ECW welcomes back guest author Rob Wilson
“I have supped full with horrors. Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts Cannot once start me.” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, Line 13-15
The Army of the Potomac emerged the clear winner at Malvern Hill, the last of the Seven Days Battles fought around the Confederate capital of Richmond. The Southerners suffered 5,650 casualties on that afternoon of July 1, 1862, mostly killed or wounded. The Northern casualty total was 3,007. Surveying a field littered with the bodies of his men after the fighting, Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill declared “it was not war, it was murder.”[i]
The Federals’ victory celebration was short-lived. To the surprise of many of his men, Union commander Major General George McClellan issued a withdrawal order that night. And, with that, the Yankees exited the hill in what one soldier called “a regular stampede.” Wounded comrades were left behind, crying out for help. Union General Darius Couch wondered how soldiers “who had fought so magnificently… were now a mob.” Writing in his journal, First Regiment U.S. Sharp Shooter Sgt. George A. Marden used the French idiom “sauve qui peut”— meaning “general panic”— to describe the battle’s aftermath[ii]
How did this decisive victory emerge with the look and feel of a defeat? A perfect storm of variables— many determined prior to the battle— converged at Malvern Hill that day. Before examining those factors, however, consider a detail of the battle, as reported by Marden and several Sharpshooters on the Union left.
By the afternoon of July 1, Yankee V Corps infantry and nearly 200 pieces of artillery were well-positioned atop Malvern’s slope. They faced down the hill, over a broad expanse of cleared fields, to a tree line a mile away. Other Federal corps and the artillery reserve were stretched around to the southeast of the hill, forming a long right flank. United States Sharpshooter (U.S.S.S.) marksmen, carrying breech-loading rifles, had scattered behind shocks of harvested wheat and in gullies and woods in front of the left and center Union lines.[iii]
Late in the afternoon, after skirmishing and artillery exchanges, the fierce fighting commenced. Marden, a staff aide with the U.S.S.S. command on the left flank, observed enemy infantry charging forth “in solid lines… shrieking like devils.” Down slope, on the Sharps skirmish line, Sgt. William O. McLean spied “rebels pouring out of the woods by thousands.” The skirmishers fired and the big Union guns opened up, lobbing shells “right in their midst.” Skirmisher Brigham Buswell, who also witnessed the barrages, reflected “I had seen slaughter before but nothing to compare with this… I cannot describe it… [the grape shot] would mow a wide path wherever they passed.”[iv]
The Sharpshooters backed up the hill to the Federal lines, rapidly firing their breech-loading rifles to slow their foes. Despite rifle and artillery volleys, McLean wrote, the brave attackers repeatedly charged forward “in such immense numbers that our boys wavered for an instant.” Marden also noticed the Union line faltering and worried the guns might be overrun. “[If so] they would turn our left and the Army of the Potomac would be a thing of history,” he wrote. Two regiments of reinforcements arrived, formed in a hollow, and on the next attack “rose, gave a cheer, a volley and charged the rebel foe, and the day was won,” the soldier reported.
“It was the roughest time I ever had, and I can’t say that I ever want another like it,” concluded McLean, likely reflecting the sentiments of many Union soldiers who fought at Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862. “The roar of the artillery and musketry, the groans of the wounded, the bursting of shells and the excitement… must be seen to be realized.”[v]
It had been a hard fight, but things had ended well for McClellan’s men. How did it digress into the mob scene Darius Couch observed?
By July 1, after a three-month-long campaign, the Federal retreat in the face of victory largely was predetermined. McClellan’s ultra-cautious leadership had been no match for the aggressiveness of his recently-appointed Army of Northern Virginia counterpart, Gen. Robert E. Lee. It took three months for McClellan, who wrongly assumed his army was outnumbered, to carefully creep eighty-five miles up the Peninsula to reach Richmond’s gates. After escaping a month-long federal siege of Yorktown, the Confederates slowed their enemy’s progress by fighting, falling back and fighting again in five subsequent battles. There were tactical Union victories, but nothing substantial to show. The Southerners— under the command of General Joseph E. Johnson until he was wounded in June— had worn down their opponents by the time of Seven Days Battles. When his June 25 offensive probe at Oak Grove near the capital’s defenses met stiff resistance, McClellan was rattled and withdrew. Now under Lee’s command, the Confederates followed and attacked; McClellan retreated again and so on, for the Seven Day’s duration. His caution and paranoia kept growing. Lee’s army had been plagued by poor communications and miscues and won only one of the Seven Days Battles, sustaining a high casualty rate. Yet McClellan abandoned plans to invade Richmond, retreating south. His goal: the James River and the cover of Union gunboats off Harrisons Landing.
