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Civil War Series

The Battles for Richmond, 1862

   

On the morning of July 1, 1862, Lee knew he was about out of time. McClellan's army was already on the banks of the James. If any chance to damage the Federals remained, that chance would have to be seized today. Malvern Hill was a narrow plateau of cleared land planted mostly in wheat. After months in the forests and swamps around the Chickahominy, the Northerners felt a sort of elation to be on high ground bathed in warm sunshine. "Gazing out over the sea of waving grain," wrote one New Yorker, "rippling beneath the touch of each passing breeze up to the very breast of the high forest wall, whose dark green foliage formed a fitting background to the picture, one could not help being entranced. The sky, so high above, and so blue, was flecked with light, fleecy, silvery-white clouds, which cast soft shadows upon the scene below, . . . growing wheat, beneath the rays of the declining sun, undulated and shone like a sea of liquid gold."


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SEVEN DAYS' BATTLES: DAY SEVEN—JULY 1 BATTLE OF MALVERN HILL
McClellan's forces spread themselves out in a U-shaped defense, with front lines defended by more than two dozen cannon. It was, many participants later said, the strongest position held by either army during the war. After a morning of little action, a series of confusing events prompted a Confederate assault. Lee's men were forced to cross open fields and climb steep slopes before reaching the enemy's line. All the while Union cannoneers fired on the Confederate ranks with cruel efficiency. Only darkness ended the frightful slaughter.

McClellan's engineers, of course, had selected the position not for its beauty but for its defensive strength. Steep slopes on the west, south, and east offered protection to the army's flanks and rear, so the Federals prepared to defend the long, open northern approach—the direction from which Lee's men would come. McClellan and his officers arranged their cannon in long lines at the crest of Malvern Hill, and the guns, with the 18,000 men of George Morell's and Darius Couch's divisions in support, completely dominated the fields of wheat between them and the Confederates. The rest of the Army of the Potomac reposed nearby on the hill, waiting in support of Morell and Couch. In addition to the artillery and infantry on Malvern Hill, U.S. Navy gunboats in the James River, a little over a mile to the south, would be able to lob their enormous heavy projectiles into the ranks of Confederate attackers. The Federal position seemed impregnable.

THE OPEN GROUND AT MALVERN HILL. GENERAL PORTER'S ARTILLERY CROWNED THE DISTANT RIDGELINE. CONFEDERATE ASSAULTS CROSSED HERE BUT COULD ADVANCE NO FARTHER THAN THE CABINS IN THE CENTER OF THE VIEW. (BL)

Jackson's men, in their assigned place on time for the first time that week, formed Lee's left flank, stretching around the northern and northeastern approaches to Malvern Hill. D. H. Hill's troops were in position in the Confederate center on the Willis Church and Carter's Mill Roads. John Magruder's guides had misled him on the morning's march and his men did not find their way to the battlefield until late in the afternoon. They formed Lee's right, facing a narrow causeway between the Carter's Mill Road and Malvern's steep western slopes.

While Lee waited for Magruder's troops to arrive, he discussed the day's prospects with Longstreet, D. H. Hill, and Jackson. Hill recognized the great strength of the Federal position and stated flatly, "If General McClellan is there in strength, we had better let him alone." Longstreet felt differently, however, and chided Hill, "Don't get scared, now that we have got him whipped." Longstreet, though ignorant of the terrain, urged an attack. Lee agreed in principle but wished to reconnoiter the Federal position before making a decision. He found a fine artillery position on Jackson's front, and Longstreet discovered a long ridge suitable for batteries on the army's right. The two generals thought that massing Confederate guns on these two elevations would produce a converging fire on the Federal guns. The crossfire, they hoped, would weaken the Federals enough for a Confederate infantry assault to succeed. Having designed the plan of the day's action and issued the orders, Lee refrained from directing the actual operations. He was ill and though he remained on the field, he left management of the battle largely to his subordinates.

POWERFUL FEDERAL BATTERIES SKILLFULLY OPERATED BY MEN LIKE THESE MASSACHUSETTS ARTILLERISTS DOMINATED THE SLOPES OF MALVERN HILL. (USAMHI)

UNION GUNBOATS GALENA AND MAHASKAIN THE JAMES RIVER LOBBED HUGE SHELLS TOWARD THE BATTLEFIELD WITH MIXED RESULTS. "OUR TROOPS FEARED THEM QUITE AS MUCH AS THE ENEMY, AND AS A FACT I THINK THEY INJURED OUR TROOPS MORE THAN THEY DID THE ENEMY," WROTE ONE NORTHERN ARTILLERIST. (COURTESY MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON)

But the plan began to go wrong almost immediately. The Confederate artillery was so dispersed through the column stretching back toward Glendale that commanders could not get enough guns forward to the positions selected by Lee and Longstreet, and the bombardment never materialized. The few Southern batteries that did get into action were knocked to pieces in minutes by the Federal gunners.

