THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: The Glorious Fourth (Saturday, July 4th, 1863).

"The Glorious Fourth," Mort Kuntsler's painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

“The Glorious Fourth,” Mort Kuntsler’s painting of the victory at Vicksburg.

July of 1776 proved to be a pivotal day in the history of the American colonies. In this month, the thirteen separate “countries” finally banded together as one country: the United States of America. On July 2nd, the 2nd Continental Congress, representing all thirteen colonies, unanimously declared independence from Great Britain. John Adams, delegate from Massachusetts, wrote to his wife of the day, stating that July 2nd would “be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the day of deliverance,” to be observed and celebrated “from this time forward forevermore.” He would be right about the celebrations, but proved to be wrong about the date. Two days later, on July 4th, Congress officially adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and was officially made public for the first time. With this action, July 4th would officially be considered Independence Day, as the day that the colonists officially threw off the chains of Great Britain, and created what officially became the United States of America.

87 years later, the very existence of the country those men created was at stake. For the argument over slavery and states’ rights had culminated in the costliest war in American history. At its heart lay not only the existence of the United States as a whole, but the idea of freedom as well. In September of 1862, following the Battle of Antietam, Union President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring freedom to all of those slaves in the states still in rebellion. But Lincoln knew that, for it to truly work, the Union would have to win the war. And by the end of June, 1863, it looked as though the war was turning against the Union yet again. Not only were troops in the west bogged down in an endless siege around Vicksburg, Mississippi, but Confederate troops were again moving north, this time into Pennsylvania. IT seemed that, at this moment, the fate of the nation truly hang in the balance. However, on July 4th, 1863, 87 years to the day of the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, the tide of war changed in favor of the United States.

The first of these changes, and the one which has been the subject of this series of articles, was the culmination of the Battle of Gettysburg. After three days of brutal fighting (July 1st-3rd), Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee struggled hard against Union troops under Major General George Gordon Meade. Despite a great amount of courage and heroism, the Confederates were unsuccessful at driving Meade’s troops from the field. After a disastrous attack on July 3rd, an assault that would forever be known as “Pickett’s Charge,” Lee’s troops were beaten. Although official casualties have never been fully confirmed, Confederate losses have been estimated at nearly 28,000 of the 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia, over a third of Lee’s forces. Union casualties numbered nearly 23,000. 51,000 men killed, wounded and captured/missing in three days of fighting. On July 4th, Lee finally acknowledged defeat, and began his retreat back to Virginia. Meade and his troops failed to take the initiative and pursue Lee. By the time they finally moved, Confederates were across the Potomac, and back in Virginia. Lee would never again attempt such an audacious invasion again, and was forced to fight a defensive war that would eventually lead to their ultimate defeat two years later.

On the same day that Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began the retreat from Gettysburg, Union troops in the western theater achieved an equally important victory. For several weeks, the forces of Major General Ulysses S. Grant had laid siege to the Confederate city of Vicksburg, a vital city along the Mississippi River. At last, with food supplies spent, and the troops no longer able to hold out against the continual assault, the Confederates finally surrendered on July 4th. With Vicksburg gone, control of the Mississippi lay almost entirely in the hands of the Union armies. The Confederacy was officially split in half, and Grant’s start reached its highest peak in the west. With further success at Chattanooga in November, Lincoln knew that Grant was the man who could win the war for him. In March of 1864, Grant was called to Washington, where he was promoted to Lieutenant General, and placed in command of all Union forces in the field. And now, he would face Lee on the fields of Virginia, and one of the greatest contests in military history would soon begin.

With the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the Confederate momentum was officially rocked to its core. With Lee’s great army decimated at Gettysburg, and the vital city of Vicksburg in Union hands, the tide of war shifted to the side of the United States. In less than two years, the war would successfully be won, and the United States restored. It is for this reason that July 4th, 1863, has the right to be called “the Glorious Fourth.”

