Start: 1862-05-31 End: 1862-06-01
The Battle of Seven Pines, also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks or Fair Oaks Station, took place on May 31 and June 1, 1862, in Henrico County, Virginia, as part of the Peninsula Campaign of the American Civil War. It was the culmination of an offensive up the Virginia Peninsula by Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, in which the Army of the Potomac reached the outskirts of Richmond.
On May 31, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to overwhelm two Federal corps that appeared isolated south of the Chickahominy River. The Confederate assaults, although not well coordinated, succeeded in driving back the IV Corps and inflicting heavy casualties. Reinforcements arrived, and both sides fed more and more troops into the action. Supported by the III Corps and Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s division of Maj. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s II Corps (which crossed the rain-swollen river on Grapevine Bridge), the Federal position was finally stabilized. Gen. Johnston was seriously wounded during the action, and command of the Confederate army devolved temporarily to Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith. On June 1, the Confederates renewed their assaults against the Federals, who had brought up more reinforcements, but made little headway. Both sides claimed victory.
Although the battle was tactically inconclusive, it was the largest battle in the Eastern Theater up to that time (and second only to Shiloh in terms of casualties thus far, about 11,000 total) and marked the end of the Union offensive, leading to the Seven Days Battles and Union retreat in late June.
Johnston withdrew his 60,000-man army from the Virginia Peninsula as McClellan’s army pursued him and approached the Confederate capital of Richmond. Johnston’s defensive line began at the James River at Drewry’s Bluff, site of the recent Confederate naval victory, and extended counter clockwise so that his center and left were behind the Chickahominy River, a natural barrier in the spring when it turned the broad plains to the east of Richmond into swamps. Johnston’s men burned most of the bridges over the Chickahominy and settled into strong defensive positions north and east of the city. McClellan positioned his 105,000-man army to focus on the northeast sector, for two reasons. First, the Pamunkey River, which ran roughly parallel to the Chickahominy, offered a line of communication that could enable McClellan to get around Johnston’s left flank. Second, McClellan anticipated the arrival of the I Corps under Maj. Gen. Irwin McDowell, scheduled to march south from Fredericksburg to reinforce his army, and thus needed to protect their avenue of approach.
The Army of the Potomac pushed slowly up the Pamunkey, establishing supply bases at Eltham’s Landing, Cumberland Landing, and White House Landing. White House, the plantation of W.H.F. “Rooney” Lee, son of General Robert E. Lee, became McClellan’s base of operations. Using the Richmond and York River Railroad, McClellan could bring his heavy siege artillery to the outskirts of Richmond. He moved slowly and deliberately, reacting to faulty intelligence that led him to believe the Confederates outnumbered him significantly. By the end of May, the army had built bridges across the Chickahominy and was facing Richmond, straddling the river, with one third of the Army south of the river, two thirds north.
The Union Army of the Potomac of 105,000 men was near the outskirts of Richmond to the northeast, straddling the Chickahominy River. There were three Corps north of the river, protecting the Union railroad supply line: the V Corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter; the VI Corps, under Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin; and the II Corps, under Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner. South of the river were the IV Corps, under Brig. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes, in a position far forward and close to the Confederate lines; and the III Corps, under Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman. At the start of the battle on May 31, McClellan was confined to bed, ill with a flare-up of his chronic malaria.
Johnston had 60,000 men in his Army of Northern Virginia protecting the defensive works of Richmond. His command consisted of the Right Wing, under Maj. Gen. James Longstreet (the divisions of Brig. Gen. Richard H. Anderson, commanding Longstreet’s division, Maj. Gen. D. H. Hill, and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Huger), the Left Wing, under Maj. Gen. G.W. Smith (the divisions of Brig. Gen. William H. C. Whiting, commanding Smith’s division, and Maj. Gen. A. P. Hill), and the Reserve, under Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder (the divisions of Brig. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and David R. Jones).
Johnston, who had retreated up the Peninsula to the outskirts of Richmond, knew that he could not survive a massive siege and decided to attack McClellan. His original plan was to attack the Union right flank, north of the Chickahominy River, before McDowell’s corps, marching south from Fredericksburg, could arrive. However, on May 27, the same day the Battle of Hanover Court House was fought northeast of Richmond, Johnston learned that McDowell’s corps had been diverted to the Shenandoah Valley and would not be reinforcing the Army of the Potomac. He decided against attacking across his own natural defense line, the Chickahominy, and planned to capitalize on the Union army’s straddle of the river by attacking the two corps south of the river, leaving them isolated from the other three corps north of the river.
