American Civil War: Battle of Malvern Hill

Major General Fitz John Porter. Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Malvern Hill: Date & Conflict:

The Battle of Malvern Hill was part of the Seven Days Battles and was fought July 1, 1862, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Armies & Commanders



Battle of Malvern Hill - Background:

Beginning on June 25, 1862, Major General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac was the subject of repeated assaults by Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Falling back from the gates of Richmond, McClellan believed his army to be outnumbered and hastened to retreat to his secure supply base at Harrison's Landing where his army could shelter under the guns of the US Navy in the James River. Fighting an inconclusive action at Glendale (Frayser's Farm) on June 30, he was able to gain some breathing room for his continued withdrawal.

Retreating south, the Army of the Potomac occupied a high, open plateau known as Malvern Hill on July 1. Featuring steep slopes on its southern, eastern, and western sides, the position was further protected by swampy terrain and Western Run to the east. The site had been selected the previous day by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter who commanded the Union V Corps. Riding ahead to Harrison's Landing, McClellan left Porter in command at Malvern Hill. Aware that Confederate forces would have to attack from the north, Porter formed a line facing in that direction (Map).

Battle of Malvern Hill - The Union Position:

Placing Brigadier General George Morell's division from his corps on the far left, Porter placed the IV Corps division of Brigadier General Darius Couch to their right. The Union line was further extended to the right by the III Corps divisions of Brigadier General Philip Kearny and Joseph Hooker. These infantry formations were supported by the army's artillery under Colonel Henry Hunt. Possessing around 250 guns, he was able to emplace between 30 to 35 atop the hill at any given point. The Union line was further supported by US Navy gunboats in the river to the south and additional troops on the hill.

Battle of Malvern Hill - Lee's Plan:

To the north of the Union position, the hill sloped down across open space that extended from 800 yards to a mile until reaching the closest tree line. To assess the Union position, Lee met with several of his commanders. While Major General Daniel H. Hill felt that an attack was ill-advised, such an action was encouraged by Major General James Longstreet. Scouting the area, Lee and Longstreet identified two suitable artillery positions that they believed would bring the hill under crossfire and suppress the Union guns. With this done, an infantry assault could move forward.

Deploying opposite the Union position, Major General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's command formed the Confederate left, with Hill's division in the center astride the Willis Church and Carter's Mill Roads. Major General John Magruder's division was to form the Confederate right, however it was misled by its guides and was late in arriving. To support this flank, Lee also assigned Major General Benjamin Huger's division to the area as well. The attack was to be led by Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead's brigade from Huger's Division which was assigned to move forward once the guns had weakened the enemy.

Battle of Malvern Hill - A Bloody Debacle:

Having devised the plan for the assault, Lee, who was ill, refrained from directing operations and instead delegated the actual fighting to his subordinates. His plan quickly began to unravel when the Confederate artillery, which was strung out back to Glendale, arrived on the field in piecemeal fashion. This was further compounded by confusing orders that were issued by his headquarters. Those Confederate guns that deployed as planned were met with fierce counter-battery fire from Hunt's artillery. Firing from 1:00 to 2:30 PM, Hunt's men unleashed a massive bombardment that crushed the Confederate artillery.

The situation for the Confederates continued to worsen when Armistead's men advanced prematurely around 3:30 PM. This keyed the larger assault as planned with Magruder sending forward two brigades as well. Pushing up the hill, they were met by a maelstrom of case and canister shot from the Union guns as well as heavy fire from the enemy infantry. To aid this advance, Hill began sending troops forward, though refrained from a general advance. As a result, his several small attacks were easily turned back by the Union forces. As the afternoon pressed on, the Confederates continued their assaults with no success.

Atop the hill, Porter and Hunt had the luxury of being able to rotate units and batteries as ammunition was expended. Later in the day, the Confederates began attacks towards the western side of the hill where the terrain worked to cover part of their approach. Though they advanced farther than the previous efforts, they too were turned back by the Union guns. The greatest threat came when men from Major General Lafayette McLaw's division nearly reached the Union line. Rushing reinforcements to the scene, Porter was able to turn back the attack.

Battle of Malvern Hill - Aftermath:

As the sun began to set, the fighting died out. During the course of the battle, the Confederates sustained 5,355 casualties while Union forces incurred 3,214. On July 2, McClellan ordered the army to continue its retreat and shifted his men to the Berkeley and Westover Plantations near Harrison's Landing. In assessing the fighting at Malvern Hill, Hill famously commented that: "It was not war. It was murder."

Though he followed the withdrawing Union troops, Lee was unable to inflict any additional damage. Ensconced in a strong position and backed by the US Navy's guns, McClellan began a steady stream of requests for reinforcements. Ultimately deciding that the timid Union commander posed little additional threat to Richmond, Lee began dispatching men north to begin what would become the Second Manassas Campaign.

Selected Sources

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Malvern Hill." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Malvern Hill. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Malvern Hill." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).