The tragedy continued when the staff officer who wrote out Lee's orders for the attack produced a badly written paper that would add to the confusion of the afternoon. Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead's brigade of Huger's division was to trigger the assault by observing the effects of the artillery bombardment and, at what he judged the most propitious time, lead his brigade forward "with a yell." The cheering of Armistead's men would signal other commands to come forward and join the assault. Unfortunately, some of Armistead's Virginians went forward prematurely and set off a larger, badly timed advance of Confederate infantry. Magruder ordered two more brigades—those of Ambrose R. Wright and William Mahone—to support Armistead's Virginians.

The Northern artillerymen responded with a thunderous discharge of case shot and canister. Federal sharpshooters and the infantrymen of Morell and Couch laid clown a steady musket fire, and the gunboats in the river added their enormous shells for good measure, though the Navy gunners' fire was inaccurate and certainly more frightening than destructive.

D. H. Hill sent his men forward in support of Magruder, but his assault lacked coordination. Though Hill had about 8,000 men available to him, he did not send them forward en masse, and the Federals were able to beat back each of the small attacks as they came. Still, wave after wave of Confederates moved out of the woods—"grim and silent as destiny itself," thought one Federal—and into the carnage in the wheat. "We have seen some grand sights," a watching Northerner wrote after the war, "some glorious and sublime spectacles in our day—but never have we beheld anything to compare in sublimity and grandeur with the scene upon which our eyes rested as column after column marched into view."

UNION SKIRMISHERS, INCLUDING MEN PROM BERDAN'S SHARPSHOOTERS, PEPPERED THE CONFEDERATE POSITIONS BEFORE THE GRAND ASSAULT ON JULY 1. (BL)

And rarely in American history had as many men fallen killed and maimed as quickly as were D. H. Hill's infantrymen cut down that afternoon. "Within fifteen or twenty minutes," wrote brigade commander Colonel John B. Gordon "the centre regiment (Third Alabama), with which I moved, had left more than half of its number dead and wounded along its track, and the other regiments had suffered almost as severely. One shell had killed six or seven men in my immediate presence. My pistol, on one side, had the handle torn off; my canteen, on the other, was pierced, emptying its contents; my coat was ruined by having a portion of the front torn away."

The Confederates were relentless in pressing their attacks; brigade after brigade strode out of the woods, over the field littered with bodies and debris, and up the slope. For all the tremendous volume of fire from the Federal artillery, determined Southerners under Brigadier General Lafayette McLaws fought their way all the way to the crest. "The battle was desperately contested," recalled Union artillery commander Colonel Henry Hunt, "and frequently trembled in the balance." At least one battery withdrew, and the Federal infantry found themselves hard-pressed. Fitz John Porter, who commanded the defense of Malvern Hill, for McClellan was inexplicably absent from the front for much of the day, scrambled to meet the threat. Brigades from the rear rushed forward to reinforce Morell and Couch, restored equilibrium, and drove the Confederates back with heavy loss.

The killing finally stopped just after dark, and the battlefield presented a revolting sight. Hundreds of men lay dead or dying and thousands more writhed in agony from wounds, giving the field, a Union cavalry officer thought, "a gruesome crawling appearance." The New Yorker who hours before had been entranced by the beauty of the wheat and sky wrote, "The golden sea has vanished . . . . The ground is crimson now."

AS THE SUN SET, UNION GUNNERS CONTINUED TO BLAST THE CONFEDERATE INFANTRY ASSAULTS AGAINST THE WESTERN FACE OF MALVERN HILL. (LC)

WITH THE AID OF A BUGLER, UNION GENERAL DANIEL BUTTERFIELD ARRANGED PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS BUGLE CALL IN MILITARY HISTORY—"TAPS"—WHILE AT HARRISON'S LANDING. (USAMHI)

With the advantages of position and plentiful artillery, the Federals still lost more than 3,000 men at Malvern Hill, but the Confederates, with few advantages at all, suffered more than 5,000 casualties. A Northerner, writing about the battle after the war, thought "the grand charge of the Confederates at Malvern is worthy of more than passing notice; it is worthy, as an exhibition of manly daring, of immortality." But D. H. Hill, less concerned with glory, saw that Malvern Hill was nothing but a terribly expensive defeat. Angry about the chaos and mismanagement that had cost so many Southern lives, Hill recorded for posterity his own judgment on Malvern Hill. "It was not war," he wrote bitterly, "It was murder."

The next day, July 2, McClellan retreated from his strong position at Malvern Hill and moved his army through a rainstorm to Berkeley and Westover Plantations on the James River. Supply officers had already begun arrangements to feed the army from Harrison's Landing at Berkeley. Lee pursued, but he and his officers decided they could do no more damage to the invaders.

