Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, 31 May-1 June 1862

Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, 31 May-1 June 1862



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Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, 31 May-1 June 1862

The Battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, was the first Confederate attempt to dislodge General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac from their position just outside Richmond. McClellan's Peninsula campaign had seen the Union army slowly close on the Confederate capitol, finally reaching within a few miles of the city in May 1862.

McClellan's army was awkwardly placed on both sides of the Chickahominy Creek. The right flank of his army was north of the river, protecting its supply lines and the route that any reinforcements from Washington would take. The left flank was south of the river, threatening Richmond. The danger was that the Chickahominy was prone to sudden rises in water level, which had the potential to wipe away the temporary pontoon bridges built by McClellan's engineers.

The left flank of McClellan's army was the weaker of the two. It contained two of his five army corps - Heintzelman's Third Corps and Keyes's Fourth Corps, both 17,000 strong. Next in line, on the other side of the Chickahominy, was Sumner's Second Corps, of roughly the same size. Roughly 34,000 of McClellan's nearly 100,000 men were available to resist any Confederate attack south of the river.

The Confederate commander at Richmond, General Joseph Johnston, now had just over 60,000 men at his disposal. In theory he had more than enough men to inflict a significant defeat on McClellan's isolated left wing, but in the battle that was to develop around Fair Oaks and Seven Pines neither side managed to get more than a fraction of their available men into action.

Johnston's original plan was for an attack on the stronger Federal right wing. This was because he had learnt that another 40,000 Federal troops under General McDowell were about to join McClellan. This move was cancelled after Stonewall Jackson's first victories in the Shenandoah Valley. Johnston now decided to attack south of the Chickahominy instead.

His new plan involved an early morning attack by four divisions on 31 May. They would begin their march at daybreak (roughly 4 a.m.), and fall on Keyes' corps before 8 a.m. Keyes's corps was closest to Richmond. Most of the corps was on the Williamsburg road, with a smaller force a little further north at Fair Oaks. Heintzelman's corps was further east. Sumner's corps was slightly closer, but on the other side of the Chickahominy, which was now in flood. Keyes's corps was poorly entrenched and dangerously isolated.

The Confederate plan quickly went wrong. Longstreet had been meant to attack Keyes's vulnerable right flank, while D.H. Hill attacked his main lines on the Williamsburg Road. Instead, Longstreet mistakenly moved his men onto the Williamsburg Road, causing a lengthy delay in the start of the attack. The entire plan was badly handled. Significant orders were only dispatched on the day itself, causing inevitable delays. The result of all this was that the attack was finally launched at 1 p.m., hours after it should have started.

The right wing of the Confederate attack met with immediate success, pushing Keyes's men out of their first line of defence and back to their second line at Seven Pines. The left wing looked to be gaining a similar level of success against the small Federal force at Fair Oaks, but at 2.30 p.m. General Sumner had begun to move his troops across the Chickahominy, using bridges that were partly underwater! The Confederate left wing made repeated efforts to dislodge this new force, but without success. As darkness fell across the battlefield, the Confederate attack had ground to a halt. Federal reinforcements were constantly reaching the battlefield. Johnston himself was badly wounded late in the day.

The next day saw Robert E. Lee promoted to command the Confederate armies around Richmond. His first job was to deal with a Federal counterattack that soon recaptured all of the ground lost on the first day of the battle. Lee's response was to call off any further fighting, and pull his army back into the defences of Richmond, where he began to prepare for his own counterattack. That attack would be launched at the end of June, and resulted in the Seven Days's Battles. McClellan declared himself pleased with the change of Confederate commander, an opinion he would later be forced to reconsider.

See also: The Armies at the battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks

Military rank Edit

  • MG = Major General
  • BG = Brigadier General
  • Col = Colonel
  • Ltc = Lieutenant Colonel
  • Maj = Major
  • Cpt = Captain
  • Lt = Lieutenant

Other Edit

    (2 companies) (Illinois)
  • Oneida (New York) Cavalry
    (4 companies)
  • McClellan Dragoons (Illinois)
  • 15th New York Engineers
  • 50th New York Engineers
  • U.S. Engineer Battalion (3 companies): Cpt James C. Duane

II Corps Edit


BG Oliver O. Howard (w)
Col Thomas J. Parker

    : Col Edward E. Cross (w), Ltc Samuel G. Langley : Col Francis C. Barlow, Ltc William Massett (k) : Ltc Daniel C. Bingham (w) : Col James Miller (k), Ltc Charles F. Johnson
    : Cpt John A. Tompkins : Cpt Walter O. Bartlett : Cpt Charles D. Owen : Lt Edmund Kirby
  • 6th New York Cavalry (Co. K): Cpt Riley Johnston

