Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, continued his retreat toward the James River. He arranged for Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys, his topographical engineer, to design a defense line on Malvern Hill. Humphreys described the ground to his wife: “There was a splendid field of battle on the high plateau where the greater part of the troops, artillery, etc. were placed. It was a magnificent sight.” Part of the Federal army would be tasked with defending this line while the rest completed its withdrawal.
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 attacked today by fresh troops… I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world, but they are worn-out… We have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”
Knowing the affection his men had for him, McClellan rode along the lines and later wrote about it to his wife Ellen: “The dear fellows cheer me as of old as they march to certain death & I feel prouder of them than ever. I am completely exhausted–no sleep for days–my mind almost worn out–yet I must go through it. I still trust that God will give me success…”
But once again, McClellan would not be on hand for the fight to come. After placing most of his men on the right flank to protect the line of retreat, he retreated himself to the U.S.S. Galena on the James. He would spend most of the day scouting for locations where he could set up his new supply base. McClellan did not officially assign anyone to command the operation, but since Brigadier General Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps made up the bulk of the defense force, Porter assumed informal command.
General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had missed his best opportunity to destroy the Federal army on June 30 at Glendale. Nevertheless, he resolved to give it one last try the next day, before the Federals could reach the James. It would be a daunting task because Malvern Hill was a 150-foot-high slope flanked by swamps and other natural obstructions. The Federals chose this position well, and Porter made sure it was strongly defended, especially by artillery. Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt massed 250 cannon on the slopes, with support from Federal gunboats on the river. Some 17,800 infantry guarded the Quaker road, the main approach to the hill. Federals also established defenses at Ellerson’s Mill and Boatswain’s Swamp.
Lee, frustrated by the failures of the past six days to fully engage the enemy, was determined to take Malvern Hill. He snapped at an officer who worried out loud that McClellan might escape: “Yes, he will get away 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. Lee would therefore 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.
Colonel Robert H. Chilton, Lee’s chief of staff, wrote the formal orders for the attack and sent them to the commanders, but Lee did not read them beforehand. They simply stated, “Batteries have been established to act upon the enemy’s line.” If the Confederate guns broke the line, then the brigade under Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead, “who can witness 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, particularly one with a commander leading his first battle, was sure to cause confusion.
Longstreet and Jackson found an excellent position to mass their artillery, but since the batteries were assigned to brigades, they were spread too thin to be effective. Both sides began trading cannon fire around 1:30 p.m., but the Federal guns were much more accurate and concentrated. Within an hour, every Confederate battery had been silenced 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 Brigadier General A.R. Wright’s brigade. But the Confederates were quickly pinned down at the foot of Malvern Hill and had no choice but to wait for 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 fire from the Federal gunboats on the James 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 this 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 Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws reached the Federal defenses, but without support they could not hold that position. Porter called on Major General Edwin V. Sumner to send reinforcements from the Second Corps, but Sumner replied that he was facing heavy fire of his own. Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman then sent enough men from the Third Corps to ensure that the Confederates could not break through Porter’s line.
Porter notified McClellan at 6:10 p.m., “The enemy has renewed the contest vigorously–but I look for success again.” The fight ended around 8:30, and Porter sent another message an hour later: “After a hard fight for nearly four hours against immense odds, we have driven the enemy beyond the battle field… we will hold our own and advance if you wish.” Porter could “only regret the necessity which will compel a withdrawal.”
The Federals had successfully held their ground and were poised to either continue holding or counterattack. But McClellan had already planned to withdraw to the James and he would not change plans now, even despite scoring a major victory. He established his new supply base at Harrison’s Landing, where his army and supply line could enjoy the protection of the mighty Federal gunboat fleet.
Many of McClellan’s subordinates, emboldened by this success and in better position to judge the morale of their men, protested the withdrawal. Brigadier General Philip Kearny, commanding a division in Heintzelman’s corps, sounded the loudest objection: “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.”
Frontal assaults against heavily defended positions on high ground backed by massed artillery proved to be Lee’s greatest military blunder. Incorrect placement of Magruder’s and Hill’s men contributed to the defeat, as did Holmes’s refusal to take part. When Lee asked Magruder why he attacked, Magruder replied, “In obedience to your orders, twice repeated.”
D.H. 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), while 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.
A torrential downpour ended the night and the battles of the past seven days. The Federals, who had up to this time conducted orderly withdrawals, now finally broke and fled toward Harrison’s Landing. The demoralization that came with retreat had finally gotten to the Army of the Potomac. Major General Darius Couch wrote, “The soldiers who had fought so magnificently for the last week, marching by night and fighting by day, were now a mob.”
McClellan continued to assert that he lacked the manpower to take Richmond, despite having nearly twice as many men as Lee. He wired Washington after the battle, “I have not yielded an inch of ground unnecessarily but have retired to prevent the superior force of the Enemy from cutting me off–and to take a different base of operations.” He then repeated his continuous demand for reinforcements: “I need 50,000 more men, and with them I will retrieve our fortunes. More would be well, but that number sent at once, will, I think enable me to assume the offensive.”
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