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Chapter 5: Seven Pines or fair Oaks

  • Drury's Bluff.
  • -- the situation. -- attack planned. -- Johnston's plan changed. -- Johnston's problem. -- battle of Seven Pines or fair Oaks. -- a misunderstanding. -- Longstreet's mistake. -- Huger delayed. -- Huger unjustly blamed. -- signal given. -- Hill's battle in brief. -- losses. -- Reenforcements. -- reports. -- Wilcox's report. -- Couch's position. -- Johnston's battle. -- Whiting's advance. -- a second attack. -- Johnston wounded. -- G. W. Smith in command. -- Smith's battle, June. -- the Confederates withdraw. -- Lee placed in command. -- Resume. -- staff and organization. -- artillery service. -- Davis and Johnston.

Meanwhile, Norfolk had now been evacuated by our forces, which were withdrawn at first to Petersburg and then to Richmond. Our ironclad, the Virginia (the old Merrimac), drawing too much water to ascend the James, had been blown up. This river was now open to the Federal fleet, except for some hurriedly built batteries at Drury's Bluff, about six miles below Richmond, covering obstructions made of a row of piles and some sunken schooners.

On May 15 the fleet, which included three ironclads, the Monitor, Galena, and Naugatuck, attacked the batteries, but was repulsed with 25 killed and wounded, and considerable injury to some of the vessels. Until that time Johnston had contemplated fighting on the north of the Chickahominy, but he now decided to concentrate his army nearer Richmond, and on May 17 it was all encamped within three or four miles to the east of the city.

The situation had grown very threatening; for McDowell's army, still at Fredericksburg with 31,000 men, had again been assigned to McClellan. He only awaited the arrival of Shields, marching to join him with 11,000 more, before advancing.

If it was now in Johnston's power to do anything to save Richmond, it must be done before McDowell arrived. It was [72] not likely that McClellan would himself seek battle when such a large reenforcement was near. Johnston's only chance, therefore, lay in taking the offensive. He had no such works to rely upon as the Federals had around Washington. There were, indeed, a few small enclosed forts, erected during the first year of the war, each armed with a few of the smooth-bore guns of that day, but they were located too near the city limits to have any value.

Vicinity of Richmond (the dotted lines show roads of minor importance.)

The lines in which we afterward fought were but light infantry trenches with occasional barbette batteries, usually thrown up by the troops under emergency.

The enemy soon followed us up and established a line of battle, upon which at different points earthworks began to appear.

His right flank, on the north bank of the Chickahominy, rested upon Beaver Dam Creek, a strong position which Johnston's engineers had selected for our own left flank, before we left Yorktown, when Johnston contemplated fighting on that bank. Thence, the Federal line extended southeast along the [73] Chickahominy some three miles to New Bridge. Then, crossing this stream, it bent south and ran to White Oak Swamp, where the left rested, giving about four miles on the south side in a line convex toward Richmond, and scarcely six miles away at its nearest point.

In observation of McDowell at Fredericksburg was Gen. J. R. Anderson at Hanover Junction with about 9000 men; and near Hanover C. H. was Branch's brigade, about 4500. Johnston directed that these forces should be drawn behind the Chickahominy, on our left, and united into a new division under A. P. Hill. Before this could be accomplished, however, Branch was attacked by Morell's division and Warren's brigade of Porter's corps, and was forced back with a loss of about 300 killed and wounded, and 700 prisoners, the enemy reporting 62 killed, 223 wounded, and 70 missing, total 355.

At Fredericksburg, McDowell's column was at last joined by Shields, who had been detached from Banks in the Valley, and on May 26 McDowell was put in motion. In the forenoon of the 27th notice of his advance reached Johnston, who at once recognized that he must now attack before McDowell could unite with McClellan.

The latter had moved so cautiously as to offer no favorable opportunity until his last move which had put his army astride of the Chickahominy. That presented as fair a chance as Johnston could now expect. So he immediately determined to attack on the 29th. As McDowell was approaching behind the enemy's right, his strongest effort would be made to crush that flank. On the 28th Johnston got his troops into position to attack at dawn on the 29th. Three of his seven divisions (Whiting's, A. P. Hill's, and D. R. Jones's) were to attack Porter's corps at Beaver Dam. The other four divisions on the south side of the Chickahominy (McLaws's, Longstreet's, D. H. Hill's, and Huger's) would be held in observation, ready to cross when Porter's corps was driven back. Everything was in readiness by sundown on the 28th, when further news was received. McDowell had suddenly stopped his advance, and his troops seemed to be falling back toward Manassas. What had happened was that Jackson had again broken loose in the Valley and [74] defeated Banks at Strasburg on May 23, and at Winchester on May 25, and was moving on the Potomac, as will be told more fully in a later chapter.

