The Union had massed artillery almost wheel hub to wheel hub on the crest of a plateau 150-feet above the James River to cover its retreat to the river from Gen. Lee’s pursuing Rebels. The position had clear fields of fire and was straddled on the flanks by streams and marsh.
Lee, thwarted thus far in his Seven Days aim to destroy Gen. McClellan’s army, nevertheless decided to gamble one last throw on his belief that Union troops were demoralized. They were, after all, throwing away equipment in their rush to the river.
It was, in a smaller way, much like the gamble Lee would make on the third day at Gettysburg a year later with Gen. Pickett’s division.
This time, on a clear and warm Tuesday, July 1, 1862, the divisions of Generals D.H. Hill, Benjamin Huger, and John Magruder would be sent into the flames, piecemeal, sometimes by single brigades. And this time Magruder would not keep the Mississippi Brigade in reserve. They would lead his division.
Spartan Band diarist Private Albert Wymer Henley:
“We were aroused up after a few hours sleep and by daybreak were once more in motion. We marched entirely in the woods in line of battle, our brigade in advance. The ground over which we marched gave ample testimony to the confusion in which the Yankees had left their position: knapsacks, blankets, overcoats, and other baggage literally covered the earth for miles.”
Gart Johnson, a captain in the brigade’s 21st Mississippi Regiment recalled years later in Confederate Veteran Magazine that, in the late afternoon:
“We had been moved up by a circuitous route into dense wood…concealed as we thought, lying down, some crouched behind trees, all doing our best to keep out of danger till we should be called into action.”
The Confederate artillery “was knocked up almost before it could be fired,” Johnson continued, “so perfect was the [Union] range and so many guns bearing down on it.
Three of those disabled guns belonged to the brigade’s attached Richmond Howitzers, whose memoirist Robert Stiles recalled:
“…the shower and storm of projectiles and the overwhelming cataclysm of destruction which were at once turned upon our pitiful little popguns [until] the carriages were completely crushed, smashed and splintered and the guns themselves so injured and defaced that we were compelled to send them to Richmond, after the battle, to be remoulded.
“It was the first battle in which members of the company had been killed outright. The wonder is that any survived who were working those three pieces; but I suppose it is to be accounted for by the fact that the guns were quickly disabled and put out of action.”
“Then,” infantryman Johnson continued, “when our artillery was silenced, they began to feel for us.
“At first the shells burst in the tops of trees, then a little lower and then a little lower, and down came limbs mingled with pieces of shells. Then they began to burst in our midst, one shell killing and wounding seven men, setting the clothes of one of the latter on fire. A most horrifying sight.
“It was at this point that [Gen. Barksdale] mounted his horse and yelled: ‘Attention! This brigade must take that battery.'”
Johnson’s memory is curious, Barksdale’s words being almost exactly what he was reported to have said at Gettysburg a year later. But if he was to survive until then, he could not have been on a horse. For the brigade was facing not one battery but dozens of massed guns, with many more in reserve. Many of them were manned by regulars, who were supported by New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts infantry.
The brigade’s advance led out of the dense woods, across almost 1000 yards of open ground, up a gentle slope through a smoke-covered field, into the depressed hot muzzles of the cannon awaiting them. Cannon which had already bloodily repulsed thousands of other troops. Three brigade color bearers fell. Barksdale took up the brigade banner and led the men on, shot and shell thinning the ranks all the way.
The 13th was on the right of the brigade battle line and advanced with it to within 300 yards of the enemy. The official after action report was written by Major Kennon McElroy, Lieutenant Colonel John Carter having been severely wounded. McElroy’s report reads like something out of Pickett’s Charge:
“There the regiment was halted and the line dressed, and I can testify that, although exposed to a most withering fire and our men falling on every hand, the line was promptly dressed without confusion, and when the command forward was given, advanced in splendid style to within 100 yards of the enemy. Here the regiment was again halted behind the brow of a hill and ordered to fire. For nearly one hour we held this advanced position without support on either flank.”
At dark, still smothered in choking white powder smoke and yellow sawdust packed into the canister rounds fired at them shotgun-like by the Union artillery, the brigade was ordered to fall back to its first halted position, 300 yards from the enemy.
The battle was a terrific Confederate defeat, costing them more than 5,300 fallen. It had nevertheless saved Richmond. The brigade’s official casualty total was 91 killed and 434 wounded; that of the 13th Mississippi was 28 killed and 107 wounded.
But the 13th’s independent historian Jess N. McLean found casualty reports by name for the regiment totaling 48 killed and
68 61 wounded.
As Gen. D.H. Hill famously said later: “It was not war, it was murder.”
Minutemen of Attala diarist Mike Hubbert [whose illness kept him out of the battle] mournfully concluded: “There we lost some of our bravest and best men whose bones are now lying bleaching in the sand of Malvern Hill.”