What was Robert E. Lee thinking?
Among the battlefields preserved by Richmond National Battlefield Park, Malvern Hill is my favorite site. Standing amidst the cannons aligned east of the Crew House, I can see the open fields across which Lee hurled his infantry on July 1, 1862. These cannons, sited to approximate the Federal artillery line established prior to the battle, point north to a distant treeline, perhaps 800 to 1,000 yards away.
Out of those trees advanced Confederate troops in late afternoon and early evening on that Tuesday. Ordered by Lee to attack and capture the Federal artillery, the Southern infantrymen charged to their destruction.
Even a military neophyte could guess that sending thousands of men across open, flat terrain against canister-belching artillery would only result in a slaughter. Lee lost 5,500 precious soldiers that day; he could not replace them, and their loss would be felt later that year at Manassas and Antietam.
So what was he thinking?
Among the Union troops participating in the Battle of Malvern Hill were the “worn out men” of the 3rd Maine Infantry Regiment. Many of them witnessed the slaughter caused by Lee’s rash order.
Leading his Army of the Potomac during its headlong retreat from the Richmond outskirts in late June,George B. McClellan sought shelter at Harrison’s Landing on the James River. Lee attempted to eviscerate McClellan’s army at Beaver Dam Station, Gaines’ Mill, Savage’s Station, White Oak Swamp, and Glendale.
The 3rd Maine Infantry fought at White Oak Swamp on June 29 and “on the morning of the 30th” participated in a battle at the Charles City Crossroads, “where we held a skirmish line of about a half mile in length,” Moses B. Lakeman wrote in his “Historical Sketch of the Third Maine Regiment.” An Augusta butcher, Lakeman had raised Co. I and become its captain before the 3rd Maine Infantry mustered into Federal service on June 4, 1861.
“At this battle the regiment lost all baggage, it having been left on the field … previous to the opening of the Battle,” he wrote.
Their ranks thinned, the 3rd Maine boys slept not a wink on June 30. “At 2 o’clock A.M. on July 1st we marched from this place to Malvern Hill,” Lakeman reported. The 3rd Maine and 4th Maine deployed to protect Battery E, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery. Then commanded by Capt. George E. Randolph, this battery had suffered dearly during the Battle of Glendale, fought a day earlier.
Staff officers guided the Maine and Rhode Island boys east into position on the army’s right flank, near “Western Run, a small stream running through low marshy land,” wrote George Lewis in “The History of Battery E, First Regiment Rhode Island Light Artillery.” He recalled that “the Fourth Maine and half of the Third [Maine] … held the wooded ravine a little to the left (west) of our position.”
The Army of the Potomac held a strong defensive position that Tuesday. The left flank lay anchored on Malvern Hill’s steep western slope, which abutted the marshy Crewes Run; that terrain, plus heavy shelling from Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby James River, prevented Confederate troops from outflanking the Union positions on the west.
Topography similar to 1862’s dominates Malvern Hill today. Farm fields spread north about 800 yards from the deployed Union cannons to where Confederate artillery batteries emerged from the distant woods. Confederate infantry crossing the open, relatively flat terrain would find no shelter from accurate Federal artillery fire; those survivors who would advance from the Seminary Ridge woods 367 days later to attack Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg likely experienced déjà vu.
The Union right flank lay anchored on Western Run, where the Rhode Island gunners enjoyed open views, always important to artillerists who needed visible reference points to determine range and elevation. “Opposite and beyond the river (Western Run) lay Poindexter farm, upon which there was a range of hills, from the surface of which was developing a promising harvest of wheat,” Lewis noted.
The 3rd Maine boys lay exhausted as the sun climbed into the sky. Many likely napped as they waited for action that Tuesday morning.
They got it “about eleven a.m.,” when “a [Confederate] battery appeared upon one of these [Poindexter Farm] hills, advancing one of its sections to the summit of the hill, and opened fire upon our battery,” Lewis wrote. “We immediately responded to the challenge with such effect as to cause them to limber up and retire in great haste … with one gun dismounted.”
The 3rd Maine boys definitely heard, if they could not see, the shelling. Then “three [more enemy] batteries: W.T. Poague’s, Carpenter’s and Balthis’ … appeared and renewed the attack with great energy for an hour or more,” Lewis wrote. The shells fired at Battery E “mostly failed to reach us or passed over our heads into the ranks of Robinson’s brigade, causing quite a severe loss.”
