July 1, 1862 – The last of a week-long series of battles on the Virginia Peninsula took place at Malvern Hill.
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, continued his retreat toward Harrison’s Landing on the James River after yesterday’s engagement. McClellan believed his men were in dire need of rest after six days of fighting; he wrote Major General John A. Dix, commanding Federals at nearby Fort Monroe, “I pray that the enemy may not be in condition to disturb us today.” McClellan also wrote his superiors at Washington, “My men are completely exhausted, and I dread the result if we are to-day attacked by fresh troops.”
Despite McClellan’s prayers, Confederate General Robert E. Lee resolved to try destroying the Federals one last time before they reached the safety of the James. To do this, Lee targeted the Federals on Malvern Hill. General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps took up strong defensive positions on this 150-foot-high slope, flanked by swamps and other natural obstructions. Federals also established defenses at Ellerson’s Mill and Boatswain’s Swamp.
McClellan placed most of his men on the right flank to protect the line of retreat to Harrison’s Landing. He then returned to the U.S.S. Galena on the James, leaving Porter in command. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt massed 250 cannon on the slopes of Malvern Hill, supported by Federal gunboats on the river. Some 17,800 infantry guarded the Quaker road, the main approach to the hill.
Lee, frustrated by the failures of the past six days to fully engage the enemy, was determined to take Malvern Hill. He said to a staff officer, that if “those people” (i.e., the Federals) escaped from the Peninsula, it would be “because I cannot have my orders carried out!”
But Lee could not use the divisions of Major Generals James Longstreet or A.P. Hill because they had taken such heavy losses the previous day. Thus, Lee would deploy the divisions of Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, John B. Magruder, Benjamin Huger, and Theophilus H. Holmes. Some commanders expressed reluctance to attack such a strong enemy position, but Longstreet argued that the Federals were so demoralized that breaking them should be easy.
One of Lee’s staff officers wrote the formal orders for the attack, which Lee did not read for himself. They simply stated that the battle would begin with an artillery barrage. Then, after the Federal lines had been softened, the brigade under Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, “who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same.” A plan to begin a 15-brigade infantry attack with a single brigade was unusual.
Longstreet and Jackson found an excellent position to mass their artillery, but the batteries were assigned to brigades and too spread out to concentrate. Both sides began trading cannon fire around 1:30 p.m., but the Federal guns were much more accurate and concentrated, while the Confederates futilely scrambled to match them. Within an hour, Federals had silenced every Confederate battery in a clear demonstration of artillery superiority.
Armistead, taking casualties from Colonel Hiram Berdan’s top sharpshooters, ordered his men forward at 4 p.m.; they were joined by General A.R. Wright’s brigade. But the Confederates were quickly isolated at the foot of Malvern Hill and had no choice but to await support.
Magruder took a wrong road and was late in getting to the battlefield. By the time he arrived, Lee had received an erroneous report that the initial attack was a “success.” Having planned a flanking movement around the hill, Lee now directed Magruder to “advance rapidly” and join Armistead and Wright in attacking the position frontally.
Magruder’s men joined the other two brigades and began advancing up Malvern Hill around 5:30 p.m. However, Federal grapeshot and canister tore the men to pieces. Naval Commander John Rodgers directed fire from the Federal gunboats U.S.S. Aroostook, Galena, and Jacob Bell that also wreaked havoc on the attackers. A correspondent from the National Intelligencer wrote:
“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon the gunboats Galena, Aroostook, and Jacob Bell open from Turkey Island Bend, in the James River, with shot and shell from their immense guns. The previous roar of field artillery seemed as faint as the rattle of musketry in comparison with these monsters of ordnance that literally shook the water and strained the air… The fire went on… making music to the ears of our tired men… (Confederate) ranks seemed slow to close up when the naval thunder had torn them apart.”
Men from a South Carolina regiment used their dead comrades as breastworks against the heavy Federal fire. Magruder’s refusal to commit all his brigades at once also weakened the assault. Jackson ordered D.H. Hill to join the advance, but the new Confederate line was repulsed as well. Jackson then directed the rest of his men to advance, but by that time D.H. Hill’s Confederates were retreating.
A final charge by two brigades under General Lafayette McLaws reached the Federal defenses, but without support they could not hold that position. The fight ended by around 8:30 p.m., with the Confederates unable to dislodge the Federals from Malvern Hill or cut them off from the James. They retreated in what was Lee’s greatest military blunder. Incorrect placement of Magruder and Hill’s men contributed to the defeat, as did Holmes’s refusal to take part.
Lee asked Magruder why he attacked, and Magruder replied, “In obedience to your orders, twice repeated.” Hill later said of this battle, “It was not war, it was murder.” The Confederates sustained 5,650 casualties (869 killed, 4,241 wounded, and 540 missing). The Federals lost 3,214 (397 killed, 2,092 wounded, and 725 missing). Federal artillery inflicted over half the Confederate casualties, more than any other battle in the war.
The heavy losses at Malvern Hill proved unnecessary, as McClellan continued withdrawing to Harrison’s Landing despite scoring a major victory. Many of McClellan’s subordinates, emboldened by this success and in better position to judge the morale of their men, protested the withdrawal. Porter wanted to continue making a stand at Malvern Hill, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny boldly declared:
“I, Philip Kearny, an old soldier, enter my solemn protest against this order for retreat. We ought instead of retreating to follow up the enemy and take Richmond. And in full view of the responsibility of such a declaration, I say to you all, such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”
McClellan continued asserting that he lacked the manpower to take Richmond, despite having nearly twice as many men as Lee. He wired Washington on July 1, “I need 50,000 more men, and with them I will retrieve our fortunes.” President Abraham Lincoln, who had been battling with McClellan over manpower, called the request “simply absurd.”
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