May 30, 1862 – Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston received vital intelligence that prompted him to plan an attack on the Federals isolated south of the Chickahominy River.
Most of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was positioned north of what he called “the confounded Chickahominy.” Part of the reason the river was “confounded” was because it was at flood stage, making it difficult for McClellan to unite the right and left wings of his army if needed.
The right wing consisted of three corps totaling 76,000 men. The left wing south of the river consisted of IV and III corps under Generals Erasmus D. Keyes and Samuel P. Heintzelman respectively. These two corps totaled just 34,000 men. Keyes held the forward positions near Fair Oaks Station to the north and the village of Seven Pines, where three roads intersected, to the south. Heintzelman was in reserve.
McClellan had dangerously separated his army based on assurances that Major General Irvin McDowell was coming to reinforce his right. When McDowell was redirected to counter the recent successes of “Stonewall” Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, McClellan condemned the Lincoln administration and began preparing to reunite his force. Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, commanding the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, reported from his observation balloon that Confederate troops were massing near Fair Oaks Station, but McClellan did not act on this intelligence.
By this time, Johnston’s Confederate army had swelled to nearly 75,000 men, and they now had to either fight or flee. Johnston informed President Jefferson Davis that he would attack McClellan’s right wing on the morning of the 29th to keep McDowell from linking to it. Davis wrote his wife Varina (whom he had sent out of Richmond in case of a Federal attack), “We are steadily developing for a great battle, and under God’s favor I trust for a decisive victory.”
Davis hoped that Johnston would have attacked already, but Johnston was in the process of changing his strategy. At a council of war on the night of May 28, Johnston received an important message from Brigadier General Jeb Stuart stating that McDowell’s Federals were moving back toward the Rappahannock and not linking with McClellan as feared. Johnston responded by canceling his plan to attack McClellan’s right and reverting to his original (and more desirable) plan of attacking the isolated left wing.
Johnston did not inform Davis that the attack on the right had been canceled. When Davis heard no sounds of battle as expected on the 29th, he and General Robert E. Lee, his top advisor, rode to Mechanicsville to find out why. There they learned that McDowell was not reinforcing McClellan.
Meanwhile, Johnston began laying the groundwork for his attack south of the Chickahominy, with some skirmishing breaking out near Seven Pines and diversionary fighting occurring north of the Chickahominy near the South Anna River. The next day, Johnston received a report from Confederate scouts stating that the Federals south of the Chickahominy were strong on their left (near Seven Pines) but weak on their right (near Fair Oaks Station). Johnston resolved to attack on May 31.
Johnston divided the army into two wings, with one on either side of the Chickahominy. The right wing would conduct the main assault on the two isolated Federal corps south of the river. Led by Major General James Longstreet, this wing would consist of 22 of the army’s 29 brigades. Under Johnston’s attack plan:
- Longstreet’s six brigades would form the left sector of the attack line, moving down the Nine Mile road to threaten both Fair Oaks Station and Seven Pines.
- Major General D.H. Hill’s four brigades would form the center sector, moving down the Williamsburg road to attack the Federals at Seven Pines.
- Major General Benjamin Huger’s three brigades would support Hill’s right from the Charles City road.
- Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s division would be behind Longstreet on the left in reserve.
Major General Gustavus W. Smith, the second ranking officer behind Johnston, would lead the Confederate left wing north of the Chickahominy. There, divisions under Generals A.P. Hill and John B. Magruder would launch diversionary attacks against the three Federal corps.
Johnston’s plan was sound but somewhat complicated. Johnston’s vague, even contradictory, orders to the commanders, as well as his insistence on secrecy, complicated the plan even further. And heavy storms on the night of the 30th threatened to bog the advance down in mud. However, the storms also worked to Johnston’s advantage because they flooded the Chickahominy, making it even more difficult for McClellan to unite his two wings.
Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 136-38; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 147; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 177; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 443-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 159-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3466-90; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 439-42; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 217; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 461; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 668