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The Killing Fields: 1865

April 1865. "Cold Harbor, Virginia. Collecting remains of dead on the battlefield after the war." Memento mori. Wet plate by John Reekie. View full size.

April 1865. "Cold Harbor, Virginia. Collecting remains of dead on the battlefield after the war." Memento mori. Wet plate by John Reekie. View full size.


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Original photo on display in DC

By coincidence, I just saw the original photograph the other day while visiting Washington, DC. It is on display at the National Portrait Gallery as part of an exhibition of Civil War photos and paintings. I found this one in particular to be both fascinating and disturbing. If you're in DC, visit the museum, it's an incredible place.

A Sad Reminder.

This photograph really serves as a reminder of the terrible price our ancestors paid in the Civil War. As some of the previous comments point out, these particular bodies show evidence of brutal fighting conditions at Cold Harbor. I've read figures in the neighborhood of 7,000 killed within the first 10 minutes of the assault. When visiting the battlefield area, locals told me they find relics all the time, even digging their gardens and such. The photographic evidence serves an important purpose, that we may never forget!

Forensics 101

It's obvious the skull on the left belonged to someone who had, pretty much, the right half of their face blown away; and the one on the left has, what appears to be two bullet holes in the skull over the left eye.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

You're close Phaedrus

This is actually Cold Harbor battlefield where on June 1 and especially June 3 Grant launched an attack across open ground against entrenched Confederates. It wasnt war, it was murder as a confederate general observed. It was the only attack Grant admitted to regretting. The "Mule Shoe" salient was at the the battle of Spotsyvania two weeks before and was a Union attack which was partially successful, but ended in a hand to hand deathly brawl at the "Bloody Angle". It gave Grant the idea that it could work on a larger scale with far more men. It didnt and we see the forlorn result in that photograph

Several Photos. . .

. . . were taken of this same scene. The men collecting remains, based on their uniform clothing, are likely U.S. Colored Troops, whose units were often assigned to rear areas or labor tasks by senior white officers who were mistrustful of them in combat. In fact, most black units in the Union army performed as well or better in combat than white units of similar experience and training.


Doesn't it look like the 2nd skull from the right has a dagger sticking in its eye socket? And is there a piece of leg attached to that boot? YIKES!

[The "dagger" is a bone behind the skull. - tterrace]

Don't Forget The Bloody Angle

I erred; farbab45 is correct:
Widipedia gives the dates of the Battle of Cold Harbor as "May 31 to June 12, 1864 (with the most significant fighting occurring on June 3)" Preceding this, was a series of battles that was part of Gen. Grant's Overland Campaign.

Prominent among these was fighting that occurred from May 8 through May 21 at Spotsylvania Court House. The most ghastly of which was an almost continuous attack on Confederate entrenchments, latter called the "Bloody Angle," starting on May 12, 1864 and lasting roughly 24 hours. Called that for good reason: it was nearly total close quarters fighting for the entire period.

Some years ago I visited the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond VA. They had on display the base of a trunk of a tree of 22" that had been cut in half at, chest height, solely by bullets. It appears the trunk has been moved to the Smithsonian's American History Museum in Washington. See:

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