So ended a week of combat that would be known at the Seven Days Battles. At the cost of nearly 20,000 casualties, Lee had delivered Richmond from immediate danger, but the Army of the Potomac, ensconced at last on the James in a strong position under the protection of the heavy artillery of the Federal gunboats, had survived to fight another day.

But how soon would that day come? Though several of his officers urged him to take the offensive and march on Richmond, McClellan was reluctant to do so until he was heavily reinforced. He had lost some 15,000 men that week. "Little Mac" assured Washington that he was ready to resume the offensive as soon as he had enough men to do so. Lincoln visited the army at Harrison's Landing and was pleased to learn that it was not demoralized (although sickness was widespread and disease continued to cost the army thousands of men). Washington sent McClellan small numbers of reinforcements in July, but the general insisted he needed many thousands more to contend with what he believed was the Confederates' overwhelming numerical advantage. Newly appointed General in Chief Henry W. Halleck conferred with the army commander on the James and explained that the North simply did not have enough soldiers to give McClellan all the men he desired. McClellan agreed to push the campaign forward with what was available, but a few days later he resumed his pleas for more and more men. Lincoln, his patience exhausted, declared that if he could do the impossible and send McClellan 100,000 reinforcements, the general would only ask for 400,000 more. Halleck ordered the general to pack up his army and return with it to northern Virginia. The Federals began taking steamers back up the Chesepeake, and by mid-August the Peninsula campaign was over.

PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN REVIEWING THE SURVIVORS OF THE ARMY OF THE POTOMAC AT HARRISON'S LANDING. (LC)

The Peninsula campaign was the largest, most complicated and expensive campaign of the Civil War, and that it should end in failure after so much time, money, and so many lives had been invested in its success was a source of great frustration, even embarrassment, for the Lincoln administration. The president and the War Department began making war plans that did not include McClellan, transferring most of "Little Mac's" troops to another command and removing his authority over troops in the field. The Federal disaster at Second Manassas in August 1862 moved Lincoln reluctantly to reinstate McClellan, but the general's star never again regained the luster that had so brightened Union hopes before the Peninsula campaign. In November 1862, McClellan was relieved of command and sent out of the war for good.

Much of the criticism leveled at McClellan stems from his failure to win battles. He habitually absented himself from his army's battlefields and showed none of the aggressiveness required of a great captain. After the war, a private who had fought on the Peninsula passed judgment on his former commander and seemed to capture the essence of the McClellan era of the war in the East.

"Southern generals who fought against McClellan have said that they feared him more than any other general who commanded the Army of the Potomac, and that he struck them harder blows. This is probably correct; but it was due to the fact that the rank and file of the Army of the Potomac loved McClellan more than they loved any other commander, not even excepting Grant. Had McClellan possessed half of Grant's will and willingness to fight he would have finished up the war like a clap of thunder. Grant did not know how to retreat; McClellan did not know how to fight. There was always a lion in his path."

WITH NAVAL SUPPORT, THE UNION ARMY ON THE LITTLE PENINSULA AT HARRISON'S LANDING ENJOYED AN IMPREGNABLE POSITION. (LC)

RICHMOND HAD SURVIVED ITS FIRST IMMEDIATE THREAT. THREE MORE YEARS OF WAR WOULD FURTHER TEST THE RESOLVE OF THE CAPITAL CITY AND ITS PEOPLE. (BL)

One of the generals who rated McClellan highly and suffered hard blows by him was Robert E. Lee, so there is irony in that Lee contributed so heavily to the ruin of McClellan's fortunes on the Peninsula. Lee was disappointed with the result of his first campaign in command of the Army of Northern Virginia—"Under ordinary circumstances," he wrote in his report, "the enemy should have been destroyed"—but history need not share Lee's disappointment. When he took command of the army on June 1, the Confederacy stood on the precipice of defeat. Less than 30 days later, Lee had so altered the situation that his men were maneuvering for the Federal jugular, and the Army of the Potomac was fighting for its life at Glendale. It was Lee, not any other man in the Confederacy, who put the army on the offensive, directed the aggressive effort to push McClellan back from Richmond, and attempted the destruction of his army. Lee, in the right place at the right time, was the key ingredient in the Confederate renaissance in Virginia in 1862.

For almost three more years, Lee would lead his army across Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, compiling a record of military achievement unmatched by any American soldier. The Virginian's talents as a strategist, his ability to inspire his troops to exceptional efforts, and his often untempered audacity earned him an international reputation as one of history's great generals, and nowhere did Lee's exceptional gifts flower more handsomely than amid the dismal swamps of the Chickahominy during the battles for Richmond in 1862.

Back cover: Malvern Hill by Don Stivers.
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