3 Mar 02
Update on Africa from my friends there:
“West Africa is bad news. Angola’s Dr Savimbi was just murdered by Israeli and Portuguese mercenaries. US oil companies operate in Angola, and Savimbi did not want to deal with them anymore, a fatal mistake as it turns out. The CIA dropped him a few years ago in favor of Dos Santos (a committed Marxist) with whom they could more freely make deals for diamonds and oil. Other dirty players include De Beers who stands to profit nicely in Angola.
To the immediate north of us, infamous Rob Mugabe in Zimbabwe continues to murder political opponents as fast as he can. ‘Elections’ are taking place there next week, and widespread violence is expected. SANDF (South African National Defense Forces) is on alert along the Zimbabwe frontier.
In Africa, nothing dies of old age!”
6 Mar 02
Good results from a friend and student. He works as a small-town police officer in the Midwest:
“Last Wednesday evening, I responded, by myself, to a report of domestic hostilities at a local residence. I had been at this residence several times before, for the same reason.
As I arrived, I saw a male suspect fleeing on foot. I recognized him from previous encounters. I exited my car and pursued him.
After running a short distance, he suddenly stopped and turned toward me. He then drew a small pistol from his ankle and pointed it in my direction. The instant I saw the threat, I moved aggressively laterally several times, eventually reaching a nearby tree, which I put to good use.
The suspect became confused and disoriented, looking in every direction. To him, I had apparently vanished. When I challenged him verbally, he gave up the fight, seeing (finally) that his situation was untenable. When a second car arrived, we took him into custody without further incident. No shots fired. No one hurt.”
Lesson: Aggressive, lateral movement must be trained into every emergency, defensive response. In this case, it confused and confounded the suspect, making it impossible for him to focus on his deadly intent. Once bewildered in such a fashion, most suspects, like this one, are unable to refocus. Good show!
6 Mar 02
This is the first shooting incident on the part of the NJSP since they were issued SIG 228s and Speer 124gr Gold Dot (9mm). From a friend with the NJSP:
“Two days ago, one of our troopers responded to a report of an erratic driver on RT78, a busy road.
Our trooper quickly located the suspect vehicle and pulled it over. The suspect driver abruptly exited and starting waking down the road. The suspect was an ox, well over six feet and solidly built at 240lbs! When our trooper, who weighed just slightly more than half as much, pursued the suspect on foot yelling at him to stop, the suspect suddenly bolted off into the woods.
The trooper gave chase and caught up with the suspect, who was immediately combative, threatening and swinging at the officer. An entire can of OC was discharged into the suspect’s face, without any discernible effect.
Our trooper then drew his SIG 228 as he was in physical contact with the suspect. He managed to break free from the suspect several times, but the suspect immediately reengaged. Ultimately, our trooper fired one round at the suspect, striking him, at close range, in the middle of the upper chest. No word so far on why our trooper didn’t fire more than one round. He may have been affected by his own OC.
After being shot, the suspect continued to fight until the paramedics arrived five minutes later. He then started fighting with the paramedics as well as our trooper but expired within another minute, suddenly collapsing like a cut puppet. He was DRT.
I attended the autopsy. The amount and severity of tissue damage from that one bullet was substantial. The descending aorta was punctured and nearly torn in half. The bullet, fully expanded, then came to rest in the spine. It did not exit. It would be difficult to imagine better terminal ballistic performance.
Our records revealed that this suspect had a history of similar behavior and had come close to being shot by police before. This time, he apparently got his wish!
Pistol and ammunition performed well”
Lesson: When you’re fighting for your life, you hold nothing back! This trooper did well, but his pistol holds fourteen rounds. He surely could have (and should have) fired more than just one. In any deadly encounter, the faster we can get it over with, the less hurt we’re going to get!
7 Mar 02
Should a military rifle merely wound or kill, or both?
Friends on active duty have been having a lively discussion lately about the current variants of the M-16 rifle and the current-issue SS109 ammunition. The Marine Corps may go back to a 308 rifle for individual issue, counter-trendy as that might appear!
