A Field Too Far – The Battle of Malvern Hill


In March 1862, McClellan opened the Peninsula Campaign by sailing from Alexandria, Virginia, to Fort Monroe. Over the next two months, his army cautiously advanced toward Richmond, but Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston checked him at Seven Pines on May 31–June 1. Lee, assuming command for the wounded Johnston, seized the initiative on June 26 by attacking the Union right flank at Mechanicsville. McClellan retreated southeast toward the protection of the Union Navy on the James River, while Lee aggressively pursued, attacking at Gaines’s Mill, Savage’s Station, and Glendale.

The Battle

The Union Army of the Potomac arrived at Malvern Hill, a one hundred-foot plateau about one mile north of the James River, on June 30. McClellan briefly inspected the position and then boarded a gunboat, leaving Union general Fitz-John Porter in command. With the army united for the first time that week, Porter wisely took advantage of the terrain. He deployed the infantry in a U–shaped line, with the open side facing the James, supported by approximately thirty-six guns on both the hill’s western and northern slopes. The army’s heavy artillery, including twenty- and thirty-pound Parrott rifles, stood in reserve on the southern end of Malvern Hill. That afternoon an advance Confederate division shelled the Union position from the west with five guns. The concentrated Union guns smothered the Confederate battery and another one in support, forcing the Confederates to abandon two cannon and six limbers (two-wheeled carts that supported the artillery piece). It was a preview of what was to come.

The main portion of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia arrived the next morning, sensing that McClellan’s troops were beginning to break under the unrelenting pressure. Reconnoitering the Union position, Confederate generals James Longstreet and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson identified positions on the Confederate right and left from which to deliver converging artillery fire. After this bombardment disrupted the Union position, Lee’s infantry would attack. Despite repeated attempts, the Confederates failed to mass their guns because of both poor communication work done by the generals’ staff officers and the Confederate practice of deploying batteries with each brigade rather than with the larger division. Of approximately forty-five Confederate artillery pieces that participated in fighting, only six to eight did so simultaneously on either flank. The massed Union guns pounded the Confederate batteries and drove them from the field, inflicting about a hundred casualties and killing more than seventy horses. Union gunboats also lobbed shells into the Confederate lines.

At around three o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate general Lewis A. Armistead‘s brigade attacked Union skirmishers. The Union gunners directed their fire against him, and his men took cover in a ravine part of the way up Malvern Hill. A garbled report of this “success,” coupled with an erroneous one that Union troops were withdrawing (they were actually moving wagons to escape overshot Confederate artillery), prompted Lee to order a discretionary attack. At 5:30 p.m. Confederate general John B. Magruder launched a series of piecemeal brigade attacks from the right. Confederate general D. H. Hill’s division, hearing the firing, advanced on the left, as did other Confederate units. Union artillery, supported by infantry, broke the Confederate formations, but new ones continued to surge forward. Porter repeatedly committed fresh troops and batteries, ultimately employing 107 cannon, and repelled the disjointed attacks until darkness halted the fighting. Union guns continued to wreak havoc on the Confederate lines until ten o’clock that night.


Confederate casualties at Malvern Hill totaled 5,650, compared with the Union’s 3,007. The following morning, a Union officer reported that the numerous wounded Confederates who littered Malvern Hill “give the field a singular crawling effect.” Porter encouraged McClellan to resume the advance on Richmond, but the ordeal of the Seven Days had mentally defeated him. Instead, McClellan ordered the army to retreat to Harrison’s Landing, where it remained until late August, effectively ending the Peninsula Campaign.


Comment: No date to commemorate here. I bring this battle up only because my younger son and I visited the battlefield last Saturday. He lives nearby and frequently rides his bike in the area. There’s not much at this battlefield park, but what is there has been well though out. There are a few cannons marking the Union lines and the initial Confederate lines. The field between is kept mowed to show the terrain and a trail over that field is maintained. We walked the trail from the Confederate to the Union lines. It was a pleasantly cool day for us. Bobby Lee’s boys would have done it on a hot July afternoon after having fought hard for the preceding seven days.

