‘Brave But Vain Valor’: Letter from the Battle of Malvern Hill | HistoryNet MENU

‘Brave But Vain Valor’: Letter from the Battle of Malvern Hill

By John Churchman
4/26/2017 • Civil War Times Magazine

Lieutenant George W. Finley’s previously unpublished letter describes the ordeal he and the 14th Virginia endured during the July 1862 Battle of Malvern Hill.

BORN AT MELROSE PLANTATION in Yanceyville, N.C., and raised in Clarksville, Va., George Williamson Finley belonged to a group of students dismissed from Washington College (Va.) in March 1858 for burning two professors in effigy. It proved to be only a temporary setback. After his father, Augustus, a plantation owner, intervened, George apologized and was readmitted. He graduated in June with honors—one of the top students in his class.

Finley returned to Clarksville and joined his father working at the Exchange Bank of Virginia while helping to run the family plantation, Portora. When his father died of pneumonia on Christmas Day 1858, George assumed Portora’s management reins.

On January 19, 1861—as the nation’s secession crisis was heightening—Finley received his captain’s commission and organized a militia company called the Clarksville Blues. When his home state seceded, his unit became Company E of the 14th Virginia Infantry. For a time he commanded an artillery battery defending Richmond’s James River defenses and then served with the 14th as part of Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s Brigade at the Battles of Seven Pines and Malvern Hill, as well as in the Second Manassas and Maryland campaigns. After briefly resigning from the army, Finley returned to the ranks in the spring of 1863 as a first lieutenant in the 56th Virginia Infantry.

Finley led his company on July 3 at Gettysburg. He recalled of Pickett’s Charge: “Gen. Armistead, on foot, strode over the stone fence, leading his brigade most gallantly, with his hat on his sword and calling upon his men to charge. A few of us followed him until, just as he put his hand upon one of the abandoned guns, he was shot down.” Finley was soon captured and held as a POW until May 14, 1865. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister after the war.

Throughout the war George Finley maintained regular correspondence with his wife, the former Margaret Booker, and other family members. This letter, written two days after the Battle of Malvern Hill, is one of several he wrote detailing his combat experiences.

In the Field

3d July 1862

My darling wife,

I know your heart has been throbbing with anxiety about me for the last week or ten days, & I have been half crazy for a chance to relieve you. Until today I have had neither the material nor the opportunity to write. I have not heard any thing from home since the stirring events of the past ten days commenced—I suppose your letters to me are still in Richmond somewhere. My dear Margaret knows I would not have allowed that long silence on my part could I have prevented it. When I wrote to you last there were rumors in Camp about a grand advance to cooperate with Jackson in the rear of McClellan. This Rumor proved correct, as you already know. Indeed I expect you all know more about what has been done than we do. The fight commenced on our extreme left & as the enemy was driven back our different divisions were brought into action. I look back at the duties & dangers of the past week with a heart full of gratitude to the Merciful God who has protected me through them all. Since last Tuesday a week ago but one day up to yesterday has passed that I have not been under fire. On that day we were ordered to our front line of rifle pits about half a mile from our pickets. The enemy advancing in force drove in a portion of our pickets. Together with other troops we advanced to their support. That portion of the line where we were was not much engaged, but the enemy shelled us all along the line. From Wednesday until Sunday we were in the woods either skirmishing with the enemy or supporting our skirmishers. We had but one man wounded. The enemy fired over our heads nearly every time. Once or twice a ball seemed to graze me. Sunday morning we found the enemy had retired, leaving very formidable works which we had heard them constructing. We were soon under arms, & marched across to the Charles City road & went down it to intercept the Yankees. About ten miles from Richmond we came upon their scouts. Mahone’s Brigade was in front and Armistead’s (ours) just behind him. The advanced guard drove off the scouts killing several with no loss on our side. We halted as darkness had overtaken us. We lay on our arms until about two o’ clock next day, when we were hurried to the front. The enemy had blockaded the road & as our troops began to remove the obstructions their artillery opened upon us. Our battery was brought up and an artillery duel commenced last ing until night. We lost some 25 or 30 killed & wounded, none from our regiment. One poor victim in the 38th had his head knocked off—he was lying about twenty steps to my right when it occurred. Whether the enemy lost any or not we do not know[.] While the cannonade was going on Longstreet was having a severe fight about 2 miles to our right. He took a number of prisoners & guns. During the night the enemy retired from before us[,] so next morning our brigade was put in advance & we moved to our right passing through the battle field of Longstreet’s Div. the evening before & taking up our position about a mile to [the] right nearer [the] James River laid down in a piece of thick woods. We had not been there long before the enemy commenced throwing shells all over & around us. Three of our men were wounded, two of them seriously. After a while they stopped. Generals Longstreet & Magruder came up & after looking at the ground said it would be a splendid place for our batteries to annoy the enemy. So a battery was ordered up & our brigade ordered to support it. Here is where the egregious blunder of the day was committed. Instead of one or even two Batteries of ten or twelve guns, at least 30 guns should have been ordered up. The enemy had taken position upon a high hill about a mile from the edge of the woods where we were. Between us & them was an open field part of it in corn & wheat or oats—

