Lee’s First Blunder: The Battle of Malvern Hill

Malvern Hill battlefield, from the vantage point of the Northern army.

By Colin Woodward

I recently visited the Malvern Hill battleground. As Civil War sites go, it is a modest place. No indoor visitor’s center. No gift shop. The battle, nevertheless, was one of the major engagements of the Seven Days campaign, fought in the early summer of 1862. The series of battles represented the first encounter between Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan. All but one of the battles–the exception being the bloody fight at Gaines’s Mill–resulted in a Union victory. The Seven Days campaign, nevertheless, was a victory for Robert E. Lee, because he succeeded in driving General McClellan away from the Rebel capital and to the safety of his gunboats at Harrison’s Landing.

Malvern Hill proved the last of the Seven Days battles. And the battle is arguably Lee’s worst fought engagement of the war. The battle is instructive for students of Lee, for it shows that during the Seven Days, Robert E. Lee was at his best and his worst. He was at his best in how he used a psychological advantage against McClellan. Lee trusted that McClellan would prove timid in the face of repeated attacks. He was correct. Lee was at his worst, though, too. The bloodletting at Malvern Hill showed that Lee could sometimes try to do too much, which resulted in a great loss of life for no gain.

As one can tell when visiting the battlefield, Malvern Hill isn’t much of a hill. Rather, it is a long, rising slope. On 1862 July 1, Lee’s forces attacked a Yankee line that held the high ground and was bristling with artillery. Lee hadn’t performed much recon before the battle, and his men had little artillery support. Lee worried that his preparations were taking too long, it was getting late in the day, and that the Union army might leave the field before he could make a concerted attack.

In the afternoon, Lee ordered Gen. D. H. Hill’s troops to make a frontal assault. A massive, united attack might have succeeded, but the Rebels instead went into the maelstrom piecemeal. Yankee artillery decimated the Confederates. Lee lost more than 5,000 men. The Yankees, who lost far fewer troops, were left in command of the field.

House at the battlefield.

D. H. Hill said, “It was not war. It was murder.”As Lee biographer Emory Thomas has concluded, “Malvern Hill was a mismanaged farce. Never again would Lee make so many errors of judgment, sins of omission and commission, in a single day.” In his defense, Lee had not been commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for very long. The army was by far the largest force he had ever conducted in battle. Indeed, General Lee would never had more men than he did during the Seven Days.

Lee was new to command, and he couldn’t necessarily rely on subordinates to perform brilliantly. Stonewall Jackson, for example, did nothing of note during the Seven Days. Lee was learning how to be a field general, and he was not immune to making horrible mistakes. Lee was a great general, but he was sometimes impatient and sloppy about details. At Malvern Hill, Lee’s men paid a great price for their commander’s haste.

Daniel Harvey Hill

Lee and President Davis, nevertheless, congratulated their troops on the victory against McClellan. In a week of horrific fighting, Lee had shifted the momentum from the Union to the Confederate side. Lee would soon head north to Manassas to do battle with John Pope at the battle of Second Bull Run in late August. In September, he invaded the Union, an invasion that culminated in the bloody battle of Antietam.

Despite the fact that Lee had won a strategic victory during the Seven Days fighting, he had expected greater results. He believed that he should have destroyed the Union army. Lee was learning, however, how difficult it was for Civil War armies to destroy one another. Lee had suffered disappointment earlier in the war in his campaign in western Virginia. But Malvern Hill was his first bloody blunder, one he would repeat a year later at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge.

The day I visited Malvern Hill, I also took a tour of Shirley plantation. Malvern Hill is just a few minutes drive from Shirley. It’s on a quiet road, just off of Route 5, which doesn’t have nearly as much traffic as battle sites further north in Virginia. The route is full of history and now features an impressive bicycle trail that runs from Richmond to Williamsburg. Things are peaceful along that road, a far cry from what it was like on 1862 July 1.