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we will look at Lincoln’s famous address at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg, and how his words showed the transformation of the man revered by many as “the Great Emancipator.” Due for release on Tuesday, November 19th, 2013.

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THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: Culp’s Hill – Gettysburg’s Often-overlooked Front (Friday, July 3rd, 1863)

One the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee planned for a massive assault against the Union center. This attack would become legendary, and forever be remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.” In this assault, over 12,000 Confederates under General James Longstreet would move on the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The attack was easily repulsed, with over half of the troops who attacked killed, wounded or captured. It was a terrible gamble that several of the officers, including Longstreet himself, felt was not worth the risk. And those men were proven right at a terrible cost.

View of Culp's Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

View of Culp’s Hill, where the Union left flank was situated.

However, on the morning of Friday, July 3rd, while Lee planned the massive assault on the Federal center, another Confederate assault took place on the Union left, on a ridge known as Culp’s Hill. This hill was the part of the high ground that Lee had hoped to secure in the latter part of July 1st, and for which General Richard Ewell became a scapegoat for the Confederate loss by not continuing the successful momentum of that day and taking that heights beyond the town. On the afternoon of July 2nd, Ewell ordered his men to attempt to take the ridge, but the attack was unsuccessful. The following morning, and against Lee’s orders, the attack was resumed on the hill.

Instead of writing a lengthy summary of the battle here, I have decided to link to an article from the website called North against South, which has a great article on the fighting at Culp’s Hill on July 3rd. That article can be read here.

The failure to take Culp’s Hill on the morning of July 3rd, added to the additional failures of “Pickett’s Charge,” as well as the cavalry attack to the rear of the Union lines by Jeb Stuart, helped make Gettysburg a complete failure for the Confederates. Had General Ewell pushed on after the successes of July 1st and taken Culp’s Hill then, the outcome of the battle may have been different. But alas, Confederate fortunes at Gettysburg, which had been high following the first day’s actions, petered out, and turned in favor of the North. And with the end of the day on July 3rd, Lee and his men knew that the battle had ended disastrously for them.

In the next edition of THE GETTYSBURG DIARY, we look at July 4th, 1863, and how the combined Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg proved to be another major turning point in the war.

THE GETTYSBURG DIARY: The Eve of Battle (Tuesday, June 30th, 1863)

Gettysburg1

The day before the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be rather dramatic for the Confederate and Union forces. Both sides began to marshal their forces, but neither side was ready to risk a general engagement just yet. But as fate would have it, both armies would be marching along roads toward a small town in Pennsylvania, and into three of the most crucial days in the history of the United States.

For the Confederates, things began to turn against them from almost the very beginning of the campaign. The main problem stemmed from a man who, until this point, had proven himself capable as a Cavalry officer: Major General James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Having been humiliated at the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9th, Stuart took his cavalry on a “joyride” around Pennsylvania, causing havoc wherever they went. However, Stuart’s actions proved to be a problem. The cavalry had always been the eyes and ears of the army. But with Stuart and his troopers out of the picture, General Robert E. Lee, and the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, marched through enemy territory blind.

Without Stuart’s cavalry, Lee was forced to rely on spies to obtain his information. In the last two days of June, Lee received word from a spy that the Federal forces were already on the move, and were moving faster than the Union forces had ever been known to march. With time already against him, Lee realized that the army had to concentrate, to face the Union forces. The troops would concentrate at a little town where several roads converged at one point: Gettysburg.

For Union forces, the campaign saw the placing of another officer at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Having lost confidence in Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker (Hooker had also lost confidence in his own leadership abilities), President Lincoln knew that another leader had to be found in a hurry. He originally offered command to Major General John Reynolds, who declined the command. One June 28th, command of the army was given to Major General George Gordon Meade. Having proven himself as a fairly capable commander, he was also known to have a short temper, and was not easy to get along with. His prickly demeanor earned him the nickname “Old Snapping Turtle.” With no time to lose, Meade hurried his troops north to face off against Lee. With the summer already hot, it proved to be a rough march, with many men falling due to heat exhaustion, with several dying. Still, the men pressed on. Once again, the will to win had returned to the army.

