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.
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.
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.