A week of fighting by day and retreating by night on extremely short rations— after eleven weeks of the Peninsula Campaign— had weakened and exhausted the Federal ranks. Low morale had become an issue with ever increasing numbers of malingerers and deserters. The order to retreat after victory pushed spirits lower. Marden lamented “the enemy were whipped and yet we were to ‘skedaddle’ once more.” Some officers expressed contempt, Lt. Gen. Philip Kearny declaring his commander “prompted by cowardice or treason.”[vi]
Although discipline in the ranks had held up to now, McClellan’s withdrawal command constituted a breaking point. Certainly not all or even a majority of the Union soldiers stampeded when that command was given, but many did. Wagons, supplies and some artillery pieces were abandoned. Many weapons discarded. Wounded left behind. No soldier wanted to be killed on the last skedaddle of the Seven Days.[vii]
The retreat, afflicted by a driving rain, was horrific. “Men worn out with want of sleep and fatigue slipped in the mud like drunken men,” Marden remembered. “The longer we rode… the worse the road became… Horses and mules lay down in traces and never kicked again.” The soldier and several comrades rescued and carried a wounded U.S.S.S. officer, eventually loading him into an abandoned ambulance and delivering him to Harrisons Landing. “The Lt. Col. got on a boat… Lucky man,” Marden reflected. “I would give a month’s pay to be wounded slightly in the arm.” To conclude, the soldier borrowed from the Shakespeare quote at this article’s beginning, writing: “In short, things are gloomy. I have supped full with horrors for a week and wouldn’t object to a few weeks of rest in N.H. That however is out of the question.”[viii]
Over the next few weeks, the Washington leadership abandoned any hope of McClellan expediting an end to the war by attacking the Confederate capital. The Peninsula Campaign was terminated; the general and his forces shipped home. The South’s rebellion would continue for two years and ten months. The Army of the Potomac would go on to “sup” on horrors of a far grander scale at Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and other battlefields well north of Richmond.
On July 1 at the Malvern Hill battlefield site, Emerging Civil War Series author Doug Crenshaw will speak at 1 p.m., drawing on material in his new book, Richmond Shall Not be Given Up: The Seven Days’ Battles, June 25-July 1, 1862. Other events at this National Park Service will include military and civilian encampments, living history presentations and battlefield tours. NPS listed the site as “the best preserved Civil War battlefield in central or southern Virginia,” thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Civil War Trust and other preservation organizations. For more information, click here.
Visit the Civil War Trust website for more information and a detailed map of regimental battle positions.
[i] D.H. Hill, “McClellan’s Change of Base and Malvern Hill,” appearing in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. 2 (New York: Century Co., 1887) 394; Civil War Trust, “10 Facts: Malvern Hill” https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/10-facts-malvern-hill, accessed May 25, 2017.
[ii] Letters of Richard Tylden Auchmuty, Fifth Corps, Army of the Potomac, July 5, 1862 (Privately published, 189?); Darius Couch, Civil War Record RG 94 (M-1098:5), quoted in Stephen Sears, To the Gates of Richmond (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992), 338; George A. Marden, Journal entry of July 8, courtesy of Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College, Hanover N.H.
[iii] Marden Journal, July 8; Capt. C.A. Stevens, Berdan’s United States Sharpshooters In The Army Of The Potomac (St. Paul, Minn.; The Price McGill Company, 1892), 143-146 ; Brian K. Burton Extraordinary Circumstances: The Seven Days Battles. (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010) 308; Civil War Trust, https://www.civilwar.org/learn/civil-war/battles/malvern-hill, accessed June 1, 2017.
[iv] Marden Journal, July 8; William O. McLean, letter to family, July 5, , Cherry Valley Gazette, Cherry Valley, N.Y., July 23, 1862; Brigham Buswell, memoir excerpted in Civil War Times, April, 1996.
[v] Marden Journal, July 8; McClean letter to family, July 5.
[vi] Marden Journal, July 8; E.M. Woodward, History of the Third Pennsylvania Reserve (Trenton, NJ: MacCrellish & Quigley, 1883), 124-125, quoted in Sears, 338.
[vii] Sears, 337-338
[viii] Marden Journal, July 8