Union Artillery Played a Deadly and Decisive Role in the Battle of Malvern Hill

Major General George B. McClellan

During the Peninsula Campaign in the Spring of 1862, Major General George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac advanced to the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia before being stopped at the May 31st-June 1st Battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks as it was also called. McClellan remained outside Richmond but halted offensive operations, giving the Confederates time to strengthen their defenses around the city and plan an attack of their own, under their new commander, General Robert E. Lee, who had assumed command after General Joseph E. Johnston was wounded at Fair Oaks.

On June 25th, McClellan resumed the offensive with a three brigade attack at the Battle of Oak Grove. It marked the beginning of a week of fighting known as the Seven Days Battles. The next day, Lee went on the offensive, attacking McClellan in the Battle of Beaver Dam Creek, or Mechanicsville. Though the Federals successfully fought off the attack, they withdrew from the field the next day to higher ground. Additional battles followed, and the Union retreat continued southward towards the James River. When his army reached 130 foot high Malvern Hill, an area of gently sloping high ground a mile or so away from the James, McClellan halted and prepared to do battle.

The ground McClellan selected was an excellent location for a defense. As Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, commander of the Union 5th Corps wrote:

This new position, with its elements of great strength, was better adapted for a defensive battle than any with which we had been favored. It was elevated, and was more or less protected on each flank by small streams or by swamps, while the woods in front through which the enemy had to pass to attack us were in places marshy, and the timber so thick that artillery could not be brought up, and even troops were moved in it with difficulty. Slightly in rear of our line of battle on Crew’s Hill the reserve artillery and infantry were held for immediate service…With the exception of the River road, all the roads from Richmond, along which the enemy would be obliged to approach, meet in front of Crew’s Hill. This hill was flanked with ravines, enfiladed by our fire. The ground in front was sloping, and over it our artillery and infantry, themselves protected by crest and ridges, had clear sweep for their fire. In all directions, for several hundred yards, the land over which an attacking force must advance was almost entirely cleared of forest and was generally cultivated.

Union artillery was deployed on three sides of the Federal position, with more in reserve under the command of Colonel Henry J. Hunt. Hunt, who was on his way to being perhaps the most famous and most effective artillery commander in the Union Army, had additional batteries in reserve. These reserve guns would be rushed into place where and when needed. Additional longer range artillery support was available from gunboats on the James River. While Federal infantry and cavalry were engaged in the fighting, the Battle of Malvern Hill would be known for the effectiveness of the Union artillery.

Lee believed that a successful assault on the Union lines would be possible if his artillery could inflict adequate damage on the Federal batteries. The Confederate commander ordered his artillery to set up on the right and left sides of Malvern Hill and at about 1:00 pm on July 1st, the big guns opened fire on the Union batteries.

The Union cannon, which had been shelling the wooded areas as Confederate infantry moved through there, began zeroing in on the Rebel batteries. The Confederate bombardment was poorly executed, with only a few batteries in action. The more numerous Federal cannon proved very effective against their Rebel counterparts, and any hopes Lee had that the Union batteries would be silenced were dashed.

Nonetheless, the Confederates followed through with infantry assaults. But due in part to miscommunication of orders, the attacks were poorly coordinated and in mostly piecemeal fashion, with the Federal artillery inflicting large numbers of casualties, and Union infantry and sharpshooters getting in on the action where needed. This combination proved deadly as every Confederate attack was beaten back. (The Union gunboats’ bombardment was ineffective. With the Confederate forces on the other side of Malvern Hill and out of sight, the gunners attempted to lob shells over the Federal lines. Some overshot the battlefield, but others shells fell short and inflicted friendly fire casualties; finally, they were ordered to stop).

