seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of Malvern Hill

battle-of-malvern-hillIrish take up arms against each other in the American Civil War as the Irish Brigade of the Union Army and the Confederate 6th Regiment, Louisiana Infantry take part in the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862.

Also known as the Battle of Poindexter’s Farm, the Battle of Malvern Hill is fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac under Major General George B. McClellan. It is the final battle of the Seven Days Battles, taking place on a 130-foot elevation of land known as Malvern Hill, near the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia and just one mile from the James River. Including inactive reserves, more than fifty thousand soldiers from each side take part, using more than two hundred pieces of artillery and three warships.

The Seven Days Battles are the climax of the Peninsula Campaign, during which McClellan’s Army of the Potomac sails around the Confederate lines, lands at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula, southeast of Richmond, and strikes inland towards the Confederate capital. Confederate commander-in-chief Joseph E. Johnston fends off McClellan’s repeated attempts to take the city, slowing Union progress on the peninsula to a crawl. When Johnston is wounded, Lee takes command and launches a series of counterattacks, collectively called the Seven Days Battles. These attacks culminate in the action on Malvern Hill.

The Union’s V Corps, commanded by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter, takes up positions on the hill on June 30. McClellan is not present for the initial exchanges of the battle, having boarded the ironclad USS Galena and sailed down the James River to inspect Harrison’s Landing, where he intends to locate the base for his army. Confederate preparations are hindered by several mishaps. Bad maps and faulty guides cause Confederate Major General John B. Magruder to be late for the battle, an excess of caution delays Major General Benjamin Huger, and Major General Stonewall Jackson has problems collecting the Confederate artillery.

The battle occurs in stages: an initial exchange of artillery fire, a minor charge by Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, and three successive waves of Confederate infantry charges triggered by unclear orders from Lee and the actions of Major Generals Magruder and Daniel Harvey Hill, respectively. In each phase, the effectiveness of the Federal artillery is the deciding factor, repulsing attack after attack, resulting in a tactical Union victory.

After the battle, McClellan and his forces withdraw from Malvern Hill to Harrison’s Landing, where he remains until August 16. His plan to capture Richmond has been thwarted. In the course of four hours, a series of blunders in planning and communication had caused Lee’s forces to launch three failed frontal infantry assaults across hundreds of yards of open ground, unsupported by Confederate artillery, charging toward firmly entrenched Union infantry and artillery defenses. These errors provide Union forces with an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.

The human toll of the Battle of Malvern Hill and the Seven Days Battles is shown clearly as both capitals, Washington and Richmond, set up numerous provisional hospitals to care for the dead and wounded. Ships sails from the Peninsula to Washington carrying the wounded. Richmond is nearest to the battlefields of the Seven Days, and the immense number of casualties overwhelms hospitals and doctors. People from about the Confederacy descend upon Richmond to care for the conflict’s casualties. Graves cannot be dug quickly enough. In total, the Confederacy counts some 5,650 casualties while the Union Army estimates approximately 3,000 casualties.

In the aftermath of the battle the Confederate press heralds Lee as the savior of Richmond. In stark contrast, McClellan is accused of being absent from the battlefield, a harsh criticism that haunts him when he runs for president in 1864.

(Pictured: A watercolor painting of the Battle of Malvern Hill, made by Robert Sneden during the American Civil War at Malvern Hill in Henrico County, Virginia. Sneden was the mapmaker for Samuel P. Heintzelman’s III Corps.)


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Pickett’s Charge

On July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as the sun rises behind the men of Colonel Dennis O’Kane’s Irish 69th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry on Cemetery Ridge, the most famous assault of the American Civil War is being prepared across the mile of open field in front of them. The 69th Pennsylvania will be at the very vortex of that assault, now known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge.

Pickett’s Charge is an infantry assault ordered by Confederate General Robert E. Lee against Major General George G. Meade‘s Union positions on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Its futility is predicted by the charge’s commander, Lt. General James Longstreet, and it is arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovers militarily or psychologically. The farthest point reached by the attack has been referred to as the high-water mark of the Confederacy.  The charge is named after Maj. General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who lead the assault under Longstreet.

Pickett’s charge is part of Lee’s “general plan” to take Cemetery Hill and the network of roads it commands. On the night of July 2, Meade correctly predicts at a council of war that Lee will attack the center of his lines the following morning.

At 1:00 PM on July 3, a massive artillery bombardment by the Confederate guns sails mostly over the heads of the 69th. The bombardment is meant to soften up the Union defense and silence its artillery, but is largely ineffective. About 3:00 PM the barrage slackens and the rebel infantrymen begin their assault. “And let your work this day be for victory or to the death,” Colonel Dennis O’Kane tells his men as the furious rebel onslaught approaches. Approximately 12,500 men in nine infantry brigades advance over open fields for three-quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire.

Soon the 69th is forced to refuse both flanks as the Confederate tide rolls up to them and laps around both sides. While many around them run, the 69th stands fast. Although some Confederates are able to breach the low stone wall that shields many of the Union defenders, they cannot maintain their hold and are repulsed with over 50% casualties. The regiment’s tenacious stand in front of the famous copse of trees is a pivotal part of the crucial Union victory and a decisive defeat for the Confederacy that ends the three-day battle and Lee’s campaign into Pennsylvania.

Good to his word, Colonel O’Kane is killed and, lying dead near the 69th’s position, wearing gray lay Pvt. Willie Mitchel of the 1st Virginia Infantry, son of Irish patriot John Mitchel. At the most crucial battle of America’s Civil War, Irish are killing Irish on a foreign field once again.

Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, Pickett replies, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”