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Chapter 11: battle of Malvern Hill.

  • Last stand in the great retreat
  • -- strength of McClellan's position -- the Confederates make poor use of their artillery -- a mistake and defeat for Lee's Army -- the campaign as a whole a great success, but it should have been far greater -- McClellan's retreat showed him well equipped in the science of War -- review of the campaign -- Jackson's and Magruder's misunderstanding -- moral effect of the gunboats on the James River-“there should be a gunboat in every family.”

At Malvern Hill, hardly a league away from Frayser's, now left to silence save for the moans of the unfortunate fallen, and standing south of the line to Turkey Bridge, was Fitz-John Porter with the reserve artillery massed, supported by the divisions of Sykes and Morell on the left and Couch's on the right, from the Crew House to J. W. Binford's. The field had been carefully selected and as judiciously guarded by well-posted commands, holding the only way left which gave hope of successful passage to cover under the gunboats. During the night of the 30th of June and early morn of the 1st of July this position was reinforced by the retreating Federals,--first by the Second and Third Corps, McCall's division of the Fifth, and W. F. Smith's of the Sixth, and later by other troops. Among the trains moving for the river was one of ten siege guns under Colonel Tyler. These were dropped in Porter's rear and put in battery, giving them a sweep of the avenues of approach and extensive rake of the woodlands, and a great number of lighter batteries bristled upon the brow and down the slopes of the hill. On either flank the plateau was somewhat guarded by ravines and tangled marsh lands, while the front approach was over ascending slopes, so broken as to make advancing artillery combat slow and hazardous. [142]

Early on the 1st, the columns under Huger, Jackson, and Magruder met at the Charles City cross-roads, but the enemy had given up that position and marched away, leaving to them the abandoned forest land. The disappointment of the Confederate commander in the failure of combination ordered for the 30th was noted by those who were near him, while the composure with which it was borne indicated the grander elements of his character, and drew those who knew his plans and purposes closer to him.

Jackson was ordered to follow on the direct line of the enemy's retreat; Huger and Magruder marched to co-operate on his right; Longstreet's and A. P. Hill's divisions were held in reserve. General Lee rode near Jackson's column to view the army on that front. Feeling unwell and much fatigued, he called me to temporary service near him. As he rode to the left, he ordered me, with the columns of Huger and Magruder, to make reconnoissance of the enemy's new position in that quarter, and to report of the feasibility of aggressive battle.

I found some difference between General Lee's maps and General Magruder's guides, but my authority was only for a reconnoissance, and posting the divisions. An elevated point was found off the enemy's left front, as high as the plateau upon which his army stood, from which a fair view was had of his position and down along his front and the open as far as Jackson's field, the latter just filing in by his batteries on much lower but open ground.

Profound silence rested upon the field. Jackson's batteries, yet a little beyond the point of range, marched to their places as quietly as if taking positions for review. Porter's field seemed as little concerned at the developments along his flank and front, indicating that there was to be no waste of ammunition on that July day. His guns could not be counted, but blocking them off by batteries there seemed to be eighty on his front, besides the [143] siege battery in rear. His guns were all trailed to Jackson's front, thus presenting a flank towards the high point upon which I stood. From the crest at this little ridge the ground dropped off sharply some eighteen inches or two feet to a lower terrace, forming a natural parapet and terre-plein for forty or sixty guns, massed. The spacious open along Jackson's front appeared to offer a field for play of a hundred or more guns, and although his lower ground was not inviting of combat even by a hundred guns, it was yet judged that advancing combat by eighty or a hundred guns, in combination with the forty-gun battery of position, might justify assault, and the tremendous game at issue called for adventure.

I thought it probable that Porter's batteries, under the cross-fire of the Confederates thus posted on his left and front, could be thrown into disorder, and thus make way for combined assaults of the infantry. I so reported, and General Lee ordered disposition accordingly, sending the pioneer corps out to cut a road for the right batteries of position.

I suggested position to Magruder for his division, but he insisted that the Quaker road was not correctly located on General Lee's maps, so I left that part of the order to be looked after by General Lee's recognized staff. General Chilton, chief of staff, was then sent by General Lee to assist General Magruder in posting the troops, and I was ordered back to locate the batteries.

But eight guns came in proper time and were posted. These General Magruder proposed to supplement by thirty of his own under Colonel S. D. Lee, to be reinforced by the others as they came up. With this understanding I returned to Headquarters, made my report, and was permitted to go back to my command proper.

