“General Magruder, why did you attack?”

MagruderToday, we’re pleased to welcome guest author Doug Crenshaw. Doug, a volunteer with Richmond National Battlefield, is at work on books for the Emerging Civil War Series about the Peninsula Campaign and the Seven Days’ Battles.

On July 1, 1862, Maj. General John B. Magruder ordered Confederate troops in his sector forward into a hurricane of Union case shot and canister. With no shelter and little artillery support of their own, the men were mowed down in droves, part of the 5,000+ Confederate casualties for the day. If one visits the battlefield today, it’s difficult to imagine what Magruder was thinking when he gave those commands.

Part of the reason for Magruder’s decision, as well for other serious Confederate failures during the Seven Days, was the lack of clear communication and good staff work. This will be the first of a series that will examine the role of communications in several engagements around Richmond.

MalvernHillFor five days, Robert E. Lee had been attempting to drive George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac from the outskirts of Richmond and, in the process, seriously damage, if not destroy it. The previous day at Glendale had been Lee’s best chance, but a lack of coordination greatly diminished the power of the Confederate attack, and the Federals managed to slip away behind the ridge of nearby Malvern Hill. There, they arrayed a line of guns near the crest of the gentle rise, with a spectacular field of fire. Nearly the entire Union army backed up those cannons.

Lee was desperate to make one more effort before McClellan could escape to the James River, where he would be under the protection of the Federal gunboats. Lee ordered Jackson and Magruder to advance toward Malvern Hill, with the latter taking the right side of the “Quaker” Road (actually the Willis Church road). He was to form on Jackson’s right.

Magruder followed instructions, but unfortunately his guides took him down a road different than the one Lee intended. They were locals and insisted that the road they were on was the actual “Quaker” Road. Until he realized his mistake, Magruder was actually moving away from the battlefield. He did not arrive at Malvern Hill until late in the afternoon.

Lack of clarity, or perhaps lack of understanding on Magruder’s part, had cost the Confederates several hours of precious time. One wonders if he had even looked at Lee’s map in order to clearly understand his commander’s true intentions. Poor maps were certainly an issue, but should staff members have been attached to Magruder and Jackson’s columns to ensure that orders were carried out as planned?

The plan for the day was for the Confederate artillery to set up in two locations and pour converging fire on the Union position, opening the way for Jackson and Magruder to attack. However, as the afternoon progressed, the Southern guns were unable to establish a significant presence, and the Federal position remained intact and strong, ready to repel any Confederate advance.

Colonel Robert H. Chilton, whose name would be associated with other miscues during the campaign, drafted the following order from Lee: “Batteries have been established to act upon 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.” No time of issue was listed on the command.

As Stephen Sears has pointed out, it is difficult to understand how Lee could have issued this order, or at least have failed to read it to see if it expressed exactly what he intended. In this case, the decision to attack would be in a brigade commander’s (Armistead’s) hands. It would be surprising to leave such a critical decision to someone at that level. Also, many things could cause troops to yell. Too much was at stake and too much could go wrong with such a directive.

The day wore on, and by mid afternoon Lee could see that his artillery would not drive off the Federal guns, so he and Longstreet rode to see if the Federal right flank could be turned. He never revised the “Armistead” order, perhaps thinking that his commanders would understand the situation and adapt accordingly.

Lewis Armistead was positioned in the front of the Confederate line. Three of his regiments were assigned the duty of driving back Federal skirmishers, which they proceeded to do. Magruder misinterpreted their movements as a successful attack and reported that to Lee. Chase Whiting, on the Confederate left, saw Union batteries to his front pull out. Thinking they were retreating, Whiting also sent a message to Lee. Unfortunately for Whiting, the Federals were not retreating, but rather rearranging batteries.

As Lee read the misinformation in notes sent to him, the situation seemed to be more promising for success. He did not go and look for himself, nor did he send a staff member; instead he created new orders. An aide wrote them out as follows: “General Lee expects you to advance rapidly. He says it is reported the enemy is getting off. Press forward your whole line and follow up Armistead’s successes.”

Magruder had disappointed Lee two days earlier at Savage’s Station, and he had played no role the next day at Glendale. He was not about to let Lee down now. He ordered the attack.

D. H. Hill, with his division astride the Willis Church Road, soon heard the yell of Magruder’s men. Hill and his brigade commanders “all agreed that this was the signal agreed upon,” and he ordered his troops to advance. In his report Magruder stated that he received a second order from Chilton “to press the enemy on my right.”

Slaughter ensued. Men and boys were cut down like wheat, and for all their efforts, made no appreciable gain. D. H. Hill would write that the Confederates were massed in such compact formations “that shot, shell and ball could hardly fail to accomplish a noble work.” He would add, “It was not war—it was murder.”

That night, Lee asked Magruder why he attacked, to which Magruder replied, “in obedience to your orders, twice repeated.”

How could such a disaster have happened? While Magruder made many mistakes, and others certainly added to them, poor communication and staff work seem to be some of the prime culprits.

Because he misunderstood the road he was to take, Magruder arrived late to the field. Should a staff officer have corrected Magruder’s mistake?

When he read Lee’s orders, Magruder did not take the time to evaluate the situation and communicate that to Lee, who had gone around the Federal right. While the terrain on hill was clear, dense woods surrounded it. Lee had to rely on messages from his subordinates to properly understand what was going on. No staff officers were attached to each division to keep the commanding general apprised of the true situation. None were on site to ensure that the orders were correctly interpreted and that the attacks were coordinated. Instead, troops attacked as they came up.

Those who wrote out Lee’s instructions do not appear to have been highly skilled; the “Armistead” order drafted by Chilton is particularly mystifying.

It bears remembering that this was a new army. Lee had been in command for just one month and had not the time to build a solid staff or cull out weaker officers. Things would soon improve, however, and the Army of Northern Virginia would develop into a formidable and legendary fighting machine.

————

Doug Crenshaw is a long-time interpretive volunteer for the Richmond National Battlefield Park. He has written books on Glendale and Fort Harrison.

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4 Responses to “General Magruder, why did you attack?”

  1. Theodore Savas says:

    Excellent work.

  2. Andy Hall says:

    A great explanation of Malvern Hill. Magruder’s performance here undoubtedly was a factor in his reassignment to Texas a few months later.

  3. Chris Kolakowski says:

    Excellent discussion. Don’t forget their physical condition too – Lee was exhausted from overwork (as were may CS generals on that field), and Magruder had drunk some bad water a few days before and was feverish. That undoubtedly was a factor in their actions and decisions.

  4. John Foskett says:

    This is great material. An in-depth exploration of the ANV’s awful staff work (including the complete absence of anything resembling reliable maps) is an excellent use of this site. Chris or Doug: As a Peninsula Campaign addict I’m wondering if Doug’s book will contain any new slants on McClellan, the Galena, lunch, and running a battle by wigwagging and putting spotters up in trees 🙂

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