by Gordon Thorsby
The Line at Malvern Hill
The Army of the Potomac was in full retreat and headed for the James River. Union soldiers generally considered Gen. George McClellan a good general and that there was nobody better. However, what had been an advance on toward Richmond had become retreat and more retreat. Malvern Hill was going to be different as the batteries and brigades formed at the top.
When Robert E. Lee met with his generals on June 30, Maj. Gen D.H. Hill remarked, “If General McClellan is there in strength, we had better let him alone.” Hill had good information. Reverend L.W. Allen, in Hill’s Division said that Malvern Hill (aka Poindexter’s Farm) was well suited for defense. Lee believed otherwise and that McClellan would break like at Gaines Mill.
Malvern Hill is not a recognizable tall prominence but more a gently sloped and undulating130-foot elevation at the end of 1200 yards. It is an open field plateau. Union Maj. Gen. Fitz-John Porter reported, “…our artillery and infantry… 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."
Between the farmhouses of Crew (aka Mellert) and West to the left of the Willis Church Rd., Col. Henry Hunt and Porter lined the crest with artillery that were to “make a last stand.” According to two sources there was:
(Courtesy of the American Battlefield Trust)
-Battery A 5th U.S. Artillery, four 10lb. Parrrotts and two Napoleon 12-lb. guns under Capt. Adelbert Ames (the left).
-5th Massachusetts Battery, two 3” ordnance rifles under Lt. John Hyde. (Four were lost at Gaines Mill.)
- Battery C 1st Rhode Island, six 10lb Parrotts and
-3rd Massachusetts Battery, six 10lb Parrotts both under Capt. William Weeden.
- 1st New York Light Artillery Battery D, six 12lb. Napoleons under Capt. Thomas Osborn.
- 6th New York Light of six 3” Ordnance rifles under Capt. Walter Bramhall.
- 3rd U.S. artillery Batteries F and K, 6 12lb. Napoleons under Capt. La Rhett Livingston.
-5th U.S. Artillery Battery D, six 10lb. Parrotts under Lt. Henry Kingsbury (straddled the road at the center of the line.)
(Source: Official Records FN1, Burton, Note: Batteries moved in and out depending on the time of day)
Altogether, there were seven batteries, 38 guns and they had a full sweep of the field in their front. The 3rd and the 5th U.S. Batteries were slightly in advance of the other guns in the line. Other batteries extended to the right.
Between 1-1:30 p.m., a signal was heard, and Confederate batteries opened fire on the Union guns. The Union batteries responded with careful, steady firing. The Federal gunners were nearly flawless in their effect of fire on Southern guns arrayed in the two clearings. The Union guns smothered the Confederate batteries, ”It was pretty lively work,” explained an observing Union soldier. One by one, the Confederate artillery was no longer able to stand Union fire and withdrew bringing on the infantry to advance. Shells from the USS Galena and two other gunboats added their massive shells as they screamed overhead but were generally ineffective. A few shells actually landed in Union lines causing casualties.
The Confederate Infantry assault was a failure from the very start. The problem was the advances were a series of uncoordinated mostly brigade size assaults with every charge pounded from shell and canister until they broke and retreated. There was simply no place to hide.
D.H. Hill’s division of 8200 men was the most promising attack of the day. Dense woods broke up the line at the beginning affecting a cohesive advance. "We crossed one fence, went through another piece of woods, then over another fence into an open field on the other side of which was a long line of Yankees", said William Calder, 2nd North Carolina Infantry. "Our men charged gallantly at them. The enemy mowed us down by fifties." It was said that the artillery response to Hill's charge was particularly withering. Hill’s troops approached close enough to Kingsbury’s battery to enable use of double canister and it was used to great effect. Confederates “…went down in droves, flying backward, and to the sides bowling over one another as shot, shrapnel and shell laid them flat or picked them up and flung them. Bodies caromed against bodies and men were torn and mangled beyond physical recognition. The shells gouged out huge chunks of earth, levelled trees, and uprooted underbrush.”
Battery D so “shattered a regiment charging upon it, that the infantry bolted, leaving their colors which were afterwards awarded to the battery.” Every attempt made was repulsed with heavy loss and no assault got closer than 200 yards. Union regiments stayed behind the guns most of the time and did not advance too far during countercharges. The method allowed the gunners a clear field of fire.
It was around 4p.m. when Federal batteries began to exhaust their ammunition on counter-battery fire and constant enemy charges. Adelbert Ames reported Batt A 5th US fired 1392 rounds, 232 rounds for each 12 lb Napoleon cannon. Kingsbury’s Battery D fired 750 rounds and had only 13 rounds left. Three guns no longer worked because their vents had expanded so it limbered up and moved to the rear. It was replaced in position by three of Weeden’s guns and Hydes two 3” ordnance Rifles. Bramhall’s guns were moved to the right in front of Heintzelman. Livingston’s 3rd US pulled out and was replaced by Edward’s Artillery. With the batteries in the center pulling out, Southerners took it as a sign of retreat and restarted their assaults on the plateau. They misjudged. The guns commenced again and swept the fields and woods wherever the enemy appeared. Porter repeatedly committed fresh troops and batteries, eventually employing 107 guns and broke up charges until darkness halted the fighting.
Brigadier Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys wrote his wife. “It was a magnificent sight. If today was to be the Potomac army’s last stand, the place was well chosen."
The next day following the battle, McClellan continued his retreat and withdrew the army to Harrison’s Landing on the James. O.W. Damon in the 5th U.S. Battery D would remember it as “McClellan’s Seven Days Retreat” and changed his attitude toward McClellan to one of disgust.
A number of lessons were learned at Malvern Hill. The most obvious was how effective artillery could perform if managed properly. R.E. Lee changed artillery organization moving the guns into battalion-sized units and placed artillery at the head of Confederate columns.
There was a more unfortunate lesson for Lee. Lee’s Biographer Emory Thomas 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.” Over 5,000 Confederates were casualties, many from the effects of artillery. D. H. Hill, with no love lost for RE Lee after the war wrote, the "blood of North Carolina poured like water" and here he said the famous quote, that the battle "was not war; it was murder."
For the Union, Henry Hunt was established as the master of Union artillery and McClellan's command was superseded by Pope. Hunt implemented a new idea, that of draping black waterproof cloaks over ammunition wagons so they could be easily located.
The Battery commanders mentioned fought on. Some rose higher in rank (Adelbert Ames) while others fell in battle
(Henry Kingsbury (right) at Burnside Bridge at Antietam.)
For one day, the artillery ruled the battlefield.
Extraordinary Circumstances, by Burton, Brian K., Indiana University Press, 2001, ppg. 308-311, 329-331.
To the Gates of Richmond, by Sears, Stephen W., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1992.
"Union Artillery Played a Deadly and Decisive Role in the Battle of Malvern Hill” The Iron Brigadier published by Mark, February 26, 2018.
The Man Behind the Guns, Longacre, Edward G., DeCapo Press, 2003, pp109-110.
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion.