The Poem “The Craven” Ridiculed George McClellan’s Absence From the Field at the Battle of Malvern Hill

The July 1st, 1862 Battle of Malvern Hill was the final conflict in the Seven Days Battles at the end of the Peninsula Campaign. The Union Army had been driven back from near Richmond almost to the James River by Robert E. Lee’s army. At Malvern Hill, the Federals set up a strong defensive line, and through the use of artillery and naval gunfire from ships on the James, stopped the Confederates cold. This allowed the U.S. troops to Harrison’s Landing on the James River, where they set up camp under the protection of Union gunboats.

Battle of Malvern Hill by Robert Sneden

Major General George McClellan had not been present on the field for the Battle of Malvern Hill; instead Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, commander of the 5th Corps, had directed operations. McClellan was on the gunboat U.S.S. Galena during the fighting (he had gone to look at Harrison’s Landing to see if it was suitable for his army’s encampment). He was severely criticized for this absence, both by the public and in Congress; while Malvern Hill was a victory, the Peninsula Campaign was a failure, contributing to the general distain. When McClellan ran for president in 1864, his presence on the Galena instead of on the battlefield was ridiculed in editorial cartoons and elsewhere in the press. One cartoon by Currier & Ives shows McClellan in his saddle on the bowsprit of the Galena, with a dialog box stating “Fight on my brave Soldiers and push the enemy to the wall, from this spanker boom your beloved General looks down up you”.

But the ridicule wasn’t just during the presidential campaign two years later. In 1862, one Alfred Andhison took the Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven” and set it to words that criticized McClellan’s presence in relative safety on the Galena while his troops were seeing extensive fighting. The poem was called “The Craven” and the Library of Congress is  contradictory on its publication. The LOC says the poem was unpublished but also says it was in the New York Evening Post in 1862. However it was distributed, whether in a newspaper or in some other printed form like a broadside or pamphlet, it was certainly printed and is a humorous lampooning of a general who had one of the bigger egos in the U.S. Army in the Civil War.


On that mighty day of battle, ‘mid the booming and the rattle,
Shouts of victory and of anguish, wherewith Malvern’s hill did roar,
Did a general now quite famous, who in these lines shall be nameless,
Show himself as rather gameless, gameless on the James’ shore;
Safely smoking on a gunboat, while the tempest raged on shore?

The Congressional Committee sat within the nation’s city,
And each Congressman so witty did the general implore:
“Tell us if thou at that battle, ‘mid the booming and the rattle,
Wert on gunboat or in saddle while the tempest raged ashore?”
Answer’d he: “I don’t remember; might have been.”
What more? Only this, and nothing more.

By the truth, which is eternal, by the lies that are diurnal,
By our Abraham paternal, General, we do thee implore.
Tell the truth and shame the devil, parent of Old Jeff and evil;
Give us no more such drivel. Tell us, wert thou on the shore?
“Don’t remember—might have been,” thus spoke he o’er and o’er—
Only this and nothing more.

“On that day, sir, had you seen a gunboat of the name Galena,
In an anchorage to screen a man from danger on the shore?”
Was a man about your inches, smoking with those two French princes,
With a caution which evinces care for such a garde de corps?
Were you that man on the gunboat?” “Don’t remember, might have been.” The bore.
Only this, and nothing more.


The two French princes referred to in the poem were Prince Philippe d’Orleans, Comte de Paris, and his brother Robert, Duc de Chartres. Both were grandsons of King Louis Philippe I. They received commissions in the U.S. Army and were members of McClellan’s staff.

USS Galena

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