This had created a panic at Washington, for rumor had magnified Jackson's forces greatly, and McDowell, just in the nick of time for us, had been turned back for the defence of the capital.

Johnston was glad of a respite, and an opportunity to consider as an alternative an attack upon McClellan's left. The strength of the position at Beaver Dam Creek made any direct attack very dangerous, and to turn it would consume time. To attack the enemy's left was certainly a safer proposition. On the south side his force was smaller and was much more easily gotten at. And while it was already partially fortified by abattis and trenches, quickly constructed in flat and wooded country, yet they had had time to do but little. Longstreet urged going on with the attack for which the troops were already in position, but Johnston decided to withdraw the troops north of the Chickahominy during the night of the 28th, and to have reconnoissances made to discover the location and strength of the enemy's position on the south side. Accordingly, on the 29th, and again on the 30th, one or two regiments were advanced and drove in the enemy's pickets on our extreme right flank, developing his presence and that he was fortifying. This being reported to Johnston by D. H. Hill soon after noon on the 30th, Hill was informed in reply that ‘he would lead an attack upon the enemy next morning.’

There was nothing to gain by further delay; for, by the arrival at Richmond of Huger's division from Norfolk on the 29th, Johnston now had all the force possible to get. His problem was to defeat four divisions of the enemy, 12 brigades fortified, and crush them before assistance could cross the Chickahominy to their relief. If he could do this quickly his chance was good to involve in the defeat also some of the reenforcements the enemy would be sending across the bridges. He had seven divisions, 27 brigades, numbering about 60,000 infantry and artillery. The four divisions to be attacked numbered about 37,000. Considering the morale of our men, which will appear more fully after a description of the battle, the proposition was an easy one, [75] if only we could succeed in bringing our fighting strength to bear in the right places and at the right times. But just there lay our greatest difficulty and weakness. Our army was not yet organized into corps, our divisions were often too large, and our staff service, by which information and orders were disseminated, was insufficient in amount and deficient in technical training and experience. Johnston was endeavoring to remedy some of these evils by assigning his ranking officers, G. W. Smith, Longstreet, and Magruder, to command two or more divisions each, which he called wings and centre, but such temporary arrangements are always more apt to mar than to promote unity of action. And our general himself was impatient and unmindful of small detail. Let us now have the story of what happened.

To use the slang expression, it was ‘up to’ Johnston to play, and in a conference with Longstreet during the afternoon of May 30, the battle for the next day was planned in accordance with the intimation given D. H. Hill about noon.

The conference was prolonged by the coming up of a violent rain-storm, scarcely second to any in violence, according to my recollection, that I saw during the war. Over three inches of rain must have fallen in the first two hours, and it kept up, more or less, until late at night. It was hoped that this rain would make our task easier by rendering the Chickahominy impassable for reenforcements to the enemy. Indeed, it did have this effect, but not until the night of the day after the rain. The immediate effect was only to make all of our marchings and manoeuvres slower and more difficult, and the flat, swampy country of much of the battle-field was entirely inundated.

During this afternoon — prolonged by the rain-storm — Johnston gave verbal instructions to Longstreet as to the battle of the next day, and it is hard to imagine how any serious misunderstanding of such a simple movement could have taken place in a conversation prolonged for hours. One would need to have heard the whole of it to tell how it arose. But Johnston afterward recognized the fact that it had occurred, and wrote to G. W. Smith that the misunderstanding ‘may be my fault, as I told you at the time.’ Smith, however, denies recollection of any such telling. [76]

The following sketch will illustrate the misunderstanding:

Sketch map.

Johnston intended to have the battle begun at an early hour by D. H. Hill's division of four brigades, three of which were already in position, in the front line, on our extreme right on the Williamsburg road. Rodes was on picket on the Charles City road, not far off, and, unfortunately, Johnston's plan included his being relieved and joining his division before the attack was begun. Any preliminary movement, however simple it may appear, will usually turn up fated to cause unexpected delay. Rodes is ordered to be relieved by a brigade of Huger's division, of three brigades, now in camp on the north bank of Gilliss Creek, near Richmond. This is ordered at an early hour to go down the Charles City road and relieve Rodes, after which it will guard and protect Hill's right flank and render it aid if opportunity offers.

Longstreet's division of five brigades is in camp on the Nine Mile road nearest the Chickahominy on our left. Johnston's plan is that it shall march straight down that road, perhaps three miles, pass our line of battle, here held by Magruder's division, form line of battle, and listen for the sounds of battle begun by D. H. Hill's attack upon Casey's division, which will be within a mile or two of his front and right. He will be in a position to take Casey on the right flank and with till's four brigades, having abundant force, can hope to make short work of it. [77]

Meanwhile, Whiting's division of five brigades (considered a part of Smith's ‘Wing’) had been a part of the attack proposed two days before, and were still encamped farther up the Nine Mile road. After Longstreet left Johnston's headquarters, the rain having slacked, the latter sent word to Smith to order Whiting to march down the Nine Mile road early in the morning and take position at our line of battle behind Longstreet, to further reenforce him in the battle.

