Tag Archives: Benjamin Huger

The Battle of Seven Pines: Day One

May 31, 1862 – Confederates attacked the Federals on the south side of the Chickahominy River, but poor coordination prevented them from accomplishing their main goal of destroying the enemy.

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

For the Confederate army, General Joseph E. Johnston had 74,000 men, but he reported just 62,696 effectives. He planned to send two-thirds of that number to attack the Federal wing isolated south of the Chickahominy, with General Erasmus D. Keyes’s IV Corps in front and III Corps under General Samuel P. Heintzelman in reserve. Most of Keyes’s Federals were positioned near Fair Oaks Station to the north and Seven Pines to the south.

The massive Confederate mobilization began at dawn, catching 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. But they were bungled from the start.

Major General James Longstreet was supposed to lead the Confederate left (or north) wing down the Nine Mile road to attack 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 on the road, 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, and Huger never received a specific order to commit his men to the action.

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 untangling 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.

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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

Professor Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, commanding the U.S. Army Balloon Corps, reported at 2 p.m. from his observation balloon that 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 shoring 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, farther in the rear, had to come up and tell Johnston that fighting was taking place. 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 IV Corps, and Brigadier General Philip Kearny’s division from III Corps. The Confederate attacks resumed, but they lacked proper coordination as men were sent piecemeal into the fray.

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 arriving, the Federals stopped the Confederate advance and 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 II 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 a crossing was 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. On the Federal side, Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard was wounded twice, resulting in the amputation of his arm.

Johnston watched the action with his staff atop a nearby ridge, and at 7 p.m. he decided to suspend the attacks until next morning. He was then hit simultaneously by a bullet in his shoulder and shrapnel from an exploding shell in his chest and legs. Johnston fell from his horse, severely wounded and unconscious. He sustained a broken shoulder and broken ribs.

President Jefferson Davis and Lee, who had ridden to the front, saw Johnston being carried off, and Davis offered him words of 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 never took part in the action.

Army command passed to G.W. Smith, who was plagued by illness and indecision. When Davis asked Smith for his plans that night, Smith said he had none until he received more information from the front. In the meantime, he offered three options: hold his ground, withdraw, or attack.

Choosing the second option, Smith began withdrawing the Confederates from the field. But then he reconsidered and resolved to renew the fight 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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 76-78; Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 138-45, 155-58; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 147, 149; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (31 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 13765; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 177-78; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7504; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 451; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 160-61; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3537; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 199, 227-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 218-19; 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; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 411; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 571; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 668; Wikipedia: Battle of Seven Pines

The Roanoke Island Campaign

January 5, 1862 – Federal forces embarked on a joint army-navy operation to capture a key point on the North Carolina coast.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

President Abraham Lincoln, General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had approved a plan developed by Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside to load army troops onto navy transports and, with naval warship support, capture Roanoke Island. This guarded both Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, along with many rivers, canals, and railroads.

Taking Roanoke Island, along with the Federal occupation of Hatteras Inlet, would enable the Federals to stop blockade-running in the waters of Pamlico Sound between the North Carolina coast and the Outer Banks. It would also gain them access to many of the waterways flowing from North Carolina’s interior, as well as the numerous Unionists said to reside in that area.

The 12,829 Federal troops of Burnside’s “Coast Division” consisted mostly of New Englanders accustomed to working on the water. Burnside had recruited the men himself, which were grouped into three brigades commanded by his West Point friends: Brigadier Generals John G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, and John G. Parke. Bands played and snow fell as the troops boarded transports at Annapolis, Maryland, to embark on what became known as the “Burnside expedition.”

Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the naval armada. It included about 100 vessels varying from makeshift barges, coal steamers, steamboats, and warships. As they pulled out of Annapolis, Burnside later recalled, “The whole fleet seemed to be under a mixed influence of excitement and contentment.”

Both the northern and southern press speculated on the fleet’s secret destination, with the Richmond Dispatch correctly guessing that it was Pamlico Sound. However, the press greatly underestimated the size of the massive armada, which steamed south toward North Carolina on January 11.

Burnside set up headquarters on the Picket, one of the least seaworthy gunboats in the fleet, to show his men that he was with them. They all suffered through a ferocious two-day storm that featured severe winds and high waves off Cape Hatteras. Burnside noted that “the men, furniture, and crockery below decks were thrown about in a most promiscuous manner.”

Roanoke Island | Image Credit: nps.gov

Roanoke Island | Image Credit: nps.gov

The Federals finally arrived off Roanoke Island on the 13th. The smaller ships began entering Pamlico Sound that morning, and the Picket led the larger ships in around 12 p.m. However, rough waves and the shallow bar made it extremely difficult for these ships to pass. The Pocahontas was destroyed, losing 100 horses. The steamer City of New York foundered, losing over $200,000 worth of supplies and equipment. The captain and crew were rescued after lifeboats could finally be sent over the breakers; they had hung from the rigging for nearly two days.

