his frustration with Grant and the entire campaign was obvious.

“Do not be deceived about the situation of affairs by the foolish dispatches in the papers,” Meade cautioned his wife. “Be not over-elated by reported successes, nor over-depressed by exaggerated rumors of failures. Up to this time our success has consisted only in compelling the enemy to draw in towards Richmond; our failure has been that we have not been able to overcome, destroy or bag his army.”

But Grant actually had a plan, which Meade knew about by the time he wrote his family. The Army of the Potomac would remain where they were, at Cold Harbor. The cavalry, however, was to travel westward to destroy a thirty mile swath of the Virginia Central Railroad running toward the Shenandoah Valley. When that task was accomplished, and his cavalry returned, he would move the army to the south side of the James River, changing his position from northeast of Richmond to the southeast.

Cavalry horses outside the Old Church Hotel, Cold Harbor
Cavalry horses outside the Old Church Hotel, Cold Harbor

Lee’s Army was getting supplies from Richmond, which was receiving them from both the Shenandoah Valley and from the Carolinas. If Grant could move south of the Rebel capital, the supplies from that direction would be cut. Similarly, playing upon the Virginia Central would temporarily ebb the flow from the Valley, but the true halt would come, hoped Grant, from David Hunter’s foray toward Lynchburg. Hunter was to return with the cavalry expedition, the Valley finally stripped of both Rebels and their stores.

Grant was also thinking of the wounded, and on the 5th sent a message to General Lee requesting an ongoing flag of truce. “I would propose,” wrote Grant, “that hereafter when no battle is raging either party be authorized to send to any point between the pickets or skirmish lines, unarmed men bearing litters to pick up their dead or wounded without being fired upon by the other party.” Grant added that he was also open to suggestions for other ideas, might Lee not care for this one.

Waiting for Lee’s reply was Meade’s staff officer, Theodore Lyman, who was choses to act as carrier for the messages. The skirmish fire was heavy that day, and he was understandably afraid to cross between the entrenchments. But he crossed and was received at 6pm, bearing Winfield Scott Hancock’s pillowcase as a white flag. There he waited until 11pm among the Confederate pickets and the dead horses of a previous day’s cavalry scrape.

“As to the pickets,” wrote Lyman, “they were determined to have also a truce, for, when a Reb officer went down the line to give some order, he returned quite aghast, and said the two lines were together, amiably conversing. He ordered both to their posts, but I doubt if they staid.” In his diary, written that night, Lyman recorded: “Meantime word was passed on both picket lines in no event to fire, and, very soon the pickets were together, holding friendly converse, despite constant watching by their officers! There we sat as twilight changed to darkness.”

Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, Va. (photographed April 1865)
Confederate lines at Cold Harbor, Va. (photographed April 1865)

Lyman returned through the lines, arriving at General Meade’s headquarters around midnight. “When I arrived in camp Gen. Meade sun out from his tent: ‘Hullo Lyman! I thought perhaps the rebs had gobbled you up during that attack!'” While Lyman was across the lines, after dark, a few Confederate units assailed a portion of General Hancock’s lines, but were repulsed.

Lee was having a difficult time deciding what to do. At 11pm, word came to Lyman that a decision would not be reached until later, and that Lyman was to return to his own lines. The message would be sent through the picket lines.

When Lee’s reply was finally written, sometime after 11pm on the 5th, he feared “that such an arrangement will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty.” Instead, he proposed the customary flag of truce, as was traditional upon the battleground. Grant was changing the very face of warfare in almost every other field, and here Lee was apparently drawing the line.

Grant, replying on this date, was fine with that, and informed Lee that he would “send immediately, as you propose, to collect the dead and wounded between the lines.” Grant suggested the hours from noon till 3pm. All who were to collect the fallen were to bear white flags and would be instructed not to venture into or close to Confederate lines.

But this was not a flag of truce – not technically. The battle would still officially be ongoing, and the stretcher bearers would be, hopefully, not fired upon. This skirting of military etiquette Lee was not having, and again insisted upon an official “flag of truce in the usual way.” He agreed not to fire upon any who might be bearing a white flag, but said that he would turn them back.

Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods. (photographed on June 6, 1864)
Cold Harbor, Virginia. Camp in the woods. (photographed on June 6, 1864)

The last of the major fighting had ended on the morning of the 3rd. Now, late on the 6th, the idea of rescuing the wounded was probably seeming unlikely, as there would soon be no wounded left alive.

Because Lee would not relent, Grant now had to: “The knowledge that wounded men are now suffering from want of attention, between the two armies, compels me to ask a suspension of hostilities for sufficient time to collect them in, say two hours.”

But Grant’s letter to Lee, written in the afternoon, was not received by Lee until probably around 6pm, too late to do anything about it during the daylight hours of this date. At 7pm, however, Lee fashioned his reply, consenting to the flag of truce between the hours of 8pm and 10pm.

Lee’s letter, like Grant’s took an unbelievably long time to reach Federal headquarters, arriving near midnight. They would have to try again tomorrow – four days after the battle.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 36, Part 3, p597-599, 600, 638-639; Personal Memoirs by Ulysses S. Grant; With Grant & Meade by Theodore Lyman; Meade’s Army by Theordore Lyman; And Keep Moving On by Mark Grimsley; Bloody Roads South by Noah Andre Trudeau. []
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3 thoughts on “‘Wounded Men are Now Suffering’ – Grant and Lee Argue about a Truce

  1. The accounts I’ve read of this tragedy generally blame Grant for resisting Lee’s demands. But if your version is accurate, and I have every reason to think it is, it would seem that Lee was at least equally to blame. If the pickets had already decided on a cease-fire, Lee could gain very little except the humiliation of Grant by demanding a formal truce.

    Again, kudos on an excellently researched and written website.

  2. Foote lays the blame squarely on Grant and portrays Lee as merely insisting on adhering to standard protocol.

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