Not War, But Murder – The Battle of Malvern Hill, Lee’s Biggest Mistake

July 1, 1862 (Tuesday)

Looking away from the Union position atop Malvern Hill towards the Rebels in and around the woods. (2008)

General George B. McClellan was in no mood for a battle. His men, he believed, were in “no condition to fight without 24 hours rest,” adding, in a letter to General Dix at Fortress Monroe, “I pray that the enemy may not be in condition to disturb us today.”1 A similar sentiment was expressed to Washington: “My men are completely exhausted, and I dread the result if we are to-day attacked by fresh troops.” McClellan also hinted at his plans, explaining that after the day of rest, he would again retreat to Harrison’s Bar to be under the cover of the gunboats. The General pleaded for reinforcements, insisting that the only reason he had failed to win was because his army was “overpowered by superior numbers.”2

This was, of course, untrue. At the start of the Seven Days Battles, the Army of the Potomac had nearly 50,000 more troops than the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. McClellan asked Washington for 50,000 additional troops. In a reply that would come too late, President Lincoln called the request “simply absurd.”3

McClellan had established his line atop the rise known at Malvern Hill, affording the Union Army of the Potomac a strong defensive position in case the Rebels were bold enough to attack. The General, along with his staff rode the lines in the early morning, amidst the cheers of his men. A little after nine, he was a Haxall’s Landing on the James River, boarding the USS Galena. Perhaps McClellan held a strong faith that his prayers for General Lee’s Confederate Army refrain from attacking would be answered. The absent McClellan steamed down the river to Harrison’s Landing, the next base for his retreating command.4

The remains of the Methodist Parsonage. Lee watched the battle from near this spot. (2008)

While McClellan was exhausted, his opponent, General Robert E. Lee, was furious. It seemed as if the failings of one day were build upon the failings of the previous. Any strategy, any plan that he had set in motion had been spoiled not by the enemy, seemingly bent on retreating no matter the outcome, but by his own lieutenants. Without cavalry or scouts, Lee correctly determined that if McClellan made any stand at all, it would be on Malvern Hill. Some, like General A.P. Hill, thought attacking such a position to be a bad idea. Others, like General James Longstreet, believed the Army of the Potomac to be so demoralized that it would take little effort to push them towards the James. Ironically, neither command would be able to fight, being so cut up from the previous day.5

Whatever doubt of Lee’s intentions was soon dispelled when the General announced that he would attack McClellan before he could get away. The assault would be led by Generals Jackson, Magruder, and Huger – the three commands that had seen little to no action the previous day.

Jackson, according to Lee’s orders, brought his men up to what would be the left of the Confederate line. Magruder had taken a wrong road, and was not yet up. During the noontime wait, Jackson and Longstreet looked over the ground and found fine artillery positions for up to sixty guns, if only they could be brought up in time. That was unlikely as each battery was assigned to a specific brigade and did not yet exist as a separate corps.6

Compounding issues even more were Lee’s orders themselves. Penned by a staff officer and not even glanced at by Lee himself, the entire battle would start as an artillery barrage. Once the Union lines were broken, brigade commander, General Lewis Armistead, “who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same.”

Confederate artillery. (2008)

Orders to move on the yell of only one of fifteen brigades, were shaky at best. But even getting to the point where Armistead could raise the cry was staggeringly difficult. Due to the assignment of the artillery, the Rebels brought up the batteries one or two at a time. As they did, all thirty-six Federal guns took aim to shell them to pieces.7

Around 4pm, Federal sharpshooters advanced and were taking their toll on the Rebel artillery. Seeing this, General Armistead ordered his men forward. With a yell, they followed him, pushing the thin green line back up the hill. The Rebels chased them, but were soon caught in a swale of the undulating slope. To retreat was just as suicidal as to advance. Unsure of what to do, he conferred with General A.R. Wright, commanding on Armistead’s right. Together they decided to hold tight for another two hours, until darkness fell.

And then Lee’s vague order, written by a staff officer, took its toll. General Magruder, who had taken the wrong road to the battlefield, finally arrived. When he did, he was handed the order by a different staff officer and told to advance with Armistead, following up the latter’s success. This “success” the officer was referring to came from General Lee’s summation of events. Lee wanted Magruder to attack and so he was ordered.

Urged again by Lee to “advance rapidly,” Magruder threw his six brigades forward, in piecemeal fashion. Magruder’s initial advance swept up Generals Wright and Armistead’s men, resting in the swale.8

Each of the three brigades (one of Magruder’s, and two under Wright and Armistead) became separated, and were simply mauled by the mouths of the Union cannons. Seeing the advance, Jackson ordered D.H. Hill’s Division to attack. And now five rather than three brigades, on the left rather than the right, attacked and were thrashed by the Federal lines. Jackson, seeing that Hill was about to break, ordered Generals Ewell and Winder forward, but not before Hill’s bloodied and broken men came screaming back.

Looking towards the Union lines from the Confederate position. (2008)

A final, pointless charge was made by two brigades under General Lafayette McClaws. It reached the Union gun line, but there was no way it could be held. The survivors streamed and limped back to their lines as dusk and darkness slid over the battlefield.

The Federals withstood 314 killed, 1,875 wounded and 818 missing. The Confederates, fighting a battle they did not have to fight, lost an appalling 869 killed, 4,241 wounded and 540 missing (many of those dead).

Following the battle, General Lee asked Magruder why he attacked. “In obedience to your orders, twice repeated,” came the response, to which Lee could say nothing.9

Years after the battle, General D.H. Hill put it best: “It was not war – it was murder.10

  1. The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan edited by Stephen W. Sears, Da Capo Press, 1992. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p282. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 11, Part 3, p282. []
  4. The Sword of Lincoln: The Army of the Potomac by Jeffry D. Wert, Simon and Schuster, 2005. []
  5. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska Press, 1964. []
  6. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson, MacMillian, 1997. []
  7. “McClellan’s Change of Base and Malvern Hill” by D.H. Hill, appearing in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 2, p392. []
  8. The Seven Days by Clifford Dowdey, University of Nebraska Press, 1964. []
  9. To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears, Mariner Books, 1992. []
  10. “McClellan’s Change of Base and Malvern Hill” by D.H. Hill, appearing in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 2, p394. []
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Not War, But Murder – The Battle of Malvern Hill, Lee’s Biggest Mistake by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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