Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks

The Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks (May 31–June 1, 1862) was an attempt by forces under Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston to repulse the Union Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan from the outskirts of Richmond during the American Civil War (1861–1865). Due to poor coordination, communications failure, and a confused command structure, the battle ended in a stalemate, with heavy casualties for both sides that far outstripped the last major confrontation in the East, the First Battle of Manassas (July 21, 1861), but paled in comparison to the recent carnage at Shiloh, Tennessee (April 6–7, 1862). The most momentous event of the battle occurred as night fell on May 31, when an exploding Union shell gravely wounded Johnston. Confederate president Jefferson Davis took the opportunity to place his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, in command of the Confederate army. MORE...

 

Background

By the end of May 1862, McClellan's Army of the Potomac was menacing the Confederate capital at Richmond. Johnston had successfully slowed McClellan's advance, in part by skillfully playing for time at the siege of Yorktown until the Confederate evacuation on May 3. Johnston continued his withdrawal up the Peninsula, and no substantial fighting took place apart from a sharp skirmish between the Confederate rear guard and the Army of the Potomac at Williamsburg on May 4. Confederate president Jefferson Davis, as well as his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, demanded action from Johnston, especially because the Army of the Potomac was now camped within miles of Richmond.

The deployment of McClellan's army suggested a possible avenue of attack. Two of his corps lay south of the Chickahominy River, separated from the remainder of the Union army. Of these two corps, the Fourth Corps of Union general Erasmus D. Keyes had moved on May 24 to the village of Seven Pines, several miles from the nearest supporting Union troops. Three major roads led to the town—Nine Mile Road, Williamsburg Road, and Charles City Road. Johnston prepared a plan of attack: first, he would envelop the lone Fourth Corps and then, once it had been shattered, attack the Third Corps of Samuel P. Heintzelman. The Chickahominy River, swollen by heavy rains, would prevent reinforcement from Union troops north of the river, who relied on a lone, rickety structure known as the Grapevine Bridge to get across. Confederate troops, moving along the three roads, would encircle Keyes. Johnston initially planned the attack for May 29, but delays by subordinate Gustavus Woodson Smith pushed it back to May 30.

The Battle

Johnston's plan ran into trouble from the start. He could not coordinate his command effectively; Confederate regulations made no allowance for the organization of troops into corps, so Johnston had to divide his army into ad hoc "wings." This unwieldy command structure, coupled with the plan to move along three different thoroughfares, spelled trouble. Johnston's most trusted subordinate, James Longstreet, created additional difficulties. Longstreet, a sometimes shameless self-aggrandizer thirsty for additional authority and acclaim, changed the plan of attack without informing Johnston so that his troops could enjoy a more prominent role in the assault. Finally, the weather contributed to Confederate difficulties, as wet and muddy roads slowed troop movement.

Johnston's plan called for D. H. Hill to open the battle at eight o'clock in the morning, but Longstreet's meddling resulted in a traffic jam, delaying Hill's assault. Meanwhile, Union division commander Silas Casey observed Confederate activity along the roads throughout the morning. Suspecting an attack rather than a probe, Casey ordered some of his troops under arms.

About one o'clock in the afternoon, the pugnacious and combative Hill launched the attack with his division despite the fact that he had no idea whether any of the other Confederate elements had reached their assigned positions. Casey, while leery of a Confederate attack, had failed to inform his men that he suspected one was imminent, and thus Hill's men shattered the first line of Casey's division shortly after 1:00 p.m. The Union forces subsequently put up a strong fight and fell back to a line of rifle pits, but by three o'clock the Confederates had broken that position as well. Exhausted by the fighting, Hill's division, in the parlance of the time, was "played out." Union troops from the Third Corps under Philip Kearny began to arrive on the field, bolstering the Union line.

Meanwhile, Union general Edwin V. Sumner of the Second Corps, under orders to remain in readiness to move but having received no direct instructions, moved his divisions south, across the Chickahominy, after hearing the firing. Despite fears that it might fail, the Grapevine Bridge held as Union soldiers tramped across. Confederate general G. W. Smith, receiving word from Hill that his attack had run out of steam, advanced his wing of the Confederate army, intending to strike the Fourth Corps in the flank. W. H. C. Whiting's division led the advance. Proceeding along Nine Mile Road, Whiting's men encountered Darius Couch's division of the Union Second Corps, and swung into battle at Fair Oaks Station at four o'clock. Union general John Sedgwick's division of Sumner's Second Corps had reached Couch at around three o'clock, and they too aligned for battle. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Postmaster General John Reagan, and Joseph Johnston all supervised Smith and Whiting's advance. Fighting raged, but the Confederates could gain no solid advantage despite the fact that Whiting kept feeding more troops into action. As fighting petered out toward nightfall, the Union line at Fair Oaks had extended its flank to rest on the Chickahominy River, protecting the Grapevine Bridge and thus ending the isolation of the Fourth Corps.

