The Battle of Malvern Hill, also known as the Battle of Poindexter's Farm, took place on July 1, 1862, in Henrico County, Virginia, was the sixth and last of the Seven Days Battles (Peninsula Campaign) of the American Civil War. Gen. Robert E. Lee launched a series of disjointed assaults on the nearly impregnable Union position on Malvern Hill. The Confederates suffered more than 5,300 casualties without gaining an inch of ground. Despite his victory, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan withdrew to entrench at Harrison's Landing on the James River, where his army was protected by gunboats, ending the Peninsula Campaign.
The final battle of the Seven Days was the first in which the Union Army occupied favorable ground. For the preceding six days, McClellan's Army of the Potomac had been retreating to the safety of the James River, pursued by Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Up to this point, the major battles of the Seven Days had been mostly inconclusive, but McClellan was unnerved by Lee's aggressive assaults and remained convinced that he was seriously outnumbered, although in fact the two armies were roughly equal.
Malvern Hill offered good observation and artillery positions, having been prepared the previous day by the V Corps, under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter. McClellan himself was not present on the battlefield, having preceded his army to Harrison's Landing on the James, and Porter was the most senior of the corps commanders. The slopes were cleared of timber, providing great visibility, and the open fields to the north could be swept by deadly fire from the 250 guns placed by Col. Henry J. Hunt, McClellan's chief of artillery. Three gunboats on the James River, the USS Galena, USS Jacob Bell, and USS Aroostook, added even more firepower. Beyond this space, the terrain was swampy and thickly wooded.
The entire Army of the Potomac occupied the hill, with the exception of Brig. Gen. Silas Casey's Division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. John J. Peck, of the IV Corps, which had proceeded to Harrison's Landing and, while not engaged, formed the extreme right of the Federal line. The Federal line extended in a vast semicircle from Harrison's Landing on the extreme right to Brig. Gen. George W. Morell's division of Porter's Corps on the extreme left, which occupied the geographically advantageous ground on the northwestern slopes of the hill. Adjoining the right of Morell's command was Brig. Gen. Darius N. Couch's division, which had been detached from the IV Corps, now at Harrison's Landing, and occupied the effective center of the Federal position. Although Porter commanded the portion of the field on which Couch's troops were positioned, he elected to allow Couch to act in command independently, not bringing his detached division under the command of one of the other corps commanders. Extending the Federal line on Couch's right were the divisions of Brig. Gens. Philip Kearny and Joseph Hooker of Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman's III Corps. To the right was Brig. Gen. Edwin Vose Sumner's II Corps, consisting of the divisions of Brig. Gens. Israel B. Richardson and John Sedgwick, which were anchored to Peck's Division of the IV Corps at Harrison's Landing. For the most part however, the Union infantry were passive spectators in the battle.
Rather than flanking the position, Lee attacked it directly, hoping that his artillery would clear the way for a successful infantry assault (just as he would miscalculate the following year in Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg). He also believed that his soldiers were in better fighting shape than their Union counterparts, despite the six preceding days of hard fighting and marching. (A number of the Union Corps had in fact not yet participated in direct combat, which was an indictment of McClellan's generalship, but worked out well for this final battle.) Lee's plan was to attack the hill from the north on the Quaker Road, using the divisions of Maj. Gens. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Richard S. Ewell, D.H. Hill, and Brig. Gen. William H.C. Whiting. Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder was ordered to follow Jackson and deploy to his right when he reached the battlefield. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger's division was to follow as well, but Lee reserved the right to position him based on developments. The divisions of Maj. Gens. James Longstreet and A.P. Hill, which had been the most heavily engaged in the Battle of Glendale the previous day, were held in reserve. Seeing how strong the Union position was, D.H. Hill opposed the idea of a direct attack, but Lee was confident that one final push would work.
As with most of the battles in the Seven Days, Lee's complex plan was poorly executed. The approaching soldiers were delayed by severely muddy roads and poor maps. Jackson arrived at the swampy creek called Western Run and stopped abruptly. Magruder's guides mistakenly sent him on the Long Bridge Road to the southwest, away from the battlefield. Eventually the battle line was assembled with Huger's division (brigades of Brig. Gens. Ambrose R. Wright and Lewis A. Armistead) on the Confederate right and D.H. Hill's division (brigades of Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood and Col. Evander M. Law) on the Quaker Road to the left. They awaited the Confederate bombardment before attacking.
Unfortunately for Lee, Henry Hunt struck first, launching one of the greatest artillery barrages in the war from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The Union gunners had superior equipment and expertise and disabled most of the Confederate batteries, which were concentrated on a hill 1,200 yards north of the Crew House and at Poindexter's farm to the northeast. The advancing columns of Confederate infantry were blasted to pieces by the massed artillery. Even more terrifying were the huge 50-pound shells lobbed from the three gunboats. Despite the setback, Lee sent his infantry forward at 3:30 p.m. and Armistead's brigade made some progress through lines of Union sharpshooters. By 4 p.m., Magruder arrived and he was ordered forward to support Armistead. His attack was piecemeal and poorly organized.
Meanwhile, D. H. Hill launched his division forward along the Quaker Road, past Willis Church. Across the entire line of battle, the Confederate troops reached only within 200 yards of the Union Center and were repulsed by nightfall with heavy losses. As the sun was going down, Brig. General Isaac Trimble of Ewell's division began to move his troops forward. Jackson stopped him and asked "What are you going to do?" Trimble replied "I'm going to charge those batteries, sir!" "I guess you'd better not try it." Jackson said. "General [D.H.] Hill has just tried with his entire division and been repulsed. I guess you'd better not try it."
D.H. Hill wrote afterward, "It wasn't war; it was murder." Lee's army suffered 5,355 casualties (versus 3,214 Union) in this wasted effort, but continued to follow the Union army all the way to Harrison's Landing. On Evelington Heights, part of the property of Edmund Ruffin, the Confederates had an opportunity to dominate the Union camps, making their position on the bank of the James potentially untenable; although the Confederate position would be subjected to Union naval gunfire, the heights were an exceptionally strong defensive position that would have been very difficult for the Union to capture with infantry. Cavalry commander Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart reached the heights and began bombardment with a single cannon from Capt. John Pelham's artillery. This alerted the Federals to the potential danger and they captured the heights before any Confederate infantry could reach the scene.
Malvern Hill ended the Peninsula Campaign. When McClellan's 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.
- Kennedy, p. 101.
- Burton, pp. 381-83.
- Burton, Brian K., Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles, Indiana University Press, 2001, ISBN 0-253-33963-4.
- Eicher, David J., The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-84944-5.
- Esposito, Vincent J., West Point Atlas of American Wars, Frederick A. Praeger, 1959.
- Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998, ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- National Park Service battle description
- Sears, Steven W., "To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign", Mariner Books, 2001, ISBN 0-618-12713-5.
- Battle of Malvern Hill in Encyclopedia Virginia
- Animated History of the Peninsula Campaign
- Malvern Hill Battlefield Page: Battle maps, photos, history articles, and battlefield news (CWPT)
- Poem by Herman Melville
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