The Battle of Malvern Hill was the sixth and final engagement of the Seven Days' Battles. On July 1, Gen. Robert E. Lee would launch a series of disjointed assaults on the nearly impregnable Union position on Malvern Hill. Lee was convinced that the Union army was demoralized by their earlier withdrawals. Lee believed that one more Confederate thrust might destroy the Federals before they reached the James River.
Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter, commander of the V Corps, prepared the Union defensive positions at Malvern Hill. He had utilized the ground to their advantage. Artillery batteries were posted in the rear of the hill's crest. They swept the entire length of the slopes, and behind them were the infantry, with a strong line of skirmishers pushed down the hill in front.
On June 30- July 1, the Federals filtered into the new position. Malvern Hill towered above the surrounding terrain. A 150-foot high slope protected on its flanks by deep ravines and swamps with an open field of fire to its front. Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt lined the slope with 100 artillery pieces in front and another 150 guns in reserve and on the flanks.
Despite the formidable nature of the Union preparations and being warned of of the natural strength of the high slope, Lee issued orders for an attack. He had instructed Maj. Gen. James Longstreet to scout the Union left, and to report back whether an attack was possible. Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was opposed to a frontal attack, preferring instead to attack the Union right. Lee made the plan of attack. He massed his artillery hehind Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger and Brig. Gen. William C. Whiting's division of Jackson's command, Lee ordered a bombardment followed by an infantry assault. He designated the advance of Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead's brigade of Huger's division as the signal for the start of the attack.
At 4:00 P.M., the Confederate line of battle was formed. Jackson was on the left, with Whiting to the left of the Quaker Road, and Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill to the right; Maj. Gen. Richard Ewell’s and Jackson’s own divisions were in reserve. Nearly 1/2 mile beyond Jackson’s right came two of Huger’s brigades, Armistead and Wright, and to Huger’s left rear was Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder. Holmes, still on the river road, was to assail the Union left. Longstreet and Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill were in reserve behind Magruder, on the Long Bridge Road.
The deployment of the leading divisions encountered some loss, for the Union artillery swept all the roads and the woods; but at length, D. H. Hill’s infantry came into line along the edge of the woods.
The intervening time had been employed in bringing the artillery to the front; and now were seen the tremendous difficulties which confronted the attack.
The swamps and thickets slowed the advance of the Confederate batteries, and when they emerged from the cover, and prepared for action, the concentrated Union fire overpowered them from the start. In front of Huger, 4 Union batteries were disabled quickly, the Union concentrating 50-60 guns on each of them; 4 or 5 others, which Jackson had ordered to line up on his left, were mostly powerless to subdue the Union fire. “The obstacles,” says Lee in his report, “presented by the woods and swamp made it impracticable to bring up a sufficient amount of artillery to oppose successfully the extraordinary force of that arm employed by the enemy, while the field itself afforded us few positions favourable for its use and none for its proper concentration.”
With the inability of the Confederate batteries to adequately prepare the way for the infantry, Lee abandoned the original plan of attack. “He proposed to me to move “round to the left with my own and A. P. Hill’s division, and turn the Federal right.” I issued my orders accordingly for the two divisions to go around and turn the Federal right, when in some way unknown to me the battle was drawn on.” Unfortunately, through some mistake on the part of Lee’s staff, the order for the attack which had been already issued was not rescinded. “Batteries have been established to rake the enemy’s line. If it is broken, as is probable, Armistead, who can witness the effect of the fire, has been ordered to charge with a yell. Do the same.” This message was sent to D. H. Hill and to Magruder.
Between 5:00-6:00 P.M., D. H. Hill, believing that he heard the appointed signal to begin the attack, started from the woods. With 5 brigades, in one irregular line, the Confederates charged against the Union front. The Federals, positioned in several lines, were in overwhelming strength. Their batteries were free to concentrate on the advancing Confederate infantry. Their infantry, positioned between the artillery batteries, swept the long slopes with a grazing fire. The infantry was protected from the Confederate fire with a wooden fence, a sloping bank, and a ravine.
Armistead, who was well in advance of the Confederate right, was attacked by a strong body of Union skirmishers. D. H. Hill took this noise for the appointed signal to start the attack, and moved forward. The divisions which was to have supported him had not yet crossed the swamp in rear when Hill advanced against the entire Union army. The Confederate infantry swept up the field with determination. The Union batteries opend fire, hitting the advancing Confederates. Hundreds of men fell, hundreds swarmed back to the woods, but the Confederates pressed on with the attack.
Lying behind their shelter, they Union infantry had not yet fired a shot. As the Confederates advanced to close range, regiment after regiment poured a devastating fire into the charging Confederates. The incoming rush was stopped. Small pockets of attackers still pressed forward, but most of them laid down. The Confederate line was so thin that it was impossible to overcome the sustained fire of the Federals. The brigade reserves had already been thrown in and there was no further support at hand. The Union gunners held their position, and on every part of the line, Porter’s reserves were coming up. As one regiment fired all of its ammunition, it was relieved by another regiment. The volume of fire never slackened and fresh batteries further strengthened the Union front.
Jackson received a request for reinforcements, had sent forward 3 brigades of his own division and a brigade of D.H. Hill’s. The order for attack had named only Hill’s division. Before reinforcements arrived, D.H. Hill’s force had been beaten back, and under the fire of the Union artillery, it was with difficulty that the border of the forest was maintained.
