HENRIC COUNTY, VIRGINIA
1st JULY 1862
By the morning of July 1st, 1862, McClellan had rallied his reunited army of 89,000 on the crest of Malvern Hill, approximately two miles north of the James River. Here, McClellan prepared to stave off Lee's reassembled army of 71,000 before beginning his retreat southeast along the James River to his new supply base at Harrison's Landing. Fitz John Porter's Fifth Corps assumed a position along the western ridge of Malvern Hill, close to the Crew House. Along the eastern edge of the ridge sat elements of the Second, Third, Fourth, and Sixth corps, under Edwin Sumner, Samuel Heintzelman, Darius Couch (filling in for Erasmus Keyes), and William Franklin, respectively. A total of 18,000 Union infantry occupied this position, reinforced by approximately 15,000 troops held in reserve behind the ridge. Henry Hunt, the Union Chief of Artillery, deployed approximately 37-40 pieces of artillery along the ridge, straddling Willis Church Road.
That morning, General Lee gathered some of his generals near his headquarters on Willis Church Road to discuss the possibility of a renewed assault. Frustrated by his army's failure on the previous day to trap and crush McClellan's army at Glendale, Lee was anxious to resume fighting on the 1st and deliver one last blow to the Federals before they could retreat to the James Lee directed two "grand batteries" to be placed on either side of Carter's Mill Road to bombard and weaken the Federal guns along the Crew house ridge. Following the bombardment, Magruder and Jackson were to assault simultaneously on either side of Carter's Mill Road and Willis Church Road, with D.H. Hill's division of Jackson's command attacking from the point of woods, and Benjamin Huger driving at Porter's left flank along Malvern Cliffs. Lee directed Theophilus Holmes to guard his flank along the River Road, and advised Longstreet's and A.P. Hill's badly cut-up divisions to wait in reserve along the Long Bridge Road.
However, Lee's official orders that morning were uncharacteristically vague and poorly communicated. Additionally, confusion with maps, terrain, and the local road network continued to plague the Confederates. General Magruder's forces arrived frustratingly late to the battlefield. Ultimately, the two grand batteries failed to materialize, largely due to poor coordination among Lee's generals. Confusion over the exact signal for the infantry assault, faulty maps and topographical errors delayed the arrival of numerous Confederate units and resulted in a highly piecemeal advance of D.H. Hill's and Stonewall Jackson's divisions. The effect of the Federal guns on the advancing Confederate lines was murderous. Federals mowed down wave after wave of Confederates.
Toward dusk, however, the perseverant Confederates came within 20-40 yards of the Federal line. Intense hand-to-hand combat ensued on the left of the Union flank. Reinforcements on either flank were called forward to help repulse the oncoming Confederates. By nightfall, Confederate generals finally cancelled the attack. D.H. Hill surveyed the carnage on the bloody field and remarked, disgustedly, "it was not war, it was murder." The battle had exacted nearly 8,000 casualties.
The high casualties and lessons learned at Malvern Hill and the Seven Days battles raised both the military and political stakes of the war in profound ways.
The above article appeared in the ACWS Newsletter, Summer 2014