Union Naval Barage at the Battle of Malvern Hill

The Battle of Malvern Hill was the last of the Seven Days battles, and it was a decisive Union victory. Confederate losses were 869 dead, 4241 wounded, and 540 missing; Union casualties were 314 killed, 1875 wounded, and 818 missing. General McClellan had been on one of the James River gunboats and away from the battlefield for most of the fighting, and General Porter had been the commander on the field. Though Porter urged his commander to resume the offensive, McClellan withdrew the army to Harrison’s Landing on the James River.

The move perplexed many in the army. Private Thomas M. Aldrich of Battery A of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery later reflected that “Our army had won a most decided victory at every point; the slaughter of the rebels was frightful, and the position we occupied was a very commanding one. It seemed absurd and unreasonable to retreat when we held such an advantageous position, and we were victors.”

The Army of the Potomac was withdrawn from Harrison’s Landing in August to face a new threat by Lee in northern Virginia and the Peninsula Campaign was over.

General Porter filed this report on the Battle of Malvern Hill:

HEADQUARTERS FIFTH PROVISIONAL ARMY CORPS,
Camp at Harrison’s Landing, Va., July 8, 1862.

GENERAL: While the battle of Turkey Bridge was taking place the necessary arrangements were being made to resist the enemy coming from the direction of New Market and Charles City, who, as a natural consequence of previous operations, might be expected to launch on the following day his whole power against this force, with the hope of annihilating it and destroying the Army of the Potomac. The corps felt the responsibility and accepted it.

The position in which we were thrown had certain elements of great strength, and was the best adapted for a battle-field of any with which we have so far been favored. All elevated plateau covered the converging roads and was fronted to a certain extent with defensible ravines and low grounds, over which our artillery had excellent play. On the night of the battle of Turkey Bridge the division of General Morell was placed on the right of the line, with a portion of his division artillery and of Hunt’s reserve artillery; the division of General Sykes on the left, with the same support, and the reserve artillery, under Colonel Hunt, advantageously posted for general efficiency, crowning the crest of Malvern Hill. In this position the corps lay on its arms during the night and waited the attack, which took place at about 4 in the afternoon of the 1st of July.

Couch’s division, which had been sent on the night of the 30th of June to General Sumner, remained in support of our immediate right, and, like our own force, lay on its arms through the intermediate time.

On the following morning, July 1, the lines were visited and rectified by the major-general commanding, and Generals Heintzelman and Sumner, who had retired from White Oak

General Fitz John Porter

Swamp within our lines during the night, took position on the right of Couch, prepared to resist attack or give support to the left and center, as circumstances should require. Our position was strengthened by the arrival of heavy artillery under Colonel Tyler, whose ten siege guns were posted so as to control the River road and sweep our left flank, and by firing over the heads of our own men to reach the enemy, advancing on the Charles City road.

At about 1 o’clock p.m. the enemy commenced with his artillery and skirmishers, feeling along our whole front, and kept up a desultory firing till about 4 with but little effect. During this firing General Sumner, having withdrawn under the crest of the hill behind Malvern house a portion of his corps, directed me to do the same with mine. I could not at once refer to the major-general commanding then on the right of the line, and protested against such a movement as disastrous to us, adding that as the major-general commanding had seen and approved my disposition, and also General Couch’s, I could not change without his order, which could soon be obtained if desirable. He desisted, and the enemy was soon upon us, compelling him to recall his own corps.

The same ominous silence which had preceded the attack in force at Gaines’ Mill now intervened, lasting till about 6 o’clock, at which time the enemy (General John B. Magruder’s corps) opened upon as suddenly with the full force of his artillery, and at once began to push forward his columns of infantry to the attack of our positions. Regiment after regiment, and sometimes whole brigades, were thrown against our batteries, but our infantry withheld their fire till they were within short distance (artillery mowing them down with canister), dispersed the columns in every case, and in some instances followed the retiring mass, driving them with the bayonet, capturing prisoners, and also flags and other trophies, some of which have been forwarded to your headquarters.