Smith came in person, some five miles, arrived at 4.30 A. M., and now first learned of the proposed attack, and had it all explained. Johnston proposed to make his own headquarters on the Nine Mile road where he could observe any efforts of the enemy to cross the Chickahominy. It would have been much wiser to have first visited the right and seen his battle started. The whole Confederate plan at Bull Run had gone astray for the lack of this precaution, and now it turned out that Longstreet had understood him either to order or to consent that his division was to be marched across from the Nine Mile road to the Williamsburg road and to go into action behind D. H. Hill's division. It will soon appear how utterly this wrecked and ruined Johnston's excellent and simple plan. How the misunderstanding occurred has never been explained, for neither Johnston or Longstreet in their official reports or other writings ever gave any explanation or even admitted openly that a mistake was made. But Johnston induced G. W. Smith to change his official report, to avoid its being made public therein. The official reports also disclose that on that day Longstreet was anxious to have Huger's division recognized as under his command, although Huger was the senior officer. Possibly Longstreet made some request of Johnston for authority over Huger, and Johnston in complying may have thoughtlessly used some expression which Longstreet interpreted as permission to go to the right. But the whole history of this battle remains a monument of caution against verbal understandings.

Longstreet's division was early upon the road, and it soon developed that its route to the Williamsburg road cut off and blocked the prescribed marches of both Whiting's and Huger's divisions as they respectively came up. [78]

After some delay, Whiting sent a note to Johnston's headquarters, complaining that his march was obstructed by Longstreet. Johnston, supposing only that Longstreet was preceding Whiting down the Nine Mile road, as ordered to do, answered to that effect, and G. W. Smith, who was still with Johnston, sent an aid, Capt. Beckham, down the Nine Mile to overtake Longstreet and learn the cause of any delay. Beckham followed this road to Magruder's line, and, not finding Longstreet, guessed that he had gone across to the Williamsburg road. So he sent back a note saying that he would continue his search in that direction.

When this note was shown Johnston about 9 A. M., he was still so convinced that Longstreet was upon the Nine Mile road that he despatched his aide-de-camp, Lieut. Washington, down the same road to find him.

Washington pushed his investigation so far as to follow the Nine Mile into the enemy's pickets where he was captured about 10 A. M. His capture, and his disturbed manner when some firing was soon after heard, convinced Gen. Keyes that an attack was on foot, and Keyes was accordingly alert and prepared.

Meanwhile, Longstreet's column, having delayed Whiting on the Nine Mile road for two or three hours (for the column took its wagons along), found itself next blocking the column of Huger at Gilliss Greek. The creek was bank full from the rain. Longstreet says: —

‘The delay of an hour to construct a bridge was preferred to the encounter of more serious obstacles along the narrow lateral road flooded by the storm. As we were earlier at the creek, it gave us precedence of Huger's division, which had to cross after us.’

As Longstreet knew that one of Huger's brigades must relieve Rodes's brigade, on the Charles City road, and let it rejoin Hill's division before the battle could commence, it would have saved much to waive this precedence at least for one brigade.

Colston, commanding one of these brigades, wrote as follows of this occasion: —

‘A little brook near Richmond was greatly swollen, and a long time was wasted crossing it, on an improvised bridge, made of planks, a wagon midstream serving as a trestle. Over this the division passed in single [79] file, you may imagine with what delay. If the division commander had given orders for the men to sling their cartridge boxes, haversacks, etc., on their muskets and wade, without breaking formation, they could have crossed by fours with water up to their waists, and hours would have been saved. When we got across we received orders to halt on the roadside until Huger's division passed us. There we waited five or six hours.’

He had just passed Huger, and now he waits for Huger to pass him!

When one contemplates the fact that there was a commanding officer, hoping to win a great victory, then at his headquarters within two miles of this spot where nine brigades were thus wasting the precious hours passing and repassing each other, the whole performance seems incredible. And when it is further said that six of these brigades were lost, with their commander, and that the staff of the general was seeking them at that moment, high and low, miles away along the picket-line, it is almost ludicrous. And any friends of Huger may be excused for finding even a tragic side to the situation. For when the whole affair was over, and had ended in defeat, Johnston and Longstreet laid the entire blame upon Huger. I give as illustrations two quotations from Johnston, and there were equally disparaging statements by Longstreet.