The Washington-Lee Connection

By Caitlin Connelly

When I began searching for colleges, I received a lot of emails from many different schools, each attempting to reach as many prospective students as possible. One of these schools was Washington and Lee University, a pairing I found puzzling at the time. The university’s website explains that it was originally named in honor of George Washington and later added the name “Lee” to celebrate Robert E. Lee, who served as its President after the Civil War. Perhaps coincidentally, the Washington Birthplace National Monument is only a short drive away from Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee.

Washington and Lee University; Image from their website

A recent visit to the Washington Birthplace inspired me to look into the history of the two families and some of the surprising ways they’re connected.

Washington’s Birthplace is set on the banks of Popes Creek, named for an early settler of the area, Nathaniel Pope, who was living in the area by 1657. That year, a young English merchant and ship’s officer named John Washington arrived on the Potomac. His ship was damaged, delaying its return to England. By the time it was repaired Washington had decided to stay in Virginia, living initially with Nathaniel Pope’s family. He fell in love with Pope’s daughter Anne; the couple married in 1658 and had three children.

The Memorial House at the Washington Birthplace Memorial
Nathaniel Pope’s son Thomas died sometime before 1684, leaving behind a widow, Joanna, and several children. In 1716 Joanna and her son Richard sold part of the property, known as the “Clifts,” to Thomas Lee, who used the land to build his Stratford Hall plantation. Two years later John Washington’s grandson, Augustine, bought part of the Popes Creek Plantation and had a house built there called Wakefield. George Washington was born here in 1732.

The Washingtons and Lees certainly knew each other during this time, though they moved in different circles. The Lees were among the old, powerful Virginia families, like the Carters, Randolphs, and Custises. The Washingtons were more recent arrivals, and were not part of that upper echelon. The original structure at the Washington Birthplace was wooden and sat perpendicular to the river. Upper class homes, like Stratford Hall, tended to face the river, the main conduit of travel and commerce at the time, and were made of better materials.

Martha Dandridge Custis

Things began to change by the end of the 18th century. George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, one of the wealthiest women in Virginia. During the Revolution, Washington was the commander of the Continental Army (he was referred to as the “Father of His Country” as early as 1778) and befriended Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, a young cavalry officer. At Lee’s wedding, Washington is said to have contributed several bottles of his own wine. In 1799, Lee gave the eulogy at Washington’s funeral, famously describing Washington as “First in war – first in peace – first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

The beginning of the 19th century saw Lee’s increasing financial struggles. While Light-Horse Harry spent time in jail because of debts, members of the Washington family funneled money to the Lee women to keep up appearances. The Washingtons ultimately sold the Popes Creek property in 1813, and 9 years later Henry Lee IV was forced to sell Stratford to pay off his debts associated with his scandal (which you may remember from last Tuesday’s post).

George Washington Parke Custis

This, however, was not the end of the association between the Lees and the Washingtons. In 1831 Mary Anna Randolph Custis married Robert E. Lee, a young, handsome Army officer, the son of George Washington’s friend Light-Horse Harry and the half-brother of the disgraced Henry Lee IV. Mary was the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson and adopted son of George Washington and the biological grandson of his wife Martha.


Lee Letter of the Week: This 1779 letter from George Washington to Light-Horse Harry Lee, in which Washington attempts to clarify his orders prior to the battle at Paulus (“Powless”) Hook. Lee would go on to lead a night-time raid on the British troops, taking 158 prisoners and destroying British control over much of New Jersey. This event won Lee a gold medal from the Second Continental Congress, making him the only non-general to receive this honor.

Robert E. Lee’s Commissary: Robert Granderson Cole

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Bonaventure Cemetery, resting place of Robert G. Cole, chief commissary for the Army of Northern Virginia. Image courtesy of findagrave.com.

Robert Granderson Cole was born in Manchester, Virginia (now part of the city of Richmond), on 1830 September 29. He later moved to Florida and attended the United States Military Academy. He joined a Confederate infantry regiment in March 1861 and served on the staff of Robert S. Garnett. The Confederacy promoted Cole to major and then lieutenant colonel later in the year.