Toward the latter half of the last century, military thinkers decided that wounding an enemy soldier in a way which simply takes him out of action for the short term is actually better than inflicting a fatal wound from which he dies in place. The thinking was that wounded soldiers can’t fight effectively and, in addition, consume more resources than do dead ones.
It was this philosophical vein that lead to the 223 round suddenly being thought of as adequate for military purposes for the first time. Up until then, it and similar calibers were considered woefully inadequate. We’ve thus had the 223 round in our system for the past forty years, through a number of major conflicts, including the one ongoing now.
During this period, the role of the infantryman has been degraded from individual fighter and warrior to “locator” and “herdsman.” High-tech weapons have caused generals to look at individual soldiers as mere target finders and target designators and little else. That kind of thinking has led to the conclusion that what individual soldiers are armed with is of scant consequence, since they will do precious little actual “fighting” anyway.
In my war, Vietnam, ranges to individual targets were short, seldom extending past one hundred meters. The M-16 rifle actually worked well in that environment. The 55gr hardball round we used didn’t penetrate much, but the climate was tropical, and there was usually not much to penetrate. Within 150m, a hit from that round anywhere on the torso customarily brought VC and NVA soldiers down for the count. The bullet is barely stable in air, and, when it strikes anything more dense than air (like human tissue) it instantly tumbles, causing monstrous internal trauma. I saw precious few enemy soldiers continue to be animated in any effective way after being hit. However, most VC and NVA soldiers were relatively small (rarely weighing more than 150lbs) and, as mentioned above, they were lightly dressed and wore no kind of armor.
So, based on our Vietnam experience, we all decided that the 223 round worked pretty well! I believe we were foolishly naive and that our faulty thinking is now coming back to haunt us. I still believe that the 223 round is well suited to domestic law enforcement, personal defense, and other light tasks, but its limitations as an individual, military rifle are becoming too burdensome to ignore.
In an effort to cure some of the problems inherent to the 223 round, the Pentagon has given us the SS109 variant, which features a carbide dart imbedded in the lead bullet. The purpose is to solve the problem of inadequate penetration. As is so often the case, the “cure” has become worse than the disease. The SS109 bullet may penetrate homogeneous barriers in demonstrations, but it consistently fails to penetrate layered barriers in any practical test. It may penetrate a steel helmet at 500m, but it won’t penetrate a car door at any range! In addition, it does not destabilize after striking human tissue. Hence, the wounds it causes are far less debilitating than those caused by its predecessor. It appears that we now have the worst of all worlds, a bullet that has limited range, doesn’t penetrate, and doesn’t reliably produce debilitating, fatal wounds.
What we all need to do is admit that we were wrong and that we are still going in the wrong direction. WE NEED TO KILL PEOPLE, NOT MERELY WOUND THEM. We’re discovering, to our consternation, that wounded soldiers DO continue fighting effectively. We need a rifle bullet that will inflict debilitating, lethal wounds at extended ranges, right out to 500m. WE ALSO NEED A RIFLE BULLET THAT SHOOTS THROUGH THINGS, all kinds of barriers, at all ranges, not just in carefully orchestrated demonstrations, but in reality. Soldiers must be able to fight effectively, all by themselves, not just when they’re a trivial adjunct to some high-tech machine. Soldiers need powerful, individual rifles (that are not dependent on batteries), so that they, once again, think of themselves as mighty warriors, not just machine tenders.
11 Mar 02
“Modified” Glock from a friend in Texas:
“Yesterday, a shooter’s Glock 22 self destructed as it was being fired at our indoor range. No one hurt, but the recoil spring and guide were disintegrated, and the frame rails torn away. The barrel was split. The pistol was toast. Ammunition was S&B hardball.
The gun’s owner had replaced the factory barrel with an aftermarket, compensated one. One of the S&B rounds had been a squib. The bullet from round fired behind it pushed the first bullet almost to the end of the barrel where part of it extruded up and into the compensator hole.
