Battle of Malvern Hill
The Battle of Malvern Hill, fought on July 1, 1862, was the final battle of the Penninsula Campaign in which the Union Army, led by Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan attempted to take the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Following initial victories, McClellan was stymied by the Confederate Army and its new commander, Robert E. Lee. Taking command after Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was wounded, the more aggressive Lee forced the Union Army to retreat to the safety of the James River. The opposing sides fought repeatedly during the withdrawl in a phase of the campaign known as the Seven Days Battles, before the Union Army finally took a strong defensive position on Malvern Hill. The Confederate Army attempted to take the Union position in a charge that foreshadowed the more famous Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg a year later, but failed to break the Union line, and McClellan safely withdrew his forces from the Penninsula.
Malvern Hill itself was a modest elevation about 2 ½ miles north of the James River. Its strength lay not in its height, but rather in its fields of fire. Gently sloping open fields lay in front of the Union position, forcing any Confederate attacks against the hill to travel across that barren ground. McClellan unlimbered as much artillery as he could at the crest of the hill, facing in three directions. Nearly 70,000 infantry lay in support, most of them crowded in reserve on the back side of the hill.
General Lee recognized the power of Malvern Hill. In tandem with James Longstreet, one of his top subordinates, Lee devised a plan where Confederate artillery would attempt to seize control of Malvern Hill by suppressing the Union cannon there. Lee believed his infantry could assault and carry the position if they did not have to contend with the fearsome Union batteries.
On the morning of July 1, Morell and Sykes' divisions of Porter's corps were drawn up on the crest of the hill west of the Quaker road. East of the road Couch's division of Keyes' corps held the front, with Kearney and Hooker of Heintzelman's corps flanked to the right and rear. Sumner's troops were in the rear in reserve. The position was flanked on either side by creeks in deep ravines less than a mile apart, and across this narrow front, Porter placed his batteries with the guns almost hub to hub. In front, the ground was open, sloping down to woods, marshes, and swamps, through which the Confederate forces had to form for attack within range of the Federal artillery.
Lee had Jackson on his left facing Kearney, Hooker, and Couch's right. D. H. Hill was in the center opposite Couch's left and Morell's right. Lee then ordered Magruder to the right of Hill, but Magruder was delayed by taking the wrong road; so instead two brigades of Huger's were placed on Hill's right. Longstreet and A. P. Hill, their ranks decimated from the actions at Gaines' Mill and Glendale, were held in reserve. The terrain rendered it almost impossible for effective use of Confederate artillery, and the few batteries that did get into position were quickly cut to pieces by the massed Union guns.
"Owing to ignorance of the country, the dense forests impeding necessary communications, and the extreme difficulty of the ground," Lee reported, "the whole line was not formed until a late hour in the afternoon." The first real assault did not take place until after 5, and then it was uncoordinated and confused. The signal for the attack was to be a yell from one of Huger's brigades, after the Confederate artillery had blasted a hole in the Union lines. This put the responsibility of where and when to begin the attack on a mere brigade commander.
The artillery was unable to put concentrated fire in any one spot, but Huger attacked regardless and was beaten back with heavy losses. Then D. H. Hill attacked, only to suffer the same fate. Magruder finally sent his troops in a gallant charge across the open fields right up to the cannons' muzzles, only to be mowed down like wheat at harvest time. Late in the battle Jackson sent his own division to Magruder's and Hill's support, but in the heavily wooded and swampy ground they got lost and did not arrive in time to help. Darkness finally put an end to these hopeless attacks. As D. H. Hill declared bitterly, "It was not war—it was murder."
Late in the day, a few Union brigades and some fresh artillery raced to the hilltop in support. But in fact only a small segment of the Army of the Potomac saw action at Malvern Hill. The dominance of the position enabled less than one-third of the Union army to defeat a larger chunk of the Confederate army at Malvern Hill.
As with each of the other battles during the dramatic week, darkness concluded the action. Malvern Hill had demonstrated the power and efficiency of the Union artillery in particular. Confederate leaders and soldiers alike could look back on poor command and control as the principal cause of their defeat. The casualty totals were more balanced than expected for a battle in which the outcome never was in doubt. Slightly more than 5000 Confederates fell killed and wounded, while roughly 3000 Union soldiers met a similar fate.
Today Malvern Hill is the best preserved Civil War battlefield in central or southern Virginia. Nearly unaltered in appearance since 1862, the battlefield's rural setting and extensive walking trails offer an ideal environment for visitors to study the climactic battle of the Seven Days Campaign.