III Corps Edit

  • Battery D, 1st New York Light Artillery: Cpt Thomas W. Osborn
  • 4th New York Independent Battery: Cpt James E. Smith
  • 6th New York Independent Battery: Cpt Walter M. Bramhall
  • Battery H, 1st U.S. Artillery: Lt Charles R. Eakin
    : Col Stephen A. Dodge (w), Ltc Richard A. Bachia : Col Charles T. Campbell (w), Ltc E. W. Woods, Maj Jeremiah Culp (k) : Col Alexander Hays, Ltc Algernon S. M. Morgan (w) : Col Amor A. McKnight (w)
    : Col Henry G. Staples : Col Elijah Walker
  • 38th New York: Col J. H. Hobart Ward : Col Edward J. Riley (w), Ltc Thomas W. Egan

IV Corps Edit

    : Ltc Louis Thourot : Col J. Lafayette Riker (k), Ltc David J. Nevin : Col J. M. McCarter (w), Cpt John E. Arthur : Col Thomas A. Rowley (w), Ltc J. M. Kinkead
    : Col John Cochrane : Col Julius W. Adams (w), Ltc Nelson Cross : Col Thomas H. Neill, Ltc John Ely (w) : Col Oliver H. Rippey (k), Cpt Robert L. Orr


BG Charles Devens (w)
Col Charles H. Innes

    : Cpt Jeremiah McCarthy : Cpt Edward H. Flood
  • Battery E, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery: Cpt Theodore Miller
  • Battery H, 1st Pennsylvania Light Artillery: Cpt James Brady
  • 6th New York Cavalry (Co. F)
    : Col Harris M. Plaisted : Ltc James Jourdan : Col James M. Brown (k) : Col John C. Dodge Jr.
  • 104th Pennsylvania: Col W. W. H. Davis (w), Ltc John W. Nields (w), Maj John M. Gries (mw)
    : Col James Fairman : Col Joshua B. Howell
  • 101st Pennsylvania: Ltc David B. Morris (w)
  • 103rd Pennsylvania: Maj A. W. Gazzam
    : Ltc Jacob J. DeForest (w), Cpt W. C. Raulston : Col Jonathan S. Belknap : Col Lewis C. Hunt (w), Ltc Hiram Anderson Jr. : Ltc Charles Durkee


Col Guilford D. Bailey (k)
Maj D. H. Van Valkenburgh (k)
Cpt Peter C. Regan


FAIR OAKS

I have the honor to make the following report of my regiment for the 31st of May and 1st of June, 1862: My regiment being in front, by order of General French left camp near Cold Harbor at 2.30 p.m. Found great difficulty in crossing the Chickahominy, owing to the sudden rise in the stream. Arrived on the other side at 5.15 p.m., when I was halted by General French until the other regiments had crossed, then was marched forward with the general in front. Marched about 3 miles, when General French halted me in the road, and shortly afterward directed me to form line of battle in an open field on my right, which was but finished when he again ordered me forward on the road. After moving a short distance heavy firing was heard to the right of us. We now moved out of the road into an open field, which we crossed in the direction of the firing, passing on our way through a stream. Led by General French we came upon the field of battle.

By this time it had become very dark. We were formed on the left of the Fifty-seventh New York by General French in person, our right resting near the left of the Fifty-seventh and our left extending into the woods to within a short distance of the railroad. General French ordered me to send two companies upon the railroad as pickets to connect with General Birney's right, which was instantly done. About daybreak General French came to me personally and ordered me to change front, as there was a large body of rebel troops on our right. In about an hour he ordered me to resume my former position, which I immediately did. At the same time he ordered my two companies (the pickets) to be withdrawn.

Shortly after the general ordered me to move by the left flank and follow the Fifty-second New York (which had in the mean time been placed on my left) into the woods beyond the railroad. We had moved forward until our right had passed the railroad some 50 yards, when the Fifty-second halted. I also halted. After some time it became apparent that the Fifty-second was about be attacked. I immediately faced my regiment to the front. The firing commenced (from the enemy) on my left, they being but a short distance from us. I passed down the line toward the right, when I found that about 100 of the right wing had fallen back, caused by the following circumstance: An aide-de-camp rode down the front of the left wing as the firing commenced, and when he reached the colors found it necessary to pass my lines. He then ordered the men to Fall back give way," which they obeyed, and misinterpreting the command fell back beyond the railroad, where they rallied and were brought back in good order. The error was corrected in a very few minutes.

