On the Left at Malvern Hill with the 4th Michigan

     The Battle of Malvern Hill, Virginia fought July 1, 1862 was the culmination of the Seven Days battles around Richmond in which General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia broke George McClellan’s hold on the city, and drastically changed the fortunes of war. Malvern Hill was a clear-cut Union victory, at least in the tactical sense. The Army of the Potomac had fought valiantly during the Seven Days, the 5th Army Corps under General Fitz-John Porter bearing much of the weight during this campaign and proving themselves to be top-notch soldiers. Among those troops serving in the 5th Corps under Porter was Captain George W. Lumbard of the 4th Michigan Infantry.

          Captain Lumbard joined the regiment the previous summer as commander of Company E from Hillsdale County in south central Michigan, and he went to war with an extraordinary artifact of the Revolutionary War in his possession. The day before the company left town, he was presented with a sword in a private ceremony by a local citizen. The sword once belonged to General Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys of Vermont and victor at Fort Ticonderoga during the Revolutionary War. Lumbard was still carrying the sword a year later and if it possessed any spiritual power, Captain Lumbard would need every ounce of it during the desperate fighting at Malvern Hill.

          As part of the Second Brigade of the First Division of the 5th Army Corps, the 4th Michigan took their place on the left flank of the army’s position atop Malvern Hill, a 130-foot tall crescent-shaped eminence that historian Douglas Southall Freeman once wrote was “an exceedingly formidable position. Had the Union engineers searched the whole countryside below Richmond, they could not have found ground more ideally set for the slaughter of an attacking army.” Even backed by abundant and well-positioned artillery, Lumbard and his comrades would have their hands full holding off Lee’s men in the fight that developed on the afternoon of July 1, 1862.

Lumbard, a regular correspondent with the Hillsdale Standard newspaper back home, wrote the following account of Malvern Hill about a week and a half after the battle.

 

A camp scene image of Major Sewell S. Parker with two soldiers of the 4th Michigan and one of the camp cooks. The captioning from the LoC cites this as Lt. Parker but a review of his military record shows that he was a lieutenant while with the 26th Michigan, transferring to the 4th Michigan as Major in mid-1864. (Library of Congress)

Harrison Landing, James River, Virginia

July 11, 1862

          As I was sitting in my tent today meditating upon the scenes through which our regiment has passed within the past few days, I almost unconsciously picked up the last Standard and noticed particularly the date: July 1, 1862. What think you of the position of the Michigan 4th on that day? While you and your employees were busily engaged in striking off the Standard, we were forming a portion of the rear guard of the Army of the Potomac in the change of position from the Pamunkey to the James River, and although our brigade was in the desperate battles of Mechanicsville and Chickahominy on Thursday and Friday preceding, had marched all Sunday night and been under the fire of the Rebel batteries on Monday, yet on this day, Tuesday, we were assigned to the honorable and important duty of forming the left of the rear guard.


Captain (later Colonel) George W. Lumbard, Co. E, 4th Michigan Volunteers
Lumbard would die May 6, 1864 of wounds received the day before at the Battle of the Wilderness

          Our regiment was supporting a battery all that warm day in an open field, exposed to a fearfully scorching sun, and although nearly worn down with fighting and marching, our boys stood up to their duty like men. Our regiment was on the extreme left; just to the right of us was the 9th Massachusetts and to the right of them the 62nd Pennsylvania. Couch’s division was still on the right of our brigade. General Martindale’s brigade, in which is the 1st Michigan, was supporting our brigade and stationed a short distance in the rear of us.

          About 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we could see great clouds of dust rising which warned us that the Rebels were advancing in great force. General Charles Griffin, our brigade commander, was watching their movements with an eagle eye, and soon he discovered them planting their batteries in the edge of the woods about 100 rods across an open field directly in our front. Soon after, five Rebel regiments came out of the woods into the open field directly in front of our regiment. [General Lewis Armistead’s attack] During this time, two guns of Griffin’s battery had been planted on a slight elevation about 40 rods directly in the rear of our regiment. No sooner did the Rebel regiments issue from the woods then “Bang! Bang!”  went our field pieces, and such a whizzing of shot, shell, grape, and canister and such a roar of cannon reminded one forcibly that “school was out for noon.” It proved too much for the five Rebel regiments, and back into the woods they went pell-mell.

