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Seven Bloody Days

Forgotten battlefields; monuments to vanity

Jul 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 40 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Richmond, Va.
It doesn’t take long to walk the Malvern Hill battlefield. Less than an hour. And there is not much to see. There are a few cannons at the top of the hill, where they were on July 1, 1862, firing remorselessly into the lines of assaulting Confederate infantry that never came close to reaching them and took appalling casualties in the effort. Alongside a trail that meanders through the mature hardwood trees at the base of the hill, there are some shallow depressions in the ground that a plaque describes as hasty graves where some of the Confederate dead had been buried. There is one structure at the top of the hill that looks, more or less, the way it did on the day of the battle. Some split rail fences for verisimilitude. And that is about it.

General George McClellan

General George McClellan

Measured against, say, the 4,000 acres of Shiloh or Gettysburg with its 1,300 monuments, Malvern Hill is decidedly minor league as Civil War battlefields go. And sparsely visited in comparison to the other, better known and better tended sites. When I walked Malvern Hill on a hot morning three weeks before the 150th anniversary of the battle, I had the place entirely to myself.

But the battle was no minor affair. Neither in terms of what was called, in those days, “the butcher’s bill,” nor in military and historical consequences. Malvern Hill was the last of what came to be known as the “Seven Days Battles,” a running series of fights that resulted in casualties to both sides of 36,059 killed, wounded, and missing. More than had been lost a couple of months earlier at Shiloh, a battle whose casualties matched those of the entire Revolutionary War and put both sides in the Civil War on notice.

In spite of the slaughter, Seven Days was, as so many of the great Civil War battles were, depressingly inconclusive. At least in the sense that when the battle was over, the war went on. But in almost no other engagement of the entire war did both sides miss such an opportunity to finish the whole thing in a stroke. As Major-General J. F. C. Fuller writes in his magisterial A Military History of the Western World: “The importance of the Seven Days Battle [sic] lies in what it did not accomplish.”

Each army, Fuller writes, “might easily” have destroyed its opponent had it not been for “blunderings.” But neither army could accomplish the coup de grâce, and so “the political importance of [the Seven Days] is that, instead of shortening the war it prolonged it by nearly three years.”

The Seven Days is, in this regard, analogous to the Battle of the Marne in the First World War: Confused, inconclusive, and a tragically missed opportunity for both sides, after which the war would not merely go on, but take over and become a force beyond human control.

The story of the Seven Days and the Peninsula Campaign that preceded it is, in large part, a tale of one man’s hubris.

General George McClellan liked to think of himself as a kind of American Napoleon, and in at least one regard there was a similarity. Both men were short.

Napoleon, though, was a master of war. He loved war and thrived on its challenges, and he was a gambler. It could have been said of him, as it was of a general who became McClellan’s adversary in the Seven Days, “his name might be Audacity.”

McClellan was quite the other thing. He was a master of military organization and an exceedingly adroit player in the political contests that result in promotion. But he did not much like war, and he made a point of avoiding both battle and the battlefield. The carnage was repellent to him.

But he was supreme on the parade ground, and after the Union army had been defeated at the First Manassas he came to Washington and built a magnificent army, by far the largest in the nation’s history. He made the right political allies and was, himself, a political force. He loved the attention, and his self-confidence was nearly sublime. “I find myself in a new and strange position here,” he wrote to his wife, “President, cabinet, Gen. Scott, and all deferring to me. By some strange operation of magic I seem to have become the power of the land.”

When cautioned by President Lincoln that he might be taking on too much responsibility, he replied, “I can do it all.”

He was insubordinate in his treatment of President Lincoln and referred to him as “the original gorilla.” Lincoln, whose self-confidence rested on a sturdier foundation, seemed willing to tolerate it so long as McClellan would deliver victories.

For months, McClellan delivered nothing much more than promises and windy speeches. Lincoln pressed him for action and suggested at one point that if the general did not intend to use the army, then he would “like to borrow it for a time.”

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