After maintaining their position in the Battle of Glendale, McClellan set his men to retreating again, to consolidate them on Malvern Hill. Malvern Hill is not steep, rather a long, gradual rise. Although it may not look impressive, it was a very good artillery position, as the Union guns would have plenty of time to fire into the Confederate ranks. As the Confederates moved forward the generals examined McClellan's lines on the hill. D. H. Hill, having heard a description of the place, told Lee, “If General McClellan is there in force, we had better let him alone." Longstreet replied laughingly, “Don't get scared, now that we have got him whipped.” Lee decided to press forward, hoping that the Federals were disheartened and would break if pushed. Jackson and Ewell would remain on the left, Holmes, Longstreet and A. P. Hill on the right. The attack would be made by D. H. Hill, Huger and Magruder in the center.
Crucial to the success of Lee's plan was the role of his artillery. The Confederate cannons needed to neutralize the Federal batteries so that the infantry could attack. However, through mismanagement the Confederate batteries failed completely. The Yankee cannon opened at 1 pm, and the Confederate guns came into action a few at a time. The Federals simply focused on each section as it came into the fight, put it out of action, and moved on to the next one. 100 Confederate guns were supposed to participate in the fight, but only 20 actually made it in. The Confederate artillery positions were soon covered in dead horses and smashed equipment, while the Union guns were virtually untouched.
Although the bombardment was a failure, the rebel infantry would go forward none the less. D. H. Hill advanced in late afternoon, along with Magruder who only got two of his six brigades into the action. Fitz John Porter, Union corps commander, wrote this of the assault:
As if moved by a reckless disregard of life, equal to that displayed at Gaines Mill, with a determination to capture our army, or destroy it by driving us into the river, regiment after regiment, and brigade after brigade, rushed at our batteries; but the artillery of both Morell and Couch mowed them down with shrapnel, grape, and canister; while our infantry, withholding their fire until the enemy were within short range, scattered the remnants of their columns, somethings following them up and capturing prisoners and colors. As column after column advanced, only to met the same disastrous repulse, the sight became one of the most interesting imaginable. The havoc made by the rapidly bursting shells from guns arranged so as to sweep any position far and near, and in any direction, was fearful to behold.The Confederate attacks were useless, but they came on again and again pressing forward against the hill. D. H. Hill wrote:
I never saw anything more grandly heroic than the advance after sunset of the nine brigades under Magruder's orders. Unfortunately, they did not move together, and were beaten in detail. As each brigade emerged from the woods, from fifty to one hundred guns opened upon it, tearing great gaps in its ranks; but the heroes rolled on and were shot down by the reserves at the guns, which a few squads reached. Most of them had an open field half a mile wide to cross, under the fire of field-artillery in front, and the fire of the heavy ordnance of the gun-boats in their rear. It was not war - it was murder.When night fell all the Confederate attacks had been bloodily repulsed. 5,300 Southerners had fallen, half of those from the artillery, a very high number.
The Battle of Malvern Hill the Seven Days campaign was over. The casualties had been very heavy. The Confederates had 3,300 dead, 15,900 wounded and 100 missing. The Federals had lost 1,700 killed, 8,060 wounded and 6,050 captured. Many mistakes had been made. McClellan had retreated before numbers less than his own, convinced he had just escaped destruction. He pulled his men of Malvern Hill to a camp along the river, under cover of the gunboats. He telegraphed Washington,
My men are completely exhausted and I dread the result if we are attacked today by fresh troops.... I now pray for time. My men have proved themselves the equals of any troops in the world, but they are worn out.... We have failed to win only because overpowered by superior numbers.The Confederate generals had time and time again demonstrated their inexperience. They had failed again and again to arrive on the field promptly and press the attack. Lee's staff had failed, producing orders which confused the generals. However, there was no doubt that this was a resounding Confederate victory. Lee had driven McClellan from the gates of Richmond and pressed him back all the way to the James River. If they had failed in completely destroying the Federals, none the less they had brought back the Confederacy from the brink of defeat with a much needed victory.