LEE, Robert E. (1807-1870), General, C.S.A.. Letter signed ("R E Lee Genl.") TO LIEUTENANT GENERAL U. S. GRANT "Commandg U.S. Armies," Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, 7 P.M., 6 June 1864. 1½ page, 8vo, text in an aide-de-camp's clear hand. Boldly signed.
LEE TO GRANT, ON THE BLOODY BATTLEFIELD AT COLD HARBOR: THE CEASE-FIRE THAT CAME TOO LATE
The Battle of Cold Harbor, subject of the present letter, was fought on June 3rd and 4th and marked the bloody climax of Grant's spring offensive, which had began in early May with the Battle of the Wilderness. A month's bitter fighting in the Virginia thickets and fields at Spotsylvania and elsewhere had already resulted in nearly 50,000 Union casualties (7,000 at Cold Harbor alone). Each of Grant's attempts to flank Lee had been anticipated and parried by the rebels. In the view of Douglas Southall Freeman, Cold Harbor constituted Lee's "last great battle in the field" (R.E. Lee, 3:191). Taking advantage of the ponderous movements of the Union armies, Lee had made use of the interval to entrench and solidly fortify his lines at Cold Harbor before the massed frontal attack by the Army of the Potomac on June 3rd. Cold Harbor "was a morning of fierce, futile charges that resulted in slaughter...everything had gone wrong...Only at Fredericksburg had Lee inflicted such terrible losses...Union soldiers...lay where they had fallen wounded, moaning in the blistering sun. Their brothers watched in torment, unable to retrieve them due to Confederate sharpshooters. Lee, hoping to force Grant to admit a defeat, refused to call off the sharpshooters. After two days, on June 5, Grant sent one of Meade's aides across the lines with a letter suggesting that firing cease while litter bearers went out on the field (W.S. McFeely, Grant, p.171). Lee replied the same day: fearing "misunderstanding and difficulty", he suggested instead that "when either party desires to remove their dead or wounded, a flag of truce be sent as is customary."
The long agony of the wounded was far from over. The next morning, June 6th, Grant again wrote to Lee, reporting that at noon stretcher bearers under flag of truce would go out for the wounded, but this time Lee objected that the request itself had not been made under the flag of truce: "I have directed that any party you send out be turned back." In a further communique that afternoon, Grant reminded Lee that the "wounded men are now suffering from want of attention," and suggested a two-hour truce. The present is Lee's formal reply:
"General I regret that your letter of this date, asking a suspension of hostilities to enable you to remove your wounded from between the two armies, was received at so late an hour as to make it impossible to give the necessary directions so as to enable you to effect their purpose by daylight."
"In order that the suffering of the wounded may not be be [sic] further protracted, I have ordered that any parties you may send out for the purpose, between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m. today, shall not be molested, and will avail myself of the privilege extended to these from this army to collect any of its wounded that may remain upon the field. I will direct our skirmishers to be drawn close to our lines between the hours indicated, with the understanding that at the expiration of the time, they be allowed to resume their positions without molestation, and that during the interval, all military movements be suspended. Very respecfully Your Obt. Servant."
However, Lee's letter did not reach Grant until 10:45 p.m. Late the next morning (the 7th) Grant informed Lee of the missed opportunity; Lee replied, suggesting another truce that evening, which Grant accepted. McFeely is scathing about the results of these empty delays: "For days, as commanders stupidly corresponded, untended men had lain in agony dying." A Union staff officer wrote that the delayed truce "was very acceptable for burying the dead; but the wounded were mostly dead too, by this time, having been there since the 3rd" (ibid., p.173).
The present is one of only a few surviving letters from this exchange. Lee's letter to Grant of 5 June 1864 was sold at Christie's (5 December 1997, lot 69, $75,000). Only one other between the commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac has been offered at auction in the previous two decades, Lee's note of 9 April 1865 suggesting a cessation of hostilities (sold 26 October 1988, $200,000). Most of these letters are known through official records only. The present letter is not in Lee, Wartime Papers, ed.Dowdey & Manarin.