About this time I met General French in rear of the left wing of my regiment. After standing with him some time he asked me if my ammunition was nearly gone. I told him it was, from the upper part of the boxes. He told me to stand fast until he returned, and passed back toward the railroad. In a few moments he returned, leading the Sixty-first New York, when he ordered me to have my men lie down and to let the Sixty-first New York pass my line, which was accordingly done. The men were then ordered to fill the upper parts of their boxes from the box magazine, when the general immediately ordered us forward to the right, where we continued fighting until the fire of the enemy had ceased, when we held the position we then occupied until an order came to Colonel Barlow, of the Sixty-first New York, to move out of the woods by the right flank, said orders coming from General Richardson, with instructions to communicate them to me also. I then followed the Sixty-first New York out of the woods into the field occupied by the brigade the night previous, where I again met General French, who ordered me to the position I now occupy also directing me to replenish my exhausted cartridge boxes.

The firing during the engagement was very heavy. The time during which we were under fire was nearly four hours. The regiments opposed to us during this action were the Forty-first Virginia, Third Alabama, Fifty-third Virginia, and a regiment supposed to be the Twenty-third Alabama. Also a regiment with black slouch hats, supposed to be Mississippians.

My loss is as follows: Killed, 13 wounded, 64 missing, 17 making a total of 94.

Among the killed was Maj. Thomas Yeager, who behaved with great gallantry up to the moment of his death, which occurred during the advance of the regiment to the right. Among the wounded are Captains Church, Moody, and Eichholtz, and First Lieut. William Mintzer, which embrace all the casualties among my commissioned officers. I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of both officers and men of my regiment. All did well. The presence of General French during the thickest of the fight had a most inspiriting effect on all, and caused them to act with greater steadiness and bravery, if possible, than before. I have to mention that I was ably assisted by Lieutenant-Colonel McMichael, whose coolness and steadiness are deserving great praise, as also Adjt. Charles P. Hatch (who was taken prisoner, but subsequently succeeded in making his escape), whose coolness and steadiness during the fight rendered his assistance invaluable. My horse was shot under me.


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Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, 31 May-1 June 1862 - History

Report of Brig. Gen. Henry M. Naglee commanding First Brigade, Casey's Division, Army of the Potomac: of the part taken by his brigade in the battle of Seven Pines, by Henry Morris Naglee and Silas Casey, 1862

The attack was expected by the Federals, as the cars had been heard running nearly all night, indicating a movement of troops to the front, and their suspicions were strengthened by the capture of one of Johnston's aides near the Union lines on the morning of the 31st. The Union generals had therefore exercised increased vigilance to prevent anything like a surprise. Keyes formed his men in two lines of battle, Casey's division moving to the left and taking a position in front of the abatis, Palmer's brigade on the left, Wessells' in the center and Naglee's on the right, with two regiments north of the railroad. Couch's division constituted the second line, which was formed across the Williamsburg road and along the Nine-mile road, Peck's brigade on the left, Deven's in the center and Abercrombie's on the right, two regiments of his brigade and Brady's battery being beyond the railroad at Fair Oaks. Casey's pickets were about 1,000 yards in advance of the first line. Owing to a severe storm on the night of the 30th, with some confusion in moving the troops to their positions the next morning, the Confederates did not begin the attack until 1 p.m. About noon a mounted vedette roade back to Casey's headquarters with the report that the enemy was approaching in force on the Williamsburg road. Casey ordered the 103rd Pa. to move forward to the support of the pickets and the regiment was hardly in position when two shells were thrown into the Union lines. The whole division was then ordered under arms and Spratt's battery moved to the front about a quarter of a mile to shell the enemy as soon as the pickets and their supports could be withdrawn. Bates', Regan's and Fitch's batteries were also placed in position, with instructions to open on the enemy as soon as he debouched from the woods. They had not long to wait, for in five minutes the pickets and their supports were forced back by the overwhelming force of the enemy. Gen. Webb says of this part of the action: "The pickets, reinforced by the 103rd Pa., soon broke and, joined by a large number of sick, camp followers and skulkers, flowed in a steady stream to the rear, thus giving the impression that Casey's division had broken in a panic, and left the field without making any firm or prolonged resistance."

