Fought on July 1st, 1862, Malvern Hill was the last of the Seven Days’ Battles, and one of the largest of that campaign. Yet a Second Battle of Malvern Hill took place a month later, one that is largely forgotten today.
After the Army of the Potomac withdrew to Harrison’s Landing, the Confederates cautiously followed them and both armies sat for a few weeks. While several of his corps commanders advocated renewing the effort against Richmond, McClellan was convinced the campaign was over. In early August Union forces did launch a small probe towards the Confederates. By then Malvern Hill was occupied by a small force of Confederate infantry and cavalry as a lockout post to keep an eye on the Federals. The southerners were camped at the highest part off the hill, near the Malvern House, that overlooked the river road (modern Route 5).
McClellan ordered what he and other Union reports called a reconnaissance to Malvern Hill. To his wife Mary Ellen he wrote that they would “try to catch the sesh who are at Malvern Hill.” The effort was made by Gen. Joseph Hooker’s division of the Third Corps. Hooker’s troops advanced on Malvern Hill by a circuitous route, passing through the Glendale battlefield and moving south, retracing their movements before the first battle of Malvern Hill. Ironically they would attack from the same direction and over the same ground that the Confederates had a month earlier.
Hooker’s force consisted of two brigades and two artillery batteries, plus a regiment of cavalry. They departed the camp at Harrison’s Landing at 6 p.m. on August 6th. The force marched north and west until midnight, tin cups and other gear secured from rattling. One New Jersey soldier reported that morale was high.
The next day the Union troops emerged into the clearing at Malvern Hill at about 6 a.m. General
Cuvier Grover’s brigade moved into position on the left, and Col. Nelson Taylor’s New Jersey brigade on the right. General Daniel Sickles’ New York brigade was in reserve. The Federals then advanced, retracing the Confederate attacks of a month earlier. Imagine what went through their minds, advancing across the same ground they had earlier defended and stepping over graves. The trampled ground was likely littered with he debris of battle: shell fragments, abandoned equipment, broken rifles, etc. They met little resistance, and Taylor’s brigade even had no casualties.
Private F. E. Dennis of the 8th New Jersey recalled, “We formed in line of battle, and to me it was a most impressive sight as I looked up and down the line of our little division . . .” They advanced carrying their rifles at the right should shift position. Moving slowly at first, according to Dennis they were anxious to cross the open space and soon sped up. Reaching the crest, he noted that “We gobbled up quite a bunch of Georgians . . . and . . . we shared our coffee with them . . .”
Defending the hilltop was a battery of artillery and a few regiments of infantry and cavalry, a much smaller force than Hooker brought. A Confederate artilleryman atop the ridge said, “The battery resisted their advance gallantly, and continued its fire until the ammunition was exhausted, when it limbered up and left the hill, leaving be hind one caisson . . .” As in the first battle, Union naval ships provided support, firing on the Confederates from the James River.
Robert Stribling of the Fauquier Artillery wrote,
Time enough was barely given to get the guns in position and arrange the infantry when there was a cavalry charge . . . At sunrise, two batteries were run out by the enemy about 600 yards distant and an artillery duel ensued, in the open field with no protection on either side . . . As soon as the infantry appeared, the fire of the battery was directed upon it, and when within between one and two hundred yards the men were compelled to lie down in the cover of a ravine . . .
The ravine he refers to was possibly the one that Armistead’s men sheltered in during the July 1 battle. It is the only area of cover on the battlefield.
Emmet Irwin 82nd New York, wrote, “We captured 2 pieces of artillery, a few prisoners and their camp . . . we staid on the ground until this morning about 2 o’clock when we learned that there was a force of about 60,000 to attack us this morning so our General’s thought best to skedaddle . . .He goes on to share a perspective shared by many common soldiers, “Whether we accomplished our object or not I do not know.”
Other Confederate forces in the area, including cavalry under Wade Hampton and Robert Toomb’s Georgia brigade, advanced to offer assistance, but stopped short of reaching Malvern Hill. It was so quickly in Union hands that they dared not counterattack. Hooker’s men stayed overnight, but withdrew the next day, as North Carolina cavalry and Virginia infantry advanced upon them. The Confederates took 36 prisoners.
In looking around the area, now fought over twice, James S. Brisbin of the 6th U.S. Cavalry described the scene:
I rode over the battle field and saw many long ridges of yellow clay every here and there which I was informed where the graves of our men who fell in the late battles. Dead horses were laying over the field and the stench from their rotting carcasses was insufferable. One fine brick house on the top of the Hill where the Rebel Artillery had been posted was full of Cannon ball holes and al the doors and windows were knocked out. It was a beautiful place but in ruins the cannon shot having cut and broken down many of the inf shade trees around it. An air of desolation pervaded the whole place.
Irwin of the 82nd New York also noted the many graves, and noted that since the Confederates held the ground they buried their dead with more care than the Union killed:
It is a horrible sight to walk over the ground so hotly contested for the dead are buried promiscuously over the field or rather covered up, numerous were the graves where I could see 4 or 5 skulls in one hole, also feet, legs, arms, and hands sticking out. The dead is also buried promiscuously but their graves are rounded up and mostly marked while ours is just level with the ground. From what I have seen I come to the conclusion that they buried our men more to prevent the stench than from humanity’s sake although I may be mistaken as a persons body would soon smell so that it is almost impossible to handle them and therefore would have to be covered up wherever they fell.
The Second Battle of Malvern Hill was small and didn’t have lasting ramifications, but it was remembered by veterans. Several regimental monuments at Gettysburg, which list the engagements fought by those units, list this fight.