The country was very hilly or rolling. To give you perhaps a little clearer idea of the position I enclose a little sketch. All along the line B, the Yankees had splendid Batteries of heavy field guns sweeping every inch of the field except the bottoms between the hills. As soon as our batteries came into position we rushed out & drove in their sharp shooters who were lying in the clover around the grave yards (C) & barn (D). No sooner had we risen the crest of the hill than the Yankees opened [fire] & for 6 hours they rained death upon us. There was some misunderstanding of orders & [with] every body shouting forward away over the fields we dashed, the shells & cannister cutting our men down all around me. I am confident a dozen shells (not to mention the fragments) passed not two feet over my head while numbers struck the ground to my right & left[;] had I been standing up I must have been killed. Throwing myself flat on my stomach I crawled on, watching the enemy’s guns. While they were loading I would jump up & run forward a few paces & then lie down. I was at the graveyard when a shell struck the right hand corner killing Capt [Charles] Bruce of Halifax & several men besides wounding a good many. I turned then & made for the Barn which I reached with difficulty as I was nearly exhausted the evening being intensely hot—lying behind the barn to rest a while. I took a good look at the enemy between the logs. While I was there they put three shells through the house but did not hurt me. After resting I jumped up & ran forward to the crest of hill E, where our troops[—]what there was left of them[—] had halted to wait for reinforcements. They had silenced our guns & our position was a critical one. When a shout rose in our rear & the long looked for succor dashed over the hill[,] closing upon us the whole line moved forward to try & take the battery. Brave but vain valor! The Yankees swarmed upon the hill in front while at least thirty guns thundered in our faces. Grape, cannister shell & musketry fell like hail. [S]till our men stood their ground for hour after hour until late in the night—the firing ceased on both sides & the tired armies rested from their bloody work, each in its position.

Upon the still night air rise the cries of the wounded. The troops were all mixed up. Regiments could find but squads of their men. After a long search I found Col [James B.] Hodges & Col [Moses F.T.] Evans with about twenty men—Both the Cols had been disabled early in the action by shocks from shells. Col Hodges had all his whiskers on one side burnt off. It is impossible to know definitely much about our loss. I know it was heavy far more so than that of the Yankees. Nor can I see that we gained anything although the Yankees retired during the night. [S]till I think they were only carrying out their intention to get to the river. Yesterday opened with a drenching rain. I got permission from the Genl [Armistead] to come back to our wagons as I was still suffering from Diarrhoea [sic]. I got to them about night soaking wet. Got [a] tent and dry clothes & am here this morning right sick[.] As soon as I can see a doctor I shall try to get home, but think it extremely doubtful whether he will let me go.

The Clarksville Blues suffered as much if not more than any company in our Regiment. Two I know were killed in the field for I saw them. Lawson and Bird Phillips. Joe Arnold lost his Right arm. Peter Wyler lost an arm. Hillery Elam shot in the neck & breast. Dick Irwin through [the] arms. Archer Saddler through [the] thigh [but] not seriously. Robb Scott is safe & Billy Watkins. More may be injured that I have not heard of. Let us all render hearty thanks to our God for his protecting mercy. Tell Mother & sister to pray for me. Give them much love from me. I am so anxious to get home. How is my little darling[?] I hope she is not sick much. My dear dear wife I want to see you so badly to join in ascribing thanks to God for his Mercy. Good bye, God bless you & all that are near & dear to me—

Your devoted Husband

I send Daniel (who is pretty well) with this to Richd Direct your letters to Tom Potts & I will send Danl for them

 

Originally published in the December 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.

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