On Tuesday, June 30th, two Union cavalry brigades under command of Brigadier General John Buford arrived in Gettysburg. Confederate troops had already been through the town. They arrived to find the residents already worried about a possible fight. Receiving word from several scouts, Buford knew that the Confederates were concentrating in the direction of Gettysburg. With this information, Buford decided to place his troops on good ground northwest of the town, and hold out against any Confederates who came their way, until Union troops under Reynolds I Corps could arrive. It was a decision that would have great ramifications on the American Civil War.

In tomorrow’s article: A look at the unsung Union Cavalry commander who chose the ground where the bloodiest battle of the war was fought, and helped change the course of the war for the Union…

Movie Review: “Lincoln”

Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, Dreamworks SKG, 20th Century Fox, 2012)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones

Running Time: 149 Minutes

Rated: PG-13 for an Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage and Brief Strong Language

When I first heard several years ago that Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I got very excited. One of the greatest film directors of our time tackling a story of one of the greatest Presidents in American history is just exciting to think about. Say what you will about Spielberg’s political beliefs, but his historical films, from Shindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, are some of the best in the genre. Now, over a decade after his decision to do a film about the Great Emancipator, Spielberg’s Lincoln finally hit the cinemas nationwide this past Friday. This has certainly become one of the more scrutinized films by historians and modern filmmakers. So, here I am to give my thoughts on this remarkable film.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s historical drama “Lincoln.”

The Cast

For this film, Spielberg has assembled one of the greatest all-star casts ever assembled. But this movie truly belongs to it’s leading man: Daniel Day-Lewis. As I expected before seeing the film, Mr. Day-Lewis gives us what will surely be the definitive screen depiction of our 16th President. As the man has a penchant for doing, he delves into the role with a passion never seen by any actor who has donned the top hat. He truly shows the torment of the man who was overseeing the bloodiest war in American history, while also dealing with a wife whom he loves, though she does drive him angry at times, and the loss of his son Willie years ago. But he also shows Lincoln was a fiercely political animal, as he works to get the necessary votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and with bringing an end to the war. But most of all, Lincoln shows the humorous nature of the man, telling yarns and jokes to help get his points across. In all three areas, Day-Lewis excels. If he doesn’t at least get a nomination come Oscar time, then something is definitely wrong with affairs in Hollywood.

Another actor who should be considered for an Oscar is Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the Radical Republicans, and a strong voice for abolition in the U.S. House of Representatives. As usual, Jones gives a strong, humorous performance as a man who is not above insulting his Democratic rivals in the House to bring his point across to the people. He also shows that, despite taking a strong stance against slavery, he is willing to calm his rhetoric to get the amendment passed. This is definitely some of Mr. Jones’ finest work, and deserves some recognition come Oscar time.

Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed by Ms. Field in the role. She wasn’t bad. She just wasn’t as good as I thought she’d be. But she does manage to get some laughs, as well as some emotional intensity. It is possible that, had she had more screen time, her performance would have been more fleshed out. But still, she does a solid job in the role.

There are several notable minor roles that should be mentioned. James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, one of the three men hired by the Lincoln administration to “bribe” several key Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment. He is a very funny character, and Spader does good in the role. Also turning in fine performances are Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, a Democrat who stands against Emancipation; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the Postmaster General who calls for Lincoln to attempt to bring the war to a peaceful end; David Strathairn as William Seward, Secretary of State, and Lincoln’s closest friend in the cabinet; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, and a man who wants more than anything to do his part by joining the army, and; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Although a very bit role, his performance comes off as very authentic, and he really gives you a good impression of what Grant was like in his short time in the role. The rest of the supporting cast truly does a commendable job in bringing this story to life.

