The Battle of Seven Pines

By the morning of May 31, troops in the front lines of Major General George B. McClellan’s Federal Army of the Potomac were within six miles of the Confederate capital of Richmond on the Virginia Peninsula. The city’s church steeples were visible in the distance. However, the Chickahominy River divided McClellan’s 110,000-man army, with three corps north of the waterway and two to the south. And violent rainstorms had swelled the river, making it dangerously difficult for the two wings to unite if needed.

General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army numbered 74,000 men, but Johnston reported having just 62,696 effectives. He planned to send two-thirds of that number to attack the Federal wing isolated south of the Chickahominy, which consisted of Major General Erasmus D. Keyes’s Fourth Corps in front and the Third Corps under Major General Samuel P. Heintzelman in reserve. Most of Keyes’s Federals were positioned along a mile-long front from Fair Oaks Station on the Richmond & York River Railroad to the north, to the Seven Pines crossroads to the southeast.

The day started overcast, the rains of the previous night having gone. When Johnston began his massive mobilization at dawn, it caught the attention of Richmond residents. Many followed the army to see the action, but that action would be delayed several hours. Johnston did not inform anyone of his plans, which required a rigid timetable and skilled coordination to execute. They were bungled from the start.

The original plan was to launch 22 of the 29 Confederate brigades against the southern wing of McClellan’s army. But in all, no more than 10 were put into action at any given time. Major General James Longstreet was supposed to lead the Confederate left (or north) wing down the Nine Mile road to attack the Federals at Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. But he misunderstood Johnston’s verbal orders and instead went down the Williamsburg road, the same road taken by Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates in the center. This not only jammed traffic, but it greatly narrowed the Confederates’ attacking front.

Moreover, Major General Benjamin Huger’s Confederates were supposed to support Hill’s right, but Johnston merely ordered Huger to “be ready for action.” Huger took this to mean that he should stay in reserve until called upon, but Johnston wanted him to advance with Longstreet and Hill. Thus, Hill advanced unsupported while Huger awaited a specific order to advance that never came.

In addition, muddy roads made marching harder than expected, maps were inadequate, troops got lost in the dense woods, and officers got confused because of Johnston’s secrecy. Johnston also failed to establish that Longstreet was to command the operation, even though Major Generals Gustavus W. Smith and Huger outranked him. All these factors worked to completely upset the timetable.

As the Confederates tried to untangle themselves on the road, and while Longstreet and Huger argued over who the senior commander was, Hill grew tired of waiting and ordered his men to attack at 1 p.m. Struggling through swamps and thick woods, Hill’s troops slammed into the Federals’ front line led by Brigadier General Silas Casey’s inexperienced 6,000-man division, one mile west of Seven Pines.

The initial attack consisted of just Hill’s four brigades, not the 13 total brigades of Hill, Longstreet, and Huger as envisioned. Nevertheless, this was enough to make Casey’s line begin to buckle. Before Keyes could send Casey reinforcements, the Confederates captured a redoubt and the Federals were forced to retreat. Brigadier General Henry M. Naglee led a Federal bayonet charge that temporarily stalled the Confederate advance and enabled the rest of the Federals to fall back.

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe and his U.S. Army Balloon Corps were stationed north of the Chickahominy, focusing most of their attention on the Confederates in that sector. Around 2 p.m., their focus shifted to the south, and they began reporting that the Confederates were advancing in battle formation. Lowe continued telegraphing details on the battle to McClellan’s headquarters throughout the day. Thirty minutes later, Heintzelman informed McClellan that a battle had begun, but he had not received any word from Keyes on whether he should bring up reinforcements. Heintzelman soon began sending his men to the front as Keyes tried to shore up his defenses.

Johnston, two and a half miles in the Confederate rear, was not aware that the battle had begun because an atmospheric phenomenon called an “acoustic shadow” prevented him from hearing the sound of firing. General Robert E. Lee, advisor to President Jefferson Davis, was even farther in the rear but he could hear the noise and had to come up and tell Johnston that fighting had begun. Then, Johnston received a message from Longstreet around 4 p.m. asking for reinforcements. Johnston responded by leading three of Brigadier General W.H.C. Whiting’s reserve brigades down the Nine Mile road toward Fair Oaks Station.