The colonel, however, would not make a name for himself in battle.When Robert E. Lee took over command of the Army of Northern Virginia in the late spring of 1862, Cole became chief commissary of Lee’s new fighting force. Cole faced the daunting task of keeping 65,000 men and horses fed despite the Confederacy’s creaky infrastructure, a naval blockade, and Yankee armies pressing down on all sides. Cole, nevertheless, served as chief commissary until Lee’s army’s surrender at Appomattox.

The Confederacy, and Robert E. Lee’s army in particular, faced chronic shortages, from food to clothes to horses. For Lee and Cole, however, it was not just a matter of getting enough food to their men and animals. The problem was political: they had problems with the Confederacy’s commissary general, Lucius B. Northrop, a friend of Jefferson Davis. Northrop could prove uncooperative, obtuse, and smug.

Cole’s letters and papers are hard to find, but one can easily pick up on the tension between Cole, Lee, and Northrop. In November 1864, Cole wrote to Northrop complaining of the light bread ration in the Army of Northern Virginia. Cole asserted that the lack of food in the army was contributing to desertion in the ranks. He spoke with Lee about increasing the amount of meal given to the men.

Lucius B. Northrop.

Northrop proved of no help. He congratulated himself for having lowered the bread ration a few months previously. Had he not done so, he asserted, Lee’s army would have been starving. Northrop blamed the Yankees for the desertion problem as well as the need for Confederate troops to defend their homes against Northern attacks.

Complaints from Lee’s army only got worse. In early February 1865, Cole noted that there was no meat to be had for the men still under siege at Petersburg. Two months later, the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered. Cole’s problems, however, were not over. He still had to figure out how to feed paroled Rebels.

The Army of Northern Virginia faced severe supply challenges. But if General Lee had problems with Robert G. Cole, he never had him removed. After the Gettysburg campaign of 1863, for example, Lee congratulated Cole for his ability to provide the army with flour during the Union invasion. And he stuck with Cole for the rest of the war.

After leaving the Army of Northern Virginia, Cole became a planter in Florida and a businessman in Savannah. He apparently never married. According to the federal census, in 1880 he was living in a hotel in Savannah that was owned by a New Yorker. Cole he died on 1887 November 7. He is buried in Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.

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Cole’s tombstone in Savannah. Image courtesy of findagrave.com.

Cole was one of the most important men in helping  Robert E. Lee’s army sustain itself. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that an army marches on its stomach. That proved true in the Army of Northern Virginia. If General Lee’s loyalty to Robert Cole is any indication, the supply problems inherent in the Army of Northern Virginia were not of Cole’s making.

Unfortunately, little is known about Cole or his work in the army. The LFDA, for example, was not able to find an image of the colonel for this blog post. But his work with the Army of Northern Virginia was important. The Lost Cause often reminded Americans that Confederate troops were hopelessly ill-supplied and starving, but waged war with determination and gallantry nonetheless. But was that an accurate summation of reality? Cole’s wartime service suggests that more historians need to undertake serious research concerning the role supply problems played in Confederate defeat.



The Questionable Romance of Robert Mayo

Ann McCarty Lee

By Caitlin Connelly

Scandal arrived at Stratford Hall in 1820. The owner of the plantation was Henry Lee IV, eldest son of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and half-brother of Robert E. Lee. In 1817 Henry married his wealthy neighbor Anne Robinson McCarty, and the next year she gave birth to a daughter, Margaret. Sadly, Margaret died at two years old after falling down the grand exterior staircase that led from the driveway to the entrance of the house, a disturbing echo of what had happened to four-year-old Philip Ludwell Lee around 1780. Anne withdrew into a period of mourning, during which time she became addicted to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol).

As Anne isolated herself in grief, Henry began a short but scandalous affair with Anne’s younger sister, Betsy, who was living with the couple at Stratford and was Henry’s ward. The affair, and charges that Henry had mishandled Betsy’s estate, would eventually cause the Lee family to lose Stratford Hall. You can read more about Henry, Anne, and Betsy on Stratford’s Henry Lee IV and Storke Family pages.

The Great House at Stratford Hall, 1920s, with a view of the exterior staircase.