Such, however, was not the case. When the pickets fell back the Confederates advanced and soon the "rebel yell" resounded on all sides. They were met by a steady fire of canister that thinned their ranks, but failed to check their advance. Seeing himself greatly outnumbered, Casey sent back to Keyes for reinforcements. In response to his request the 55th N.Y., under Lieut.-Col. Thourot, was sent forward into the rifle-pits to support the center the 23rd and 61st Pa., commanded by Cols. Neill and Rippey, were ordered to the right and Gen. Pack, with two regiments of his brigade - the 93rd and 102nd Pa. - was sent to the left. In order to save his artillery Casey ordered a bayonet charge against the center. This charge was made by part of Naglee's brigade and the enemy driven back, giving the batteries an opportunity to withdraw from their exposed positions. On the right Neill and Rippey repulsed one attack, but the Confederates rallied and were reinforced, when they again assaulted and the two regiments were forced back, though they brought 35 prisoners with them. In trying to reinforce them the 7th Mass. and 62nd N.Y., commanded by Couch in person, to avoid being cut off, joined Abercrombie at Fair Oaks and fought with his brigade during the remainder of the day. Peck, on the left, held his position for over two hours, when the heavy force massed against him compelled him to retire, which he did in good order. Hill then began moving troops to the right and left "to take the Yankee works in reverse," and Casey again sent back for reinforcements, but as the second line had already been weakened to support the first, Keyes deemed it inadvisable to send any more troops to the front. Casey then fell back to Couch's line, after having maintained his position for over three hours against a vastly superior force. Here he rallied part of his division, and reinforced by part of Kearny's division, which was just then coming up, tried to recapture his works, but the enemy was too strong and the attempt was abandoned.

Up to this time Hill's division had been the only portion of the Confederate forces actively engaged. Johnston, who was with Smith on the left, gave the order at 4 p.m. for that wing to move forward. About the same time Longstreet sent in the brigades of Anderson, Wilcox and Kemper on the Williamsburg road, and those of Colston and Pryor on the right, and with the addition of these fresh troops a general attack was made all along the line. Although Berry's and Jameson's brigades of Kearny's division arrived on the field in time to reinforce the Union troops before this general assault was commenced, the weight of superior numbers was with the enemy, and after a stubborn resistance of more than an hour the Federals fell back slowly to a narrow strip of woods across the Williamsburg road. Here Heintzelman succeeded in rallying a sufficient force to hold the enemy in check until a new line of battle could be formed in the rear of the wood. In the formation of this third line Keyes noticed that the key to the position was at the left of the wood, where the ground sloped to the rear, and determined to occupy it. concerning this action he says in his report: "I hastened to the 10th Mass., Col. Briggs, which regiment I had myself once before moved, now in the rifle-pits on the right of the Williamsburg road, and ordered them to follow me across the field. Col. Briggs led them on in gallant style, moving quickly across an open space of 700 or 800 yards under a scorching fire, and forming his men with perfect regularity. * * * Had the 10th Mass. been two minutes later they would have been too late to occupy that fine position, and it would have been impossible to have formed the next and last line of battle of the 31st, which stemmed the tide of defeat and turned it toward victory." In forming the new line it was impossible to pay attention to brigade organizations. Regiments and fragments of regiments were thrown into position at the most convenient points, and none too soon, for scarcely had the line been formed when the Confederates bore down upon it, elated with success and confident of again driving the Union forces from their position. But they never entered the wood. When they came within range they were met by a deadly fire that checked their advance. Another volley caused them to fall back in some disorder, and as it was now after 6 o'clock they did not make another attempt to carry the position.

About 2:30 p.m. the sound of firing was heard at McClellan's headquarters on the north side of the Chickahominy, and Sumner was ordered to move his two divisions across the river to the support of Heintzelman and Keyes. The troops were already in marching order, so that no time was lost in getting started. Sedgwick's division moved in advance on the road directly to Fair Oaks, the head of his column coming up just in time to join Couch, as that officer, with four regiments and Brady's battery, was holding in check Smith's entire division. Col. Sully, with the 1st Minn., was the first of Sedgwick's command to reach the field, and without waiting for orders he swung his regiment into line on Couch's right, charged across a field and took position with his right resting on a farm house and his left on the edge of the woods. Gorman quickly followed with the rest of his brigade, moving to Couch's left, where Kirby's battery was planted in a position to command the road. It was immediately charged by the enemy in an attempt to capture the guns, but Gorman threw three regiments on their flank and this was followed by a bayonet charge that drove the Confederates from the field. This closed the battle on the Federal right for the day. Richardson's division arrived just as the enemy were retiring, but too late to take part in the engagement.