If executed correctly, Johnston would engage two thirds of his army (22 of its 29 infantry brigades, about 51,000 men) against the 33,000 men in the III and IV Corps. The Confederate attack plan was complex, calling for the divisions of A. P. Hill and Magruder to engage lightly and distract the Union forces north of the river, while Longstreet, commanding the main attack south of the river, was to converge on Keyes from three directions: six brigades under Longstreet’s immediate command and four brigades under D. H. Hill were to advance on separate roads at a crossroads known as Seven Pines (because of seven large pine trees clustered at that location); three brigades under Huger were assigned to support Hill’s right; Whiting’s division was to follow Longstreet’s column as a reserve. The plan had an excellent potential for initial success because the division of the IV Corps farthest forward, manning the earthworks a mile west of Seven Pines, was that of Brig. Gen. Silas Casey, 6,000 men who were the least experienced in Keyes’ corps. If Keyes could be defeated, the III Corps, to the east, could be pinned against the Chickahominy and overwhelmed.
The complex plan was mismanaged from the start. Johnston chose to issue his orders to Longstreet orally in a long and rambling meeting on May 30. The other generals received written orders that were vague and contradictory. He also failed to notify all of the division commanders that Longstreet was in tactical command south of the river. (This missing detail was a serious oversight because both Huger and Smith technically outranked Longstreet.) On Longstreet’s part, he either misunderstood his orders or chose to modify them without informing Johnston. Rather than taking his assigned avenue of advance on the Nine Mile Road, his column joined Hill’s on the Williamsburg Road, which not only delayed the advance, but limited the attack to a narrow front with only a fraction of its total force. Exacerbating the problems on both sides was a severe thunderstorm on the night of May 30, which flooded the river, destroyed most of the Union bridges, and turned the roads into morasses of mud.
The attack got off to a bad start on May 31 when Longstreet marched down the Charles City Road and turned onto the Williamsburg Road instead of the Nine Mile Road. Huger’s orders had not specified a time that the attack was scheduled to start and he was not awakened until he heard a division marching nearby. Johnston and his second-in-command, Smith, unaware of Longstreet’s location or Huger’s delay, waited at their headquarters for word of the start of the battle. Five hours after the scheduled start, at 1 p.m., D.H. Hill became impatient and sent his brigades forward against Casey’s division.
Casey’s line, manned by inexperienced troops, buckled with some men retreating, but fought fiercely for possession of their earthworks, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. The Confederates only engaged four brigades of the thirteen on their right flank that day, so they did not hit with the power that they could have concentrated on this weak point in the Union line. Casey sent for reinforcements but Keyes was slow in responding. Eventually the mass of Confederates broke through, seized a Union redoubt, and Casey’s men retreated to the second line of defensive works at Seven Pines. During this period, both of the high commanders were unaware of the severity of the battle. As late as 2:30 p.m., Heintzelman reported to McClellan, still sick in bed, that he had received no word from Keyes. Johnston was only 2½ miles from the front, but an acoustic shadow prevented him from hearing the sounds of cannons and musketry and he and his staff did not know the battle had begun until 4 p.m.
The Army of the Potomac was accompanied by the Union Army Balloon Corps commanded by Prof. Thaddeus S. C. Lowe, who had established two balloon camps on the north side of the river, one at Gaines’ Farm and one at Mechanicsville. Lowe reported on May 29 the buildup of Confederate forces to the left of New Bridge or in front of the Fair Oaks train station. With constant rain on May 30 and heavy winds the morning of May 31, the aerostats Washington and Intrepid did not launch until noon. Lowe observed Confederate troops moving in battle formation and this information was relayed verbally to McClellan’s headquarters by 2 p.m. Lowe continued to send reports from the Intrepid via telegraph the remainder of May 31. On June 1, Lowe reported that the Confederate barracks to the left of Richmond as being free from smoke. McClellan did not follow up on this information with a counterattack by his corps north of the Chickahominy River.