The Script

Tony Kushner’s script covers a very short amount of time in Lincoln’s life, from January to April of 1865, the closing months of the war. But in choosing to focus on this short amount of time, we get to see two of the most important moments in American history: the final abolition of slavery, and the ending of the American Civil War. Here, we get to see Lincoln as a husband, a father, a politician, and as a human being, and how his involvement in affairs brought about great changes in our country. The script also provides Spielberg with his most character-driven piece to date. While the script does occasionally drag in places, it provides a thorough and emotional look at the events depicted in this film.

Weak Points

To me, there were only three weaknesses in the film. First and second, as already mentioned, are Sally Field’s slightly disappointing turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, and the tendency of the film to drag at times. But these are not a major problems with the film. The third weakness is in the choice of actor to portray Robert E. Lee in the brief depiction of the surrender at Appomattox. While the scene itself is depicted fairly accurately, the fact that they chose to cast a man who, although he looks like Lee in the face, is rather chunky to play the frail, skinny commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is somewhat distracting from the emotional impact of the scene. But again, this is a minor quibble in an overall moving film.

The End (Spoiler Alert!)

As my friend Greg Caggiano said in his review of the film, the way Spielberg and Kushner chose to end the film is very moving, and different from how it is generally portrayed. Instead of seeing Lincoln at the theater, we see him prepare to leave the White House to go to the theater. And here, Lincoln gives a line that is meant to be off the cuff, but turns out being prophetic: “I have to go, but I wish I could stay.” Then, we see Lincoln walking down a corridor, as one of his help looks on. We then cut to Tad Lincoln, the President’s son, watching a performance of “Aladdin,” which is interrupted by news that the President has been shot. We then go to the Petersen House, where Lincoln dies. But the film does not end there. It ends with Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address. This is probably the most powerful scene in the film, as Mr. Day-Lewis gives a powerful rendition of what I believe is Lincoln’s greatest speech. The way Spielberg chose to end his cinematic story truly moved me to tears, and proved to be a powerful way to end the film.

Final Thoughts

Lincoln is definitely one of the greatest films made about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. From the amazing performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and an all-star cast, a powerfully-written script, to a moving finale, this is definitely the defining portrait of the man considered by many to be our Greatest President. If you have an interest in American history, or enjoy serious, thought-provoking drama, then Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is definitely a movie worth seeing.

Grade: 9 out of 10.

Antietam 150th: The Bloodiest Day Remembered

On September 17th, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia approved the final draft of the United States Constitution, and thirty-eight delegates, including George Washington, the President of the Convention, filed forward to sign the document. It was a great moment in American history. “In writing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers launched a daring experiment. The idea that a free people could begin a new country by designing their own government and writing down the laws and principles they would follow had never been tried before. The Constitution has guaranteed freedom, equality, opportunity, and justice to hundreds of millions of people.”[1] However, this document, birthed out of the promise of freedom for all Americans, allowed for the continuation of slavery in the United States. The question of slavery would not be answered until the American Civil War, a conflict where the issue of slavery and freedom was at its very heart. A century-and-a-half later, the very existence of the country for which the Constitution was created, as well as the question of slavery, would be fought over for twelve agonizing hours along a creek named the Antietam, near a small Maryland town called Sharpsburg.

The road to Antietam began on August 30th, 1862. On that day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia dealt a severe blow to Union General John Pope and his army at the Battle of Second Manassas. It was a major triumph for Lee and his men. They had successfully prevented George B. McClellan and the Army of the Potomac from taking Richmond the past July. Now, another large army had been defeated, and forced to retreat from Virginia. Now, Virginia was briefly free of Federal troops. Lee, not one to rest on his laurels, planned a bold move. He planned to take his army north into Maryland.

