Battle of Seven Pines
Today, May 31st, marks the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Seven Pines, also known as the Battle of Fair Oaks. The conflict, which ultimately ended in a stalemate, was primarily an attempt by Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston to repel George B. McClella’s Union Army from the outskirts of Richmond.
By the end of May 1862, the McClellan’s Union army was nearing the periphery of the Rebel capital. While Johnston's troops had delayed the Federal attack—in part due to the prolonged siege at Yorktown—they could not delay the inevitable. As the Federal force neared Richmind, it divided, leaving two corps south of the Chickahominy River. Johnston’s plan, therefore, was to attack Erasmus D. Keyes’ Fourth Corps, stationed near the village of Seven Pines, Virginia, and then assault Samuel P. Heintzelman’s Third Corps. He hoped that the river, swollen by heavy rains, would thrawt any Union efforts to reinforce these two isolated Corps.
Notably, Johnston’s plans went awry. The problems were threefold: Johnston could not effectively communicate with his officers, providing them with vague or confusing directives; Major General James Longstreet—perhaps desirous to provide his troops with a more prominent role in the assault—modified the attack plan without notice; and the muddy roads bogged down the Rebels’ movements. Instead of Confederate Major General D.H. Hill lauching an early morning attack, the Rebel troops became jammed along their route. In turn, Brigadier General Silas Casey observed the Rebel movements and tried to prepare his ill-trained troops for battle.
Fighting finally began around one o'clock in the afternoon. Hill’s force initially shattered the Yankee line but Casey’s men held, fiercely defending their earthenworks. Within two hours, Casey’s position had buckled—but so had the Confederates’ vitality. In turn, Hill’s exhausted Rebels rested, awaiting reinforcements from G.W. Smith. Meanwhile, Brigadier Generals Philip Kearny’s and Darius N. Couch’s troops had arrived, bolstering the Union position. When Smith’s Rebels tried to attack, they unexpectedly encounted Couch’s division and had to shift the battle into Fair Oaks Station. The fighting raged on but the Confederates could not gain the upper hand. Furthermore, Union Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Second Corps, managed to traverse his troops across the Grapevine Bridge, further strengthening the Union position. Night finally fell and the hostility waned.
Around dusk, Johnston was personally inspecting his lines when a bullet hit him in the shoulder. Shortly thereafter, a Union artillery shell exploded, propelling fragments into his chest and thigh and forcing him off horseback. Gravely injured, Johnston relinquished command to G.W. Smith, who in turn also ceded command due to health reasons. With the poorly organized Confederates leadership in dire straights, the Rebel outlook was not good. Moreover, the Union line had extended itself from Fair Oaks to the Chickahominy River, covering the Grapevine Bridge—and destroying Confederate hopes of success. While D.H. Hill did launch a second attack on June 1st, the Rebels quickly abandoned the effort due to exhaustion and disorganization. The battle ended in a stalemate—or more accurately with both sides claiming victory—and Confederate General Robert E. Lee soon arrived to assume command of Johnston’s army. The conflict culminated in over 11,00 casualties: 5,000 Federal and 6,100 Rebel.
Image Credit: Currier & Ives courtesy of the Library of Congress.