During the preceding seven days, Lee out-generaled, out-maneuvered and out-fought McClellan. Richmond was saved. My guess is that he saw an opportunity to destroy McClellan’s Army of the Potomac and force the Union to negotiate a peace. That was his plan throughout the war, seek the decisive battle. Sure his boys were tired, but they were also victorious. McClellan’s troops were tired and defeated. His positions on Malvern Hill were not dug in. Lee’s plan to bombard the concentrated and exposed Union troops with his massed artillery was a good one. Had his artillery been able to mass and hit the Union lines with converging fire as planned, Lee could very well have won the day and maybe the war.


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19 Responses to A Field Too Far – The Battle of Malvern Hill

  1. Babeltuap says:

    Thanks for sharing. Lee was a fine General and a gentlemen of an officer. Sidebar, did you know Brazil imported more slaves than the US? I doubt most in the US are aware of this fact. I just found it out by chance yesterday. I’ll have to research when their slaves were freed and why the Confederates get blamed for the entire north american slave operation.

    • TTG says:


      Slavery is certainly not an exclusively US institution. Even more slaves were brought to the Caribbean than to Brazil.

      • Fred says:


        Jefferson sent most of the US Navy to the Mediterranean to fight the Barbary Pirates over slavery. They are once again being sold in Libya (post NATO campaign) and many other places. But that all violates the domestic narrative.

    • Billy Roche says:

      Btp; there is much hypocrisy/ignorance on the question of slavery in the US. My home state, NY, did not entirely ban slavery until about 30 years b/f the War of Northern Aggression and some slave holders d/n emancipate but sent their “property” south for cash while they still could. Very young slaves had to reach 21 making their independence take longer. The story of “Sojouner Truth” is, in part, about this. Northern textile manufacturers c/h eschewed southern cotton and used Indian or Egyptian cotton but cheaper southern cotton reduced their material cost. Then there was the issue of treatment of young women/children in factory towns in the north. Was that a mild form of indentured servitude? BTW, see Carousel for a depiction of some of this. Muslims continue to practice slavery w/o comment by the western press and Chinese treatment of Uigurs is considered slavery by some. Oil d/n just power a modern capitalist economy making goods and services available to a international market. More powerful and less expensive than human labor, oil ended the need for slaves. There is much to consider b/f people simply say North good, South bad.

      • TTG says:

        Billy Roche,

        In 8th grade we held a class debate on the causes of the Civil War. This was in a small New England town. Our teacher countered the horrors of slavery argument with the question of conditions in the factory and mill towns in the North. He even brought up the Tennessee Ernie Ford song about owing his soul to the company store. We ended up spending a week studying labor conditions in the North and South. Bottom line was it sucked all over. Our teacher was an OSU-2 pilot in the Pacific flying off a cruiser. He had great stories including one about him using the slowness of the OSU-2 to trick a Zero into diving into the sea.

        • Stefan says:

          Child labor issues in the US were awful. It is kind of ironic that in our day child labor issues are again becoming an issue. https://www.epi.org/publication/child-labor-laws-under-attack/

          • Billy Roche says:

            Yes, child labor was awful in the Northern states of the Union. Dickens had a say about child labor in England, Les Miserables addressed this in France, and Russia only ended “formal” serfdom in 1860. But if one wants to consider real Ma’coy slavery one could research it in Asia the M.E., and Africa.
            Although child labor practices in N.E. clothing and shoe factories was inhuman, northerners d/n see it that way b/c the south was bad and the north was good. In fact, factories in Mass., R.I., Conn., N.Y., and N. H. d/n improve child labor practices until the early 1900’s when unions and public opinion forced them to. More over, lots of ex-slaves were moving north to work in factories and they could be more readily exploited than children. Southeners complained about the smug hypocrisy in the north to no avail. You see the north was good and the south was bad.

          • Fred says:


            “Today’s young workers, both immigrant and native-born, are asking more of the workplace and economy than previous generations, not less. ”

            I wonder who they are asking? According to the reference (Kaplan) it is commentary by “Zoe Kaplan is a senior writer at Forage. Prior to Forage, she was a writer, editor, and community coordinator for Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women. Zoe earned a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University.”