I’m currently working on digitalizing a box of letters dated from the fall and winter of 1821/22. Most of the letters are correspondence between Henry Lee and his friend Robert Mayo, a doctor who in 1821 set his mind on courting Betsy McCarty despite her reputation and the fact that she had recently gone to live with her grandmother at Mont Rose, cutting herself off from society. At the time, Henry was accused of actively and enthusiastically supporting the relationship, perhaps as a way of easing his own guilt, but the letters reveal a milder attitude. They also show that Robert needed little in the way of encouragement and was certainly enthusiastic enough on his own.

In a letter from November 9, 1821, Robert writes for the first time to Betsy to introduce himself and propose his intentions. It reveals a fixation on her that becomes (at least for me) creepier as the letter goes on, and it’s not surprising that, in a different letter, her grandmother advises her to reject him. So here, straight from 1821, is a short list of what not to do when you want to convince someone to marry you:

  1. Describe your motives as “noble and generous.” Because there’s nothing more romantic than being dated for charity.
  2. Essentially propose marriage to a “total stranger.” Yes, arranged marriages did happen between people who didn’t know each other very well or at all. In fact, Betsy would ultimately end up in a marriage arranged by her stepfather. And yes, this is a letter of introduction, so of course they don’t know each other. But there’s a line between introducing yourself and pledging your undying love to a stranger, and you’ve crossed it.
  3. Talk about your old girlfriend and her “coquetry.” No one wants to hear about that.
  4. Mention your acquaintance with her sister. You know, the one married to the man she had an affair with during the past year. Their relationship was still a bit tense, so this is not your strongest point.
  5. Admit that you think about her all the time, how perfect she is, and that you’re already in love with her. You’ve never met her!
  6. Bonus: Quote Shakespeare to her. Unless she’s a Shakespeare fan, this is pretentious. Even if she is a Shakespeare fan, this is pretentious.


by James Herring after John Vanderlyn
ca. 1817-1825 — A portrait of James Monroe (1758-1831), the fifth president of the United States, made during his presidency. He served as President from 1817-1825. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Lee Letter of the Week: This 1825 letter from Richard Henry Lee to James Monroe, concerning the presidency of a local chapter of the American Colonization Society. I vaguely remember learning about the idea of sending freed slaves back to Africa (which, of course, is how Liberia came to be) but it’s actually a pretty interesting subject, and it’s neat to have a letter that was sent to a president.

Who Was Pickens Brooks Bird?

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Pickens Brooks Bird

By Colin Woodward

As we wrote in a previous post about Col. James L. Davis, the archives at the duPont library at Stratford Hall contain many items of interest that are not always related to the Lee family. One such item is an 1861 letter from Pickens Brooks Bird to his aunt. Bird, who was originally from Edgefield, South Carolina, was serving as a lieutenant in a Florida regiment when he wrote the letter.

Most Confederates were in their 20s when the war began. Lt. Bird was no exception. But unlike most Rebel troops, Bird was an established businessman and head of household. As was true of most Confederate officers, Bird was a slaveowner. After moving from South Carolina to Florida, his parents purchased “Nacoosa” plantation. Bird followed his father’s path. When the war broke out, Pickens Bird was living at “Trelawn,” in north central Florida, not far from the Georgia border. The place had majestic oaks that dripped with Spanish moss. Bird, who according to the 1860 census owned 32 slaves, raised cotton. He was also married and had six children.


“Nacoosa,” plantation, where P. B. Bird lived before the war with his parents. He later bought his own plantation nearby. Image courtesy of https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/33886

The 1861 letter, which Bird wrote while he was in Alexandria, Virginia, provides a detailed look at camp life earlier in the war. People in the nineteenth century wrote often about the state of their health–Bird did,too, as well as the health of his men. Disease would kill twice as man men as did battle wounds during the Civil War, so Bird was aware of the dangers around him. Bird wrote that “we are very sickly, and in fact the whole Brigade.” He noted that “the principle complaint is the Measles the men get cured of that, and then they are careless and they take cold and it gets very hard with them we have the thyfoid fever also.” Bird himself said he was healthy. But he would not survive the war.