At 2 o'clock on the morning of June 1 a council of war was held at Sumner's headquarters, at which it was decided to attack the enemy as soon as the different commands could be properly disposed. Richardson's division was posted along the railroad east of Fair Oaks, French's brigade in the first line, Howard's in the second and Meagher's in the third. On the left of Richardson was Birney's brigade of Kearny's division, Berry's and Jameson's brigades being at the cross-roads east of Seven Pines, where the Union forces made their last stand in the first day's battle. Here were also the rest of Keyes' corps and Hooker's division of Heintzelman's, which had come up from White Oak swamp about dark on the 31st. Gen. Johnston was severely wounded by a shell near the close of the first day's fight, and in the battle of June 1 the movements of the Confederate forces were directed by Gen. G.W. Smith, second in rank. About 5 a.m. the enemy's skirmishers and a small body of cavalry appeared in front of Richardson, but a few shells from Pettit's battery dispersed them. Soon afterward, a large force of Confederates debouched from the woods and opened a heavy musketry fire at short range. French's division returned the fire for some time, when, the enemy being heavily reinforced, Howard was ordered to French's assistance. One regiment of Howard's brigade - the 81st Pa. - had been sent to close a gap in the line between Richardson and Kearny, but with the rest of his command Howard moved promptly forward on French's left, as the enemy was trying to turn that flank, and forced the Confederates back through the woods beyond Casey's old camp at Seven Pines. In this action Howard received a wound that resulted in the loss of his right arm, and turned over the command of the brigade to Col. Cross, of the 5th N.H.

As soon as Hooker heard the firing he advanced with the 5th and 6th N.J., of Patterson's brigade, with Sickles' brigade in support, to attack the Confederates in the rear. Skirmishers were thrown forward and the two New Jersey regiments were soon engaged. Sickles had been ordered to the left by Heintzelman, but Birney's brigade, now under command of Col. J.H. Ward, happened to be in a convenient position, and it was ordered to Hooker's support. As the line had to move through a swamp the advance was slow, but Hooker says in his report: "Our lines were well preserved, the fire brisk and unerring, and our troops reliant - all omens of success. After an interchange of musketry of this character for more than an hour directions were given to advance with the bayonet, when the enemy were thrown into wild confusion, throwing away their arms, hats, and coats, and broke through the forest in the direction of Richmond. At this moment chivalry and rebellion presented a deplorable picture. Pursuit was hopeless."

When Sickles was withdrawn from Hooker's support his brigade was moved to the left of the Williamsburg road. The ground here was too boggy to permit the use of artillery, but Sickles pushed forward the 71st and 73rd N.Y., under Col. Hall and Maj. Moriarty, supported by the rest of the brigade, and his victory here was no less brilliant than that of his division commander. After firing one or two volleys Hall charged and started the enemy in retreat, when the whole brigade pressed forward to take advantage of the situation, and the Confederates were forced back until Sickles occupied the field of the previous day. Concerning this part of the fight Sickles' report says: "The fields were strewn with Enfield rifles, marked 'Tower, 1862,' and muskets marked 'Virginia,' thrown away by the enemy in his hurried retreat. In the camp occupied by Gen. Casey and Gen. Couch on Saturday, before the battle of Seven Pines, were found rebel caissons filled with ammunition, a large number of small arms, and several baggage wagons, besides two barns filled with subsistence and forage."

Thus the Confederate army that had marched out so proudly on the morning of May 31 to drive McClellan's left wing into the Chickahominy and cut the Federal line of supplies, returned to Richmond the next day defeated, panic-stricken and disorganized. The Union losses at the battle of Fair Oaks amounted to 790 killed, 3,594 wounded and 647 missing. The Confederates lost 980 killed, 4,749 wounded and 405 missing.


The Battle of Fair Oaks

After watching mangled corpses at the Battle of Fair Oaks, George B. McClellan admitted that “victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost”. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Status Quo

Stonewall Jackson was operating in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in May, winning his victories at McDowell, at Front Royal, and at First Winchester. There was not much significant action on the front where the armies of McClellan and Joseph E. Johnston were arrayed outside Richmond.

Joseph E. Johnston Reaching the Point of No Retreat

Johnston had reached a point, as the end of May drew near, where he really had no more room to retreat. This was often the case during the Civil War: when one side was on the strategic defensive, they would find themselves at some point where they either had to take the offensive against their opponent or find themselves in a siege situation.

All the major sieges of the war ended in the same way—with the surrender of a Confederate army. It had already happened at Fort Donelson. It would happen at Vicksburg it would happen, in effect, at Petersburg with Robert E. Lee’s army later in the war. It also happened in Atlanta.

Well, here Johnston had run out of retreating room. He had to find some way to get at McClellan’s army, or he would be inside Richmond, and it would look very dark indeed for the Confederacy.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The Plan of Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston thought he saw an opportunity late in May when McClellan placed his army in a position with about one-third of it south of the Chickahominy River and two-thirds of it north of the Chickahominy River. Since it was hard to move reinforcements back and forth across a river, Johnston decided to hit one-third of the army located south of the Chickahominy River.

