The Battle of Seven Pines: Day Two

As June began, the Federal and Confederate armies that had fought each other so ferociously outside Richmond the previous day were still within striking distance of each other. Major General Gustavus W. Smith, who had taken command of the Confederate army after the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston, planned to renew the assault on the Federal left wing south of the Chickahominy River. He directed Major General James Longstreet’s men to resume their advance to Fair Oaks, north of Seven Pines. Major General W.H.C. Whiting’s division would come up to reinforce Longstreet once the fighting “was fully developed.”

President Jefferson Davis resolved after the first day of fighting to replace Smith as commander with General Robert E. Lee, but the move was not yet official. That morning in Richmond, Davis formally wrote to Lee 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.”

On the Federal side, Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe performed aerial reconnaissance of 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 throughout the day, but Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, did not act upon Lowe’s information.

The Confederates renewed their assaults against elements of the Fourth and Third corps under Major Generals Erasmus D. Keyes and Samuel P. Heintzelman respectively. But by this time, these Federals were behind strong defenses reinforced by Brigadier General Israel B. Richardson’s division of the Second Corps and two brigades of Brigadier General Joseph Hooker’s division of the Third Corps that had previously been held in reserve.

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. Wounded men drowned in the swamps formed by the recent rains, and in the sporadic dry areas some burned to death when powder sparks ignited the leaves. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard led a Federal regiment on horseback and was shot twice in the right arm; it was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated.

Smith held Whiting’s 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 away before Smith could commit Whiting’s troops.

McClellan had been bedridden with malaria, but he forced himself to ride out to the battlefield and assess the situation. He reported to Washington, “We have had a desperate battle in which the Corps of Sumner, Heintzelman & Keyes have been engaged against greatly superior numbers… Our loss is heavy, but that of the enemy must be enormous.” He was happy to have just held his ground and ordered no counterattack. It 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 fight. 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.” But it proved that the men on both sides were now hardened veterans, as the number of captured or missing men was remarkably low considering that it was the largest battle that any of them had been involved with up to that time.

McClellan could claim a tactical victory for holding his ground and inflicting more casualties on the enemy. But it served the purpose Johnston had in mind when he attacked, that is, it unnerved McClellan enough to make him suspend his slow advance toward Richmond. Too cautious to even consider launching a counteroffensive, McClellan was calmed by a series of cables from President Abraham Lincoln urging him, “Hold all your ground, or yield any only, inch by inch, and in good order.”

Gen. R.E. Lee | Image Credit:

Around 2 p.m., General Lee rode up to G.W. Smith’s headquarters on the Nine Mile road. Davis had informed Smith that Lee was going to replace him, and when Lee arrived, Smith turned over army command. Smith had been battling illness, and he spent the next two months on the sick list. He never returned to Lee’s army.

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.

Men on both sides spent much of the day after the battle burying the dead, tending to the wounded, and recovering scattered arms and equipment. Federals and Confederates each used the Richmond & York River Railroad; Federals transported wounded men east to their supply base at White House Landing, and Confederates moved their wounded west to Richmond.

McClellan began shifting his troops on the north side of the Chickahominy River to the south. He also issued a proclamation to his army:

“Soldiers of the Army of the Potomac! I have fulfilled at least a part of my promise to you. You are now face to face with the Rebels, who are held at bay in front of their capital. The final and decisive battle is at hand. Unless you belie your past history, the result cannot be for a moment doubtful… Soldiers! I will be with you in this battle and share its dangers with you. Our confidence in each other is now founded upon the past. Let us strike the blow which is to restore peace and union to this distracted land. Upon your valor, discipline and mutual confidence the result depends.”

McClellan boldly wired Washington, “I only wait for the river to fall to cross with the rest of the force & make a general attack.” He then wrote his wife Ellen, “One more & we will have Richmond & I shall be there with Gods blessing this week.” But McClellan’s mood turned somber by day’s end, as he wrote his wife once more: “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 his wife 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.”

Lee assessed the confusing situation and decided to reset the army by returning the men to the positions they had held before the battle. He then 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 was sure not to give any 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 and was unimpressive in South Carolina before serving as an unofficial advisor to Davis. Most men in the army were aware of this and were unimpressed by Lee. They also had great affection for Johnston and were sad to see him go. James Longstreet wrote that there were “some misgivings as to the power and skill for field service of the new commander.” Few soldiers celebrated Lee’s arrival, and few southerners had faith that Lee could save Richmond.


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