By Dr. Walter G. Howell
The Mississippi College Riﬂes began the Seven Days campaign with 76 men on the company roll. Fifty-four soldiers from the original company of 130 were discharged for various reasons, transferred to other units, wounded and sent home to recuperate, killed in action, died in winter quarters or deserted. The only time the Riﬂes were at full strength was at Manassas at the beginning of the war.
After taking command of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee launched an attack on McClellan’s right ﬂank at Mechanicsville on June 26. The Union army ﬁred a heavy artillery barrage against the charging Confederates, inﬂicting heavy casualties. McClellan saw it as a defeat and pulled his army back, moving to the southwest of Richmond. Lee suffered 1,500 casualties at Mechanicsville but pushed forward.
The Riﬂes were not engaged in the ﬁghting at Mechanicsville but marched with other Confederate soldiers against the retreating Union army as it stopped brieﬂy to ﬁght at Gaines’ Mill, Savage Station and Frayser’s Farm. Riﬂes’ casualties were light, just two wounded. McClellan was not losing battles to Lee, but he was unwilling to stop and face Lee’s smaller army. McClellan pulled back to Malvern Hill, a high ground not far from the James River, where Union gunboats could support his army.
Lee had his commanders – Stonewall Jackson, James Longstreet, A. P. Hill and John Magruder – together with the entire Army of Northern Virginia at one place for the ﬁrst time. McClellan, in contrast, had subordinates to command his army at Malvern Hill while he rode to Harrison’s Landing to prepare his next line of defense.
The two armies were twelve hundred yards apart when Lee ordered an artillery attack on the Union line on July 1. His strategy was to maul the Union forces again and push them back to the river. The Union gunboats on the James River ﬁred over Malvern Hill directly on the Confederate line. Realizing he could not win an artillery duel, Lee ordered several assaults on the Union line, only to pull his army back because of the heavy artillery and gunboat ﬁre.
The Riﬂes were ﬁghting in a brigade under General Barksdale at Malvern Hill and were part of the assaults on the hill. Barksdale later descried the Union artillery barrages as “a terrible ﬁre.” Finally, Lee withdrew his army out of range of the Union artillery, and the last battle of the Seven Days ended. Confederate casualties were staggering: 866 killed, 4,235 wounded, and 535 missing and presumed dead at Malvern Hill.
The Riﬂes had forty-seven men in formation in Malvern Hill. Radford Ellis, an original Riﬂe from Bolton, was killed in the battle. James Bridges of Copiah County was wounded, lost a leg and died shortly thereafter. Peyton and Thomas Moffett, grandsons of Cowles Mead, died at Malvern Hill. Their older brother Ulysses Moffett, Jr., had joined the Riﬂes a month earlier and survived the battle. The Confederate government in Richmond ordered him discharged and sent home.
Historians believe Lee could have won at Malvern Hill; but, in the fog of war, there was confusion over orders and timing. Lee’s assaults against the Union line came in waves rather than the one attack he ordered on the Union front. He faced a larger army; but, if his orders had been followed, he could have prevailed.
On July 4, 1862, still facing each other at Malvern Hill, soldiers of both armies declared a truce. They picked blackberries together, talked about the ﬁghting, traded coffee (Yankees) for tobacco (Rebels) and newspapers.
McClellan pulled his army back to Harrison’s Landing and requested additional troops to continue the campaign. Lee prepared his army for an invasion of Maryland.
Editor’s note: 2011 marked the beginning of the sesquicentennial observation of the American Civil War. This is the ninth in a series of pieces by Dr. Walter Howell that will follow the movements of the Mississippi College Riﬂes, the fate of Clintonians involved in the ﬁghting and other events on the home front.