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.
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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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