Lee had several reasons for doing this. With the fall harvest coming along, he could feed his army well. Maryland was also a state being held in the Union by force, and the presence of Confederate troops in that state could be viewed as liberation. He felt the state might show them hospitality, and the army might receive additional troops from the state as well He also saw a chance to possibly move into Pennsylvania, if things went well. Success in the northern states might also convince European powers to intercede in the war on Confederates behalf. Although some felt skeptical that a move into Maryland, which might be construed as an invasion, would succeed, the plan was approved. On September 4th, 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia began to cross the Potomac River into Maryland, for the first invasion of northern soil by Confederate troops. He divided his army into four wings. Three of the wings were sent with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson to deal with the Union garrison at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The fourth segment would move along the Blue Ridge Mountains.[2]

In Washington City, Union President Abraham Lincoln was having serious troubles. His last three army commanders had proven to be the wrong man for the job. Irving McDowell had been defeated at First Manassas in July of 1861. George McClellan had lost all nerve and had retreated from the Peninsula the past July. And John Pope had been defeated at the Second Battle of Manassas in August. Lincoln was desperate for a victory, so he reluctantly returned McClellan to command of the Union troops in the field. On September 13th, McClellan received a piece of luck in his hands. A copy of General Lee’s Special Orders 191, detailing the troop movements of the entire Confederate Army, was found in a field wrapped around some cigars. McClellan knew the chance to defeat Lee was given to him. “I have all the plans of the rebels and will catch them in their own trap,” wrote the exuberant McClellan to President Lincoln.[3]

On September 14th, 1862, Confederates were surprised by the Union assaults at Fox’s and Crampton’s Gap along South Mountain. Although they stood defiantly, the Confederates were no match for the oncoming Federals, and Lee was forced to order a retreat. However, Lee halted the retreat when word reached him that Jackson’s attack on Harper’s Ferry was succeeding. He stopped his men near the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, along a stream known as Antietam Creek, to wait for further word. The following day, Jackson wrote that the garrison had surrendered. Lee decided to wait along the Antietam to reunite his force. While Jackson ordered A.P. Hill and his division to remain at the Ferry to parole Federal prisoners, he took the remainder of his force to reunite with Lee. By the end of the 16th, he had rejoined Lee at Sharpsburg. Still, Lee had only some 38,000 troops, and was outnumbered by McClellan three to one. But McClellan would once again prove being inept to command and his failures as a leader would result in the bloodiest single day in American history.[4]

The Battle of Antietam began at dawn on September 17, 1862. “The Union army launched assault after assault against the Confederate left – precisely where Lee had positioned Jackson. Fierce fighting raged incessantly for nearly four hours in” the Miller Cornfield,” the East Woods, and the West Woods. About midway through the butchery, as Jackson’s reserves were thinning, John Bell Hood rushed forward with his division, the Texas Brigade leading the charge.”[5] Although the Texas Brigade suffered heavy losses, they halted the Union momentum.

The Miller Cornfield, site of some of the heaviest fighting at Antietam.

Also involved in the fighting around this sector was the 49th North Carolina Troops, which would see heavy fighting in the West Woods. Although not present at the battle himself, a member of Company I of the 49th, William A. Day, wrote of the battle in his history that he wrote some thirty years later. “We were in the battle all day and made several charges on the enemy, driving them back several times,” Day wrote.[6] The battle along Jackson’s sector raged for four hours, and although the attacks by six Union divisions had caused the Confederate left to buckle, it did not break. When the first phase of fighting at Antietam was over, over 8,000 men were killed or wounded.[7]

The next phase of fighting shifted to the Confederate center, where Confederates held a depression known as the Sunken Road. Here, Federal troops would once again attack in wave after wave. Amongst the units charging against this position was the Irish Brigade, led by General Thomas Francis Meagher. Although they showed gallantry in the fight, they were unable to successfully drive Confederates from their position. However, Federal attacks did inflict serious casualties. The road became covered in Confederate dead, with blood filling the bottom of the depression. From this time forward, the Sunken Road would be forever known as the Bloody Lane. “The Confederate line broke here after three hours of valiant defense, but the Federals failed to exploit the breach.”[8] 5,500 Confederate and Union troops fell in this phase of the battle.