Near nightfall, while riding behind Confederate lines near Fair Oaks, Johnston inspected the lines personally. Warned by a staff officer that he was riding dangerously close to the front lines, Johnston replied, "Colonel, there is no use dodging; when you hear them they have passed." Almost immediately thereafter, a spent bullet hit him in the shoulder. Moments after that, one of the last Union artillery shells fired during the battle burst in the air, throwing fragments into Johnston's chest and thigh. Gravely injured, Johnston relinquished command. Next in line stood G. W. Smith, who temporarily assumed command, but relinquished it because of ill health. The Confederate attack had not gone well.

The next morning, June 1, at 6:45, Hill's division renewed attacks in its sector, but, failing to make much headway, ended the effort by 11:30 a.m. Equally exhausted and disorganized by the fighting, the Union troops also settled into their positions. The Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks had ended.

At 1:30 p.m., Davis arrived at Confederate headquarters and informed Smith that General Robert E. Lee would take command of the army. At two o'clock Lee, out on an inspection of the Confederate lines, arrived and received the command he would retain for the remainder of the war.

Aftermath

The Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks resulted in heavy casualties for both sides: approximately 5,000 for the Union and 6,100 for the Confederates. A stalemate, the battle had little significance beyond the replacement of Johnston with Lee. McClellan, ever cautious and deliberate, remained within easy reach of Richmond. The scene was set for Lee's Seven Days' Campaign, which succeeded in defeating McClellan and freeing Richmond from danger.

Time Line

  • May 30, 1862 - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, seeking to protect Richmond from George B. McClellan's army, gives orders for a Confederate attack the following day. He hopes to take advantage of a swollen Chickahominy River and split the Union force in two, attacking first the Union Fourth Corps and then the Third.
  • May 31, 1862, morning - Confused Confederate dispositions, the meddling of Confederate general James Longstreet, and poor roads result in a delay of the planned Confederate attack on Union troops on the Peninsula.
  • May 31, 1862, 1 p.m. - Confederate general D. H. Hill launches his attack against Silas Casey's Union division of the isolated Fourth Corps at Seven Pines.
  • May 31, 1862, 1 p.m. - Hearing firing, Union general Edwin V. Sumner of the Second Corps sets his divisions in motion to move south of the rain-swollen Chickahominy River at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks.
  • May 31, 1862, 3 p.m. - After breaking several Union lines, Confederate general D. H. Hill's men run out of steam during the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks.
  • May 31, 1862, 4 p.m. - Confederate general G. W. Smith's division under G. W. C. Whiting encounters the Union division under the command of Darius N. Couch near Fair Oaks.
  • May 31, 1862, nightfall - Union general Edwin V. Sumner's Second Corps begins to arrive on the field at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks.
  • May 31, 1862, nightfall - Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston is gravely injured by a Union shell; G. W. Smith temporarily assumes command of the Confederate army.
  • June 1, 1862, 6:45 a.m. - Confederate general D. H. Hill renews his attack, but makes little headway at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks.
  • June 1, 1862, 2 p.m. - Confederate president Jefferson Davis assigns Confederate general Robert E. Lee to command the Army of Northern Virginia after Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston is wounded at the Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks.
Further Reading
Newton, Steven H. The Battle of Seven Pines: May 31–June 1, 1862. Lynchburg, Virginia: H. E. Howard, 1993.
Newton, Steven H. Joseph E. Johnston and the Defense of Richmond. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Sears, Stephen W. To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Luebke, P. C. Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks. (2014, October 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Seven_Pines_Battle_of.

  • MLA Citation:

    Luebke, Peter C. "Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Oct. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: February 3, 2010 | Last modified: October 21, 2014


Contributed by Peter C. Luebke, a doctoral student in the department of history at the University of Virginia.