Armature behind the wheel!
Lesson: Once again, dubious, aftermarket parts and cheap, foreign ammunition make an unreliable combination. Keep that trash off of and out of your gun!
13 Mar 02
On the just completed Zimbabwe “elections” from a friend there:
“Robert Mogabe ‘won.’ No surprise. He has arrested the head of the opposition party. Civil war up there is likely. We’re preparing for refugees here.”
13 Mar 02
Only in California: latest “scandal” within the LAPD:
Today, a local radio personality at an LA station revealed that he, after an undercover investigation, has discovered that a number of LAPD officers have personally purchased otherwise banned (in California) military rifles, using department letterhead.
Most of these officers already have access to department-owned rifles which are fundamentally identical, but they are not allowed to take the department rifles home with them. They wanted a military rifle with which they could practice at private ranges at their leisure, rather than just under department auspices and at department ranges. These rifles are perfectly legal for anyone to own in most of the rest of the country.
Only in LA would this be a “scandal,” but it looks as if the affected officers will keep their jobs but lose their rifles. Another great “service” from the media. I’m sure everyone in LA feels safer already!”
14 Mar 02
Comments on Beretta’s Vertic pistol from a fellow trainer:
“Just completed the Beretta.40S&W DAO training program for ________ University Police Dept. The new Beretta Vertec is slightly smaller than a full-sized Model 96, but it places the trigger only about one quarter inch closer to the backstrap, and has the same long trigger pull. All in all, it doesn’t offer the small-handed shooter much advantage compared to the M96. Several female officers struggled with this pistol for four days. Eventually, all but one qualified, but the Vertec sure doesn’t make things easy. I myself have to work hard to hit much with it at any distance, and typically have to slow way down to do so.”
Lesson: Glock looks better all the time!
14 Mar 02
Incident at the range, from a friend in Africa:
“I’m not sure how you guys do it over there, but, at our rifle ranges, shooters typically leave their rifles on the bench with the bolt open on the green flag, in order to go forward to check targets. As the hunting season is upon us, there are many rifle shooters coming to the range to sight in.
Last week, a shooter was alone at our local shooting club. After shooting several rounds from his Saco 270, he followed this protocol. On his return to the bench he found his rifle missing! Police were called, but the rifle was never recovered and no arrests were made.
Upon reflection, this shooter is lucky his rifle was the only thing he lost!”
Lesson: Train like a warrior! Adopt the soldier’s habit of always keeping your equipment with you and in an appropriate state of readiness. That is surely the way we train. We don’t leave our equipment laying around the way recreational shooters typically do.
16 Mar 02
On rifle ownership rules from an attorney friend who works in the area:
“A semi-automatic assault weapon is, by law, any semi-auto with a detachable magazine and two or more of the following: pistol grip, folding or collapsible stock, flash hider, threaded barrel, bayonet lug, grenade launcher, and several other items.
Officers are getting their departments to purchase these rifles for them on department letterhead. The officers are paying for them themselves. There are two dangers, for both the officer and the department. First, there is no excise tax paid on that rifle by the manufacturer. If this rifle ends up in an officer’s personal collection, the excise tax laws have been violated, and both that officer and the department will have a tax problem Secondly, the rifle, even if paid for by the officer, is still department property. Most officers and departments do not understand the foregoing.
My personal experience has demonstrated, time and time again, that the Feds (BATF) are not impressed with local police, and have no compunction about making an example of them. Local police will cut each other slack, but BATF will not.
On September 14, 2004, the federal ban on the private ownership of semiautomatic assault weapons and newly-manufactured, high-capacity magazines automatically sunsets. Law enforcement officers and non police alike need to demand that the law not be reinstated. The evidence is clear that this law has not lessened crime, and has only created a legal minefield for police officers and non police, essentially doing nothing but manufacturing ‘criminals’ where none existed before. It has also severely hindered the development of new cartridges and weapons which might require new, high-capacity magazines.”