Around 4:40 p.m., Hill, now strengthened by reinforcements from Longstreet, hit the secondary Union line near Seven Pines, which was manned by the remnants of Casey’s division, the IV Corps division of Brig. Gen. Darius N. Couch, and Brig. Gen. Philip Kearny’s division from Heintzelman’s III Corps. Hill organized a flanking maneuver, sending four regiments under Colonel Micah Jenkins from Longstreet’s command to attack Keyes’ right flank. The attack collapsed the Federal line back to the Williamsburg Road, a mile and a half beyond Seven Pines. The fighting in that part of the line died out by 7:30 p.m.
Just before Hill’s attack began, Johnston received a note from Longstreet requesting that he join the battle, the first news he had heard of the fighting. Johnston went forward on the Nine Mile Road with three brigades of Whiting’s division and encountered stiff resistance near Fair Oaks Station, the right flank of Keyes’ line. Soon heavy Union reinforcements arrived. Brig. Gen. Edwin C. Sumner, II Corps commander, heard the sounds of battle from his position north of the river. On McClellan’s orders, he dispatched a division under Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick over the sole remaining bridge. The treacherous “Grapevine Bridge” was near collapse from the swollen river, but the weight of the crossing troops helped to hold it steady against the rushing water. When told that the river could not be crossed, Sumner replied
“Impossible!? Sir, I tell you I can cross! I am ordered!”
After the last man had crossed safely, the bridge collapsed and was swept away. Sedgwick’s men provided the key to resisting Whiting’s attack. The fighting was costly as Whiting lost three of four brigade commanders. Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton went down wounded, Robert H. Hatton was killed, and J. Johnston Pettigrew was wounded and captured. On the Union side, Brig. Gen. Oliver O. Howard had his right arm shattered by a Minié ball. The arm was amputated, and he would not return to action for several months.
The most historically significant incident of the day occurred around dusk, when Johnston was struck in the right shoulder by a bullet, immediately followed by a shell fragment hitting him in the chest. He fell unconscious from his horse with a broken right shoulder blade and two broken ribs and was evacuated to Richmond. G.W. Smith assumed temporary command of the army. Smith, plagued with ill health, was indecisive about the next steps for the battle and made a bad impression on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee, Davis’ military adviser. After the end of fighting the following day, Davis replaced Smith with Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia.
On June 1, the Confederates renewed their assaults against the Federals, who had brought up more reinforcements and fought from strong positions, but made little headway. Brig. Gen. Israel B. Richardson’s division of the II Corps had arrived, along with two brigades from Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker’s division of the III Corps (the third under Brig. Gen Cuvier Grover was left behind to guard the bridges at White Oak Swamp). They engaged Huger’s and Longstreet’s divisions, whose lines finally broke under the attacks. The fighting ended about 11:30 a.m. when the Confederates withdrew. McClellan arrived on the battlefield from his sick bed at about this time, but the Union Army did not counterattack.
Both sides claimed victory with roughly equal casualties, but neither side’s accomplishment was impressive. George B. McClellan’s advance on Richmond was halted and the Army of Northern Virginia fell back into the Richmond defensive works. Union casualties were 5,031 (790 killed, 3,594 wounded, 647 captured or missing) and Confederate 6,134 (980 killed, 4,749 wounded, 405 captured or missing). The battle was frequently remembered by the Union soldiers as the Battle of Fair Oaks Station because that is where they did their best fighting, whereas the Confederates, for the same reason, called it Seven Pines. Historian Stephen W. Sears remarked that its current common name, Seven Pines, is the most appropriate because it was at the crossroads of Seven Pines that the heaviest fighting and highest casualties occurred.
Despite claiming victory, McClellan was shaken by the experience. He wrote to his wife,
“I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”
He redeployed all of his army except for the V Corps south of the river, and although he continued to plan for a siege and the capture of Richmond, he lost the strategic initiative. An offensive begun by the new Confederate commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, would be planned while the Union troops passively sat in the outskirts of Richmond. The Seven Days Battles of June 25 through July 1, 1862, drove the Union Army back to the James River and saved the Confederate capital.
The change in leadership of the Confederate Army in the field as a result of Seven Pines had a profound effect on the war. On June 24, 1862, McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac was within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the Confederate capital of Richmond; Union soldiers wrote that they could hear church bells ringing in the city. Within 90 days, however, Robert E. Lee had driven McClellan from the Peninsula, Pope had been soundly beaten at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the battle lines were 20 miles (32 km) from the Union capital in Washington. It would take almost two more years before the Union Army again got that close to Richmond, and almost three years before it finally captured it.