Tag Archives: Seven Days Battles

The Seven Days Battles: Malvern Hill

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.

Battle of Malvern Hill | Image Credit: elgrancapitan.org

Battle of Malvern Hill | Image Credit: elgrancapitan.org

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 78; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 164-65; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (1 Jul 1862); Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 47-48; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 188; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 525, 530; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 177-78; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4057-4128, 4164-88; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 172, 227; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 235-36; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 469-70; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 423-26; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 72-73, 93; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 471, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Malvern Hill

The Seven Days Battles: Glendale

June 30, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee made another attempt to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, this time attacking at Glendale, Frayser’s Farm, and White Oak Swamp.

After failing to prevent the Federals from reaching White Oak Swamp on the 29th, Lee still believed that a maximum effort could capture or destroy Major General George B. McClellan’s army. Thus, he developed another complex plan:

  • Major General Benjamin Huger would start the fight by leading 12,000 men in a direct advance on Glendale, a town at the important crossroads of the Charles City, Long Bridge, and Quaker roads.
  • Another 45,000 Confederates under Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would advance on parallel roads toward Glendale
  • 25,000 Confederates under Major Generals Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and D.H. Hill (now under Jackson’s command) would move south through White Oak Swamp to catch the Federals in a pincer by attacking the Federal right flank and rear

The Federals continued their retreat down the Peninsula toward their new supply base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. With the army spread out over 10 miles, V Corps took positions on Malvern Hill while the other four corps stretched from that point to White Oak Swamp. Most Federals had crossed the swamp by 10 p.m. on the 30th, with about a third of the army reaching the James River.

Jackson’s advance was halted at Savage’s Station by Federal stragglers and supplies left behind. The hungry Confederates collected all the food, uniforms, blankets, ammunition, and other items they could carry, and resumed the march near mid-morning. They reached the edge of White Oak Swamp around noon and saw that the Federals had burned the bridge.

The Confederates traded artillery fire with the retreating Federal VI Corps while Jackson’s men tried building a new bridge. Federal artillerists drove the Confederates off. General Wade Hampton then informed Jackson that a new bridge could be built to the west, out of Federal gun range. Jackson said nothing, instead sitting under a tree and falling asleep.

Huger advanced on the Charles City road and deployed a brigade to guard against an attack from the north while discovering that the retreating Federals had obstructed the road. The Confederates were delayed several hours while forming a new road through the woods. Huger then decided that it was too late to attack, so he kept his troops back while exchanging artillery fire with the enemy.

Lee, with Longstreet’s men at the intersection of the Darbytown and Long Bridge roads, heard the cannons and, thinking the battle had begun, sent two divisions into action. Separated by a swamp and dense woods, Longstreet could not tell whether Huger was advancing on his left. Longstreet deployed his men to attack, but Lee ordered him to wait until Jackson came up.

Learning that the Federal army was assembling in disarray at Malvern Hill, Lee called on his two southernmost divisions under Generals Theophilus H. Holmes and John B. Magruder to attack, which would prevent the Federals from sending reinforcements to hold off Longstreet. Holmes and Magruder attacked the Federal left at Turkey Bridge and Malvern Hill.

Lee then ordered Longstreet to attack. Longstreet sent six brigades in two rows against a stronger Federal force in the process of retreating near Glendale. The Federals consisted of all or parts of divisions and brigades led by Generals George A. McCall, George G. Meade, Joseph Hooker, Philip Kearny, and John Sedgwick. Part of the fight took place in a pine grove called Frayser’s Farm. The Confederate assaults were poorly coordinated:

  • Huger withdrew most of his troops to prepare for a counterattack that never came.
  • Lee ordered Magruder to pull out of the attack on the Federal left and help Longstreet, so Magruder’s men spent most of the day marching. This weakened Holmes, whose attack was checked by Federal gunboats on the James.
  • Jackson accomplished little at White Oak Swamp, as Federals prevented him from linking with the rest of the Confederate army.
  • There was a general lack of communication between Lee and his commanders, causing confusion among the ranks.

Around 4 p.m., some 20,000 Confederates under Longstreet and A.P. Hill assaulted 40,000 Federal defenders near Willis Church, where brutal hand-to-hand combat ensued. The Confederates routed McCall’s division and even captured the commander. However, stiff Federal resistance led by Hooker and Kearny stabilized the defenses. Federal artillery also tore holes into the Confederate attack lines.

Fighting near Willis Church | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fighting near Willis Church | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Longstreet committed nearly every brigade in his command, while the Federals threw reinforcements into the fight piecemeal. Around 8:30 p.m., Confederates captured the Federal cannon, but within an hour more Federal artillery arrived to drive the Confederates back. Jackson’s inactivity at White Oak Swamp enabled Federals from that sector to be transferred to bolster defenses at Glendale and repel the main Confederate attack.

The fight ended inconclusively, as Lee failed to stop the Federals from withdrawing to Malvern Hill on the Quaker road. Only one of Lee’s four attacks–that of Longstreet and Hill–actually happened as planned. Jackson was ineffective for the fourth consecutive day, and two-thirds of the Confederate army did not join the main fight. This became one of the Confederacy’s greatest lost opportunities.

On the Federal side, some accused McClellan of dereliction of duty for staying aboard the U.S.S. Galena on the James and not taking part in any of the fighting or exercising any type of overall command. His army fended off another Confederate attack, but without orders, the troops just assumed that they should continue retreating and did so.

McClellan’s line of retreat remained secure, but his repeated withdrawals clearly indicated that he was defeated and the Federals would no longer threaten the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Fitz John Porter’s V Corps established defenses at Malvern Hill, five miles in front of Harrison’s Landing. Three other corps formed in that area during the night. General Erasmus D. Keyes’s corps and the enormous Federal supply train arrived safely at Harrison’s Landing, protected by gunboats on the James.