20 Mar 02
CMP is now selling Springfield rifles, both ’03 and 03A3, in addition to Garands. Springfields used to be hard to come by and were sold only on a lottery. Apparently, CMP has come into a large lot, probably the last, and are offering them to any eligible buyer at $300 to $500, depending on what type and configuration you order. Their website is www.odcmp.com/Services/Rifles/m1903.htm. I may have to get another one!
20 Mar 02
My friends with the police in Capetown, South Africa has just informed me that the department is going to replace all their CZs with Glock 19s. This represents a radical departure from the norm, as just about all police officers in South Africa use CZs and have for many years, certainly as long as I’ve been going there.
No word on duty holsters or ammunition. I hope officers receive competent training to go along with the new pistol.
23 Mar 02
Of danger signs, from an LEO friend in the West Coast:
“Monday afternoon, I was dispatched to a local Catholic church to investigate a vehicle doing donuts in the soccer field behind the church building.
By the time I arrived, the suspect vehicle was gone, so I went inside the church to talk with the staff. Upon entering, I discovered that a baby christening was taking place. There was a large crowd in the sanctuary. I tried unsuccessfully to get the attention of the priest.
Being in uniform, I am accustomed to people noticing me, but, when I entered the building, a man looked at me intently, far more intently than I would consider ‘normal.’ In any event, I decided to leave then and there, telling myself that I could talk with the priest later, but knowing it was the look on that man’s face and his posture that triggered my alarm response. Interestingly, I had no premonition or ‘bad feelings,’ but the picture I was getting caused me to believe that I needed to disengage immediately.
A half hour later, my dispatcher called me and asked me to call, via cell phone, an officer from the jurisdiction next to ours. I had met him several times, but we did not know each other well. I called at once, and he asked me if I had just come from the Catholic church. When I replied in the affirmative, he indicated that his wife had been at the same christening and that, when I walked in the church, she saw a man staring intently at me. What she then saw (and I didn’t) was that he pulled a pistol from of his waistband and held it at his side. He then passed the gun to a female accomplice, and she put it in her purse. The two hurriedly left the church together shortly after I did. When the officer’s wife got to a phone, she called her husband who, in turn, called my department.
We got a description of the couple’s vehicle, but it was never located. After getting several officers together, we returned to the church. Over the following few hours, we interviewed nearly everyone who had been at the christening, but no one else saw the gun, and no one knew the identity of the couple in question. We still don’t.
In retrospect, I’m glad I left the church when I did! All is well that ends well, although we may never know whom these people were.”
Lesson: As any pilot will tell you, TRUST YOU INSTRUMENTS, NOT YOUR “FEELINGS.” We get in over our heads, not because warning signs are hidden, but because, when they are present, we chose to ignore them. Many thus die suddenly, “feeling fine!”
26 Mar 02
Report of American small arms performance from a friend currently assigned to an infantry unit in Afghanistan:
“The current-issue 62gr 5.56mm (223) round, especially when fired from the short-barreled, M-4 carbine, is proving itself (once again) to be woefully inadequate as man stopper. Engagements at all ranges are requiring multiple, solid hits to permanently bring down enemy soldiers. Penetration is also sadly deficient. Even light barriers are not perforated by this rifle/cartridge combination. Troopers all over are switching to the seventy-seven grain Sierra Matchking (loaded by Black Hills) whenever it can be found. Its performance on enemy soldiers is not much better, but it does penetrate barriers. We’re fighting fanatics here, and they don’t find wimpy ammunition particularly impressive!
Adding to our challenges, our issue M-9 pistol (Beretta M92F) is proving itself unreliable. They are constantly breaking. To make matters worse, the 9mm hardball round we use is a joke. It is categorically ineffective as a fight stopper, even at close range. Some troopers, after numerous, desperate requests, are now being reissued 1911s! However, the only ones available for issue are worn out. Magazines are hard to find, and 45ACP ammunition is scarce.
