Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War Encyclopedia
Civil War in Georgia
On the Blue and Gray Trail
Civil War by state
Today in the Civil War
This year in the Civil War
Battle of Malvern Hill
Civil War Encyclopedia >> Battles
Battle of Malvern Hill
Other names: Malvern Cliffs
For six days the Army of the Potomac had been retreating from Richmond, Virginia towards Harrison Landing on the James River. Following the federal withdrawal from Savage's Station, the Battle of Glendale was an attempt by Union commanders to protect the supply train moving south along Quaker (Willis Church) Road. During the evening of June 30, 1862 both the supply train and troops from the battle of Glendale began arriving in the area of Malvern Hill, although the Yankees would continue to hold positions around Glendale until after 2 a. m. The retreat could not be considered organized by any means, with Yankee commanders leaving picketts where they stood, surrendering dead and wounded without a fight, and losing men who fell asleep to the advancing Confederates.
With 4 Corps behind them (Sumner, Franklin, Heintzelman and Franklin), Fitz-John Porter's men formed a line well in front of Malvern Hill. Forming the front of the Union line were the divisions of Darius Couch and George Morrell, with George McCall's division (under the command of Brigadier General Truman Seymour) behind him. About 8:30 that evening George McClellan was welcomed at Porter's headquarters. Early the next morning he visited Couch and Morrell in front of Malvern Hill, riding to the cheers of his army. His inspection of the field left him concerned about Couch's right flank, although it was fairly well protected by a wetlands around Western Run. McClellan then returned to the relative safety of his command vessel, the Galena and left no overall commander in charge.
Rising 130 feet above sea level at the cliffs, Malvern Hill slowly tapers down to about 100 feet where the heaviest fighting took place. It was very familiar to Robert E. Lee. He called the area Malvern Hills and remembered it as an estate of his grandfather, Charles Carter. On this day, however, Lee had to push the fight south, even though James Longstreet and A. P. Hill had suffered heavily at Frazier's Farm.
Stonewall Jackson, whom Lee was depending upon to deliver a serious blow to the Army of the Potomac had been stopped cold at White Oak Swamp. Benjamin Huger and John Magruder failed to show up for the battle. For Malvern Hill, he would have to depend on them to carry the battle. He ordered Longstreet and A. P. Hill to remain in reserve while Jackson, Huger and Magruder led the advance spreading wide from the Confederate center on Willis Church Road.
Magruder and Huger continued to have problems similar to those that plagued them throughout the Peninsula Campaign. Magruder made the first mistake, not following Quaker Road. His guides had taken him on an old farm road and Magruder would not listen when Longstreet pointed out the error. General Lee had to send a staff officer with orders for Magruder to turn around.
Huger was still trying to advance on the battlefield at Frasier Farm when General Longstreet sent word that the Army of Northern Virginia was now miles south. Lee's Army was slowed by the evidence of the hasty Union retreat. A couple hundred stragglers had been found along the route south as well as stores and munitions.
Lee was not feeling well and asked James Longstreet to ride with him in case he wanted to turn over command to "Old Pete." Longstreet left Richard Anderson in command of his division. On the left, Jackson had Harvey Hill line up while holding Dick Ewell, Sidney Winder and Charles Whiting in reserve. The half of Huger's command that made it to the battlefield (Lewis Armistead and Ambrose "Rans" Wright) took the center, immediately west of Quaker Road, and Magruder was on the extreme Rebel right.
The Confederates had a serious shortage of artillery moving south from Frasier Farm. Malvern Hill was close enough to the James River that the Union's sea-based guns could be used against the approaching Confederates, although their effectiveness is debated. Using flag signals, spotters would communicate positions of Rebel artillery to the offshore boats who would respond with appropriate artillery fire. Combined with the field artillery, and nearby siege guns the Union had a distinct advantage in long-range arms.
As a result of the combine naval and land strength of the artillery, Longstreet recommended keeping the main batteries back. Jackson established his to the north of Western Run while Magruder was west of Western Run opposite Willis Church. Less than 20 batteries were ready as the Confederates lined up for attack.
In the early afternoon Lee issued the following message:
Batteries have been established to rake the enemy's lines. 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.
