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.
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.”
McClellan did, eventually, use the army, moving it by water to the peninsula between the James and York rivers, hence the name of the campaign that followed. It was militarily sound enough. The Union navy could secure the flanks while the army advanced up the peninsula to Richmond, its waterborne line of supply secure. If the Confederate army came out to fight, McClellan would destroy it in an American Waterloo. If not, he would take the Confederate capital by siege. Either way, he would win the war and, at the very least, immortality.
The movement of the army by water was a vast undertaking and done handsomely. But once they were ashore, McClellan’s forces moved not just slowly, but ponderously. In part, this was because of the weather, the poor condition of the roads, and the difficulty of the terrain. But these are the ordinary givens of war and would not have hampered, say, Stonewall Jackson. The variable that in this case accounted for the hesitancy of the army’s advance was its commander’s “caution,” to use the kindest possible term.
McClellan imagined that he was outnumbered and not just marginally so. He believed at one point in the campaign that his opponent had more than 200,000 men in the field against his meager 120,000. In truth, Confederate forces never numbered much more than 85,000, and often fewer than that. During the entire campaign, McClellan always enjoyed superior numbers on the ground.
In his mind, however, it was a different story.
So he moved slowly, when he moved at all, and pestered Washington for reinforcements. When they did not come, he sulked and indulged in episodes of self-pity which bordered on paranoia. His political enemies in Washington, he hinted, wished his defeat, and by withholding from him the men that he needed, they were, he seemed to believe, conspiring to engineer his disgrace.
Lincoln attempted to reassure his petulant general of his support and to urge him to action:
And once more let me tell you, it is indispensable to you that you strike a blow. I am powerless to help this. . . . I beg to assure you that I have never written you, or spoken to you, in greater kindness of feeling than now, nor with a fuller purpose to sustain you, so far as in my most anxious judgment, I consistently can; but you must act.
McClellan was not the sort of man to be consoled by a few kind words. He continued to move slowly, when he moved at all.
The Confederates, meanwhile, retreated ahead of him. Their backs were to their own capital, and they would be incapable of resisting a siege if they allowed McClellan to get that close. In what was called at the time “a battle of posts,” they would inevitably lose.
So after more than a month of steady withdrawals, punctuated by a few skirmishes, they attacked. The Confederate army was, at this time, commanded by Joseph E. Johnston. He was a capable soldier but a difficult man. He was touchy and secretive and his relations with Jefferson Davis, his civilian chief, were not much better than -McClellan’s were with Lincoln.
His plan of attack was sound. With the bulk of his army, he attacked a smaller portion of McClellan’s that was relatively isolated by its position on the south bank of a small, swampy river called the Chickahominy, which bisected the peninsula and required the extensive construction of bridges and corduroy roads by McClellan’s engineers. The river played a crucial role in what the Federals called the Battle of Fair Oaks and in every engagement for the rest of the campaign.
The battle itself was disorganized, bloody, and inconclusive. Late in the action, Johnston was severely wounded. In his place, Jefferson Davis appointed Robert E. Lee who, thus far in the war, had been a disappointment to those who had expected great things of him.
McClellan, for his part, considered Lee a lightweight: “I prefer Lee to Johnston,” he said when he heard the news. “The former is too cautious and weak under grave responsibility. Personally brave and energetic to a fault, he yet is wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility, and is likely to be timid and irresolute in action.”
One can almost hear the voice of some modern wise guy saying, after hearing those last phrases, “Hey, man, project much?”
There were doubters in Lee’s own ranks. In a famous episode, one of them asked an officer who might know if he thought Lee possessed the necessary audacity. He answered,
if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee! His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances and take them quicker than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too.
It was some three weeks before the truth of these words was demonstrated. First, Lee strengthened his lines and firmed up his defenses in front of Richmond. He also sent for Stonewall Jackson, who had been busy in the Shenandoah Valley, keeping Washington so much on edge that Lincoln had continued withholding from McClellan the additional men he claimed so urgently to need. Lee sent his cavalry to scout the Union positions north of the Chickahominy, and Jeb Stuart responded by riding completely around McClellan’s lines. He reported back to Lee that the Union’s northern flank was “in the air.”