We are frustrated here that none of the foregoing seems to be of the slightest concern to people in Washington. It is a damn good thing that we have air superiority and are not yet heavily engaged on the ground. Inferior weapons and ammunition are making us all nervous.”
Lesson: Here we go again! We’re going into war with small arms and ammunition we know to be impotent and (in the case of the M-9 pistol) lacking in durability. What makes the iniquity even worse is that these inadequacies have all been common knowledge since the Gulf War ten years ago.
During WW1, American troopers were issued a French light, automatic rifle, as part of an economic sweetheart deal with the French. The gun, called the CSRG (Chauchat), was notoriously unreliable, and that fact was well known by Americans and French alike. But, it was issued anyway, and we will never know how many Americans were needlessly killed as a result. That this kind of casual nonchalance is apparently still standard procedure at the Pentagon, is disillusioning. We really haven’t come very far in eighty-five years. Our young men, in the minds of politicians and military brass alike, are still cannon fodder!
27 Mar 02
From a friend who is a gun retailer in MI:
“Glock 23’s are still our best selling handgun, followed closely by the G19. However, the G36 is now in a close third place, and gaining.
We are also selling a lot of scandium S&W snubbies. Nothing else made by S&W is selling at all.
Your friends in OK sell a lot of Kimbers, but here in MI it’s the Para-Ordnance LDA. We can’t keep them in stock. Many of the Kimbers we have sold have come back with broken manual safety levers and slide stop levers. Kimber is good about fixing them, but broken parts do not endear a manufacturer to its customers.
Earlier this month, we got in a shipment of H&K 9mm USPs with their LEM trigger. They all sold out the first few days. It’s a popular pistol, but we can’t seem to get any more. As usual, H&K is asleep at the switch!
But, the brand with the biggest parts breakage problem is Taurus. Their PT series in 45ACP and 40S&W are coming back to us with large cracks in their frames, in some cases after as few as one hundred rounds. Manual safety levers and disassembly levers are also breaking off. Not our favorite pistol!
DSA FALs and Robinson Arms RA96s usually go out the door within two days of arriving. Colt and Bushmaster AR sales are also brisk.
All the above have been strong since September, and, with our new statewide CCW law, concealment holsters are now becoming a big part of our lives.”
27 Mar 02
Of rifle sights, from a student in the Midwest:
“I shot a tactical rifle match at my gun club today. I used my Ruger Mini-14, set up with an Aimpoint Comp-M red dot sight, the one that all the ‘special ops’ people supposedly use.
On the 4th stage the battery (which I had JUST installed) went DEAD. The scope was immediately unusable, and I couldn’t access my iron sights because the base was in the way. I had to finish using my handgun.
I was able to borrow a friend’s Mini-14, which I used to finish the match. It was set up with a Trijicon ACOG Reflex sight. This sight is NOT powered by batteries, but rather has a self-luminous, tritium reticle. It worked well, until it started raining! Water droplets on the lens quickly rendered the sight unserviceable. Once again, I was forced to abandon the rifle and finished the stage with my pistol!
Needless to say. I’m back to iron sights! I’ve been TOLD, but never listened.”
Lesson: Iron sights work. Something else might not!
28 Mar 02
More on rifle sights from a friend in the Northeast:
“We just had an Urban Rifle exercise at our range on Saturday evening. The entire exercise took place at night. Temperature was in the thirties and dropping. You could see your breath. It had been raining all day, so everything was wet. Humidity was near 100%. It was dead calm. We had flood lights at the back of the range turned on and shining uprange, toward the shooters.
Under these conditions, all shooters struggled. All sighting systems were difficult to use.
Everyone with optical sights (particularly those with high magnification) discovered that light shining on the objective (front) lens washed out the target, breaking down most of the contrast. Detail was difficult to make out. They were forced to move the rifle left and right repeatedly in order to make out the targets from the background. Water droplets on the objective lens made things worse. We could see shooters straining and hunching their shoulders in order to get their heads closer to the scope.