This contest was maintained by Morell’s and Couch’s divisions, the former supported by Sykes, who had thrown some of his regiments to the front and dispersed a large column attempting to take us in flank. A portion of the reserve artillery was also here in action. While the battle was proceeding, seeing that the enemy was pressing our men and accumulating his masses to pour fresh troops upon them, I called for aid from General Sumner, which call was promptly responded to by the arrival of General Meagher, with his brigade, followed by that of Sickles, which General Heintzelman voluntarily and generously sent to complete the contest. These brigades I posted–Sickles on the right of Couch and Meagher on the left of Morell and in their sup-port-with instructions to push their regiments forward in echelon of about 100 paces, extending to the rear from the right or left of Couch’s division, to relieve those in advance whose ammunition had been expended and to drive the enemy. These directions were promptly and successfully executed. McCall’s (now Seymour’s) division was held in reserve.

In the mean time Colonel Hunt hastened and brought up artillery to relieve the batteries whose ammunition had been exhausted and who had successfully borne the brunt of the engagement throughout the day. Long after the enemy’s infantry was driven in disorder from the field and our own troops withheld from the desired pursuit these fresh batteries (one of them of 32-pounder howitzers) sent their missiles in destructive search after the rear of his column, silencing the guns he placed in position to cover his retreat. The lateness of the hour (9 p.m.) did not permit us to pursue the enemy farther, maintaining due regard to the security of the army, of which we were simply a rear guard, even had we had ammunition and provisions, in both of which particulars our men were sadly deficient.

Map of the Battle of Malvern Hill

For this brilliant action of my corps, inflicting on the enemy a blow which under other circumstances might have been followed up to a decisive victory, we can only claim that the success obtained secured for the army the following days of peaceful and undisturbed retirement to Harrison’s Landing, so essential to rest, recruit, and security.

I have to acknowledge the excellent dispositions of the reserve artillery made by Colonel Hunt and the promptness with which batteries under the immediate directions of Maj. William Hays and Capt. George W. Getty were always at hand when wanted to relieve others or to open fire in new positions, and also for valuable services, both by advice and action, received of him and of his assistants.

Colonel Averell, Third Pennsylvania Cavalry, rendered me valuable service as volunteer aide during the action, and to him was confided the command of the rear guard, which held the position keeping the enemy in check by the boldest demonstrations during the march which ensued on the following day from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing. His dispositions were in every respect brilliant in conception and satisfactory in result. Under the protection of his regiment and Buchanan’s brigade of regulars and Tidball’s battery all the troops and all the trains were safely and in proper order and time brought to this depot.

Reports of the commanders of divisions will soon be presented, when I shall take occasion to bring to the special notice of the major-general commanding many officers to whose services are due the successes of the day and who merit reward. Among the many noble spirits taken from us in this battle I have to mourn the loss of the brave, gallant, and beloved Colonel Woodbury, Fourth Michigan Volunteers, and Colonel Cuss, Ninth Massachusetts Volunteers, who had escaped the dangers of Mechanicsville and Gaines’ Mill, and who were about to see their noble efforts and those of their comrades crowned with success and themselves with honor.

In presenting this my hasty and preliminary report of the services of this corps and of those commands which accidentally or by order served with it, I cannot close it without a tribute in general terms to the gallant officers and men who have day after day contended successfully against immense odds in severe battles, made long marches, endured exposure, fatigue, and hunger without a murmur, and patiently awaited attack of the immense forces of the enemy pouring upon us with a confidence of success. Cheered by the example of their officers; held together by mutual confidence, arising from strict discipline; relying under Providence in the justice of their cause, this gallant band has on three occasions withstood the brunt of attack of the main force of the enemy, an(1 finally driven him from the field when expecting success to crown his efforts–that success the capture or destruction of this army. I am gratified to be able to add that in this movement of the army to its new base, hard pressed as it has been at times, the corps has maintained its discipline and unity, and with its accustomed cheerfulness and confidence has ever been and is now ready for any duty required of it.

I am, general, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

F. J. PORTER,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Brig. Gen. S. WILLIAMS,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Army of the Potomac.