He put together a plan. It was not a great plan, but the plan, such as it was, was not executed well by the Confederates on May 31, so what it ended up with was a sort of bumbling battle at Fair Oaks or Seven Pines. Neither side won a decisive tactical victory—there were about 5,000 casualties on each side. In that sense, it was not a very important battle. But it was indeed an important battle in terms of its impact on later events, and there are two ways especially where it was important.

The First Impact of the Battle of Fair Oaks

After the Battle of Fair Oaks, George B. McClellan became more and more reluctant to commit to a major battle. (Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The first and less important of the two impacts concerned McClellan. McClellan was reluctant to commit himself to battle, to risk losing a big part of his precious Army of the Potomac. That part of his personality was reinforced after the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks because, as he rode over the battlefield and saw the wreckage of his troops who had fought there, he shrank from that vision.

He admitted to someone that he was upset by “the mangled corpses”, as he put it, and he added that “victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost”.

Well, that was an admirable attitude in one sense. He did not like to see bodies that had been torn apart in combat but in another sense, it spelled trouble for the North because it meant that McClellan was going to be even more reluctant to commit his army to a major battle.

It was a fatal flaw in him as a commander because, as much as he loved his army, and as much as his troops loved him, he had to be willing at some point to risk them, and McClellan was simply not willing to do that. So that was one consequence of this battle.

The Second Impact of the Battle of Fair Oaks

Robert E. Lee was named as the replacement for the wounded General Joseph E. Johnston. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

However, by far the more significant impact of the battle was that Joseph Johnston was wounded on May 31. He was hit in the chest by a shell fragment from an artillery round. The Union soldier who pulled the lanyard on that artillery piece fired the worst shot of the war for the North because that round that wounded Joseph Johnston opened the way for Jefferson Davis to put Robert E. Lee in command of the army defending Richmond, the army that Lee would call the Army of Northern Virginia.

This brought to the fore the man who would become the greatest by far of the Confederate generals. A man who, well before the war was over, would be the most important figure, political or civilian, in the Confederacy. The man who would become the great rallying point for most Confederates.

Common Questions about the Battle of Fair Oaks

The Battle of Seven Pines was important because it directly led to the appointment of General Robert E. Lee as the Confederate commander.

The Battle of Fair Oaks took place at Henrico County, Virginia.

Johnston’s attack at Seven Pines led to nothing more than a stalemate, but the injury that he sustained during the attack had far-reaching consequences.


Map Plan of the Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, Va. Fought 31st May 1862.

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Battle of Fair Oaks

On May 31, 1862, the Civil War Battle of Fair Oaks began.

The Union Army was close enough to the Confederate capital to hear Richmond’s church bells ring on Sunday morning. If Major General George B. McClellan could lead his Army of the Potomac just six more miles, they could take the capital and the Civil War would be over. The Battle of Fair Oaks, known in the South as the Battle of Seven Pines, could have been one of the last battles of the war. Instead, it was a turning point in McClellan’s campaign, and the fighting continued for three more years.

Item #20070 – George B. McClellan Commemorative Cover.

McClellan began leading the Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula in March 1862. His troops slowly advanced toward the Confederate capital. Always cautious and often relying on faulty information, McClellan planned for a siege against a force he thought was much larger than his. General McClellan was ill with malaria throughout much of the campaign and struggled with the sickness during this battle.

US #2975m from the 1995 Civil War sheet.

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his troops had repeatedly retreated from McClellan’s forces and were now in a defensive position northeast of the capital. The rain-swelled Chickahominy River was a natural defense for the 60,000 Confederate troops protecting Richmond. General Johnston knew his army could not survive a siege, so he decided to go on the offensive while the Union Army was divided, with two corps south of the river and three corps to the north. Johnston hoped to attack before the larger group could cross, but his plan was not communicated well to those under him. He gave oral instructions to Major General James Longstreet and vague written plans to the other leaders. The result was a lack of clear direction and much confusion during battle.

A thunderstorm during the night of May 30 further raised the water level of the river. Many of the bridges built by the Union engineers were washed away, and the surrounding land became swamps. This was a positive turn of events for Johnston because his enemy’s reinforcements were stranded on the other side. His plan to surround the Union Army seemed destined to succeed. Instead, the attack was not well coordinated and chances at victory slipped away.

Item #20101 – James Longstreet Commemorative Cover.

One of the pieces of information missing from Johnston’s orders was a specific time to start the attack. The battle began five hours later than the general had planned. The first engagements occurred against Brigadier General Silas Casey’s inexperienced force of 6,000 men. Both sides fought bravely and suffered heavy losses. The Confederates broke through the line and Casey’s men retreated to Seven Pines.

Antigua #2538 pictures several Civil War battles, including Fair Oaks.

