Nearly 8,500 men were killed in the first 15 minutes at the Battle of Cold Harbor, fought 150 years ago this month.
Seven thousand were Union troops ordered by General Ulysses S. Grant to charge entrenched Confederate troops under General Robert E. Lee. The folly became known as “Grant’s Slaughter Pen.” Union Captain Asa Bartlett later wrote, “It was the greatest and most inexcusable slaughter of the whole war.”
Grant had hoped to shorten the war by defeating Lee at Cold Harbor and then taking the Confederate capital, Richmond, 12 miles away. But, it was not to be. Lee’s smaller army of 62,000 troops outmaneuvered Grant’s force of 108,000. In the ensuing two weeks, 12,000 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured while Confederate losses totaled 4,000. Grant was forced to retreat.
|Gilbert Gaul's nationally-acclaimed painting "Battery H at the Battle of Cold
One unit that fought with distinction at Cold Harbor was Battery H First Ohio Light Artillery. It was comprised of 265 soldiers, 137 from Northwest Ohio.
After the war, instead of erecting a stone monument to honor their comrades, these veterans commissioned famous artist Gilbert Gaul to depict their work at Cold Harbor. The painting won a bronze medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the next year, Ohio Governor and future President William McKinley unveiled the five-by-eight-foot painting at the Toledo Soldiers Memorial Building, its new home.
After the building was razed in 1955, the painting was briefly displayed at the Toledo Museum of Art and later at the Toledo Zoo before it was relegated to a basement vault. In 1990, the painting was entrusted, along with other Civil War artifacts, to the Oregon Jerusalem Historical Society.
The historical society first realized the importance of its treasure in 1993 when the Tennessee State Museum held an exhibition of 56 Gaul paintings. The society loaned the painting to the museum and it was seen by more than 20,000 visitors.
Since then, a print of the painting has been featured in the motor tour of 11 battlefield sites in the Richmond National Battlefield Park. In spring of 2015, the painting will be on loan to the Toledo Museum of Art and serve as a focal point for a three-month long exhibit on the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, according to Connie Isbell, president of the historical society. Isbell welcomes the opportunity to share the painting and the history of Battery H with a larger audience.
Kelly Garrrow, director of communications for the Toledo Museum, said the painting is “one of the finest examples of a battle scene.” It is also important because of its local ties.
Battery H saw action at other significant battles including Union victories at Petersburg and Gettysburg. So why did the men choose to depict a losing battle for posterity?
David Brown, the great grandson of one Battery H veteran, Irenius Agustus Geren, has his ideas. The Port Clinton resident and former television news producer has walked every battlefield in which Battery H saw service. He’s studied the battles for a DVD he hopes to produce. He thinks the men chose Cold Harbor because of the precision the unit displayed under trying circumstances. Battery H had emerged from the crossroads, spotted the enemy and set up on a low ridge to fire over an open field into Confederate lines. “They were able to gallop into battle right now and they were the first onto the field,” Brown said. “They were in action before the infantry was.”
That’s what the Gaul painting depicts, he says. It’s not a snapshot in time. It’s more like a movie which shows the progression from galloping down the hill to firing the cannon.
Brown, who has viewed the painting numerous times, believes his great grandfather is the man wearing the bandana standing in the center of the painting.
Mike Payden, a Northwood resident and Captain of the Battery H reenactment unit agrees with Brown’s theory. “They fired more rounds there than they did anywhere (940 rounds by one estimate). They had the whole battery functioning pretty well perfectly. It’s amazing there weren’t more men killed there than there was. It’s pretty much open.”
Only one Battery H soldier was killed.
A more detailed description of the battle was written in 1918 for the Marietta Sunday Observer. Battery H veteran William Parmelee, a Toledoan, wrote, “It was a very hot day. We were so tired, sand was deep, dust very thick. All were about ready to drop when dare-devil Custer (George Armstrong Custer), with staff and escort passed us. Men and horses showed hard riding.
“Custer waved his cowboy hat, shouting ‘push on boys, you are needed at the front!’
“Push on we did, soon reaching Cold Harbor cross roads to find a thin line of cowboys holding off a line of infantry that soon came for us before the Corps is all in line of battle.
“It was an all round hot place. One of the few times the boys working at the muzzle of the guns bleed at nose and ears from the concussion and heat.”
The memory of these brave men is kept alive by the Gaul painting, which can be viewed at Brandville School, home of the Oregon Jerusalem Historical Society. Also in the book First Ohio Light Artillery Battery H: The James Barnett papers by Edward C. Browne, Jr. and by Payden’s re-enactors.
Payden has been involved in reenactments for 23 years, most recently this past weekend at the Muster on the Maumee. You can see his re-enactors bring history alive July 29 at the James McPherson House in Clyde, the Luckey festival, September 27-28 and the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont on October 4 and 5.
The group fires an original 1862 artillery piece with a six-foot, 816-pound barrel capable of launching a 10-pound projectile two-and-a-half miles.
The piece is authentic. So too is the sound. So much so, that when the director of the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, wanted the authentic sound of cannon fire, he sent a crew from Skywalker Sound to Carey Ohio to record Battery H firing its cannon.
Payden said the sound crew was here for seven hours while Battery H spent 20 pounds of powder firing its gun over a quarry. Neither the gun, nor the men were seen in the movie, just the sound.