The most convenient point for observing the effect of the artillery fire was occupied by General Armistead's brigade. That officer was designated by General Lee to [144] give notice, if the combat was successful, by advancing his brigade, under the shouts of infantry charge, as the signal for general assault.

The eight guns for the right battery were all that got into position on time, and Jackson failed to open fire by advancing all of the batteries along his front, so that the practice from those quarters was not forcibly executed. When the eight guns finally opened, Porter shifted his aim from his proper front, which Jackson failed to combat, and put in the fire of forty guns against the eight-gun battery of our right. The gunboat batteries also came into that practice, but it was found that they damaged friends almost as much as the enemy, and were ordered to discontinue. Jackson's cross-fire, feeble at best and at long range, was finally drawn off by other batteries far on the enemy's right, so that the eight guns were soon piled a heterogeneous mass of caissons, guns, limbers, and horses. Some other batteries got into action at the same point, eight or ten at a time, but suffered like disaster.

So the plan for battle and order of the day were given over by the Confederate commander, who sent for me to ride with him over to his left in search of a route by which the enemy's right might be turned. This seemed feasible under the hasty reconnoissance, and he ordered the reserves on that move. As we started on the march the noise of battle reached us and the march was arrested. Under the impression that his officers realized the failure and abandonment of his original plan, General Lee failed to issue orders specifically recalling the appointed battle.

It seems that just as the troops marched to the left under the last order, information was received by some of the officers at the front that the enemy was getting away from us.

To ascertain as to this matter, and anxious to atone for lost opportunities of the day before, part of the troops near our right moved forward, and soon encountered the enemy's [145] infantry, as well as the formidable artillery. This impact burst into the noise of battle, and was taken as the signal for assault under the original order of the day. From the right to the left, as far as and including D. H. Hill's division, the Confederates attacked in splendid style, making repeated brave charges, but they were as firmly met by the enemy, and their dead and wounded were mingled on the same lines. The Confederate ranks thinning rapidly, Magruder called on me for reinforcements, and Jackson was sent to reinforce D. H. Hill's left, but night closed in upon us before the reinforcements could get into action.

As the order for battle had been given about noon, and had been abandoned some hours before the opening, upon receiving Magruder's call, I supposed the conflict had been brought on by the enemy to force our right back and better clear the route of his retreat. I ordered A. P. Hill direct to Magruder, and my own division for support on our extreme right. The result of the battle was a repulse of the Confederates along the entire line and the sacrifice of several thousand brave officers and men, though some of our troops held ground nearer the enemy than at the onset of the battle. During the night the enemy resumed his march for the river, leaving his dead, some of his wounded, and exhibiting other marks of the precipitate character of his retreat.

Stuart's cavalry had been recalled from north of the Chickahominy on the 30th to join us on the south side, and reached Jackson's left Tuesday night after the battle.

The morning of the 2d opened heavy and oppressive. The storm front of bursting cannon and bristling bayonets was changed to a wide sweep of heavy clouds that covered the dead that had grappled and fallen together on Malvern Hill. The enemy was gone, and reached his lodgement at Harrison's Landing on James River, the old seat of that family which has given our country two Presidents. Jackson [146] stood on the direct route of the enemy's retreat, and was ordered to follow it; Magruder's and Huger's commands to follow Jackson. General Lee rode with them. D. H. Hill's division was left to care for the wounded and dead of Malvern Hill. To obviate pressure upon a single track, the reserve divisions were ordered by Nance's Store, but the heavy clouds soon began to let down a pelting rain that became more severe and delayed all movements.

The reports of Jackson and Stuart of the operations of the 3d are conflicting. The former claimed that he was near the landing on the morning of the 3d, and advanced his line of skirmishers. The latter reported that he found during the night of the 2d a fine position on Erlington Heights, from which the enemy could be shelled out of his new position by artillery; that he occupied and held that position by a squadron and howitzer until driven from it by the enemy at two o'clock in the afternoon of the 3d; that he reported of that position to Generals Lee and Jackson during the night of the 2d. Other accounts go with that of Stuart. It seems that the “foot cavalry” 1 and the reserve divisions met at the landing late in the afternoon of the 3d. The troops from the Valley district had not been engaged in the battles of the march except that of Gaines's Mill.