The Sunken Road (left), and the field Federal troops crossed to get there.

The third and final phase of the fighting shifted to the Confederate right, where Major General Ambrose Burnside attempted to dislodge Confederates on bluffs overlooking the Antietam. He first tried to send troops over a narrow bridge that now bears his name, but to no avail. However, Union troops were able to forward the Antietam downstream, and were successfully able to push the Confederates from their positions. However, just “as Burnside was about to smash Lee’s right, more help arrived: A.P. Hill’s division hurrying up from Harper’s Ferry. Hill’s men swarmed onto the battlefield, stunning Burnside and driving him backward – thus securing Lee’s line and ending the battle at dusk. It represented a remarkable effort by Hill, who had marched his men seventeen miles in seven hours and battled for another three, saving Lee’s army from certain defeat.”[9]

Overlooking the site of A.P. Hill’s attack at Antietam.

With Hill’s successful counterattack, the Battle of Antietam was over. Confederate losses totaled 10,316 killed, wounded and captured or missing. Union losses amounted to 12,401. In just twelve hours of fighting, both sides had lost over 22,700 men, the highest casualty numbers for any single day in American history. And the battle that was fought became a tactical draw for both sides. Although Lee had suffered the loss of nearly a third of his army, he remained in place the following day, as if daring McClellan to strike again. But McClellan chose not to do so, and on the night of the 18th, Lee began to pull his army back across the Potomac, to the safety of Virginia. McClellan chose to not follow, allowing the Confederates to escape.

Although Lincoln was furious with McClellan for not chasing Lee, he realized that the Confederates had been thwarted in their attempt to invade Maryland. This gave the President the “victory” he needed to change the aim of the war. On September 22nd, 1862, five days after the bloody fight at Antietam, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, stating that any slave held in bondage in those states in rebellion would be forever free as of January 1st, 1863. With this document, Lincoln gave the war a dual purpose: preserve the Union, and end the scourge of slavery. This document also helped to keep European powers at bay, and Confederates began to realize that a war over the very question of slavery was one they could not win. So, it can be said that the Battle of Antietam was truly the beginning of the end of the American Civil War for the Confederacy.

Works Cited and Consulted

Bennett, William J., and Cribb, John T.E. The American Patriot’s Almanac. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008.

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

Frye, Dennis E. “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’” Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film. New York: Newmarket Press, 2003.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


[1] William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb, The American Patriot’s Almanac (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 354.

[2] Dennis E. Frye, “Bloody Antietam: ‘The Most Terrible Clash of Arms…’”, Gods and Generals: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Civil War Film (New York: Newmarket Press, 2003), 113.

[3] Frye, 113.

[4] Frye, 113-114.

[5] Frye, 114.

[6] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South (Newton, NC: Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 28.

[7] Frye, 114-115.

[8] Frye, 115.

[9] Frye, 115.

“It Was Not War – It Was Murder:” The Battle of Malvern Hill, July 1st, 1862

Today marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Malvern Hill, which was fought on July 1st, 1862, outside of Richmond, Virginia. Although a tactical victory for Union forces, this conflict, the final in a series of battles known as the Seven Days’, this battle marked an end to General George B. McClellan’s first time in command of the Army of the Potomac. It also marked the rise of General Robert E. Lee, and the Army of Northern Virginia, as a forced to be reckoned with in the Eastern Theater of the war. Here, we shall look at this battle, and its effect on the war.