Detail from a map drawn up by the American Battlefield Trust showing the location of the 4th Michigan in the front rank of Griffin's line near the Crew House. General Lewis Armistead charged forward in the early afternoon with three of his Virginia regiments but Federal artillery and musketry fire proved so onerous that Armistead's men hugged the earth for protection, unable to advance or retreat without running the risk of being slaughtered. Armistead would lead another desperate charge a year later at Gettysburg, one that would cost the Virginian his life. 

          Soon after this scene, we heard a wild shout on our right which proved to be a large body of Rebels making a charge upon the batteries stationed there. Again, the grape and canister were freely administered to them, and soon back they went, limping and howling to the woods. But the Rebels said to themselves I presume, “it will not do to give it up so, Mr. Brown,” for in a short time they opened upon our batteries and our infantry with shot and shell, which was promptly responded to be ours. A right lively time they had for about one hour in which the Rebels got the worst of the bargain, having five of their pieces dismounted, yes, verily “knocked into a cocked hat” as the boys say.

          Then for a time everything was quiet and calm; but it proved to be one of those calms which precedes the terrible storm. A calm, oppressive from its very magnitude, for not to hear the roar of cannon and the interminable rattle of musketry which we had heard almost constantly since the 26th day of June, to our minds presaged another mighty conflict between the veterans of the Army of the Potomac and the Rebel hordes who were pressing upon our rear like the mighty waves of the ocean. Soon, the war cloud burst upon us again in all its fury; under cover of fresh batteries, which the enemy had posted in the woods, and soldiers of treason in almost countless numbers came pouring down upon our lines like the avalanche from the mountain.

 

         The left, center, and right of our lines were attacked at the same time and at all points by overwhelming numbers; but this was no time to think about numbers for the salvation of the army depended upon the rear guard holding their ground until dark at least, as Harrison bar on the James River, was still nine miles distant, and the greater part of the army, together with the immense baggage train, was scattered from Malvern to Harrison Bar. A full 5,000 Rebels marched to attack our regiment which was only 450 strong. [This would be General John B. Magruder’s late afternoon assault.]

The gallant and brave Colonel Dwight Woodbury gave his last orders to his regiment. Having gotten his regiment into a proper position, we awaited the approach of the Rebels. On they came with a shout which made the woods ring, and confident of an easy victory, they still rushed on in spite of the grape and canister from our batteries, which mowed them down by hundreds. When the Rebels had got within about 20 rods of our line, every man and nearly every officer of our regiment at his post. At this moment, even above the roar of cannon, rang out upon the air in trumpet tones, the last orders of our beloved Colonel: “Fire by rank! Battalion, ready! Rear rank, aim, fire, load! Front rank, aim, fire, load! Now boys, give them three cheers and hold your ground!” And there amid the hail of bullets, such a cheer as went up from those Michigan boys was inspiring in the greatest degree. It is almost needless for me to say that they held their ground- not one inch did they yield.

Colonel Dwight Woodbury, 4th Michigan
Killed in action at Malvern Hill
Image courtesy of  "Crossing Hell on a Wooden Bridge" at 4th Michigan@wordpress.com

Sergeant R. Watson Seage, who was wounded in the fight, is a perfect trump, and although it is not the duty of sergeants to fire, he fired and fought until his gun needed cleaning and then, amid the tempest of leaden storms, went to work and cleaned his gun and then went again to firing until he was hit in the head by a musket ball. During the thickest of the fight, I told him to go to the color bearer and have him wave the “Old Flag” as we wanted to give three cheers and have the “Old Flag” waving at the same time. He delivered the order and fought on until wounded. I also must not forget to mention James Harroun, whom it takes a clap of thunder generally to arouse, got so excited that after the fighting had been going on about half an hour, he jumped to his feet and for full ten minutes with his gun in one hand and hat in the other, cheered and made speeches and told the boys to “go in.” I finally told him I thought he could do about as much good firing, and at it he went in right good earnest.

