The Battle of Seven Pines: Day Two

June 1, 1862 – Fighting resumed at Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, after the Federals had spent the night bringing up reinforcements and strengthening defenses.

The battle continued around Seven Pines at dawn. Major General Gustavus W. Smith, commanding the Confederate army after the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston, directed Major General James Longstreet’s men to attack around Fair Oaks, north of Seven Pines, with Major General D.H. Hill in support. However, the Federals had reinforced their lines in anticipation of such a move.

On the Federal side, Professor Thaddeus Lowe observed the fighting and the Confederate positions from his observation balloon, the Intrepid, as it hovered about 300 feet in the air. He telegraphed reports on the battle’s progress to Federal headquarters, but Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, did not act upon Lowe’s information.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:
Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

At Richmond that morning, President Jefferson Davis formally wrote to General Robert E. Lee, his top advisor, that Johnston’s wounding “renders it necessary to interfere temporarily with the duties to which you were assigned in connection with the general service, but only so far as to make you available for command in the field of a particular army.”

Meanwhile, the Confederates renewed their assaults. The flooded terrain and dense foliage helped hide the troops from each other, but it also hampered maneuverability, and the attacks came in the same ineffective, piecemeal fashion as the previous day. The Federals held strong defenses that were reinforced by Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson’s division of II Corps and two brigades of Brigadier General Joseph Hooker’s division of III Corps.

Smith held a division on the Nine Mile road ready to attack when Longstreet reached his designated position. Longstreet attacked with just two brigades, fearing the Federals would counterattack and destroy his force. The Confederate assault was easily repulsed, and Longstreet withdrew around 11:30 a.m. The sound of battle faded off before Smith could commit the waiting troops.

McClellan, who was ill, rose from his sickbed and rode out to the battlefield to assess the situation. But he did not order a counterattack or a pursuit. This was an anti-climactic ending to the largest battle fought up to that time on the Virginia Peninsula.

Both sides each committed about 42,000 men to this two-day battle. Of those, the Federals sustained 5,031 casualties (790 killed, 3,594 wounded, and 647 missing or captured), and the Confederates lost 6,134 (980 killed, 4,749 wounded, and 405 captured or missing). The Federals called the battle “Fair Oaks” because they had their most success there; Confederates called it “Seven Pines” for the same reason. Most of the combat occurred on the first day at Seven Pines.

The fight ended in a bloody stalemate, with Johnston’s chief of ordnance asserting that it had been “phenomenally mismanaged.” McClellan could claim a tactical victory for holding his ground and inflicting more casualties on the enemy. But he was so unnerved by his own losses that he would not counterattack. President Abraham Lincoln wired McClellan three times, urging him, “Hold all your ground, or yield any only, inch by inch, and in good order.”

Two hours after the fighting stopped, Davis arrived at Smith’s headquarters to inform him that Lee was now the new army commander. Smith, who had been battling illness, went on the sick list the next day and did not return to the army for two months.

Lee set up headquarters in the home of Mary Dabbs, about a mile and a half from the Richmond suburbs, and issued his first order: “In pursuance of the orders of the President, General R.E. Lee assumes command.” Lee called the force the “Army of Northern Virginia” after the Department of Northern Virginia to which it belonged, though it had not been consistently referred to by the name until Lee began the trend.

Lee then assessed the confusing situation and decided to reset the army by returning the men to the positions they had held before the battle. The Federals south of the Chickahominy River stayed where they were. McClellan soon began shifting his troops on the north side to the south until only V Corps remained north of the Chickahominy.

On the day after the battle, McClellan wrote his wife: “I feel sure of success, so good is the spirit of my men and so great their ardor. But I am tired of the battle-field, with its mangled corpses and poor wounded. Victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost.”

Davis wrote on that same day:

“On Saturday (May 31) we had a severe battle and suffered severely in attacking the enemy’s entrenchments of which our Generals were poor informed… Unaccountable delays in bringing some of our troops into action prevented us from gaining a decisive victory on Saturday. The opportunity being lost we must try to find another.”

Meanwhile, Lee held a council of war at Confederate army headquarters, where he listened to the opinions of his division and brigade commanders. Some division commanders thought he was careless for discussing plans with brigadiers, but Lee gave no sign of what he planned to do.

This was the first time Lee had been placed in command of a major army. He had failed in western Virginia, been unimpressive in South Carolina, and served as an unofficial advisor to Davis since early this year. Few soldiers celebrated his arrival, and few southerners had faith that Lee could save Richmond.



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