“The Battle of Cold Harbor & the Soldier’s Psyche”: An Interview with Ashley Luskey

By Emma Murphy ’15

Ashley Luskey will be speaking at the 2014 Civil War Institute’s Summer Conference on the War in 1864 during which she will give a lecture on Cold Harbor and its contested memory. Luskey is currently a Park Ranger at Richmond National Battlefield and is working towards her PhD in History at West Virginia University. In anticipation of the Summer Institute, Ashley Luskey answered student questions about her research, her lecture topic, and her connection with Gettysburg College and the Civil War Institute. Let’s see what she has in store for us this summer:


At the CWI 2014 Summer Conference, your talk is entitled “The Battle of Cold Harbor & the Soldier’s Psyche: Anticipation, Choice, and Memory on the Front Lines.” What will you be covering in your talk? How does it fit into the theme of this year’s conference?

In this talk, I’ll be discussing how soldiers’ and generals’ front-line experiences during the preceding battles of the Overland Campaign, and during the June 1 fighting at Cold Harbor, ultimately shaped the fighting and the results of Grant’s massive June 3 assault at Cold Harbor, for which the battle is best known. Too often, I think, people think of the June 3 assault as an inevitable failure from the moment Grant arrived at Cold Harbor, and they have the tendency to pin the ultimate failure of that assault squarely on Grant himself without considering the other, myriad factors that played into the Union defeat there. I plan to highlight how corps commanders’ individual personalities, differing perspectives along varying pieces of terrain, and experiences (or lack thereof) in the fighting on June 1 shaped the decisions they made on June 3 about whether to attack at all, and if so, with what intensity. I also plan to highlight how the common soldier’s psyche had the ability to significantly influence the nature of both the June 1 and June 3 assaults; that is, for some soldiers, their memories of attacking against well-fortified Confederates at Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Totopotomoy Creek, combined with their own internalization of the dangers awaiting them on June 3, while lying out in rifle pits for 36 hours (between June 1 and June 3) listening to Confederates entrenching, shaped the confidence and intensity with which those soldiers ultimately attacked on June 3. For other soldiers, such as the newly arrived Heavy Artillery regiments, their lack of front-line fighting experience, combined with their perceived need to prove themselves to veteran units who had routinely teased them and talked derisively about them since their arrival on the front lines, significantly shaped the way they fought on the battlefield throughout the two-week battle at Cold Harbor.

Additionally, I will touch on the controversy surrounding the delayed truce on June 7 at Cold Harbor and what, mentally, played into both Lee’s and Grant’s refusals to submit to a truce earlier than June 7, despite the enormous human cost (and political ramifications, for Grant) of that delay. I think a lot of people just assume that Grant was simply “too stubborn” or “in denial” about his defeat, but really, both the political and military reasons for the delay in issuing the truce are a lot more complicated, on both sides.

Finally, I plan to address how these various participants’ experiences in battle and their mental internalization of those experiences have produced very different individual memories of that battle, but have collectively shaped our contemporary memory of Cold Harbor as a completely unnecessary and doomed Union failure, and a battle with no redemptive qualities whatsoever for the Union. In fact, arguably, one of Grant’s most genius moments of his Civil War career occurred when, unbeknownst to Lee, Grant withdrew his entire army from the Cold Harbor battlefield on the evening of June 12 and moved them South across the James via a newly constructed, 2200-foot pontoon bridge, in order to get to Petersburg before Lee could reinforce his scant force there. Truly, when Grant crossed the James, it was the beginning of the end for the Confederate army, as Lee had predicted back in May to General Jubal Early, when he stated that once Grant crossed the James, the war would become a siege, and Confederate defeat would then be merely a matter of time. I hope my talk adds some complexity to these and other compelling aspects of the entire two-week battle at Cold Harbor.

Does the evidence from your talk suggest a possible change in both Grant’s and Lee’s strategic plans for the rest of the war? Is there a change in either general? How does that connect to the Cold Harbor campaign?

The fighting at Cold Harbor unquestionably altered the nature of the fighting during the rest of the war. The shift to a reliance on trench warfare had really begun during the battle of Spotsylvania, in May of 1864, but Grant’s costly defeat at Cold Harbor solidified for him that really the only way to defeat Lee and the Confederacy was through a full commitment to trench warfare, and specifically, siege tactics such as those employed at Petersburg. Grant realized that, despite his impressive numerical advantage (in terms of troop strength) over Lee, he could never truly destroy Lee’s army without simultaneously destroying the supply bases and home front war machine that kept that army in the field. After Cold Harbor, although Grant was able to move a large contingent of his army to the outskirts of Petersburg before Lee was able to reinforce the few thousand troops he had stationed there, under PGT Beauregard, the newly-arrived Union troops refused to attack the strong Petersburg entrenchments because of something that they personally referred to as the “Cold Harbor syndrome”—that is, a paralyzing fear about attacking entrenchments head-on without the full assurance of support from the rest of the Union army. Despite dramatically outnumbering Beauregard’s troops upon arriving at Petersburg, one Union soldier declared that “not even Jesus Christ himself” could force him to assault those earthworks. Both soldiers and generals knew that, from Cold Harbor on out, massive assaults against entrenched positions would just be utterly useless, and that trench warfare and siege warfare ultimately would decide the fate of the war.