Here are some perspectives on the fighting from the after action reports of some battery commanders. Captain Alonzo Snow of Battery B, Maryland Light Artillery:

CAMP ARTILLERY RESERVE, ARMY OF THE POTOMAC,
Harrison’s Landing, July 4, 1862.

SIR: About noon on Tuesday last, July 1, when in column at camp near James River next above this camp, I was ordered by yourself to move my battery forward to General Porter’s headquarters and await further orders. Colonel Hunt there ordered me to report at once to General Griffin out on the road by which the battery fell back from White Oak Swamp. On reporting, the general directed me to General Couch, who placed the battery in a corn field on the right of the road in rear of the battery then playing on the enemy. Afterward I was placed on the right of the line of battle by General Howe, in a field of oats, and before I got into position the enemy opened upon us from a battery in a field of wheat opposite, well masked by stacked and standing grain. After a fire of thirty minutes the enemy were driven from the field, one piece with its team and men certainly destroyed. Shortly after another battery in the same field, about 200 yards nearer to us and to the right of the position of their farther battery, opened on us, to which we replied, and after about a half hour’s fire drove it from its position.

During this time the enemy’s sharpshooters drew up in a wooded ravine and annoyed us severely, wounding two of my men badly. The colonel commanding the infantry support was repeatedly begged by myself and first lieutenant to drive them out, but did not comply. The enemy’s batteries having been driven off I drew the battery about 50 yards to the rear, and by the time this was accomplished an order came to send a section toward the left of the line. The left section, in charge of Lieutenant Vanneman, moved off at once, and in obedience to a second order the center section, under Lieutenant Kidd, was sent out also, leaving the right section, under Lieutenant Gerry, on the right. I had fired some canister into the ravine to silence the enemy’s sharpshooters, but some remained and continued their fire upon us. The right piece had a canister lodged in the bore, and although tremendous efforts were made to disengage it all failed, and I was compelled to send it back to camp. Whilst in this position I had 4 men wounded and 4 horses killed.

Leaving the right section, I proceeded along the line and found Lieutenant Vanneman’s section in action in a hot fire about the center and Lieutenant Kidd’s on the left of the line of battle. Both of these sections were exposed to a heavy fire of musketry during the remainder of the battle, and by their gallantry drew forth the praise of officers and cheers from the troops. My battery remained thus divided until the close of the fight, when they were separated and ordered to cease firing and fall back to camp, the remaining piece of the right section with the last of the caissons being the last to leave the field, between 9 and 10 o’clock at night. I used 688 rounds during the engagement, but having long fuse, rendering it necessary to cut them, and a large number of rounds having been expended after night, I cannot give as full report of the efficiency of the fuse and shell as may be desirable. Those used at the batteries did excellent execution at the different ranges of about 1,200 and 1,500 yards.

Battle of Malvern Hill by Robert Knox Sneeden

I have the pleasure of reporting gallant conduct on the part of my whole command, both officers and men, but regret to state that the casualties amounted to 2 killed and 18 wounded. Lieutenant Vanneman, whilst bravely directing the fire of his section, fell, struck by pieces of shell on the breast and each leg, wounding him severely. Lieutenant Parker, whilst superintending the supply of ammunition, had his horse killed under him, but mounting another coolly continued his duties. When Lieutenant Vanneman was carried off the field Adjutant Bigelow, of the battalion, took charge of his section and fought t gallantly until the close of the fight, and was shot through the left fore-arm during the engagement. I left one spare wheel on the field, having to throw it off to bring in a piece whose limber had gone to the rear for supplies. Two spare wheels were broken by shell. Six horses were killed and five wounded and rendered unserviceable. Owing to the darkness one of my dead was left in the field. The other was brought off and has since been buried. The division of the battery prevented that care of the wounded which it would have been my pleasure to have rendered. Some of our wounded were left on the field, and those severely wounded who were taken to the hospitals have not since been heard from, Lieutenant Vanneman and Corporal Taylor excepted, who were placed on steamers at this place.

