June 7, 1864
Battle of Cold Harbor
May 31-June 12, 1864
Day 7: At last, a truce is called between the two armies in order that burial teams may go out to bury the stench-ridden corpses from the last several days of fighting. By this time, of course, most of the wounded who had lain there for four days were dead. Northern newspapers will criticize Grant heavily for not making the truce sooner, but they are unaware that it was mostly Lee’s reticence that prevented an earlier truce.
William P. Derby, of the 27th Massachusetts Infantry, describes part of what he saw:
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. . . . 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 . . . ? 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. . . . 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.
---Of the unauthorized meetings between soldiers of the two sides, Major Theodore Lyman, a staff officer serving with Gen. Meade, recounts this incident:
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.
---Gen. Grant, seeing that Gen. Hunter and Crook, now combined in the Shenandoah Valley, has the potential to cross the Blue Ridge and capture Charlottesville, thus threatening Lee’s rear, decides on a comprehensive strategic shift. He send Sheridan with two divisions of cavalry westward to strike at Charlottesville and the railroads that supply Lee’s army. He also plans to shift the Army of the Potomac southward, from his left flank, to end run Lee’s men. Lee’s response is predictable: first, he pulls Breckinridge’s division off the lines and sends him post-haste to the Valley to stem the Union tide there; he also sends two divisions of cavalry to chase Sheridan and keep him busy.