Awaiting the Federals at Roanoke Island were just 1,400 “undrilled, unpaid, not sufficiently clothed and quartered, and miserably armed” Confederates according to their commander, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise. A “mosquito” fleet of seven gunboats under Flag Officer William F. Lynch also aided in defense. Wise notified Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that the island was “utterly defenceless” and estimated that even without Burnside’s troops, the Federal armada was “amply sufficient to capture or pass Roanoke Island in any 12 hours.”

Wise called on his superior, Major General Benjamin Huger, for reinforcements and arms. Huger denied the request, even though he had 13,000 men standing by at nearby Norfolk. Huger instead recommended that Wise demand “hard work and coolness among the troops you have, instead of more men.” When Wise went to Richmond to personally request reinforcements, Benjamin peremptorily ordered him to return to his post and hold the island at all costs, despite being outnumbered almost nine-to-one.

Lynch reported to Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory that from the C.S.S. Sea Bird at Hatteras Inlet, he “saw a large fleet of steamers and transports.” Lynch reminded Mallory of Roanoke Island’s importance: “Here is the great thoroughfare from Albemarle Sound and its tributaries, and if the enemy obtain lodgements or succeed in passing here he will cut off a very rich country from the Norfolk market.”

Meanwhile, Goldsborough informed Welles of the ongoing difficulties in getting the fleet, particularly the troop transports, across the Pamlico Sound sandbar. The move took several weeks, during which time the Federals reconnoitered the Confederate positions on Roanoke Island and its surrounding forts. As the channel was deepened to enable the ships to enter the sound, the men remained aboard their vessels suffering from a growing lack of drinking water. The sound passage continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17, 21-23; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 108, 111, 115, 117-18; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 226-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 96-98, 101-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 158-60, 163; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536; 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. 372; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 238-39

The Confederate Capital Relocation

May 20, 1861 – The Provisional Confederate Congress approved a measure relocating the national capital from Montgomery, Alabama to Richmond, Virginia.

The new Confederate Capitol at Richmond | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The new Confederate Capitol at Richmond | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Legislators hoped that moving to Richmond would strengthen Virginia’s support for the Confederacy. President Jefferson Davis had initially opposed such a move because Richmond was much closer to the U.S. than Montgomery. However, he acknowledged that Virginians had made a tremendous sacrifice to join the Confederacy, knowing their state would be a prime invasion target. Thus, Davis endorsed the bill.

The next day the Provisional Congress approved a resolution “that this Congress will adjourn on Tuesday next, to meet again on the 20th day of July, at Richmond, Virginia.” Davis was authorized to move his executive department from Montgomery to Richmond at any time before July 20, and if any change in the war should “render it impolitic to meet in Richmond,” Davis could call Congress into session at any other place of his choosing.

Most members of Congress agreed that placing the Confederate government in Richmond would gain them a military and psychological advantage. However, it would also place them within near the mounting conflict in northern Virginia, and protecting Richmond would become a key military strategy that left the Confederacy vulnerable in other military theaters.

On May 27, President Davis and other Confederate officials boarded the rear coach of a train to move the executive department from Montgomery to Richmond. Fellow passengers did not know Davis was on the train until people cheered him from station platforms along the journey, hailing him as “Jeff Davis” and “the old Hero.”

Davis arrived to a two-gun salute on the 29th, and Richmond became inundated with government officials soon thereafter. Prominent Virginians such as Governor John Letcher and other dignitaries greeted Davis at the station with a carriage drawn by four white horses.

Letcher and the Richmond mayor traveled with Davis to the Spotswood Hotel, where the president delivered a speech from the hotel balcony. Davis later inspected troops at the fairgrounds and delivered another speech. He called his audience “the last best hope of liberty… The country relies on you. Upon you rest the hopes of our people; and I have only to say, my friends, that to the last breath of my life I am wholly your own.” The Richmond Daily Enquirer reported, “The mantel of (George) Washington falls gracefully upon his shoulders. Never were a people more enraptured with their Chief Magistrate than ours are with President Davis.”

Shortly after arriving in Richmond, Davis received a briefing on the state’s military situation. Currently three armies guarded the three most important (and vulnerable) regions:

  • General Joseph E. Johnston guarded the Shenandoah Valley from Harpers Ferry
  • General P.G.T. Beauregard guarded northern Virginia from Manassas
  • Generals Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder guarded the seaward approach to Richmond from Norfolk and the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers

The Blue Ridge Mountains separated Johnston and Beauregard, the two commanders closest to Washington. However, their troops were close enough to each other to join forces if needed.

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Sources

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5952, 5962; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 45-46; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 32; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2580; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 76-77, 79; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 630-32; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261