The Puny Efforts of Martial Men

By this time, most of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac was positioned north of what he called “the confounded Chickahominy” River. The river was “confounded” partly 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 the Fourth and Third corps under Major 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.

Maj Gen G.B. McClellan | Image Credit: Wikispaces

McClellan had dangerously separated his army based on assurances that Major General Irvin McDowell was coming down from the Rappahannock River to reinforce his right. When McDowell was instead redirected to 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.

Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army defending Richmond 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 May 29 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 important news from Brigadier General Jeb Stuart 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.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit:

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 his top advisor, General Robert E. Lee, rode to Mechanicsville to find out why. There they learned that McDowell was not reinforcing McClellan. Davis returned to Richmond and wrote his wife, “Thus ended the offensive-defensive programme from which Lee expected much and of which I was hopeful.”

Johnston began laying the groundwork for his attack south of the Chickahominy, with some skirmishing breaking out near Seven Pines and diversionary fighting north of the Chickahominy near the South Anna River. The next day, Johnston received a report from Confederate scouts 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.

The Confederate army was divided 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, 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 Major 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.

According to Longstreet, there was “a terrific storm of vivid lightning, thunderbolts, and rain, as severe as ever known to any climate” on the night of the 30th. A northern reporter wrote that “nature’s artillery rolled and clashed magnificently, as if in stately mockery of the puny efforts of martial men.” To many, this was the worst storm they had ever seen, with lightning killing several men on either side.

This storm threatened to bog Johnston’s advance down in mud. But it also threatened to keep the wings of McClellan’s army separated indefinitely, and it would certainly prevent Federals on the right wing from crossing the swollen Chickahominy and entering Richmond.

These factors turned McClellan pessimistic once more. And then a new factor arose: rumors that General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederate army had abandoned Corinth, Mississippi, and was now streaming into Richmond to reinforce Johnston. As early as the 30th, the day that Corinth fell, McClellan reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, “Beauregard arrived in Richmond day before yesterday, with troops & amid great excitement.” This of course was logistically impossible, but it did not stop McClellan from being his usual overcautious self as battle loomed on the Peninsula.


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