ALONZO SNOW. Captain,
Battery B, Maryland Artillery.

Maj. E. R. PETHERBRIDGE.

Captain William B. Weeden commanded the artillery of the 1st Division of the 5th Corps.   Weeden’s command included Batteries C and E of the Massachusetts Light Artillery, Battery C of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery,  and Battery D of the 5th United States Light Artillery. Here’s an excerpt from his report on the Seven Days battles regarding Malvern Hill:

Tuesday, July 1, by command of Brig. Gen. F. J. Porter, commanding corps, at 8.30 a.m. we moved to front, and remained in reserve to support General Griffin’s command. At 12.30 p.m., by command of Brigadier-General Griffin, we took position on left of the White House, to command the bottom on our left. We fired several rounds into the woods below. One shell from a 30-pounder rifled gun in our rear struck into the battery, killing 2 men instantly, wounding 3 others, and killing 2 horses. At about 4 p.m. we moved to the right of the road, and in connection with one section of Allen’s Massachusetts battery we relieved Kingsbury’s battery and commenced firing with shrapnel, and swept the woods wherever the enemy were known to be. The enemy opened fire from batteries posted under cover of woods opposite Griffin’s position. We replied to them with shrapnel and percussion shell. When the enemy deployed his masses of infantry he ceased firing with artillery. This battery maintained a rapid fire until the ammunition was expended, excepting canister, which could not be safely used, owing to the oblique front of General Couch’s troops on the right. We were relieved by a battery of 10-pounder Parrotts, and retired about 7 p.m. Lieutenant Phillips’ section of the Massachusetts battery, which had done excellent service, withdrew at the same time.

At 12 p.m., by command of the division general, we moved from Malvern house, marched 10 miles, and encamped at Harrison’s Bar at 4 a.m. July 2.

The exact amount of ammunition fired cannot be ascertained, as some caissons were lost. The boxes contained 1,200 rounds. June 26, 200 rounds additional were obtained, and on the 28th all was expended except 100 rounds canister and shell.

The conduct of officers and the men with very few exceptions was satisfactory. There were many marked instances of heroism. Having been on duty with the division artillery, the immediate command of this battery since June 26, both on march and in action, has devolved on Lieut. Richard Waterman. He discharged his duties with skill, and at Malvern had two horses shot under him.

Finally, the report of Captain Walter M. Bramhall of the 6th Independent New York Battery:

CAMP NEAR JAMES RIVER, VA., July 5, 1862.

CAPTAIN: I beg to submit for your consideration the following report of the movements of this battery since its departure from Fair Oaks, on the 28th ultimo:

At 6.30 p.m. the 28th ultimo I reported, by order of Brigadier-General Heintzelman, commanding Third Army Corps, to his headquarters at Savage Station, coming into position in the immediate vicinity. At 6 o’clock the next morning I was ordered to follow the column then moving down toward the White Oak Swamp Bridge. I marched that day to a point about 2 ½ miles beyond the bridge, halting for the night near general headquarters. The following morning I moved forward to the position of General Hooker’s division, and receiving from that general an order to continue the march toward the James River, I followed the column, arriving at noon in the place upon the bluff near the river then occupied by the Artillery Reserve, reporting, as directed by General Hooker, to General Porter. At 3.30 p.m., by order of General Porter, I moved back upon the road up which we had come and came into battery upon —— Hill in a position to command the same road, co-operating with Lieutenant Ames’ battery in our front and on the right, a battery of 10-pounder Parrotts and Captain Osborn’s battery of four 3-inch guns on our left, with a support of two regiments of General Morell’s division distributed among these several batteries. I remained in this position until the next morning, July 1, at 6 o’clock, when, by order of General Porter, I took up a position to the right of the road up which the army had marched 200 yards in front of a wood, to command either of two approaches which intersected on the side of the woods on which we lay. I was instructed that our pickets were a short distance in advance in the wood and upon both roads, and that if attacked they would retire through the wood, and emerging at the junction of the two roads, fall back upon the main line.

