Artillery: “As Though an Earthquake”: The Guns of Malvern Hill

George McClellan’s army was escaping! Dangerously exposed to enemy attacks, over 100,000 men, 280 guns, thousands of wagons, large numbers of wounded, and even a massive herd of beef were attempting to move safely to a new base on the James River. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was intent on driving them from the Confederate capital, and he had the largest army he would ever command. He could also take advantage of a series of roads emanating from Richmond, much like the spokes of a wheel, all pointed at the fleeing Federals.

Lee had missed what was probably his greatest opportunity on June 30. His plan had been to cut McClellan’s army in half at a place called Glendale (“Frayser’s Farm”). He would throw his entire army at the rear part of the Union army and destroy it. While it was an ingenious and even audacious plan, poor staff work and even worse execution led to a bloody draw. McClellan’s army survived, and that night crossed over Malvern Hill.

When someone visits Malvern Hill today, they will likely not see what they expect. The area of the battlefield is actually a gentle slope; so tranquil it is difficult to imagine the carnage that once occurred there. There is indeed a hill, but it is in the woods, on the flank, and to the rear. On the field of battle, the slope worked to the Union’s advantage. The clearing is about 900 yards wide on the crest. Fitz John Porter had recognized the importance of the position and occupied it on June 30. He arrayed his guns along the ridge, and the gentle incline created a perfect field of fire for his guns. His 10 and 20 pounder rifled Parrotts, 32 pounder howitzers, and 12-pounder Napoleon smoothbores swept all of the cleared area on the hill; their fire could even reach the woods in the distance…no Confederate attacker would be immune. Federal artillery completely dominated the landscape. In support, the infantry of Porter’s Fifth Corps manned the left, the men of Darius Couch ‘s Fourth Corps division held the right.

Confederates firing at Malvern Hill (living history demonstration)

Behind this formidable array of artillery was most of the Army of the Potomac. While it was doubtful that any attack could survive the fire of the Federal guns, the massive army behind it precluded any Confederate chance for success. The Union would never again occupy such a powerful position.

Of course, Lee did not know all of this. He could plainly see the Federal artillery. But for all he knew, most of McClellan’s army was still heading for the river. Lee was desperate: this clearly was his last chance to get at McClellan. His army had fought hard and bled deeply since June 26, when the campaign began in Mechanicsville. Lee could not allow his adversary the opportunity to re-form and strike again. A frontal attack against those guns did not appear promising. General D.H. Hill commented, “If General McClellan is there in strength, we had better leave him alone.”  Lee wanted one more chance; he needed a plan.

Confederate General James Longstreet thought he saw an opportunity. On the Confederate right there was a small rise, with room for some artillery. On the left there was another good position. Jackson could post 80-100 cannons there. If they could get enough guns in position, the Confederates could catch Porter in a crossfire and drive off his artillery, clearing the way for an infantry attack. Longstreet’s plan was adopted. Lewis Armistead’s brigade was in the most forward position. When he saw the Federal guns move off the ridge he was to advance “with a yell.” Upon hearing this, the Confederates would launch a massive attack. Lee and Longstreet then rode off to scout the Federal right, searching for another opening.

Federal Napoleons

For Lee, things did not go as planned, as they had not all week. There were several key challenges for his artillery. First, his guns generally had less range and threw less weight than those of his counterpart. Many of his pieces were obsolete 6-pounders and howitzers. Following Antietam he would correct this deficiency by melting down the smaller guns and casting new ones to equal those of the Federals. Unfortunately, he would not have those on this day. Organization was another problem. Most of the guns were dispersed among the infantry units. On the march, they would often trail the infantry. As his army was approaching Malvern Hill, it would be a challenge to get an adequate number of cannons in position in time to meet Longstreet’s plan.

Longstreet said that eight guns managed to make it to the rise on the far right, but they were roughly handled by Porter’s massed artillery. Jackson never could get a large number together on the left. Every time the Confederates brought guns up, they were destroyed piecemeal by the Federals. It remained an unequal contest. Porter Alexander stated that General Pendleton never brought his four battalions of reserve artillery into action. Meanwhile, in their excitement, Armistead’s men gave a yell as they drove Federal pickets and sharpshooters. Generals Magruder and D. H. Hill interpreted that as the signal to attack and following orders, opened the action.

One soldier said, “the earth trembled and shook as though an earthquake had occurred.” Another recalled, “the eternal fires below seemed to have been turned loose about us.” Union guns fired at will, and when they ran out of ammunition other batteries took their place. One of the Federal cannoneers remembered that the shells fired at the attackers “cut roads through them some places ten feet wide.” Lieutenant Adelbart Ames commanded Battery A of the Fifth U.S. Light Artillery. Determined to fight the thing out, he would not move his guns, instead bringing up more and more ammunition. His battery fired an estimated 1,392 rounds that day. Captain John Frank, commanding Battery G of the First New York Light, said his battery had fired 400 rounds of shell, 515 of spherical case and 66 rounds of canister.

View from Federal guns.

Malvern Hill was a decisive Union victory, resulting in the slaughter of some 5,000 Confederate troops. The men in gray never seriously threatened the Federal position…. it was one of the most lopsided battles of the war. D.H. Hill would recall the bloodbath, saying, “it was not war, it was murder.”

That night McClellan ignored the calls by some of his generals to attack; instead, he completed his movement to the river. Lee had driven the Yankees from the outskirts of Richmond, but they would live to fight another day.

The Artillery at Malvern Hill

The Confederates had a mixture of guns. Many were obsolete 6-pounders, which fired a relatively small projectile about 1,500 yards. They also possessed a number of howitzers, which threw shells roughly 1,000 yards. Both of these weapons were inferior the 12-pounder Napoleons. The latter could fire solid shot, shells, case shot or canister about 1,600 yards. Lee said, “the contest between the 6-pounder smoothbores and the 12-punder Napoleons of the enemy is very unequal.” Particularly effective was the close-range canister fire of the Napoleons.

The Federals had large numbers of Napoleons. They also had an advantage in the rifled artillery. The 10-pounder Parrott (the 20-pounder was also used) could fire an accurate shot about 2,000 yards. While they had a greater range than the Napoleons, the latter was more durable, and was devastating at close range.