By about 4:30 p.m. Confederate reinforcements arrived. General Johnston received news of the battle for the first time and rushed to join. In the early evening, he was wounded twice and taken from the field. Major General G. W. Smith took command.

Meanwhile, Union reinforcements from the other side of the Chickahominy River arrived. Brigadier General Edwin C. Sumner led his men across the unstable “Grapevine Bridge” to the south shore. Before crossing, an engineer desperately tried to convince him the river could not be crossed. Sumner replied, “Impossible? Sir, I tell you I can cross! I am ordered!” The weight of the crossing soldiers held the bridge in place, until after the last man was safely across when it was swept away in the current. The reinforcements helped slow the Confederate advance, then the fighting stopped for the night.

Antigua #2539 pictures Union and Confederate leaders and generals.

The Confederate Army resumed their attack the next morning. The Union reinforcements in their strong positions proved too powerful for the Southern troops. The Confederate forces withdrew to their defenses, and the battle was over before noon. McClellan did not pursue the retreating army.

The Battle of Fair Oaks was the largest battle of the Eastern Theatre up to that time, and both sides claimed victory. Casualties numbered about the same on both sides and no land was gained by either army. Confederate General G. W. Smith was indecisive in battle and President Davis replaced him with General Robert E. Lee. His offensive against the Union Army forced McClellan and his troops to retreat up the James River. It would take the Union Army nearly two years to get that close to Richmond again, and almost three years to overtake the Confederate capital.


Contents

McClellan had established a base of supply at White House, Virginia on May 15, after slogging through rain-soaked roads after the Battle of Drewry's Bluff. Five days later his advance crossed the Chickahominy River at Bottoms Bridge, and by the 24th the five Federal corps were established on a front partly encircling Richmond on the north and east, and less than 6 miles from the city. Three corps lined the north bank of the Chickahominy, while the two corps under Generals E. D. Keyes and Samuel P. Heintzelman were south of the river, astride the York River Railroad and the roads down the peninsula.

With his army thus split by the Chickahominy, McClellan realized his position was precarious, but his orders were explicit: "General McDowell has been ordered to march upon Richmond by the shortest route. He is ordered so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond"

Then, because of Stonewall Jackson's brilliant operations in the Shenandoah Valley threatening Washington, Lincoln telegraphed McClellan on May 24: "I have been compelled to suspend McDowell's movements to join you." McDowell wrote disgustedly: "If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one," which was exactly what Jackson succeeded in doing. This fear for the safety of Washington was the dominating factor in eastern military planning throughout the war.

Lincoln's order only suspended McDowell's instructions to join McClellan it did not revoke them. McClellan was still obliged to keep his right wing across the swollen Chickahominy.


War of the Rebellion: Serial 012 Page 0761 Chapter XXIII. BATTLE OF FAIR OAKS, OR SEVEN PINES.

Return of Casualties in the Army of the Potomac, at the battle of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines, Va., May 31-June 1, 1862-Continued.

Killed Wounded

Command Officers Enlisted Officers Enlisted

men men

FIRST

DIVISION

Brigadier

General

DARIUS N.

COUCE.

Staff . . 1 .

.

First

Brigade.

Brigadier

General

JOHN J.

PECK.

55th New . 13 5 .

York .

62nd New 1 1 . 15

York

93rd 1 19 3 81

Pennsylvan

ia

98th . . . .

Pennsylvan .

ia

102nd . 12 5 42

Pennsylvan

ia

Total 2 45 13 223

First

Brigade.

Second

Brigade.

Brigadier

General

J. J.

ABERCROMBI

E.

Staff . . 1 .

.

65th New . 7 . 24

York

67th New 1 26 5 130

York

23rd . 17 7 96

Pennsylvan

ia

31st . 5 . 18

Pennsylvan

ia

61st 3 65 9 143

Pennsylvan

ia

Total 4 120 22 411

Second

Brigade

Third

Brigade.

(1.)

Brigadier

General

CHARLES

DEVENS,

Jr.

(wounded)

(2.)

Colonel

CHARLES H.

INNES.

Staff . . 1 .

.

7th . . . 4

Massachuse

tts

10th 3 24 3 92

Massachuse

tts

2nd Rhode . . . .

Island .

36th New . 7 3 33

York

Total 3 31 7 129

Third

Brigade

Artillery.

Major

ROBERT M.

WEST.

1st . 1 . 3

Pennsylvan .

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery C.

1st . 1 . 1

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery D.

1st . . . 2

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery E.

1st . . . 6

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery H.

Total . 2 . 12

artillery

Total 9 198 43 775

First

Division

SECOND

DIVISION

Brigadier

General

SILAS

CASEY.