At daylight of the 4th I rode to the front, and ordered General Jackson to drive in the enemy's skirmishers and prepare to attack. D. R. Jones's division of Magruder's command, coming up, was ordered on Jackson's left, A. P. Hill's on his right; my own division to support Jackson's direct move for Erlington Heights. After pushing the skirmish line back, Jackson reported his troops not in condition for the work, and asked delay until the commanding general was up. As General Lee was reported near, attack was delayed, and a note was sent asking him to [147] ride forward as soon as convenient. He rode up in about half an hour, and, after mature deliberation, decided that the attack should not be made. He reinforced his cavalry and horse artillery by a number of his choicest field batteries, and ordered General Stuart to use them against the enemy's transports on the lower James. This expedition did some damage, but the superior batteries of the gunboats, convoys of the transports, enabled them to maintain safe-conduct along the line of supplies and reinforcements. On the 8th he withdrew his army to points more convenient to supplies, and towards the open highway to Washington City.

Passing in critical review the events of the campaign, they fail to disclose a flaw as it was projected by the Confederate chief. It even opened up grander possibilities than came within his most hopeful anticipations at the period of projection.

The Union commander left his Fifth Corps engaged at Beaver Dam Creek while Jackson's column marched by it as far as Hundley's Corner and went into camp. The object and instructions of Jackson's advanced echelon were to have him file in against any force that he might pass and attack it in flank and rear. If, instead of going into camp at Hundley's Corner on the afternoon of the 26th of June, he had filed to his right behind the Fifth Corps, he would have had it surrounded by fifty thousand men beyond the reach of succor.

He was troubled by conflicting orders. The general order for the campaign and verbal instructions were intended to supersede all others, but General Lee's letter of the 11th was not recalled, so he marched with the two orders in his pocket, which made not a little trouble.

Before Jackson's army was called from the Valley, it was reinforced and organized for our working column. On the morning of the 27th of June it was further augmented by the division under D. H. Hill and Stuart's [148] cavalry. His line of march during the day led him around Porter's position near Gaines's Mill to the enemy's right, the most favorable point for attack. He partially engaged by D. H. Hill's division, then withdrew it, and posted his troops in a position selected to catch the Federals in their flight from A. P. Hill's division. Finally, when Porter's defence developed too much strength for A. P. Hill, he deployed into line of battle from left to right, overspreading the enemy's entire front.

On the morning of the 28th of June, General Lee thought to draw McClellan out from his works, force him to defend his base on the Pamunkey, and to so cripple him on his retreat as to warrant strong detachments from his army in the direction of Washington, and thus force him to defend his own capital.

Before marching to the opening of the campaign, he ordered a detachment of cavalry to the south side of White Oak Swamp, under careful watch for the enemy's movements by vedettes, even as far as Chickahominy River, so that on the night of the 27th he had a cordon of troops and vedettes extending completely around McClellan's army. Notwithstanding precautions so carefully laid, McClellan started to march for his new base on the night of the 27th, continued his preparations and movements through the day and night of the 28th, and the first reliable information of the move towards James River came from Major Meade and Lieutenant Johnson, engineers. The information, though coming from a source least looked for, was more than gratifying to General Lee, for he thought the enemy had essayed a move not practicable; that General McClellan's army was in his power and must be our prize, never to reach the new base.

Just as he was mapping out orders of pursuit, a staff-officer of General Magruder's came from the other side of the river to report the Federal army in retreat, and [149] that General Magruder was preparing to assault the fort in his immediate front. General Lee said,--

My compliments to General Magruder, and ask him not to hurt my young friends, Major Meade and Lieutenant Johnson, who are occupying that fort.

Uniformly military, but courteous in his bearing, it was very rare that he became facetious when on parade service, but anticipations that General McClellan was soon to be his prisoner excused the giving way to impulse born of this unexpected adventure.

Within an hour his troops on the east side were on the march for their crossings of the Chickahominy. He then rode across, gave orders to General Magruder, rode with him some distance, and repeated the orders before leaving him.

Following up the rear-guard, General Magruder came upon it in force at Savage Station. The Second Corps and Franklin's division under W. F. Smith of the Sixth, under General Sumner, were posted there to cover the retreat. Magruder planned battling with his own six brigades against their front, two brigades of Huger's division to come on the enemy's left down the Williamsburg road, Jackson's twelve or fifteen brigades to attack their right. But when Magruder thought his arrangements complete, he received a message from General Huger “that his brigades would be withdrawn.” 2 Then other information not anticipated came to him,viz., that General Jones, commanding on Magruder's left, called for co-operation in that quarter. General Jackson sent word in reply that “he had other important duty to perform.”