Lee determined to attack there with the bulk of his army, keeping a token force on the south side of the river, thus leaving Richmond exposed and vulner-able should McClellan move aggressively.
McClellan did move, and his army won the Battle of Oak Grove. After which he sent a message informing Washington, “The rebel force is stated at 200,000. . . . I regret my inferiority in numbers but feel that I am in no way responsible for it. . . . I will do all that a general can do with the splendid army I have the honor to command, and if it is destroyed by overwhelming numbers, can at least die with it and share its fate. But if the result of the action which will probably occur tomorrow, or within a short time, is a disaster, the responsibility cannot be thrown on my shoulders, it must rest where it belongs.” Lee had not yet attacked, but McClellan was a beaten man.
Lee did attack, the next day, on the other side of the river. The Union won that battle, too. And while McClellan’s forces on the opposite bank were merely four miles from Richmond, which was wide open to attack, he made the decision to retreat.
He was, he said, changing his base.
Lee, on the other hand, pressed his attack. The third of the Seven Days Battles, Gaines’s Mill, was the bloodiest and Lee’s first victory. It turned on an assault by Texans under the command of General John B. Hood, who was found after the battle sitting on a cracker barrel, weeping. And Hood was a hard man who would go on to lose the use of his arm at Gettysburg and have a leg amputated after a wound at Chickamauga.
After Gaines’s Mill, the Union army was in full retreat. A battle at Savage’s Station on the south bank of the river bought time. Enough to destroy vast stores of supplies but not enough to evacuate some 2,500 wounded men who were taken by the advancing Confederate armies.
During the morning I made my solitary walk around Malvern Hill, I went looking for the Savage’s Station battlefield. There is no park. The actual site of the battle is, today, partially covered by the cloverleaf interchange of I-295 and I-64 and commemorated by one of those cast iron plaques on the shoulder of a nearby two-lane blacktop.
I was drawn to the battlefield having recently read a book that covered the history of a company of Civil War soldiers from the region of Vermont where I now live. This company of men called themselves the Equinox Guards, and Savage’s Station was their first real action. It was a company of 59 men when the battle opened. At its end, only 15 members of the Equinox Guards were unharmed. Between 25 and 30 had been killed or mortally wounded.
There is nothing in any of the accounts of the Seven Days to prove one side or the other superior in bravery or fortitude or willingness to suffer and die.
When one compares generalship, however, the story is different, and vastly so.
McClellan continued his retreat. Lee pursued. Relentlessly. Intent on a battle of annihilation. And he might have had it at a battle known by various names, the most commonly used of which are Frayser’s Farm and Glendale. This was Lee’s best chance to cut the retreating Union forces off from the James River and the protection of navy gunboats. His generals—to include, conspicuously, Stonewall Jackson—failed him. The Union army escaped to the safety of Malvern Hill, where Confederate troops marched into the teeth of a powerful defensive position. It was his last chance, and his audacity became recklessness. The assaults failed.
The Union victory was so complete that some of McClellan’s subordinates urged a resumption of the offensive with the objective of taking Richmond. McClellan, who had spent most of the previous two days aboard a Federal gunboat on the James River, could not be persuaded. One of his generals, Philip Kearney, protested “against this order to retreat. We ought, instead of retreating, to follow up the enemy and take Richmond; and in full view of the responsibility of such a declaration, I say . . . such an order can only be prompted by cowardice or treason.”
McClellan wired Washington, “We have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.”
By “failing to win,” he had made inevitable many other battles, to include Antietam, where he also failed. One feels a sense of profound sadness when visiting any of the Civil War battlefields, but there is something different about the patchwork of small sites and solitary plaques that mark and commemorate the Seven Days. A sense, perhaps, of failure compounded by futility and the eternally high price of human vanity.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.