Provost . . . 1

guard*

Captured or missing

Command Officers Enlisted Aggregate Remark

men

FIRST

DIVISION

Brigadier

General

DARIUS N.

COUCE.

Staff . . 1

First

Brigade.

Brigadier

General

JOHN J.

PECK.

55th New . . 103

York

62nd New . 32 49

York

93rd 1 21 126

Pennsylvan

ia

98th . . . Not

Pennsylvan engaged.

ia

102nd . 10 69

Pennsylvan

ia

Total 1 63 347

First

Brigade.

Second

Brigade.

Brigadier

General

J. J.

ABERCROMBI

E.

Staff . . 1

65th New . . 31

York

67th New . 8 170

York

23rd . 9 129

Pennsylvan

ia

31st . 7 30

Pennsylvan

ia

61st 4 39 263

Pennsylvan

ia

Total 4 63 624

Second

Brigade

Third

Brigade.

(1.)

Brigadier

General

CHARLES

DEVENS,

Jr.

(wounded)

(2.)

Colonel

CHARLES H.

INNES.

Staff . . 1

7th . 1 5

Massachuse

tts

10th . 2 124

Massachuse

tts

2nd Rhode . . . Not

Island . engaged.

36th New . 5 48

York

Total . 8 178

Third

Brigade

Artillery.

Major

ROBERT M.

WEST.

1st . . 4

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery C.

1st . . 2

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery D.

1st . . 2

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery E.

1st . . 6

Pennsylvan

ia Light

Artillery,

Battery H.

Total . . 14

artillery

Total 5 134 1,164

First

Division

SECOND

DIVISION

Brigadier

General

SILAS

CASEY.

Provost . 2 3

guard*

---------------

* Not accounted for with their regiments.

---------------

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Battle of Fair Oaks (Seven Pines)

Meanwhile General McClellan telegraphed to the Secretary of War that Washington was in no danger, and that it was the duty and policy of the government to send him " all the well-drilled troops available." When these raids on the Confederate communications had been effected, Porter rejoined the main army on the Chickahominy, and McClellan telegraphed again to the Secretary, " I will do all that quick movements can accomplish, but you must send me all the troops you can, and leave me full latitude as to choice of commanders." Three days afterwards General Johnston, perceiving McClellan's apparent timidity, and the real peril of the National army, then divided by the Chickahominy, marched boldly out of his entrenchments and fell with great vigor upon the National advance, under Gen. Silas Casey, lying upon each side of the road to Williamsburg, half a mile beyond a point known as the Seven Pines, and 6 miles from Richmond. General Couch's division was at Seven Pines, his right resting at Fair Oaks Station. Kearny's division of Heintzelman's corps was near Savage's Station, and Hooker's division of the latter corps was guarding the approaches to the White Oak Swamp. General Longstreet led the Confederate advance, and fell suddenly upon Casey at a little past noon, May 31, when a most sanguinary battle ensued.

Very soon the Confederates gained a position on Casey's flanks, when they were driven back to the woods by a spirited bayonet charge by Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine troops, led by General Naglee. Out of the woods immediately the Confederates swarmed in great numbers, and the battle raged more fiercely than ever. The Nationals fell back to the second line, with a loss of six guns and many men yet, notwithstanding the overwhelming numbers of the Confederates, and exposed to sharp enfilading fires, Casey's men brought off fully three-fourths of their artillery. Keyes sent troops to aid Casey, but they could not withstand the pressure, and the whole body of Nationals were pushed back to Fair Oaks Station, on the Richmond and York Railway. Reinforcements were sent by Heintzelman and Kearny, but these were met why fresh Confederates, and the victory seemed about to be given to the latter, when General Sumner appeared with the divisions of Sedgwick and Richardson. Sumner had seen the peril, and, without waiting for orders from McClellan, had moved rapidly to the scene of action in time to check the Confederate advance. The battle continued to rage fiercely. General Johnston was severely wounded, and borne from the field and early in the evening a bayonet charge by the Nationals broke the Confederate line and it fell back in confusion. The fighting then ceased for the night, but was resumed in the morning, June 1, when General Hooker and his troops took a conspicuous part in the struggle, which lasted several hours. Finally the Confederates, foiled, withdrew to Richmond, and the Nationals remained masters of the field of Fair Oaks, or Seven Pines. The losses in this battle were about the same on both sides - 7,000 men each. It was nearly one-half of both combatants, for not more than 15,000 men on each side were engaged. In this battle Gen. 0. O. Howard lost his right arm. Casey's division, that withstood the first shock of the battle, lost one-third of its number.

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