            Thank goodness all those 16 year olds were talking to a graduate of Wesleyean who has a B.A. in English and “4+ years experience writing about career advice and workplace trends” and 3+ years experience providing advice, support, and empowerment in online career communities, including Fairygodboss, the largest career community for women”

            Just the kind of insights to base federal labor law policy on. Plus raise the minimum wage, too. Did you even read the article? Please spread the word (but probably not here as the demographics of readership sure aren’t 16-18 year olds) maybe all those immigrants will stop coming to particpate in the terrible policies of the USA, things being so much better wherever you happen to be.

        • leith says:

          TTG – That OSU/Zero story must have been a good yarn. You should post it here.

          • TTG says:


            I’ll do my best to recall all the details and post it. I do remember Mr. Grey vividly describing the look on the Zero pilot’s face as he dove into the Pacific.

  2. scott s. says:

    Not sure I agree that McClellan was out-generaled. McClellan had an operational problem in that his campaign was based on use of McDowell’s corps. Now we can argue about whether McClellan deceived Stanton/Lincoln about defense of Washington, but the bottom line is that McDowell was retained, resulting in McClellan having his army split by a major river. Given that reality, the desire of McClellan to entirely change his operational plan seems reasonable, and the attempt to reposition while in contact was a major risk which he accepted and I would argue was reasonably executed during the seven days. Where I fault him was in giving all too much credence to the danger presented by CSS Virginia, and failure to adequately plan/support the attack on Drewry’s Bluff on the 15th May.

    I think also there tends to be an underestimation of the difficulty in the change of base from White House on the York to Harrison’s Landing on the James.

    • Fred says:

      The Confederates wasted a lot of time and efforts on rams. The CSS Virginia should have skipped the ramming after crippling the USS Cumberland and should have made straight for the transports and merchant shipping supporting the union army.

  3. Fourth and Long says:

    Free T-shirt – first to explain why General Sherman, famous for marching through Georgia was “Cump” to his family and close friends. He was a very interesting person.


    • ked says:

      Scourge of War, by a Brit military historian is a recent bio of Cump. I found its depth & balance across all aspects of his life impressive – clean scholarship, no axe-grinding … refreshing.

      Scourge of War / The Life of William Tecumseh Sherman by Brian Holden Reid

      • Fourth and Long says:

        Thanks, I’ll take a look. I grew up with best friends who were southerners who might never have spoken to me ever again if they discovered a book about Sherman on my shelves. I’m in my 70s now and it should be safe. I read parts of one biography many years ago which was written by a retired USMC colonel which was brilliant, frankly speaking. But I made sure to have an account by a Southern historian sitting right next to it that was vitriolically anti-Sherman. Of course the latter was a more fun read as many such things are. I also found an interesting study by a professional psychoanalyst who looked at Sherman as a case of a depressive type which rarely does well within civilization. His thesis was that the great man was basically a basket case until that moment in the war came which required him to go on an all out rampage, thus releasing outward from within the aggressive impulses which depressives turn against themselves to great detriment. Agree or not it was very interesting. Personally I think he was a very complex and exceedingly gifted individual who most likely was depressed because he saw so deeply into the tragedy of his country and hesitated to employ the measures necessary to produce the tragic and great simplification which war as a last resort imposes.

        While we were marching through Georgia – lyrics https://g.co/kgs/dokZ1J

        Lincoln said that his favorite song was “Dixie.” That’s pooh-poohed as politics but I believe it simply because as a work of choral music it is practically incomparable. Problem is no one knows how to perform it anymore. It needs a massive powerful choir. I’ve checked till I went blue in the face on YouTube and elsewhere and sorry to say it simply isn’t performed at nearly the necessary standard even by renowned musical ensembles. This country won’t be healed till Dixie can be performed correctly everywhere, just as Marching Through Georgia should be recognized as maybe the finest marching song ever composed, which many countries believe it to be as the Wikipedia entry on it verified last time I looked years ago.

        • Babeltuap says:

          Dixie is the best southern song that was never written for the south. The artist never cleared up what inspired him. Some think it was a northern slave owner that was kinder to slaves so they always wanted to go back to the Dixie farm but he told different versions of how it came about so nobody knows.