Fogging was also a problem, mostly due to the shooter’s own breath. Lenses had to be constantly wiped off. Using a white handkerchief for this purpose did nothing to enhance the shooter’s concealment! Shooters had to learn to exhale away from the scope.
When correct stance, grip, and cheek weld were restored, competent shooting was reinstated with most shooters. We all learned that correct and consistent cheek weld is critical when rifles are equipped with scopes.
Those using iron sights had challenges too, though not as egregious. The downrange flood lights were positioned off to the right. The effect was that the front sight was highlighted on the right, leaving the left side dark. As a result, most shots were biased to left. The same situation can be created by the sun in daylight. Front sight posts were less affected than were front sight blades.
Targets were illuminated via a dim, red light placed several feet in front. All shooters found this frustrating. Targets could be clearly seen with the naked eye, but, through scopes and iron sights alike, one had to strain in the extreme in order to make out anything. At twenty-five meters, most shooters were still able to achieve high scores. However, when we moved back to fifty meters, hit percentages fell dramatically. They were restored somewhat when shooters reminded themselves to focus on the front sight, not the target. With scopes, they had to learn to watch the reticle, not the target.
Because there was no wind, smoke, hanging in the air in front of the muzzle, also became a problem. It is far more difficult to see through than is the shooter’s breath. Many shooters were thus forced to shift position laterally in order to get clear vision. The most smoke was generated by PMC, Winchester, and IMI. Federal generated the least.
PMC also generated, by far, the biggest and brightest muzzle flash. Flash suppressers help, but one gets a substantial fireball with every shot in any event. Hornady TAP ammunition displayed the dimmest and smallest amount of flash.”
30 Mar 02
On infantry rifles from an active duty friend in the USMC:
“There is no doubt that the shortened gas system of the M4 lends itself to excessive gas port erosion and, of course, inordinate wear on the extractor spring. Solutions have been developed, but Colt lacks the marrow to incorporate them. The M4 is appreciated for its compactness, but it is significantly less reliable than the full-sized M16A2. In addition, its short sight radius has markedly contributed to poor marksmanship, something that apparently does not concern anyone these days.
Ignoring the foregoing, our general officer leadership seems bent on globally replacing our M16A2s with M4s. Of course, the real problem is that the US Army, not the USMC, has the lead on all military service rifle procurement, and there are too few general officers (Army or Marine) who have any real understanding of, and even less interest in, firearms, marksmanship, and terminal ballistics.
A superior solution, and one that would, at long last, give us an individual rifle with adequate range and penetration, would be to replace our M16A2s with Armalite AR10A2 Carbines in 308. Then, provide sufficient time and ammunition to train Marines not only to shoot, but to shoot extremely well.”
Comment: My friend is a hero, but there art too few like him currently on active duty. The general officers of which he speaks are interested only in missiles, ray guns, and their next promotion. They are far more devoted to KEEPING their jobs than they are to DOING their jobs.
29 Mar 02
The Second Battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, 3 June 1864- “Fredericksburg all over again”
On 1 June 1864, in a letter to his wife, General George Meade (architect of the Union victory at Gettysburg) wrote, “The Rebs keep taking up strong positions and entrenching themselves. …The papers are giving Grant all the credit of what they call ‘successes.’ I hope they will remember all this if anything goes wrong!” At nearly the same moment and not far away, Captain Blackford, serving under General Robert E Lee, wrote, “We are being conquered by the splendor of our own victories, and Grant, I suppose, accepts defeat after defeat with that consolation.”
At the beginning of his 1864 “Overland Offensive,” Ulysses S Grant was heard by a friend to say, “Tell Lincoln, if you see him, that this time, no matter what happens, there will be no turning back.” That statement had significance, because, since 1861, President Lincoln had, in close succession, appointed and subsequently fired six different generals, Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joseph Hooker, John Pope, and George Meade (now a subordinate under Grant). Each had, in turn, shown great promise, but, in the end, developed feet of clay. Every offensive into Southern territory had been repelled, with appalling losses, and was sent packing back north. Grant wanted to assure Lincoln that this 1864 offensive would be different. It would only go in one direction. This time, the war was finally going to end, one way or another.
