Sunday, March 17, 2013

First Hand Accounts Meet Interpretive Signage at Cold Harbor

This afternoon I returned home from Gettysburg and the Future of Civil War History Conference. It was a whirlwind experience. I managed to catch up with many old friends, make some new acquaintances, and even squeezed in a bit of battlefield time. The sessions and panels kept me thinking critically about Civil War interpretation and how we present the history of the war to public audiences. I don't think I am going to give a detailed response to the conference as a whole - you can find that on other blogs. Al Mackey in particular has posted some good commentary. However, some of the sessions did provide interesting takeaways - and I hope to reflect on some of them in this space in the coming weeks.
"A burial party on the battle-field of Cold Harbor." Negative by J. Reekie; positive by A. Gardner. Library of Congress. John Christian Spielvogel discussed the effective use of this image on interpretive signage at Cold Harbor Battlefield.

Friday morning's featured presentation was a paper read by John Christian Spielvogel of Hope College entitled Interpreting 'Sacred Ground': The Rhetoric of National Park Service Historical Battlefields and Parks. Spielvogel's presentation was based on his book of the same name. In this particular session he talked about the different focuses of interpretive signage at two parks: Gettysburg and Cold Harbor. I thought the presentation had its strengths and its weaknesses. However, as I glanced over the handout he provided - which featured text copy of interpretive signage at Gettysburg and Cold Harbor - I found myself drawn to the text describing Cold Harbor.

Recently, I have dug into some primary source material related to Cold Harbor: the diary entries of Sergeant John L. Hoster, 148th New York. Tonight I spent some time comparing Hoster's recorded experiences to the interpretive signage provided for visitors to the site today. Let's take a look at Hoster's experience from June 4 - the day after the major assault - until June 11, 1864.

Saturday, June 4th
Cool and showers. Advanced to the outer rifle pit at 3:30 A.M. where we passed the day. Frank brought coffee to me twice. Joe, our colored cook, who skedaddled the day of our arrival came to the front with Frank, Mac and Lew having brought him from the rear. Travers drew three days rations of sugar and coffee and our hardtack this afternoon, also fresh beef. The field between here and the rebel works is literally strewn with dead and wounded. Some of the dead have been brought in and buried. One fellow was trying to cover himself with his rubber blanket - he died soon after. We are near Cold Harbour and near Gaines Mills.

Sunday, June 5th
Cool and rainy. Moved to the right into the open field this morning about 2 o'clock. Lively skirmishing and occassional artillery firing. Shells burst very near us. Our company lay in a rifle pit in rear of pit occupied by regt. We draw fresh beef every day. Battery moves to rear at dark and [illegible] fills that place. Several casualties have occurred near here today, mostly from sharpshooters, some of whom are in the trees. Wounded men are lying between here and the enemy's works that were wounded on the third inst. The boys can see them move an arm or leg occassionally.

Monday, June 6th
Rainy in the morning. A steady picket fire was kept up until 1:30 P.M. when hostilities were suspended for half an hour under a flag of truce. Our folks went out to bring their dead and wounded. A man was found that had laid in the field since the morning of the third. The rebs came out and exchanged papers with our troops. Our boys would not exchange late dailies for their Richmond papers of an old date. Hostilities were to be suspended for two hours, but our troops commenced working on a battery and a reb officer came out and beckoned for one of our officers to meet him. After saluting each other, Reb informed Yank that unless labor was suspended on the battery he would open fire. Immediately the men disappeared on both sides like so many prairie dogs and the ball opened again. The detail sent out to bring the dead were obliged to drop them as the rebel officer refused to allow them to remove them. The battery moved away again at dark and we took its place. We had beef and beef about 4 o'clock.

Tuesday, June 7th
Warm and pleasant. We had to fall in once last night on account of firing on the right. I was so sound asleep I did not hear a gun. The battery came up again at the usual hour, half past three, but moved out about 10 o'clock and we took its place. Rebel sharpshooters or skirmishers made a charge on our right and a Reb Lt. that got fast on the wire was captured. A heavy artillery duel came off at 12 and also about 4. Sharp skirmish firing on our right. The rebs threw mortar shell over this afternoon. The shell moved very slow. We learn today that Grant has forbidden any more charging. Another flag of truce went out this afternoon at 6:30 and at 8 o'clock. The rebs fired a blank to warn us that hostilities were about to commence. I did not learn the object of the flag of truce, but I learn that arrangements were effected to do away with picket firing as much as possible. During the night Sergt. Travers and a detail of ten men went after rations. A man on the left of next regt. on our left had both legs shot off by solid shot. Received a letter from home and one from near there this evening. Cannot read them before morning.