At about 7 a.m. the pickets, having been attacked, fell back rapidly, and in a few minutes the fire of the enemy fell among us and passed over our heads. Our pickets having retired in order and in the manner indicated I immediately opened fire upon the woods in front and on the right, firing at first the Hotchkiss case shot with 2″ fuses. For a few minutes the enemy manfully withstood the fire, advancing and firing. At this time the firing from my battery was very rapid being at the rate of two shots a minute from each piece. That it was effective I am induced to believe from the fact that after about five minutes the enemy’s fire ceased almost entirely. Upon this we gradually increased the range and lengthened the fuses until we reached the 5″ fuse, using both case-shot and shell, but mainly the latter, and scattering our fire Generally through the woods. At this time, too, I used, for experiment’s sake as much as for any other reason, a half-dozen percussion shell (Schenkl’s percussion) which we had found and appropriated at Fair Oaks. The result was a perfect success, every one bursting, though some of them fell upon soft meadow-land. Our fire now grew very slow and deliberate, being maintained by order of and in the manner prescribed by Brigadier-General Griffin, in command at that point.

At about one hour after opening fire, being ordered to report to Brigadier-General Heintzelman, we ceased firing, and moved from our position to that indicated by yourself, near General Heintzelman’s headquarters. From that time until the present the battery has taken no part in any movement beyond retiring, on the morning of July 2, with the corps of Generals Sumner and Heintzelman to the plain immediately upon the river, from where, by your order, we moved yesterday to our present camp.

I have to report but one casualty among my men, that of Private John H. Vennett, slightly wounded in the leg by a fragment of a shell while the battery was moving from one position to another. One man is still missing, but I hope yet to recover him, he having been known to have gone in advance with the wagons.

It affords me much gratification to testify to the gallant and spirited conduct of my officers and such of my men as were well enough to accompany the battery. Exposed as they had been for five days to almost uninterrupted fatigue, hardship, and privation, with little or no rest and almost nothing to eat, they were always ready to meet their duties, which they performed with alacrity, cheerfulness, and I may say success. I beg to refer particularly to the case of Private William R. Colby, an intelligent lad of twenty years of age, who, having become separated from the battery when near White Oak Swamp Bridge, volunteered his services to Captain Porter, of the First Massachusetts Battery, and served gallantly during the battle of 30th of June, as testified to by Captain Porter in a note which I have received from him.

The main damage which I have sustained during this movement has been to my horses, of which I have lost 9 on the route; one only from a positive injury, the rest having dropped in harness during the last day’s march, utterly incapable of being moved. I was already short in the number of my horses before starting, and until I can have time to rest those which I have (95, of which only 80 are effective), and to recuperate their strength by care and sufficient food, I cannot undertake to move my battery any considerable distance.

An equal degree of prostration exists among my men; out of 138 present there being but 108 fit for any duty. My loss in equipments, implements, and accouterments has been but slight, and can doubtless soon be replaced. With rest from too onerous duty, regularity, and sufficiency of food I believe that in a short time I shall be able again to report the battery in as effective a condition as ever.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

W. M. BRAMHALL,
Captain, Commanding Sixth Independent N. Y. Battery.

Capt. G. A. DE RUSSY; U.S. A.,
Commanding Reserve Artillery, Third Army Corps.

Today, the rural Malvern Hill battlefield remains very much as it was at the time of the battle, and is preserved and administered as part of the Richmond National Battlefield.

Malvern Hill, Richmond National Battlefield

Sources:

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson

“The Battle of Malvern Hill” by Fitz John Porter. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume II, edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel.

History of Battery A First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery in the War to Preserve the Union 1861-1865 by Thomas M. Aldrich.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XI, Part 2.

To The Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign by Stephen W. Sears.

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