Drawing of the Battle at Malvern Hill

The Battle of Malvern Hill was the culmination of the infamous Peninsula Campaign, which began in March of 1862, when Union General George B. McClellan led the Army of the Potomac from the Virginia Peninsula, in an attempt to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond. Although a cautious man, “Little Mac,” as his soldiers affectionately called him, was almost successful, bringing his men to within a few short miles of the city. But it was mainly because McClellan faced a similarly cautious general in the form of Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. But all of that changed on May 31st, 1862, when Johnston was severely wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines. In his place, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed his military adviser, General Robert E. Lee, to command the Confederate army in the field. It was a decision that Johnston himself credited as a great moment for the Southern cause.[1]

Lee wasted no time in preparing a campaign against McClellan. He sent one of his best cavalry officers, James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, on a reconnaissance ride that would eventually complete an entire circuit around the Union army between June 12th and June 16th. From the information Stuart gathered, Lee chose to attack the enemy. This decision would culminate in what would become known as the Seven Days’ Battles, of which Malvern Hill would be the final conflict in a series of six engagements fought over several days. In assaults at Oak Grove, Mechanicsville, Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station and Glendale, Lee would time and time again attempt to drive Union forces from strong defenses.  And with the exception of Gaines’ Mill, Lee would be defeated at every chance. This frustrated Lee, who wanted to deal a complete blow to his enemy. However, it did have an effect on the mind of his opponent. McClellan feared that he was outnumbered, and even though he won several of the engagements during the Seven Days’, he continued to pull his troops back, fearing that his men might be destroyed, and with it his reputation.[2]

After several failures to defeat the enemy, and drive them from their positions, Lee still hoped to achieve success. But this time, the Federals had set up a defensive position on Malvern Hill, their strongest one yet. “One hundred and fifty feet high and flanked by deep ravines a mile apart, Malvern Hill would have to be attacked frontally and uphill across open fields. Four Union divisions and 100 guns covered this front with four additional divisions and 150 guns in reserve. Unless these troops were utterly demoralized, it seemed suicidal to attack them.”[3] Yet lee chose to do so, with many signs leading him to believe the enemy was demoralized. That, along with his frustration at continual failure, led him to attack “those people” yet again. Longstreet, usually against this type of assault, shared his commanding officer’s sentiments.[4]

The attack was planned for the morning of July 1st. That morning, “Longstreet found two elevated positions north of Malvern Hill from which he thought artillery might soften up Union defenses for an infantry assault. Lee ordered artillery to concentrate on the two knolls. But staff work broke down again; only some of the cannoneers got the message, and their weak fire was soon silenced by Union batteries. Lee nevertheless ordered the assault to go forward.”[5] Lee had once again hoped that artillery crossfire would silence enemy artillery, and once again, that hope was not realized. Despite this, the men were ordered to move forward. What followed was a series of piecemeal assaults. “Some intrepid souls actually stormed to the crest in the face of overwhelming fire; most were mowed down along the slope or fell to the ground, unwilling to advance farther, and made their way back when they thought it was safe.”[6]

For some of the Confederates, Malvern Hill would be their first time in battle. One of the units who would see the elephant for the first time was the 49th North Carolina, commanded by Colonel Stephen Ramseur, and part of Robert Ransom’s brigade. Having only trained for two months before being put into battle, Ramseur wrote to his brother about his misgivings before the fight. “I do not put much confidence in my men,” and said that they “look scared & anxious.”[7] But just as other Confederates would make their own states proud, the 49th NC would do well under fire. One of the men who wrote of his experiences in this fight was William A. Day, a private in Company I from Catawba County. Years after the war ended, he wrote of his experiences while serving with the 49th.

Of Malvern Hill, Day wrote a vivid description of his Company’s action:

We arrived in the vicinity in the evening and formed our line of battle in the woods near the clover field. We remained there till late in the evening. When the advance was made we moved out of the woods into the clover field, and were soon in full view of the hill. We moved rapidly across the field, keeping our lines in perfect order under terrible fire from the batteries on the hill. We could see our artillery retreating, lashing their horses. The fired was too hot for them, and they had lost so many men they had to fall back. When we reached the fence a staff officer was there sitting on his horse crying at the top of his voice: “Lord God Almighty double quick, they are cutting are men to pieces,” and kept on repeating those words. In crossing the fence and swamp our lines were broken and, moving on the foot of the hill where we were sheltered from the fire, we re-formed our line. In a few moments the command charge was given. We gave what the Yankees were pleased to call the “rebel yell,” and started at double quick up the hill, and were soon breasting the storm.

