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“At any cost”: Prominent officer from York recalled Cold Harbor: Part 1

James Alonzo Stahle, former US. army officer and Republican congressman from West Manchester Township. (from Echoing Still: More Civil War Voices from York County, Pa.)
James Alonzo Stahle, former Union army officer and Republican congressman from West Manchester Township (from Echoing Still: More Civil War Voices from York County, Pa., by Scott Mingus and Jim McClure).

James A. Stahle was one of the more prominent Civil War officers from York County. Born in West Manchester Township, he attended York Academy (a forerunner of today’s York College of Pennsylvania). At the start of the Civil War, he organized the “Ellsworth Zouaves,” a colorfully garbed infantry company that became part of the 87th Pennsylvania. Captain Stahle and his men initially guarded the vital Northern Central Railway from their base at Camp Small near today’s Melvale, Maryland. Over time, he rose to lieutenant colonel of the veteran regiment, a role he held during the lengthy Battle of Cold Harbor in early June 1864.

Cold Harbor would go down in history as perhaps famed General Ulysses S. Grant’s worst tactical mistake on a battlefield. A series of ill-fated and badly conceived attacks on well entrenched Confederates on June 3 cost the Union forces as many as 7,000 men to only 1,500 for the Rebels. Grant picked up the nickname “the Butcher of Cold Harbor.” All told over the course of the entire battle, Grant lost more than 12,000 men.

Years later, James Stahle left this account of his and the 87th Pennsylvania’s role in the one-sided battle, a successful attack on June 1 two days before the main slaughter. The first-person account is taken from the Gettysburg Compiler of June 13, 1893, as reprinted from the York Gazette.

Battle of Cold Harbor by Kurz and Allison, 1888.
Battle of Cold Harbor by Kurz and Allison, 1888.

“Twenty-nine years have rolled away into the ages since the terrible conflict that took place between the Union and Rebel forces on the bloody field of Cold Harbor,” Stahle recalled. “Since the 5th of May, not a day or night passed but our ranks were being slowly but surely decimated. On skirmish line and picket line, behind breastworks or in the charge, everywhere there was danger and death.

“We had passed through the hard and incessant marching, incident to the campaign that would finally take the Rebel capital, “if it took all summer” [adapted from General Grant’s famous quote to President Lincoln].  We had participated in the terrible fighting at Spottsylvania [sic] and in the Wilderness, and now at 6 p.m., June 1, we are in battle array ready to make another effort to break through the enemy’s lines.”

“The three divisions of our corps (the Sixth) were posted as follows, viz: our division (the Third) under command of Gen. [James B.] Ricketts on the right along the new Cold Harbor road, [Gen. David] Russell’s division in the centre and [Gen. George W.] Getty’s under the command of Gen. T. H. Neill, on the left. On our right was the 18th corps under the command of Gen. [William “Baldy”] Smith.

Hal Jespersen's map of the June 1 fighting near New Cold Harbor. The 87th Pennsylvania was in Ricketts' division in the center.
Hal Jespersen’s map of the June 1 fighting near New Cold Harbor. The 87th Pennsylvania was in Ricketts’ division on the right of Ambrose Wright’s powerful Sixth Army Corps.

“In arranging our brigade for the charge, the 87th Pennsylvania Volunteers, and the 151st New York, were placed in the second line with orders to take the rebel works at any cost. The directions were to feel the touch of the elbow [i.e. the men were to advance in tight formation elbow to elbow] toward the centre [of the Confederate line], and when the works were reached the first line were to let the second pass, and finish up with the bayonet. We had stood in line for several hours, when the command to charge was given. The movement was steady, and the lines moved off with dress parade precision and in regular order until all along the line came the word ‘double quick, march,’ and then the final dash was made, with cheers from hundreds of men whose voices were silent in death the next thirty minutes.

“The second line charged on over the works, capturing prisoners on every side, and sending them to the rear to be turned over to the provost marshal, and never get credit for the glorious work they had done. For in our own regiment strict orders were given that our line must be kept up, and no break occur, and any captures should be sent back to the rear column to be cared for. The captures by our men were greater in number than the force we had in action.”

To be continued in Part 2.