With death coming to people so often during the Civil War, religion would take on a new importance. Revivals would sweep Rebel camps later in the war, but from the first, men took religion seriously. Bird wrote about the “excellent Chaplain,” who had been comforting during the recent battle of Bull Run. While the cannons were booming, the chaplain “took every company by themselves and made a few remarks, and made a fine prayer and I don’t think we had a man in our company that did not feel it as soon as he finished.” Bird made it through the fighting at Manassas, but many more fights were to come.

Perhaps what is most unique about Bird’s letter is his mention of seeing Edmund Ruffin, the elderly Virginia Fire-eater who had ordered the first shot fired at Fort Sumter. “The old man fought hard with us,” Bird said of Ruffin, and “one could not help fighting when he would turn his eyes and see those gray locks with his specticles on fighting as he did it is a wonder that it did not killed him for he was with us when we retreated from Fairfax.” Ruffin was then in his late 60s. Despite appearing at the front early in the war, he would eventually return to his home in Virginia when the stress of soldiering became too much. After Lee’s surrender, Ruffin could bear the Yankees no longer and took his own life.

Edmund Ruffin

Bird’s wartime experiences varied from battles in Virginia to combat in Florida. He rose to the rank of major, and in February 1864, he fought at the battle of Olustee in Florida, the largest battle fought in his adopted home state. The battle was a victory for Bird and the Confederates. So, too, was the battle of Cold Harbor, fought a few months later, where Bird helped throw back Ulysses S. Grant’s massive assault against the Confederate lines. On June 3, the day of heaviest fighting at Cold Harbor, Bird was seriously wounded.

He died three days later in a hospital in Richmond. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, the largest resting places for Confederate soldiers.




Samuel Phillips Lee

By Caitlin Connelly

Perhaps the most famous member of the Lee family of Virginia is Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He struggled with his loyalties when Virginia seceded in 1861, but ultimately chose his duties to his family and his home as he believed them to be. Another Lee is sometimes looked at as a contrasting figure, and used as an example – one of many – of how families were split during the Civil War.

Samuel Phillips Lee in 1845.

Rear-Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee was a cousin to Robert E, though they were distantly related and only shared a great-great-grandfather. Lee was born in Fairfax County, Virginia, and spent most of his life in the Navy, beginning in 1825 when, as a 13-year-old, he entered the Naval Academy. In 1837 he was promoted to Lieutenant, and the next year he was present at the capture of Tobasco by Commodore Matthew C. Perry during the Mexican-American War.

Lee was at the Cape of Good Hope when he learned that South Carolina and other states had seceded. Despite the risk involved with acting against orders, he decided to sail home. Upon his return he was immediately assigned to the blockade around Charleston. In 1862 he commanded the USS Oneida in the expedition against New Orleans, during which the Oneida saved a sister ship, the USS Varuna, and captured the Confederate vessel Governor Moore. In 1862 he was promoted to Captain and soon afterwards to acting Rear-Admiral. That same year he took command of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and for two years he built and maintained an efficient blockade. In 1864 he was placed in command of the Mississippi Squadron, which provided valuable support to campaigns on the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers and was instrumental in isolating Confederate forces west of the Mississippi.

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Samuel Phillips Lee. Source: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph Collection.

After the war he served as Chief of the Signal Corps, and in 1866 was promoted to Commodore. In 1870 he was promoted to Rear-Admiral. After commanding the North Atlantic Squadron for 2 years, he retired in 1872. Lee died at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1897.

During the Civil War, other soldiers were perhaps understandably skeptical of Lee’s loyalties. There were several Lees fighting for the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee being the most well-known. Samuel Phillips Lee’s response was sharp and memorable: “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.” He was, in other words, loyal to the Union above all else.

On a personal note, Lee was connected to Washington society through his wife, Elizabeth Blair, daughter of Francis Preston Blair and Eliza Violet Gist. The Blairs were a prominent political family in Washington D.C., and Elizabeth was well acquainted

Elizabeth Blair Lee.jpg
Elizabeth Blair Lee.

with many influential men and families. Blair’s father built the couple a house in Washington a block away from the White House and next-door to his own, which I’m sure they were overjoyed about. Today, the two houses are part of four that make up the President’s Guest House, which houses visiting heads of state (such as Queen Elizabeth II), President-Elects, and other guests of the President.  The Blair House, the first of the four, was originally purchased in 1943 on a request from Eleanor Roosevelt, who was disturbed by some of Winston Churchill’s overly-familiar behavior (such as attempting to rouse President Roosevelt at 3am for a conversation) and wanted to house him somewhere other than the White House during his visits.