The Confederates sustained 3,673 casualties (638 killed, 2,814 wounded, and 221 missing). Three generals were among the wounded, and over 25 percent of Longstreet’s division sustained casualties. The Federals lost 3,797 (297 killed, 1,696 wounded, and 1,804 missing or captured). Generals George G. Meade and Edwin V. Sumner were among the wounded, and those captured included McCall.

That evening, as two Federal corps assembled on Malvern Hill, McClellan received a message from President Abraham Lincoln, who was dismayed by the Federal reverses and McClellan’s charges that the administration was to blame for them:

“Save your army at all events. Will send reinforcements as fast as we can… If you have had a drawn battle or a repulse it is the price we pay for the enemy not being in Washington… It is the nature of the case, and neither you nor the Government are to blame.”

With no firsthand knowledge of the day’s events, McClellan telegraphed the War Department on the night of June 30: “My Army has behaved superbly and have done all that men could do. If none of us escape we shall at least have done honor to the country. I shall do my best to save the Army. Send more gunboats.” Lincoln confided in a letter to Secretary of State William H. Seward, “The loss of enemies does not compensate for the loss of friends.”

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 310-11; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161, 164; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (30 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 187; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 508; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 176; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 4033-45; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 123-24, 267; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 234; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 419-20; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 821; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 52, 60; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 471, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Glendale, Battle of White Oak Swamp

The Seven Days Battles: Savage’s Station

June 29, 1862 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula once more, targeting the rear guard as Major General George B. McClellan continued withdrawing.

Action on the Peninsula, which had been north of the Chickahominy River for the past three days, now shifted to the south. On the morning of the 29th, the Federals abandoned their fortifications around Golding’s Farm, giving up any chance to attack Richmond. Three of McClellan’s five corps concentrated near Savage’s Station, a supply depot on the Richmond & York Railroad. There they prepared the difficult crossing of White Oak Swamp on their way to the James River. Federal morale dropped, as McClellan put nobody in charge of the disorganized retreat.

Confederate pickets on the Nine Mile Road found the Federal works deserted and informed Lee. Hoping to catch and destroy the Federal army before it reached the James, Lee quickly devised a complex strategy for an all-out pursuit:

  • Major Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill would move toward Glendale
  • Major General John B. Magruder’s 11,000 Confederates would attack the Federal rear guard on the Williamsburg road paralleling the Richmond & York River Railroad
  • Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson would move toward Savage’s Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad and link with Magruder’s left
  • Major General Benjamin Huger’s division would move along the Darbytown road to Magruder’s right

Executing this plan depended mainly on Magruder, who had taken morphine for acute indigestion and was not fully coherent. His men began marching around 3:30 a.m. down both the Nine Mile and Williamsburg roads. Magruder expected Jackson to quickly cross Grapevine Bridge spanning the Chickahominy and come up on his left.

Combat opened around 9 a.m., with Magruder’s Confederates attacking two withdrawing Federal corps near Allen’s Farm. Federal cannon responded, killing Brigadier General Richard Griffith. Jackson was delayed once again, first by rebuilding Grapevine Bridge and then by a vague order from Lee directing him to stay where he was. Magruder mistakenly believed that Huger would support his right from the Charles City road, not the Darbytown road farther south. So he suspended hostilities and awaited the arrival of both Jackson and Huger. Lee responded by sending him two of Huger’s brigades as reinforcements.

The fight at Savage's Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The fight at Savage’s Station, including the armored railroad battery | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

During this lull, Federal General Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps left Savage’s Station without notifying either of the other two corps commanders at the scene. This enraged General Edwin V. Sumner, the ranking commander. Sumner withdrew his corps around 11 a.m. to Savage’s Station, three miles south of the Chickahominy.

Near 5 p.m., Magruder launched a general assault that featured the first armored railroad battery ever used in warfare. Magruder directed his men to “attack the enemy in whatever force or works he might be found.” This vague order resulted in the general assault breaking down. He also committed only two and a half of his six brigades, making the attack ineffective. However, Sumner could not overwhelm the attackers because he only deployed 10 of his 26 regiments. The arrival of night and thunderstorms ended the fighting in stalemate.

Sumner continued withdrawing the Federals toward the James. At 10 p.m., he abandoned the Federal field hospitals in accordance with McClellan’s order to leave anyone behind who could not walk. Jackson’s Confederates finally crossed the Chickahominy around 2:30 on the morning of the 30th, too late to help Magruder. Lee admonished Magruder:

“I regret much that you have made so little progress today in the pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory that pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no more time or he will escape us entirely.”

Lee also explained to Magruder that Jackson was not supposed to stay where he was, but was supposed to support Magruder’s left: “On the contrary, he (Jackson) has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously.” Jackson visited Magruder’s headquarters around midnight and assured him that his forces would be up and ready for action in the morning.

Each side suffered about 1,500 casualties. The Federals also lost 2,500 of their sick and wounded by abandoning their hospitals, along with medical personnel and supplies. Federals withdrawing from around White House Landing were covered by the gunboats U.S.S. Marblehead and Chocura on the Pamunkey River. Federal supply transports escorted by gunboats also began arriving at Harrison’s Landing on the James.

Lee failed to stop the Federal army from crossing White Oak Swamp, but he planned to concentrate his forces for another attack the next day.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 161; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (29 Jun 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 186; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 175; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3917-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 233-34; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 468; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 342; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 658; Time-Life Editors, Lee Takes Command: From Seven Days to Second Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 49, 52; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 8-9, 667-68; Wikipedia: Battle of Savage’s Station