I know you’re in the middle of your dissertation writing. Congratulations! What is the primary topic of your research?

Thanks! My dissertation looks at elite Confederate women’s use of social and cultural rituals to reaffirm their claims to ladyship and to reinstitute social order in Civil War Richmond. Specifically, it analyzes elite parties, public receptions, charity events, holiday celebrations, theater-going, and the Capitol Square promenade as ways through which elite women displayed their social status and sought to reinstitute, both physically and symbolically, elements of the antebellum social hierarchy within the dynamic wartime capital. The city’s long-established societal leaders felt increasingly threatened by the scores of refugees, politicians, widows, orphans, speculators, prostitutes, soldiers, and other individuals who flocked to Richmond during the war. My dissertation explains both how the wives and daughters of the city’s leading politicians, generals, and businessmen understood (by virtue of their class and gender) their social and political responsibilities to uphold society during the war, and how they sought to do so through a variety of cultural rituals and social performances of simultaneous power over, and empathy with, their peers.

Have you used your research in your career as a ranger at RNB? How/In what way?

I am very fortunate to work at a park where I can use my dissertation research pretty much every day! Whether I am working at one of the battlefields, or at the downtown Tredegar Ironworks, or at the Chimborazo Medical Museum, I find that my research really helps me provide visitors with a better understanding of what was at stake in Richmond during the war, and of the numerous civic wars on the Confederate home front that significantly shaped—and were in turn shaped by—the nature and intensity of the Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. Often, when visitors come to a battlefield, their minds are mostly focused on the armies that fought there, on who fought where, and on what the casualty figures were. Conversely, when visitors come to a site such as the Tredegar Ironworks or the Chimborazo Medical Museum, they are primarily preoccupied by the industrial or medical stories, respectively, of Civil War Richmond, and don’t think as much about the interplay between home front and battlefield. I find that my research helps me forge a connection for visitors between the two by helping me to communicate the larger and ever-evolving ambiance or “heartbeat” of Civil War Richmond and its surrounding communities that became battlefields. Additionally, my research enables me to teach visitors about the complexity of the political, social, and economic aspects of the war that unquestionably shaped the outcome of battles and the fortunes of those on the home front. Finally, my research has enabled me to better understand the rich cultural forces that infused soldiers’ and civilians’ participation, experiences in, and memories of the war in a way that allows me both to discuss with visitors how history is remembered—and even mis-remembered—throughout time, and to convey deeper, universal truths about the human experience during the stresses of war which still resonate with visitors—both American and international—today.

And, for a fun question, how far back does your connect go with the CWI/CWES or Gettysburg College?

My connection with CWI and Gettysburg College actually stems back to the summer of 2003, when I received one of the student scholarships to attend the summer CWI conference, as a rising senior in high school. I believe the theme of the conference that year was “Lee’s Retreat From Gettysburg.” I had an amazing time attending the talks, lectures, and battlefield tours and getting to meet both well-known historians and great friends of my own age—a couple of whom I am still very close to today, and who are likewise pursuing PhDs in nineteenth-century American history. I also participated in the Gettysburg Semester in the Fall of 2006, where I met some of my current very best friends, and was able to participate in my first internship with the National Park Service at Gettysburg National Military Park, under the supervision of D. Scott Hartwig. The Gettysburg Semester was truly a transformative experience in both my professional and personal life, and I still count it as one of the very best experiences I ever had in college!

Since then, I have spoken at the CWI conferences in March of 2013 and June of 2014. I also count myself extremely lucky to still be under the mentorship of Dr. Peter Carmichael, who served as my advisor during my Masters program at WVU, and who, currently, is still graciously serving as a lead member of my dissertation committee for my PhD! Therefore, although I received my official Bachelors, Masters, and (soon) Doctoral degrees from other universities, (William & Mary and WVU, respectively), I will always consider myself also to be a “Gettysburg alum” of sorts!

Thank you to Ashley Luskey for answering student questions in anticipation of the 2014 Civil War Institute Summer Conference. We look forward to her participation in this year’s Summer CWI Conference, “The War in 1864.”

This year’s Institute will take place from June 20-25, 2014. Registration can be done by following this link: http://www.gettysburg.edu/cwi/conference/ See you there!

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