          Somewhat comparable to Ronald Reagan using ‘Born In The USA’. Bruce wasn’t happy about it but what could he do? Kill his career or just ride the waive for a while.

          • Fourth and Long says:

            Interesting, I didn’t know that. I’ll tell you what influenced me. During the 1930s and the War my mother was the soloist for the choir of a prominent Catholic Church in Bethlehem Pennsylvania of all places. This understandably required a certain amount of musical talent as a singer. It might have been the only Catholic church in Bethlehem but probably not. I grew up under her influence, despite how devoutly I would have appreciated the opportunity to avoid it entirely. Nonetheless I will confide this observation to you: If you ever heard her sing God Bless America, it might have had an influence on your life. To criticize Kate Smith is of course sacrilegious but I am very sad to say that although she was indistputably a very fine if not in fact in the opinion of many people a famous singer, she was not an incomparably transcendently singer. I hope I have not insulted anyone by expressing this controversial opinion. Nonetheless I did and do. I can easily provide examples of transcendently incomparably goddess-like singers, but I will refrain from doing so entirely at this moment other than to ask:

            What do you think Kai Metov could possibly have had in mind by the phrase “Position Number Two” in this performance of his near the end of the Gorbachev era? He was a professor of musicology at a very eminent Russian university during the 1980s. Furthermore, the number he dials in the phone booth – anyone know what it connects to?

            Kai Metov – Position number 2

            Years later he reappears. The song – Vspomnii Menya (Remember Me) – very interesting. Coincidence?

            Кай Метов – Вспомни Меня (Remember Me).

        • ked says:

          that sounds like a psychoanalyst’s analysis alright. not wishing to prejudice your (or anyone’s) reading, I think you would find Reid’s treatment valuable in decrypting the life-forces forming Sherman’s nature. but he’s only a historian.
          I was fortunate (now also in my 70s) to have family & friends both Southern & Northern. allowed me to appreciate the sources of deep belief and question all early on. however, it occasioned some inner (& outer) conflict in the 5th grade during recess in a border state.

  4. fredw says:

    This is more of an open thread post than a response to Malvern Hill.
    Defeat, and how the Russians deal with the realization of its possibility, has been much on my mind after reading https://twitter.com/YudinGreg/status/1656074583559262208 . It seems to me that the participants in SSI might have some things to say. Or at least memories of being in a similar situation. I know memories keep flooding in on me.

    I was in Vietnam late in the war (1970-71). I well remember the sinking realization that the US was going to lose this. That was not just my conclusion. Ultimate defeat was a pretty universal expectation among interrogators. Nobody could come up with a plausible scenario for how it might happen, but nobody much doubted that it would happen. Every day we interacted with US, ARVN, VC, and NVA soldiers. There just was not much doubt about the levels of commitment that would be needed to carry the fight to victory.

    I don’t mean to badmouth the American or ARVN soldiers. The ones I saw were doing their duty, sometimes magnificently. And I certainly don’t mean to glorify the VC or the NVA. They ran the same gamut of ineptness, corruption, dedication, and occasional brilliance. But they believed in their cause and they expected to win. Maybe you had to see them both day by day to grasp the difference. But people who did see them both daily saw a difference that eventually forced a conclusion about who would win the war.

    Not that it was just us intelligence REMFs. Trips closer to the field (go teams) led to interaction with people whose conclusions (based on more violent contact with the enemy) did not seem to differ much from ours.

    So my memories of the war are similar to what I think many Russians must be feeling. The dread of a coming catastrophe without much idea of how it will come or when. The knowledge that the resources are there to prevent any particular form of the catastrophe, combined with the conviction that the catastrophe is coming.

    In the American Vietnam war case, military discipline broke down pretty badly, but we got our army out of the way before the worst happened. That does not seem to be an option for the Russians. In the Vietnam war, the US military was a secondary force supporting the ARVN. (Not how we saw things, but that is how the NVA soldiers saw it. Trust me on that.) The Russian army is the main force in Ukraine. Donbasization is not an option for them. So what is the expectation for a Russian who no longer believes in the possibility of success?

    I seems to me that we (a lot of us at least) have been through something like this. Do we have anything useful or insightful to add to the conversation?

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