The Battle of Malvern Hill was the last of the Seven Days battles of Major General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. In May of 1862, McClellan was closing in on Richmond, Virginia, but his advance was checked at the Battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks, on May 31st and June 1st. In that battle, General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Confederate forces, was wounded. He was replaced by President Jefferson Davis’ military advisor, General Robert E. Lee.
Although the Battle of Seven Pines stopped the Federals, McClellan’s army remained in the field and the Union commander planned to lay siege to Richmond. Lee decided to take the offensive, and attacked the Federals on June 26th at the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek. The Federals held, but the next day, with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Corps threatening the Union right flank, McClellan pulled back. The Confederates attacked the Union 5th Corps at the Battle of Gaines Mill on June 27th, causing that Corps to withdraw from the field early on the 28th after heavy fighting. McClellan decided to move his whole army to his base at Harrison’s Landing on the James River, which was defended by Union gunboats. Lee was in pursuit, and large scale battles were fought at Savage’s Station, Glendale, and White Oak Swamp.
On July 1st, McClellan concentrated his forces at Malvern Hill, some relatively high ground about 2 1/2 miles from
Harrison’s Landing. McClellan established a solid defensive position on Malvern Hill, with massed artillery and 70,000 infantry. The Confederates launched a series of uncoordinated attacks that ended in failure and high casualty numbers. Union artillery proved especially effective, but Federal infantry was also heavily engaged. The Confederates suffered some 5000 total casualties, while the victorious Federals had about 3000.
One of the Union infantry brigades taking part in the fighting on Malvern Hill was under the command of Brigadier General Albion P. Howe. Howe’s brigade consisted of the 55th and 62nd New York Infantry regiments, and the 93rd, 98th, and 102nd Pennsylvania Infantry regiments. The brigade was part of Brigadier General Darius N. Couch’s division of the Union 4th Corps. Couch’s division was on the Federal right, and was opposed by General D.H. Hill’s Confederate Corps. Howe described the fighting and the cooperation of the artillery with his infantry in his after action report:
HEADQUARTERS HOWE’S BRIGADE, COUCH’S DIVISION,
Harrison’s Landing, Va., July 5, 1862.
CAPTAIN: In obedience to the instructions from the headquarters of the First Division, Fourth Army Corps, I have the honor to submit a report of the operations of the brigade under my command at the
battle of Malvern Hill, on the 1st instant.
The brigade on that day was composed of the following regiments, viz: The One hundred and second Pennsylvania, commanded by Colonel Rowley; the Ninety-eighth Pennsylvania, commanded by Colonel Ballier; the Ninety-third Pennsylvania, commanded by Captain Long; the Sixty-second New York, commanded by Colonel Nevin; and the Fifty-fifth New York, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Thourot.
The position of the brigade was on the right of the division line of battle, the right of the brigade resting on a deep ravine running obliquely to the front, and impassable for artillery and cavalry, but practicable for infantry, the edge of the ravine on the right being covered by a thin belt of woods. From the right the brigade line extended to the left in an open field, except at a small space of woods which covered the left center. The ground in our rear was uncovered for three-fourths of a mile.
In front of our line of battle the ground was open and admitted the easy passage of any troops except in front of our left center, which was wooded, the cover extending to within some 500 yards of our front. The brigade line was formed a little before 8 a.m., and immediately after Captain Moser’s [?] New York battery reported to me and was posted in our line so as to sweep the open ground in our front, and if necessary to shell the woods. Before the enemy had completed his disposition for attack, having already got some of his artillery into position in our front, an order was received withdrawing Captain Moser’s [?] battery, and although the ground was admirably adapted for the play of artillery, was left for a time without any with which I could reply to that of the enemy. A little before 9 a.m. the enemy succeeded in placing a field battery about 1,200 yards in advance of our front, and a second battery at a more distant point to our right and front.
When the enemy, without any annoyance from us, had quite completed his artillery preparations, he opened fire upon our lines with his two batteries. Their artillerymen were without the range of our rifles, and I ordered the brigade to lie down and await the advance of their infantry.
The rebel battery nearest us was worked with much speed and some skill, occasionally doing some little injury within our lines; but the battery more distant was not worthy of any notice, doing us no manner of injury or even approaching it.