Samuel Phillips and Elizabeth were married for 54 years, and during that time she wrote him over 900 letters which still exist.


Lee Letter of the Week: This one, a letter from Cassius F. Lee to his son, Edmund Jennings Lee, about starting his own family and the importance of family prayer. It’s a kind of sweet little letter from father to son, and I can’t help but like it.


Lee, Grant, and the Cold Harbor Truce, 1864 June

By Colin Woodward

Lee Battle Dress 600

By Colin Woodward

This week marks the anniversary of the end of the battle of Cold Harbor, fought during the Overland Campaign of spring 1864. The battle represented one of the last great tactical victories for Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. It also revealed a grimmer side to Robert E. Lee’s personality.

On June 3 at 4:30 a.m. (5:30 in our current era of Daylight Savings Time), Ulysses S. Grant, thinking Lee’s army was whipped after nearly a month of bloody combat, threw 60,000 men at Lee’s well-entrenched lines. Grant’s assault failed miserably, costing him upwards of 7,000 men that day for no gain. Lee’s losses were small, and he wrote to James Seddon, the Secretary of War, boasting that “our success, under the blessing of God” was “all that we could expect.”

The battle, however, was not over. For days, wounded Union men suffered between the lines as Grant attempted to organize a truce so litter bearers could collect the blue coats unable to make it back to safety. For several days, Lee and Grant exchanged notes. On June 5, Grant told Lee, “Humanity would dictate that some provision should be made to provide against such hardships.” Lee showed that he was in no hurry to show mercy toward the Federal army.

Lee rejected Grant’s proposition that whenever battle was not raging, either side were at liberty to collected dead and wounded. Such action, Lee said, “will lead to misunderstanding and difficulty.” Lee instead asked that Federals retrieve their casualties under a white flag. “It will always afford me pleasure to comply with such a request as far as circumstances will permit,” Lee added, relishing his victory. General Lee was taking his time. He would make Grant pay for the bloody failure of June 3.

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Cold Harbor battlefield in 2007.

One June 6, Grant asked for a cessation of hostilities for three hours in the afternoon. Lee responded later that day, but said he still would not agree to a truce. Grant wrote him again, asking the fighting stop for two hours. At 7 p.m., Lee set the truce for 8-10 p.m., which meant Union forces would have had to perform their work in the dark. And they would have to do it quickly to make sure they could do it that night.

It proved too late. Lee’s note arrived at the Union general’s headquarters at 10:45 p.m., by which time the truce had expired. The next morning, Grant notified Lee of this fact. He also told Lee he had captured some men from North Carolina regiments, who had been wandering the battlefield looking for their own men. Now, Grant had something to use in bargaining with Lee.

Lee answered Grant at 2 p.m., realizing he had likely delayed matters as long as he could. He granted a truce between 6 and 8 p.m., so that Grant could collect whomever was still left alive between the lines.

Almost none were. According to Lee biographer Emory Thomas, only 2 Union troops were found alive. On June 9, Union general William F. Smith reported that his men had found 69 dead Federals. He did not report having found any wounded, and no Confederates. “Some of the dead,” he noted, “had been buried on [the] previous night by our men at risk of their lives.”

Union general William F. Smith

The battle at Cold Harbor ended on June 12. Grant’s losses are estimated at 12,738 men. Lee lost 5,287. Lee would never again inflict such disproportionate losses on Grant’s army. His conduct during the truce shows how Lee, as was true of other Civil War commanders such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan, was a student of modern, hard war tactics. He made his enemy pay a heavy price for waging war against him and in a way that would’ve been deemed inhumane earlier in the war. Lee’s job was to inflict as much damage as possible on the enemy. And at Cold Harbor, Robert E. Lee showed how ruthless he could be.