While D.H. Hill was falling back, Huger, and then Magruder, came into action on the right. It was reported to Lee that the Federals were beginning to fall back. This report originated in the withdrawal of the Union regiments and batteries which had exhausted their ammunition and were relieved by others. It was imperative that D. H. Hill be supported, and the other divisions were immediately ordered forward. Huger’s and Magruder’s men attacked the Union front, but no better success attended their attempt. The brigades were not properly formed when the order arrived, but scattered over a wide front, and they went in piecemeal. With Magruder's defeat, the battle ceased.
Despite the Union victory, McClellan withdrew his army to entrench at Harrison's Landing on James River, where they were protected by the Union gunboats. This ended the Peninsula Campaign. D.H. Hill later described the battle by saying the "it was not war- it was murder."
When the Union army ceased to threaten Richmond, Lee sent Jackson to operate against Maj. Gen. John Pope's army along the Rapidan River, thus initiating the Northern Virginia Campaign.
Civil War Harper's Weekly, July 26, 1862 BATTLE OF MALVERN HILL, where the enemy attacked General McClellan on the afternoon of Tuesday, July 1. The General, anticipating the attack, had placed his cannon on a height in three rows of fifty pieces each, each row falling back when the pieces became heated. It was the fire of these pieces which so terribly decimated the army under Magruder. In our picture the reader will remark that the rebels are in the fore-ground, and the Union artillery in the background. The following account of the battle we take from the Herald:
The ground is for the most part open and undulating, presenting a splendid position for a battle-field. After the fight of the previous day, further to the front, our artily fell back during the night and took up the most eligible position the country afforded, with it was enabled on Tuesday night to fall back still further to Harrison's Landing. In the morning, anticipating a vigorous pursuit by the enemy, General McClellan himself established tine lines of his army, and personally placed his troops in position, prepared to meet the attack. The line formed a magnificent semicircle. General Keyes was on the extreme right, with a portion of his command. General Franklin's corps joined Keyes's left, and next in order from right to left were placed Summer's corps, consisting of Richardson's and Sedgwick's division; Heintzelman's corps, embracing Hooker's and Kearney's divisions; next General Couch's division, which was detached from Keyes's command; while General FitzJohn Porter's corps, consisting of General Morell's division and the regulars, formed the extreme left.
The configuration of the country rendered the left almost certainly secure; for the lowlands beneath were completely commanded by our artillery and the gun-boats. The right, however, was not so secure, and that was the reason the position was found to be untenable afterward. The enemy did not get his pursuing troops in position until the afternoon. For several hours heavy cannonading was kept up on both sides—our ponderous siege guns, which were ranged in a splendid position near the centre of our lines, pouring destructive volleys into the columns of the enemy as they were being brought forward and formed into line. After the artillery on both sides opened in the afternoon, the shot and shell filled the air, and a most terrific cannonading was kept up, with intervals, for hours. About half past three o'clock the enemy's skirmishers advanced near our centre, and the opposing lines in front of General Couch's position were soon hotly engaged. In this attempt to break our lines the enemy signally failed. He was speedily driven back at the point of the bayonet, and lost several colors, which we captured.
Later in the afternoon the enemy brought out three light batteries, posted them near some barns in a wheat-field, and opened a fierce fire on the same portion of our line. Several of our batteries in Hooker's and Kearney's divisions immediately returned the fire, and soon silenced those of the enemy.
It was nearly sundown when the enemy made another attempt to pierce our lines in front of General Porter's and Couch's positions. A terrible cannonade was opened, and, simultaneously, heavy lines of rebels were pushed to the front under cover of the artillery. Our troops met them in the next gallant style, and the battle raged fiercely for two hours or more, the tide gradually sweeping round from left to right. Heavy columns had been seen in the afternoon bearing to our right, and apprehensions were entertained that the enemy might burst out in that direction; but happily those painful apprehensions were not realized. The rebels hurled their forces, however, with fearful fury against our lines. General Couch, who had immediate command of that portion of the line, in the most gallant manner planted the colors of his regiment where he wanted them, and inspired his soldiers with confidence.
No troops fought more bravely than those engaged in this battle. After the firing was running round to the right, General Porter sent to General Sumner for reinforcements, and several regiments, including the Irish brigade, were sent. This bold brigade, headed by the intrepid General Meagher, arrived in front in time to render the most signal service. Lieutenant-Colonel Burke, of the Sixty-third New York, is among the wounded. During the engagement it was a magnificent sight to see, amidst the bursting shells, infantry, artillery, and cavalry moving inside the semicircle, with remarkable celerity, to different parts of the field. General McClellan, accompanied by a portion of his staff, rode along the field, and was loudly cheered by our troops. In this battle, which closed soon after darkness set in, the rebels did not gain one inch of ground. We drove them back at every point with fearful loss. Where our artillery opened with grape and canister the killed and wounded rebels were actually piled upon each other. Several rebel regiments then came out in defiant line of battle were terribly cut up. The battle was brief, but bloody. The rebel loss must have amounted to several thousand. It is impossible to accurately estimate our own, as circumstances compelled us to leave many on the field. It is believed, however, that one thousand will more than cover it.