About a half hour later, Hill, now reinforced by some of Longstreet’s brigades, approached the second Federal defense line. This consisted of Casey’s remnants, Brigadier General Darius N. Couch’s division from the Fourth Corps, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division from the Third Corps. The Confederate attacks resumed, but they lacked proper coordination as men were sent piecemeal into the fray. The muddy landscape also hindered coordination, as many men fought while waist-deep in water and mud. Men were detached from their units to patrol the firing line and make sure that wounded men did not drown.

Fighting at Fair Oaks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Hill directed Colonel Micah Jenkins to lead four regiments around the Federal right flank, forcing them to fall back about a mile and a half past Seven Pines. There they established a third defense line, and with more reinforcements coming up, the Federals stopped the Confederate advance. Fighting began dying down in that sector around 6 p.m.

To the north, Johnston directed Whiting’s Confederates to attack Keyes’s right flank near Fair Oaks. By this time, Major General Edwin V. Sumner, commanding the Second Corps north of the Chickahominy, received word from McClellan to stand ready to cross the river and join the fight. Instead of just standing ready, Sumner ordered Brigadier General John Sedgwick’s division to cross the flooded waterway.

Sumner instructed Sedgwick to use the partly submerged Grapevine Bridge, the only available bridge, to cross. When engineers warned Sumner that the flooded river made a crossing impossible, Sumner snapped, “Impossible? Sir, I tell you I can cross! I am ordered!” The men and horses crossed safely, with the bridge collapsing after the last man made it over.

By the time Whiting’s men arrived, the Federal right was reinforced. The Confederates launched several attacks but made no headway as casualties mounted. Three of Whiting’s four brigade commanders were lost; Confederate Brigadier General Wade Hampton was wounded, and Confederate Brigadier General J.J. Pettigrew was wounded and captured.

Johnston observed the action with his staff atop a ridge about 200 yards from Fair Oaks Station. Around 7 p.m., just as he decided to suspend the attack, he was hit by a bullet in the right shoulder. Then shrapnel from an exploding shell hit him in the chest and legs. Johnston fell from his horse, severely wounded and unconscious. He sustained a broken shoulder and broken ribs.

General Lee and President Jefferson Davis had ridden to the front, and when they saw Johnston being carried off, they tried to offer him some encouragement. Johnston’s wounds were initially assessed as mortal, but he survived. He wrote in his official report: “Had Major-gen Huger’s division been in position and ready for action when those of Smith, Longstreet, and Hill moved, I am satisfied that Keyes’ corps would have been destroyed instead of merely defeated.” Huger’s Confederates saw no fighting that day.

At Federal headquarters, McClellan was bedridden with a bout of malaria that had periodically recurred ever since he first contracted it during the Mexican War. The Comte de Paris, serving on the Federal staff, wrote, “The General is painful to see.” Near midnight, Heintzelman came to notify McClellan of the day’s events which, according to the Comte, featured “a sad picture of Keyes’s rout.” But Heintzelman reported that his corps, along with the divisions in Keyes’s that had not been engaged, should be able to hold if the Confederates renewed the attack the next day.

For the Confederates, army command passed to G.W. Smith, whose forces were mainly north of the Chickahominy and not part of the battle. Smith was plagued by illness and indecision. When Davis asked him for his plans that night, Smith said he had none until more information could be received from the front. In the meantime, he offered three options: hold his ground, withdraw, or attack. Smith later recalled, “Mr. Davis did not seem pleased with what I said.”

Smith initially chose the second option and began pulling the Confederates from the field. But then he reconsidered and decided to renew the attack the next morning. Unimpressed, Davis told Lee as the two men rode back to the capital, “General Lee, I shall assign you to the command of this army. Make your preparations as soon as you reach your quarters. I shall send you the order when we get to Richmond.”


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