Prelude to the Battle
On March 17, 1862, Union General George B. McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign. After transporting the Army of the Potomac by ships to the Virginia peninsula between the York and James Rivers, McClellan planned to advance on Richmond and bring the American Civil War to a quick conclusion. By late May, the Federals had fought their way to the outskirts of the Confederate capital.
Battle of Seven Pines
On May 31, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston struck back at the Battle of Seven Pines. Two days of hard fighting rendered a tactical draw and high casualties on both sides. The aftermath of the engagement, however, produced two important strategic developments. First, Robert E. Lee assumed command of the Army of Northern Virginia after Johnston suffered a severe wound during the fighting. Second, the high casualty rate convinced McClellan to invest Richmond rather than to risk costly assaults against the Rebel defenses around the capital.
Reprieve for Lee
For nearly a month, McClellan sat idly, developing plans for a siege. The unexpected reprieve presented Lee with an opportunity to organize his command and to plan an offensive designed to drive the Union army away from Richmond. Toward the end of June, McClellan developed a renewed sense of urgency when he learned that Major General Stonewall Jackson was moving to reinforce Lee after concluding his highly successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign.
Battle of Oak Grove
On June 25, at the Battle of Oak Grove, Rebel forces repulsed McClellan’s attempt to advance his siege artillery approximately one and one-half miles closer to the capital so he could “shell the city and take it by assault.”
Battle of Beaver Dam Creek
On the next day, Lee seized the initiative and attacked the right flank of McClellan’s forces, which Brigadier General Fitz John Porter commanded north of the Chickahominy River. Events did not unfold as Lee had planned, however, and the Northerners rebuffed the Rebels at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. Despite the federal victory, McClellan ordered Porter to abandon his entrenchments and to fall back during the night.
Battle of Gaines’ Mill
On June 27, Lee renewed his attack on Porter’s corps at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill. The federal line broke under pressure from the largest single assault of the Civil War, but Porter got much of his command across the Chickahominy River under cover of darkness. The Confederate victory caused McClellan to lose his nerve and to suspend his offensive against Richmond. Although he refused to refer to his subsequent movements as a retreat, McClellan ordered the four corps he had poised at the doors of the Confederate capital to withdraw south toward the safety of Union gunboats on the James River.
Battle of Savage’s Station
Sensing an opportunity to destroy McClellan’s entire army, Lee devised an elaborate plan of pursuit. On June 29, the two sides engaged again at the Battle of Savage’s Station. Once more, poor execution and tardiness by Lee’s generals enabled McClellan’s rearguard to escape under the cover of darkness.
Battle of Glendale
As they retreated south, the Federals encountered a bottleneck where several roads converged near the village of Glendale. The congestion slowed down McClellan’s retreat and afforded Lee yet another opportunity to destroy the Army of the Potomac. On June 30, Lee ordered his army to strike the Yankees again, but this attack produced similar results. Poor performance by Lee’s subordinate officers plagued the Rebel assault. The two armies fought to a stalemate until nightfall, and the Federals once again melted away after dark. The Confederate failure at the Battle of Glendale set the stage for an even more decisive defeat the next day at the Battle of Malvern Hill.
Federals Stand and Fight at Malvern Hill
On the morning of July 1, 1862, McClellan had every reason to halt his retreat and invite his pursuers to strike again. He had gathered his army of nearly 90,000 soldiers in one place; he had the power of navy gunboats on the James River to his back, and he occupied an ideal defensive position at the crest of Malvern Hill. The hilltop provided an excellent field of fire across a gradually sloping meadow that the Rebels would have to cross to mount an attack. Frustrated by the Confederate failure the day before, Lee imprudently obliged.
Porter in Charge
McClellan positioned thirty-six heavy guns at the crest of the hill aimed to the west, where Lee’s army was in hot pursuit. Behind the guns, McClellan deployed nearly the entire Army of the Potomac in a long semicircle. Satisfied that he held the upper hand, McClellan then retired to his headquarters at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, leaving Major General Fitz John Porter in command.
Yankees Outgun Rebels
Lee’s plan of attack was rather direct. He ordered his artillery forward to quiet the North’s heavy guns, clearing the way for a massive infantry assault up the hill. At roughly 10 a.m., an artillery duel erupted, but the Yankees outgunned the Confederates. By early afternoon, the Rebel gunners retreated from the field.
Despite the failed bombardment, Lee remained confident that his infantry could carry the battle. While he was off searching unsuccessfully for an avenue to flank the Federals, Lee authorized his subordinate officers to begin discretionary strikes against the Bluecoats at approximately 3:30 p.m.
“It wasn’t war; it was murder.”
Throughout the afternoon and evening, federal sharpshooters and artillerymen mowed down the Rebels as the Confederates tried to advance across the open area on the slopes of the hill. Shells being lobbed at them from Union gunboats on the James River made matters worse for the attackers. As the battle ran its course, Confederate officers hurled twenty infantry brigades against the Yankees. The most successful charge came to within 200 yards of the Union lines. Confederate Major General D. H. Hill, who opposed Lee’s decision to assault Malvern Hill, observed after the war that, “It wasn’t war; it was murder.”
Aftermath of the Battle
Lee finally called off the carnage at nightfall. His army suffered over 5,500 casualties during the battle, compared with only 3,000 Union losses. Encouraged by the Union victory, General Porter urged McClellan to resume his assault on Richmond. The Union commander, however, had no more stomach for battle. Despite holding a nearly impregnable position on Malvern Hill, the next day McClellan continued his retreat to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.
With the Union army protected by naval gunboats, Lee wisely ended his offensive and turned his attention to Major General John Pope’s growing army in northern Virginia.
The Battle of Malvern Hill was the last major engagement of the Seven Days Battles and the Peninsula Campaign. By August, federal authorities ordered McClellan off of the Peninsula and back to the vicinity of Washington, DC, to reinforce Pope in his efforts to halt Lee’s Northern Virginia Campaign.