General Bob Ransom, with a white handkerchief around his cap, spurred his horse through the lines and dashing in front of the 49th Regiment, called out in a voice that could be plainly heard above the uproar of battle: “Come on boys, come on heroes, your General is in front” and kept cheering us until we had nearly reached the Crews house. He then turned and galloped down the line. We charged up to the Crews house within thirty feet of the batteries. Sergeant Frank Moody of company I was carrying the colors. They almost wrapped us in flames – we could go no further. We halted and fired round after round at the Yankee artillerymen, whose faces shined by the flash of their guns. Our firing seemed to make no impression on them. Our Colonel Ramseur was badly wounded, and passed the order down the line to lie down. This sheltered us from the fire, which passed over our heads. We lay upon the ground about five minutes, when orders were passed down the line to fall back in good order. The batteries by this time had slacked their fire. We moved back until we were under cover of the hill and re-formed our line.[8]

According to Day, Company I lost sixteen men killed, wounded or captured. Losses amongst the other companies in the regiment were high as well.[9] Overall, Lee’s failure at Malvern Hill cost the Confederates over 5,600 men, while Union losses amounted to around 2,100. D.H. Hill called the battle murder, and not war.[10] Once again, Lee had failed to dislodge Union troops from their defensive positions. And yet, McClellan, fearing himself outnumbered, once again ordered his men to fall back. In August, after spending the entire month of July with their backs against the James River, Lincoln ordered the men to withdraw from the Peninsula to help with events taking place in Northern Virginia.

The Seven Days’ battles, which culminated with Malvern Hill, had been extremely costly for the Confederacy. In the six battles that took place between June 25th and July 1st, the Army of Northern Virginia had only won one of the engagements, and lost over 20,000 men in the process, while Union forces lost nearly 16,000 men. However, despite Confederate failures, McClellan’s cautiousness forced him to continue falling back, despite outnumbering his forces. When he and his men were pulled from the Peninsula in August, Lee and the Confederates had a tactical victory. With this, Lee began to plan an offensive against the Union Army of Virginia, commanded by John Pope, leading to the Battle of Second Manassas at the end of August, briefly freeing Virginia from Union troops, and leading Lee to plan his first invasion of the North. With the Seven Days, the legend of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia was forged.

Works Cited

Day, William A. A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War, Between the North and South. Newton, N.C.: Enterprise Job Office, 1893.

“Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862.” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers. Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Glatthaar, Joseph T. General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse. New York: Free Press, 2008.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


[1] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 461-462.

[2] McPherson, 463-469.

[3] McPherson, 469.

[4] McPherson, 469.

[5] McPherson, 470.

[6] Joseph T. Glatthaar, General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse (New York: Free Press, 2008), 139-140.

[7] “Dod Ramseur to Brother, 5 June 1862,” Stephen D. Ramseur Papers (Southern Historical Collection, UNC-Chapel Hill).

[8] William A. Day, A True History of Company I, 49th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, in the Great Civil War Between the North and South (Newton, N.C.: Free Enterprise Job Office, 1893), 20-21.

[9] Day, 21-22.

[10] Glatthaar, 140.

Museum of the Confederacy Opening New Museum in Appomattox, Virginia

Image of the New M.O.C. Building at Appomattox, VA

The Museum of the Confederacy is set to open a new museum in the town of Appomattox, Virginia on Saturday, March 31st. The first of three new locations planned (the others will be located in Fredericksburg and Hampton Roads, VA), the grand opening of the new museum, located just a few miles from the site where Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met to discuss the terms of surrender for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia on April 9, 1865, will include special ceremonies including living histories with Civil War reenactors, actors portraying Generals Lee and Grant, and a keynote address by acclaimed historian James I. Robertson, Jr. To learn more about the event, click here.