The year 1864 actually began with a note of optimism in the North. The American Civil War was already two and a half years old, and, after many false starts and battlefield blunders, the Army of the Potomac was again on the offensive in Rebel territory, this time threatening Richmond itself. Philip Sheridan’s cavalry had been equipped with the new, rapid-fire Spencer Carbine, which, so long as it could be supplied with ammunition, was a weighty force multiplier. For once, a no-nonsense general, Ulysses S Grant was in charge. Grant was unequivocally offense oriented and eager to end the war.
The tide had first turned back in September of 1862 when Lee was repulsed at Antietam, MD, his first serious defeat, made worse by the fact that, as a result, the State of Maryland, which had been on the verge of joining the Confederacy, ultimately did not. In fact, Lincoln assured himself that Maryland did not join the Confederacy by having the entire state legislature arrested! With the subsequent and simultaneous military catastrophes at Gettysburg, PA and Vicksburg, MS in the summer of 1863, most analysts now believed that any chance the South had for a negotiated settlement had evaporated. Lee’s aura of invincibility had been, if not broken, at least cracked, and it was now only a matter of time, owing to a strangulating Federal naval blockade, before his army would fall below critical mass and fall apart.
At no time did anyone ever think the South could achieve an overall military victory, but many believed that it could maintain the 1861 successions and eventually become an independent, sovereign nation, gradually wearing down the North’s resolve to keep the entire Union together. President Lincoln was absolutely determined not to allow that to happen. He was wholly committed to preserving the Union and thus prosecuting the war to its conclusion.
However, as 1864 began, Lincoln was up for reelection in the fall to his second term as president, and, owing to the fact that the war had already dragged on far longer than anyone had expected, his popularity was declining. Many did not share his enthusiasm for keeping the Union together, particularly in light of the cost in human lives. In order to quell a growing antiwar sentiment in northern cities, particularly New York City, Lincoln desperately needed a string of impressive victories, preferably culminating in the capture of Richmond, VA and Lee’s surrender. That is the mission he gave to Grant in the spring of 1864.
Though he seldom discussed it publicly, Lincoln was deathly apprehensive of another Bull Run, but he consoled himself with the fact that the blundering ineptness which so characterized the Army of The Potomac back in 1861 was largely gone. The Army now had good equipment, good logistics, and competent leadership at all levels. Many had died to get to that point, but the Army was in the best shape it had ever been in. It would need to be, because Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, though badly attrited and low on food and supplies, had lost little of its adeptness and enthusiasm, and Lee himself, through all but incapacitated from exhaustion and stomach flu, and lacking the aid of his most able subordinates (most of whom were now dead), had lost none of his knack for outwitting battlefield opponents.
Though, as noted above, newspapers in the North did their best to put a good face on it, the Virginia Overland Offensive in May of 1864 got off to a rocky start. Costly and indecisive clashes at The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Hawes’ Shop significantly drew down Grant’s reserves and put him on notice that no one in the Army of Northern Virginia was ready to surrender. Lee was thus able to repeatedly stall, but not stop, Grant’s relentless advance toward Richmond.
All roads to Richmond were heavily defended close to the city, so Grant decided to attack overland. His path of attack went through an obscure crossroads called, “Old Cold Harbor.” Within sight of Richmond itself, Cold Harbor was a single, white-framed tavern. The name derives from British slang and meant literally “shelter, but no food,” implying that one could stay there, but the fare was meager. The stage was now set for Lee’s last, great battlefield victory and a stinging, ill-timed thrashing for Grant. Years later, Grant commented in his memoirs that this was the only attack he wished he had never ordered.