Lakeman remembered that the 3rd Maine was “for 8 hours exposed to a severe fire from the enemy’s batteries, during which time the Regiment displayed a spirit of resolute bravery.” Confederate shells roared overhead and missed the 3rd Maine; “our loss was here very light,” Lakeman noted.
At least one exploding shell inflicted casualties on the 4th Maine Infantry.
The three enemy batteries fell silent for “an hour or two,” so the Rhode Island gunners (and possibly the supporting Maine infantrymen) “disposed of our rations,” Lewis wrote. “Reinforced by two more batteries,” the Confederate artillerists resumed firing.
“The contest became quite lively, and continued until after five p.m. with the exception of a few short intervals,” he reported. Battery E lost one man killed, an English sergeant named Joseph Harrop who “was struck by an exploding shell just as he was ramming down the charge” into a cannon.
Along the opposing lines, cannons boomed for hours as Union gunners repeatedly shattered Confederate batteries, and Union infantrymen suffered casualties from Southern shells.
Lee believed that if he deployed sufficient cannons, his gunners could shatter the Union artillery aligned almost hub to hub across Malvern Hill. Then his massed infantry could charge across the open fields to break the Yankee lines.
Every time a Confederate artillery battery deployed, Union guns quickly destroyed it. Then, in late afternoon, Virginia troops commanded by Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead — he of Pickett’s Charge fame — inadvertently launched the Confederate infantry attack by advancing too soon beneath a sunny, cloud-sprinkled sky. Seeing the movement, other Southern commanders ordered their men to attack, too.
“We have seen some grand sights, some glorious and sublime spectacles in our day — but never have we beheld anything to compare in subliminty and grandeur with the scene upon which our eyes rested as column after column marched into view,” a Federal survivor wrote afterwards.
Union gunners could not miss; “regiments and brigades, without regard to their loss, were advanced against our batteries, whose terrible and accurate fire mowed swaths of death in their ranks,” Lewis wrote.
“As each brigade emerged from the woods, the [Union] artillery … ripped ugly gaping holes in the ranks,” wrote Daniel Moran for www.militaryhistoryonline.com. “Soldiers received hideous wounds, others being blown apart on impact, staining the hill crimson.”
“Within fifteen or twenty minutes, the centre regiment, with which I moved, had left more than half of its number dead and wounded along its track,” remembered Confederate Col. John B. Gordon, referring to his brigade’s 3rd Alabama Infantry, “and the other regiments had suffered almost as severely.
“One shell had killed six or seven men in my immediate presence,” Gordon wrote.
“It was not war. It was murder,” Confederate Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill wrote after Union artillery ripped wide holes in his division’s long lines.
Finally the 3rd Maine Infantry, or at least four of its 10 companies, joined the fight. Shifting position along with the 4th Maine and three New York regiments, the 3rd Maine companies scurried to protect Union artillery batteries whose supporting infantry “had used up their ammunition,” Lewis noted.
As Confederate infantry “continued to advance,” they moved “within range of the infantry,” and “a withering fire greeted them with increased destruction and caused them to retire in confusion,” Lewis wrote. Enemy soldiers kept attacking, and 3rd Maine soldiers kept knocking them down.
“The contest (battle) was continued with unabated fury until nearly nine P.M.,” when darkness and heavy casualties finally ended the carnage. According to Lewis, the Rhode Islanders stopped firing about 8:30 p.m.; the four 3rd Maine companies likely rejoined the other six soon afterwards.
Despite the lopsided Union victory, George McClellan was not done withdrawing his army. “On the morning of the 2nd at 2 A.M., we again took up our march in the direction of Harrison’s Landing in a severe rain storm, rendering it almost impossible for our worn out men to keep themselves in the ranks,” Lakeman later reported.
During that estimated six-to-eight-mile march, many Maine lads likely fell asleep on their feet while shuffling toward the James River. Various historical accounts from throughout the Civil War refer to exhausted soldiers, cavalry and infantry alike, sleeping as they traveled. Marches were often start-stop, start-stop affairs, and a dead-to-the-world soldier would suddenly awaken upon colliding with the comrade stopped in front of him.
The 3rd Maine Infantry evidently maintained good march discipline that miserable Tuesday night; Lakeman, who later became the regiment’s colonel and commander, described the regimental losses at Malvern Hill as “very light.”
And the “worn out men” probably slept on Wednesday night. However, “on the morning of the 3d we again formed line” at Harrison’s Landing “and proceeded to the front, where we remained, held our ground, and finally encamped,” Lakeman wrote.