About 3:00 pm, just as Magruder was finally getting into position, Yankee skirmishers opened fire on the center of the Confederate line. Lewis Armistead felt obliged to respond and sent three regiments forward. They easily drove off the skirmishers and advanced to the cover of a small creek at the bottom of the Crew House.
Sitting elevated on a plateau almost immediately in front of the Rebel lines, the Crew House seemed to be an ideal location for an attack. It was visible to most of Magruder's and Huger's men, Armistead's regiments did not seem to have much of a problem getting to a ravine below the house, and Lee had reports that the Yankees near the house were withdrawing (this was a small group of Bull Sumner's men whom he had recalled). Originally planning an attack on the left (in the weak area that McClellan had spotted), Lee abandoned his original plan and decided to strike the Crew House as the start of a general advance.
Magruder told Lee he could muster 15,000 men for the attack on the Crew House. Just before 6:00 p.m. 5,000 men stepped out of the woods and moved towards the Crew House. Supporting the attack were only 4 Confederate artillery batteries, but since the Rebels were on the move, the effect of the gunboat's artillery was minimized. As "Little Billy" Mahone pulled out in support of the Rebel attack, Rans Wright's brigade moved forward with the Rebel yell. Samuel Garland heard Daniel Harvey Hill remark, "This must be the start of the general assault.
Around the Crew House, George Morrell's Yankees felt cautious about the situation. Lee was driving the Army of the Potomac to the James, they were not retreating, so in spite of looking down at the Rebels the bluecoats did so with trepidation. A line of picketts, Berdan's Sharpshooters, picked off the leading Rebels from a wheat field, then fell back in front of the butternuts. Around the Crew House Charles Griffin's artillery switched from shell to canister as the Confederates drew closer. Behind the artillery, Griffin's men halted the Rebel advance with musket fire.
By the time "Little Billy" Mahone reached the area in front of the Crew House, Daniel Harvey Hill was advancing his division on either side of Willis Church Road. As Morrell's men were turning back Mahone's Rebels, the first brigade of Hill's graybacks were coming under heavy fire from the Yankee right - John Brown Gordon had run into Darius Couch's now veteran division. Unfortunately, Hill's attack was poorly coordinated, so just as Magruder's attack was brigade by brigade, so was Hill's.
Still, the attack brought Couch's line under tremendous pressure. Gordon, who would become governor of Georgia and later its Senator, led Robert Rodes brigade towards the Yankee line from the Rebel right. Gordon made the advance, then looked for the support Harvey Hill had promised him, but none was to be found. Gordon's men took cover in a forest and awaited darkness.
Behind Gordond, Hill moved Samuel Garland, G. B. Anderson, Colquitt and Ripley to support the advance of Gordon. During the heaviest part of the Rebel attack, Darius Couch asked Fitz-John Porter for reinforcements, afraid his line of three brigades would not be able to withstand the 8,400 men moving towards him. The normally reticent Porter, commander of the 5th Corps, passed the message along to the other Corps commanders. Quickly, Heintzelman and Sumner responded with a brigade each and its accompaning artillery, but Couch was probably no happier than when Francis Barlow and his two regiments began forming on his front line. Gordon's men had been laying fire into the Union line near the West House and Barlow's men began returning their fire. Gordon thought Barlow might try to attack, but Barlow only kept Gordon busy while Couch battled Hill's incoming Confederate attackers.
Meanwhile, on the far left of the Confederate line Stonewall Jackson did not commit his men to the battle, as both Lee and McClellan expected. Jackson considered the Union position impregnable. Near dusk Lafayette McLaws managed to scrap together enough men for one final attempt against the Crews House. He was easily repulsed by the Union cannon.
With the Confederate attack now muted the Army of the Potomac began withdrawing to Harrison Landing on the James. By the time the withdrawal was complete the following morning around 10:00 am, Rebels were clearing their dead and finding their wounded. Ambulances made up the majority of traffic on the roads to the battlefield from the north while the Union wagon train pushed further south.
Links appearing on this page:
A. P. Hill
Battle of Malvern Hill was last changed on - April 29, 2007
Battles | Places | Events by year | Events by date | Feature Stories |
Bookstore | Links | Who We Are |