Sunday, July 20, 2014

Malvern Hill interactive panoramas: 'It was murder'

Click here for my interactive Antietam, Cedar Mountain, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Harris Farm, Manassas, Malvern Hill, Salem Church and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefield panoramas.

Rebels never got close to expertly placed Union artillery at the top of the Malvern Hill slope.
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More than 152 years ago, Robert E. Lee attacked a position head-on that bristled with Union artillery ... and failed miserably. Troops mistakenly took a road leading away from the battlefield. A plan for a grand artillery bombardment never materialized. And Confederates, so successful in pushing the Union army away from Richmond in the previous Seven Days' battles, simply ran out of steam."It wasn't war; it was murder," Confederate general D.H. Hill famously lamented after the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

I suppose you could say that about a lot of the fighting during the Civil War. Early Monday morning, I visited the best-preserved battlefield in Virginia for the third time. I left it with the same feeling I have after I walk in the footsteps of the 16th Connecticut at John Otto's cornfield at Antietam or stand where the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery charged at Cold Harbor: How could they do this?


The Union army massed up to 36 cannon at the top of this plateau, which was only about 900 yards wide at its crest. Once Yankee cannoneers had silenced Rebel artillery, they turned their attention to masses of enemy infantry that moved up the gentle slope. (It's a misnomer to call it a hill.) Their work was effective and deadly.

"The battle-field, surveyed through the cold rain of Wednesday morning, presented scenes too shocking to be dwelt on without anguish," the Richmond (Va.) Examiner reported three days after the battle. "The woods and the field ... covered with our dead, in all the degrees of violent mutilation."  The Rebels suffered more than 2 1/2 times the casualties (5,600 to 2,100) as the Union army at Malvern Hill.

Even Yankee gunboats anchored in the nearby James River joined the fight, although their effect may have proved more damaging to their own troops; three soldiers in the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery were mortally wounded by fire from the gunboats.

"To add to the horrors, if not the dangers, of the battle, the enemy's gunboats, from their position at Curl's Neck, two and a half miles distant, poured on the field continued broadsides from their immense rifle guns," the Examiner reported. "Though it is questionable, as we have suggested, whether any serious loss was inflicted on us by the gunboats, the horrors of the fight were aggravated by the monster shells, which tore skrieking through the forests, and exploded with a concussion, which seemed to shake the solid earth itself. The moral effect on the Yankees of these terror-inspiring allies must have been very great; and in this, we believe, consisted their greatest damage to the army of the South."

The right of the Union line was anchored in front of the home of Nathaniel West. The current structure, seen by panning to the left, was built in the early 20th century on the foundation of the original house. Although his house survived the fighting, Farmer West's field were ruined.

Wrote the Examiner reporter afterward:

Great numbers of horses were killed on both sides, and the sight of their disfigured carcasses and the stench proceeding from them added much to the loathsome horrors of the bloody field. The cornfields, but recently turned by the ploughshare, were furrowed and torn by the iron missiles. Thousands of round shot and unexploded shell lay upon the surface of the earth. Among the latter were many of the enormous shells thrown from the gunboats. They were eight inches in width by twenty-three in length. The ravages of these monsters were everywhere discernible through the forests. In some places long avenues were cut through the tree-tops, and here and there great trees, three and four feet in thickness, were burst open and split to very shreds.

The Union army anchored its left flank here on Malvern Cliffs, which really is a large hill rather than a cliff. In 1862, this area was largely treeless and provided Yankee artillery and infantry a superb field of fire. Rebels from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana negotiated a series of ravines and ridges as they approached this high ground near the James River.
"The last hill we passed over, the Yankee canister killed our men in large numbers," wrote Private Asa Winn of the 3rd Georgia Infantry. "We ran up [to] the top of the hill and poured volleys into them and would run back under the hill and load. ... Every time we would go to the top to fire, someone would fall." Winn, according to this letter from a comrade, survived the battle "without a scratch."

2nd Louisiana Private Edwin Jemison
 was born in Georgia.
 (Photo Library of Congress)
Among the Rebel casualties was Edwin Jemison, whose haunting image has been used in scores of  Civil War publications. His hands folded in front of him, the 2nd Louisiana private with the sad eyes and look of innocence was killed near here, likely a victim of Yankee artillery fire from the top of the slope.

Only 17 years old, he reportedly was decapitated.  None of the attacking Rebels, who used two small slave cabins in this field as cover, reached the line of Union artillery in the distance. (Remains of the historic trace to the cabins may be seen by panning to the right.)

"The long line of dead extended towards our right until lost in the woods and sloping ravines towards the river, and then extended forward, contracting from our left upon our center, until its apex reached halfway up [to] Crewe's quarters," wrote Major Joseph Brent. "Crewe's quarters" was a reference to the house owned by the farmer whose property a major portion of the battle was contested. (The Crew house was used as Union headquarters and a field hospital
The original building burned after the war and remains in private hands, although the property is targeted by the Civil War Trust.)

Lee's plan called for his artillery to bombard Union lines from two positions, including the one here, but the strategy went awry because the Rebels couldn't mass enough cannon at either spot. Accurate Union fire from the plateau 1,500 yards away had a lot to do with that.

Confederates poured from these these woods, moving up the slope of Malvern Hill to attack the Yankees, whose artillery often fired into the treetops.

"As we came fully in sight of the Federal batteries, not 400 yards in our front, the open space behind them became black with troops, thousands of whom issued from the woods in their rear," wrote Sergeant James J. Hutchinson of the 5th Alabama. "It was madness to go on, but our men moved steadily forward till within 250 yards, when the order was given to fire, and they immediately without orders, dropped to the ground and began loading and firing as fast as possible."

Depressions left for gravesites of two Rebel soldiers can still be seen in the woods across the road.

In the clearing at left, Confederates attacked the right flank of the Union army, whose position proved impregnable. Ruins of the Willis parsonage, which burned in 1988, are in the right background. Rebels formed on this property for their assault. "I must confess that I slept through most of the uproar of this battle -- slept the sleep of the thoroughly tired out," a Maine soldier wrote years later, "and I understand that all that could of the army did so, too."

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