Referring to Jackson's orders of the 29th, General Lee wrote General Magruder: [150]

Headquarters Department of Northern Virginia, June 29, 1862.
Major-General J. B. Magruder, Commanding Division: General,--
I regret much that you have made so little progress to-day in pursuit of the enemy. In order to reap the fruits of our victory the pursuit should be most vigorous. I must urge you, then, again to press on his rear rapidly and steadily. We must lose no time, or he will escape us entirely.

Very respectfully yours, etc., R. E. Lee, General.
P. S.-Since the order was written, I learn from Major Taylor that you are under the impression that General Jackson has been ordered not to support you. On the contrary, he has been directed to do so, and to push the pursuit vigorously. 3

Sumner, besides his greater force, having some advantage from the earthworks previously constructed, repulsed Magruder's attack, and the affair of cross-purposes failed of effect.

If Jackson could have joined against the right of Sumner with his brigades, the latter could have been dislodged, the Confederates passing the swamp with him, which would have marked the beginning of the end. The occasion was especially propitious, for Heintzelman's corps, that had been designated as part of the rear-guard with Sumner and Franklin, through some misconception had marched over the swamp, to camp near Charles City crossroads, leaving easy work for Jackson and Magruder.

When, on the forenoon of the 30th, Jackson found his way across the swamp blocked by Franklin, he had time to march to the head of and across it to the Charles City road in season for the engagement contemplated at Frayser's Farm, the distance being about four miles. General Wright, of Huger's division, marched his brigade from the head of the swamp to Jackson's line at the bridge, [151] and returned, making several halts and crossings to reconnoitre.

But little remains to be said of the engagements at Frayser's Farm and Malvern Hill. The former was a halting failure of combination of forces; the latter an accident resulting from the armies standing close abreast many hours. Malvern Hill left out, the two armies would have mingled their lines between that and Westover during the 3d and 4th of July.

The failure of concert of action by the Confederates should not discount the conduct of McClellan's masterly retreat. In the emergency he showed himself well equipped in the science of war, and prepared to cross swords with his able adversary. At the opening of the campaign he had in hand one hundred and five thousand men. General Lee's returns were not accurately made, but a fair estimate puts his numbers between eighty and eighty-five thousand.

The losses of the campaign were, on the Union side, 15,249; on the Confederate side, greater; in the absence of complete returns, it is fair to say that they were from 18,000 to 19,000. Up to the time of Malvern Hill the casualties were about equally divided between the two armies, but in that battle the Confederates lost not far from 5000 men, and the Federals not more than one-third that number.

Upon reaching the gunboats, General McClellan's power was about doubled. Although fire from the gunboats was not very effective against a land battle, the moral effect of fighting batteries that could not be reached was most powerful. It was reported on the Confederate side that General McClellan, on boarding one of the boats, where he spent most of the day of battle, said, “There should be a gunboat in every family.”

Some critics say that McClellan should have taken Richmond during the campaign. The great Napoleon [152] would have done so after the disaster at Malvern Hill with his regularly organized army of veterans. They say, too, that Lee should have captured McClellan and his army. So thought General Lee, but some of his leaders were working at cross-purposes, and did not have that close attention that the times called for.

We may now consider the probable result of the plan mapped out and ordered by General Lee in his letter of June 11th to General Jackson had it been followed, --i.e., Jackson to march down the right bank of the Pamunkey with his troops from the Valley district and attack McClellan's rear east of the Chickahominy, while Lee attacked from the Richmond side with his army. On the Richmond side, McClellan had four army corps, well fortified, supported by his powerful artillery. The battle of Gaines's Mill, where the troops from the Valley were reinforced by four of Lee's choice divisions and most of his cavalry,--more than doubling Jackson's column,--may be significant of the result of Jackson's attack on that side if it had been made as ordered. The battle of Malvern Hill, from an open field, may tell the result of an attack upon the four corps in their fortified position had the attack been made upon them from the Richmond front.

1 A name taken by the infantry from the Valley district on account of their swift secret marches.

2 Rebellion Record, vol. XI. part II. p. 664.

3 Rebellion Record, vol. XI. part II. p. 687.

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