Battle of Malvern Hill; U.S. Grant Named Commander of Western Union Armies: July 1862

150 Years Ago in the Civil War

In late June 1862, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces launched a series of battles that pushed Major General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac back from the outskirts of Richmond. On July 1st, that series of actions known as the Seven Days Battles concluded with the Battle of Malvern Hill.

Union forces had set up a strong defensive position on Malvern Hill overlooking the James River. The Federal artillery commander, Colonel Henry J. Hunt, had his guns in position to repel any Confederate assault, and he was backed up by more heavy guns on Union gunboats on the James. Lee desperately wanted to destroy McClellan’s army before it could get away, so he ordered an attack. However, the infantry assault was made in piecemeal fashion, and the superior Union artillery carried the day and inflicted severe casualties on the attackers. Major General D.H. Hill, one of Lee’s division commanders, later wrote that the fighting at Malvern Hill “was not war–it was murder”. Confederate forces suffered over 5600 casualties while Federal losses were about 2100.

Afterwords, several Union generals wanted to counterattack, but McClellan refused to do so and ordered the Army of the Potomac to continue on to Harrison’s Landing on the James. An outraged Brigadier General Phillip Kearney said “such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason”. For his part, Lee concluded his army wasn’t in condition to continue the pursuit. Though many of the battles were poorly executed, the Seven Days Battles had ended McClellan’s threat to Richmond. Malvern Hill was also the last battle of the Peninsula Campaign, as McClellan would remain at Harrison’s landing and not resume the offensive.

As the campaign was ending, President Abraham Lincoln called on the northern states to supply 300,000 more men for the army. Lincoln also named Major General Henry Halleck General in Chief of the U.S. armies on July 11th. Halleck was considered to be a excellent administrator, and with his departure for Washington, Major General Ulysses S. Grant was given command of the Army of the Tennessee and Army of the Mississippi. While Halleck was still Grant’s commander by virtue of his being General in Chief,  Grant had more troops under his command than before and greater leeway for making decisions with Halleck in Washington.

Lincoln also took one more significant step this month. In a meeting with his Cabinet July 22nd, the President read the first draft of his Emancipation Proclamation, which would free slaves in those states that were in rebellion (essentially, the states of the Confederacy) as of January 1, 1863. The Cabinet agreed with the proclamation, except for Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, who thought it would cost Republicans control of Congress in the fall elections. Secretary of State William Seward recommended the President hold off on issuing the proclamation until after the army had achieved a significant victory so it would not be seen as a desperate act or “our last shriek on the retreat” as Seward put it.  Lincoln agreed, and put it aside to await a victory.

The month did not have much large scale fighting after Malvern Hill, but there were many smaller  skirmishes, raids, and actions in several states from Virginia to Missouri. On July 18th, a Confederate raiding party of 30 to 35 men crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana, briefly capturing the town of Newburgh, Indiana. After securing some arms and other supplies, the raiders crossed the Ohio back into Kentucky.

A much larger raid began July 4th when 900 Confederate cavalrymen under Colonel John Hunt Morgan left Knoxville, Tennessee headed for Kentucky. This raid lasted over three weeks and resulted in the capture and parole of 1200 Union soldiers, and the destruction or capture of large amounts of Union supplies. Hunt would conduct more raids in the future.

Civilian Belle Boyd was arrested in Warrenton, Virginian  July 29th and charged with espionage. She was jailed in Washington, DC. While she was indeed a spy, it could not be proved and she was released in August for lack of evidence.

With the defeat on the peninsula and progress in the west ground to a halt, the momentum the Union armies had in the early months of the year had switched to the Confederacy. This would continue into August.

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