"It was not war- it was murder." Major General Daniel Harvey Hill, C.S.A. on the Battle of Malvern Hill

Such an incessant fire as our regiment kept up, I do not believe was ever equaled upon this continent. We soon put the first Rebel regiment hors du combat, and then with a cheer, a fresh regiment would take its place. But not to be outdone, our boys would answer, cheer for cheer, and by this means the Rebels were made to believe that we were constantly being reinforced by fresh regiments. After the firing had continued about half an hour, the 9th Massachusetts was ordered to make a charge, but half the regiment not understanding the order, they broke in the center and but half the regiment made the charge and were repulsed, breaking up in confusion. In their falling back, quite a number passed through the right of our line which prevented that portion from firing for a time.

Soldiers of 4th Michigan

Colonel Woodbury was endeavoring to rally the 9th Massachusetts when he was instantly killed by a Minie ball which struck him in the head. His own regiment did not require anyone to rally it, for not a man left the ranks after the firing commenced unless he was wounded or someone to assist the wounded off the field. About the same time that the 9th Massachusetts broke and fell back, the 62nd Pennsylvania also broke and retired in confusion, and the battery having expended all its ammunition was obliged to retire for more, and thus for a time our regiment was left alone to hold the whole Rebel force on the left in check.

The 4th Michigan held their ground until they had fired 80 rounds, all they had, when they were relieved by the 12th New York [3rd Brigade of the 1st Division of the 5th Corps under General Dan Butterfield] and our regiment went back to the rear after more ammunition in perfect order. They would willingly after getting ammunition had returned to the fight, but it was not necessary for the fresh regiments and batteries which went to the front drove the Rebels back to the woods with terrible slaughter, and darkness having already set it, put an end to the conflict that day. The victory was ours; the army was safe.

I must say that after the first fire, all concern for my personal safety vanished and I never felt more enthusiastic at a political meeting than I did amid that awful din of battle and storm of lead. The only drawback to my happiness was to occasionally see some of my brave boys fall, never to rise again. Corporal David Brock, although quite unwell, was on that day in the front ranks and at the head of the company and was the first to fall. He was one of my best men and a man upon whom I could always rely. Soon Frank Forncrook, as brave and as good soldier as ever drew a trigger, was almost instantly killed by a bullet. Alfred Dolph was instantly killed also. It seemed as though my best men were the ones who suffered most. They laid down their lives in a holy cause and may their countrymen in Hillsdale County do them justice. Their memoirs will be long treasured by their comrades, and vows have been made by them to avenge their fall.

Major General Charles Griffin of Ohio eventually rose to command the division then became commander of the 5th Corps in the final days of the war. A pre-war Regular, Griffin went to Texas after the war and died of yellow fever in 1867 at age 41. 

General Griffin, our brigade commander, says that if we should be in the service 20 years, we probably should not do as much fighting as we have done since the 25th of June. I am confident that our brigade during that time did more fighting and suffered more than any brigade in the army. General Griffin is a splendid officer and our boys almost worship him. He is as brave and fearless as a tiger and watches the Rebels as a hawk watches his prey. At Malvern Hill, he was on horseback in the thickest of the fight and his horse was shot dead under him. One great reason why our boys fought so well in that battle was because they had perfect confidence in their General. He told them before the battle that if they were attacked by 10,000 Rebels, to hold their ground, and I am happy to say they obeyed orders.

 

Robert Knox Sneden watercolor of the Battle of Malvern Hill. Federal gunboats in the James River lobbed shells towards the Confederates but several fell short, leading General Fitz-John Porter to signal the guns to seize firing. Their contribution really wasn't needed: the Army of the Potomac's crack artillery batteries took full advantage of the killing field Malvern Hill's offered. 

Source:

Letter from Captain George W. Lumbard, Co. E, 4th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, Hillsdale Standard (Michigan), July 22, 1862, pg. 2

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