This evening, 150 years ago, Union soldiers serving under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant scrawled their names and home addresses on slips of paper and pinned them to the backs of their coats. That way their corpses the next day could be identified more readily.
The army so deployed on June 2, 1864, was not anticipating a defeat but one more bloody sacrifice for the Civil War victory that would come 10 months later. The soldiers understood President Abraham Lincoln’s answer to the crucial question of the war: Not whether Union soldiers could win, but whether they would.
Given overwhelming advantages in men and material, and barring intervention from foreign powers, it was always clear that victory would come—unless God ordained otherwise—if the North was ready to use any means to attain that end. That if is crucial. Until the Civil War, generals believed it improper to plan to win a battle by losing more men than their opponents—but Union commanders eventually fought a war of attrition.
Transforming the military ethic took time. In 1862, Union Gen. George McClellan generally refused battle unless he was certain his forces would inflict more casualties than they would receive. Since such certainty was rarely present, he had a bad case of what Lincoln called “the slows.”
In December of that year, though, Lincoln started “doing the arithmetic.” At year’s end the Union suffered a bloody defeat at Fredericksburg, but one of Lincoln’s secretaries noted his reaction: “We lost 50 percent more men than did the enemy [the actual differential was 140 percent], and yet there is a sense in the awful arithmetic propounded by Mr. Lincoln. He says that if the same battle were to be fought over again, every day, through a week of days, with the same relative results, the army under [Gen. Robert E.] Lee would be wiped out to its last man, the Army of the Potomac would still be a mighty host, the war would be over, the Confederacy gone.”
Lincoln looked for, and eventually found, generals like Grant who would do the arithmetic. In May 1864, Grant ordered a Union assault at the Wilderness that cost 18,000 Union casualties to 10,800 for the Confederates. At Spotsylvania Court House the cost was 18,000 Northern soldiers to 9,000 Southerners.
In late May and early June at Cold Harbor, Va., the arithmetic became even more severe. Grant’s forces had 7,000 casualties, most of them during a furious eight-minute assault against the Southern lines. Lee’s army lost 1,500 men. Our headline quotes a Union soldier whose bloodstained diary, found on his corpse, had a final entry: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.”