In a replay of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg, Grant planed a linear attack up a long, sloping grade to the southwest of Cold Harbor Tavern. Cold Harbor itself had exchanged hands several times, and the ridge line, now in Confederate hands, was only lightly defended. He was hoping to catch Lee off guard and overwhelm the top of the ridge before his strategy was discovered, but delay after frustrating delay gave Lee precious time, which he put to good use by substantially strengthening his defenses with a series of interlocking trenches. Bungling incompetence on the part of Grant’s subordinates, typical of the old Union Army, was, once again, rearing its ugly head! Reconnaissance was amateurish and uncoordinated. Impassible swamps, narrow ravines, and wilderness areas, not shown on any map, suddenly appeared in front of advancing Federal units. The Confederates had built only unconnected, rudimentary trenches by daybreak of 2 June. Under Lee’s personal supervision, these works, as noted above, were significantly expanded and strengthened throughout the day and night.
Forming on a poorly coordinated, seven-mile front, Grant’s assault of Cold Harbor finally commenced at dawn on 3 June. By that time, Confederate positions were heavily reinforced and well prepared. Union cannon perpetration was casual and inadequate. The assault itself was poorly coordinated, and large gaps between units developed as a result. Union troopers never got anywhere close to the Confederate line and were “slaughtered at all points.” Fighting went on all day as several waves of Grant’s men pressed forward. The survivors dug in as best they could in no man’s land, but none ever approached the confederate line. At the end of the day, a truce was called in order to remove the dead and wounded. Union troopers all returned to their starting position. The attack had been a calamitous failure.
It was indeed a lopsided victory for Lee, but, being unsure of Grant’s remaining strength, Lee did not counterattack. Grant suffered in excess of 13,000 casualties that day, most of whom died, because they could not be evacuated promptly. Lee’s casualties were less than 2,500. Many today contend that a determined counterattack by Lee would have altogether ended Grant’s offensive and sent him, like his predecessors, packing back north. Cold Harbor was, as it turns out, the Confederacy’s last chance at a negotiated settlement.
The two armies then stared at each other but did not move until the night of 12 June, when Grant again advanced, this time attempting to bypass Lee’s entrenchments and move on to attack Confederate rail yards at Petersburg. The attack of Petersburg was also unsuccessful. To make matters worse, a small Confederate force had made its way to the outskirts of Washington DC in early July and threatened to burn the city. Moral in the North had reached its lowest point. It now looked as if Lincoln would lose the election, and the prosecution of the war would be in doubt. A despondent Lincoln said at the time “If there is a place worse than hell, I’m in it!”
If Grant’s assault had taken place twenty-fours earlier, on the morning of 2 June, it probably would have been successful, and the war would have effectively ended that day. Because of the, critical, twenty-four-hour delay, the war would now go on for another year. Just as Meade had missed his chance to end the war at Gettysburg in 1863, Grant had now done the same thing one year later.
The Battle of Cold Harbor was to have an immediate and global effect on infantry tactics. Standup assaults gave way to protracted sieges and trench warfare. Fifty years later in France, this would still be a familiar theme.
However, unlike his predecessors, Grant, true to his word, did not turn back. The situation turned around quickly. Union victories at Mobile Bay in August and Atlanta and the Shenandoah Valley in September raised morale in the North and insured Lincoln’s reelection. Lincoln’s political triumph, in turn, guaranteed that the war would be prosecuted to its conclusion, and that the Union would be preserved. The year ended with Union victories at Franklin and Nashville and Sherman’s destructive march through Georgia. Hopes by the Confederacy for a negotiated settlement died. The War Between the States finally ended with Lee’s formal surrender to Grant on Sunday, 9 April 1865 at Appomattox, VA.
Lesson: Good fortune, brilliance, and even good publicity are far less important in attaining ultimate victory that are perseverance and icy determination. Grant fared no better at Cold Harbor than Burnside had at Fredericksburg. The difference is that Burnside lost heart and retreated. Grant sucked it up and pressed on. The rest, as they say, is history.