When the rebel batteries had continued their fire to their satisfaction the enemy threw forward, under cover of the woods in our front, a large body of infantry, and attacked our center. When the attacking force came within the range of our arms our whole line sprang to their feet and poured into the enemy a withering fire. The rebels stood well up to their work and largely outnumbered us, but our men had the vantage ground and were determined not to yield it. The firing continued with much violence on both sides, but the fire of the enemy, being generally too high, did us comparatively little injury. Soon, however, the advantage of our grounds and the superiority of our arms became evident in the effects of our fire upon the enemy. The enemy began to waver. I then ordered the One hundred and second Pennsylvania, Colonel Rowley, which was held in reserve, to advance with our line upon the enemy. Nobly and gallantly did every man of the regiment respond to the order, and the impetuous dash of our men the enemy could not stand, but gave way, and were sent back, much cut up and in disorder, over the ground on which they advanced. This success gave us much advantage of position, by allowing the left center of the brigade line to rest upon the woods, some 800 yards in advance of our first position, and at the same time affording us a cross-fire upon any second attempt of the enemy upon our position.
At this time I was re-enforced by detachments from two Maine regiments, which, being posted on my right in support of the Ninety-third Pennsylvania, gave me much additional strength. I was soon again re-enforced by Captain [Snow's] battery and the Twenty-third Pennsylvania Regiment, Colonel Neill.
The enemy’s batteries, after the repulse they met with, discontinued their fire, but kept their position.
On being re-enforced by Captain [Snow's] battery I immediately placed it in a favorable position to bear upon the rebel battery that had annoyed us with its fire in the beginning of the action. The battery at once opened fire upon them with fine effect, the spherical case-shot doing good execution on their teams and among their artillerymen. The rebel battery replied spiritedly for a time, and after a sharp cannonading from our battery it drew off the field. During this cannonading the enemy kept up a sharp fire of musketry at long range, but with little or no effect.
In the mean time I was again re-enforced by two other Pennsylvania regiments, under the command of Colonel Barlow, from General Caldwell’s brigade. The firing now became very heavy on the part of the division on my left, and by the aid of a glass I could discover the rapid movement of bodies of the enemy to my left. At this time a division staff officer came to me for any assistance I could send to our left. I immediately ordered the battery and the three last regiments that had come to my support to the left. The enemy again came down upon the left and center of our division in strong force and was again repulsed, Colonel Nevin’s regiment, the Sixty-second New York, on the left of my brigade, gallantly joining with the left of the division in the repulse. The enemy again rallied, and the firing continued sharp along the whole line of the division.
About this time, between 6 and 7 p.m., my brigade was re-enforced by Captain De Russy’s regular battery, of the Fourth Artillery, which was at this time of great assistance, as night was coming on and the enemy seemed determined to make one more last effort before abandoning the field. The battery took a fine position, and delivered its fire, with that of the whole brigade and division line, with marked effect, until after 9 p.m., when the enemy gave up the field.
I inclose herewith a list of the casualties in the brigade during the day, and when it is considered that the brigade was under fire over twelve hours, and a portion of the time hotly engaged, I think the whole loss sustained, being in aggregate 208, will be considered small.
More than thanks are Justly due to Capt. J. Heron Foster, of the One hundred and second Pennsylvania Regiment, a member of my staff, for the gallantry and untiring energy with which he performed far more than his duties from early morning until late at night. He was the only staff officer I had during most of the day, the other members of the staff being disabled early in the action.
I am, captain, very respectfully, your obedient servant
A. P. HOWE,
Capt. FRANCIS A. WALKER,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Couch’s Division, Fourth Corps d’Armée.
Although the Battle of Malvern Hill was a Union victory, McClellan decided to continue the withdrawal to Harrison’s Landing and the added protection of the Union gunboats. The Peninsula Campaign was over. The Federals had seriously threatened Richmond, but the Seven Days Battles had put an end to that. As the summer of 1862 continued, the war in Virginia shifted from the peninsula back to northern Virginia.
“The Battle of Malvern Hill” by Fitz John Porter. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II.
To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign
by Stephen W. Sears.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XI, Part 2.