Wednesday, June 8th
Warm and pleasant. The hardtack and pork arrived some time during the night. I got out and issued part of the hardtack and Huff issued the pork. There has been sharp skirmishing all day. I went down in the woods and took a was and made some coffee. I went down and made another cup of coffee this afternoon. Frank boiled our pork. The surgeon came up with the regt. last evening. Just at dusk our band played "Dixie" and the rebs cheered lustily. The band then played "Yankee Doodle" and the rebs groaned. Then our boys cheered. The right of our company lies under a large black walnut, which affords abundant shade. It also seems to be a guage for either side.

Thursday, June 9th
Warm and pleasant with heavy wind and appearance of rain. Today, as usual, I have been making out reports, lists of casualties, etc. Thad Roberts is A.A.A. Gen. on Stedman's staff with the Adjt. of the 11th who was wounded in the charge of the third of June. Our Sergt. Major discharges his duties in the regt. We had an inspection in the company today to ascertain the number of serviceable guns. Four or five were found to be deficient but were exchanged at Martindale's Headquarters. Skirmishing has been kept up with usual vigor today. It was reported that the artillery would open along the line this afternoon, but it proved to be a fictitious report.  Sergt. went to the rear to draw rations.

Friday, June 10th
Warm and pleasant. Picket firing all day. We cleaned our company street. A man in the next regt. on our right received a wound in the mouth from a sharpshooter. The artillery in our rear threw a bad shell which burst in rear of our regt., killed a man, Crpl. John Wooden, in Co. C. Some artillery firing this P.M.

Saturday, June 11th
Warm and very pleasant. We were relieved about 9 P.M. and moved to the rear about a mile. It seemed almost like going on a furlough to get where we could pitch our tents. I had two pieces of shelter tent which I joined with M. Tubbs and we soon had a palace of our own. Our band regaled us with some fine music. The mortar shell seemed to feel bad because we left as they came over here to see us. A very large mail was distributed at dark. I was telling the Chaplain I was anxious for pay day to arrive so I could have some money. He loaned me a V immediately. The 10th Penn. heavy artillery are encamped near us. Wade and VanVleck promoted to Corpls.

Now, let's compare to the Cold Harbor interpretive signage describing similar scenes:

Keep Your Head Down
This shallow, winding depression is all that remains of a "zigzag" constructed by Union troops in June of 1864. In trench warfare, soldiers dug ditches, called zigzags or covered-ways, to provide protection from sharpshooters as they moved from one line of entrenchments to another.

Soldiers at Cold Harbor crawled through covered-ways carrying heavy loads of rations or ammunition, prompting one infantryman to remark that he felt "like some unholy cross between a pack mule and a snake."

Keep Digging
These trenches represent a dramatic change in battlefield tactics. When the two armies met on this ground in 1862, soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder; victory was often dependent upon the success or failure of a dramatic charge.

By 1864 field fortifications played an increasingly significant role in determining the outcome of a battle. Despite the obvious advantage held by an entrenched army, Commanders continued to order frontal assaults against these nearly impregnable positions, resulting in enormous casualties.

Nowhere To Go
For nearly two weeks, from June 3 to June 12, the soldiers endured the agony of trench warfare. One Virginian recalled:
Thousands of men cramped up in a narrow trench, unable to go out, or to get up, or to stretch or to stand, without danger to life and limb; unable to lie down or to sleep for lack of room and pressure of peril; night alarms, day attacks, hunger, thirst, supreme weariness, squalor, vermin, filth, disgusting odors everywhere, the weary night succeeded by the yet more weary day; the first glance over the way at day dawn bringing the sharpshooters bullet singing past your ear or smashing through your skull, a man's life is often exacted as the price of a cup of water from the spring.

While this Virginian perhaps more vividly captured the hellish landscape and environment of Cold Harbor, I find that Hoster's matter-of-fact style imparts the impression that the repetition of trench warfare may have desensitized Sergeant Hoster to these terrible scenes very quickly. Hoster's last entry reveals his utter relief at receiving a break from the trenches.

Combining Hoster's accounts with the NPS signage text, I found myself presented with a vivid depiction of the horrific experiences of a soldier in the trenches at Cold Harbor.

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