General Longstreet, unwilling to make a partial attack instead of the combined movement which had been planned, waited from hour to hour for Huger's division.’—‘Had Huger's division been in position and ready for action when those of Smith, Longstreet, and Hill moved, I am satisfied that Keyes's Corps would have been destroyed instead of being merely defeated. Had it gone into action even at four o'clock the victory would have been much more complete.’

After the battles were over and Johnston was recovering from his wound, Huger made vain effort to have the injurious statements corrected and applied for a Court of Inquiry. This was promised by the War Department, but it was to be held ‘as soon as the state of the service will permit.’ The state of the service never permitted, and the court was never held.

About 1 P. M., however, Rodes's brigade was relieved on the Charles City road, and hurried to join the other three brigades [80] under Hill, who had fretted greatly under the delay. He started his two brigades on the left of the road as soon as he saw Rodes approaching.

The formation was Garland's brigade on the left of the road, followed by G. B. Anderson; Rodes's brigade on the right, followed by Rains. Each brigade marched in column until the enemy were met, when it formed line. The rear brigades formed about 300 yards behind the leading ones.

In Johnston's narrative, he states that ‘Longstreet as ranking officer of the three divisions to be united near Hill's camp, was instructed verbally to form his own and Hill's division in two lines crossing the Williamsburg road at right angles and to advance to the attack in that order.’ But the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that on the morning of the battle, Johnston was expecting Longstreet to be in position on the Nine Mile road, and to support Hill's attack upon the Williamsburg road by his attack down the Nine Mile. That was the only quick way of bringing his large force into proper action, and it is hard to see how the two divisions could have failed to crush the enemy in their front.

It is no wonder that Johnston said when he found out where Longstreet was, that he wished the troops were all back in their camps, for the victory was surely his if only he could play his game correctly.

It was being started badly. It was on a front of only two brigades, supported by two in a second line, while nine other brigades encumbered the one good road leading to the battle. From a glance at the field one might now confidently predict the outcome.

It is D. H. Hill's division, about 8500 strong, excellent troops, and there is not living a more honest fighter than D. H. Hill. They will first meet Casey's division, of about equal strength, partly fortified with trenches and abattis. Behind Casey are three other divisions holding two other lines partly intrenched. Hill may carry the first line and even have some success against the second. But, by that time, he will be worn out, and the daylight will be gone before enough of the nine brigades (those behind him) can be gotten to him in force to cut any figure. The [81] fight on this road cannot amount to more than a bloody draw, prolonged until night.

That is what any one, knowing the conditions, might have predicted, and that is just what happened. To follow all the details is useless, but the list of casualties, and some brief descriptions of incidents will give a good idea of the fighting.

The Confederate reports of casualties, particularly in battles fought during active campaigns, are far from being full, and are not at all uniform in their shape and detail. Complete figures, therefore, for the whole division cannot be given.

Of Rains's brigade, the official report only states that its losses were one-seventh of the force. The reports show that this brigade was employed in a flank movement around the enemy's left which it executed successfully, but did not repeat it. Hill expressed disappointment and says that Rains might have saved Rodes's brigade from suffering 500 casualties.1 Rains fought on the left. Had Longstreet's division that morning not gone astray, all of its brigades would have been on the enemy's flank, and have had similar chances. The other three brigades reported their strength and losses as follows:—

Seven Pines, May 31, 1862

Front rightRodes22002418535109950
Front leftGarland2065986004274037
Rear leftAnderson, G. B.18651496803786647

This record shows great fighting power, and will compare favorably for a half-day's fighting of an equal body of men, with any records of the war. [82]

At Waterloo, the losses were: Allies 20 per cent, French 34 per cent, British regulars 29 per cent. At Balaklava, the Light Brigade (600) lost 49 per cent.

On the Federal side the battle was opened by Casey's division, moderately well fortified with trenches, batteries, and abattis, and soon supported by Peck's brigade of Couch's division. These four brigades were finally routed from their first line by the Rains's flank movement. They then fell back upon the second intrenched line, where they united with Couch's two remaining brigades. Rains's brigade now dropped out of the fight.

The three other brigades pushed their attack upon the enemy's second line, which was now being reenforced by Kearny's division, but Hill received also a reenforcement of R. H. Anderson's brigade, which he divided. Two regiments under Jenkins he sent to the left and the remainder under Anderson to his right. A little later also he received two regiments, the 11th Ala. and the 19th Miss., of Wilcox's brigade. With this help the second line was carried. Four Federal regiments and a battery retreated north toward the Chickahominy unpursued. The remainder fell back slowly and night put an end to the fighting. Kemper's brigade also arrived, brought by Longstreet to Hill's aid. It came upon the field, but too late to take effective part. On the Federal side Hooker's division also came up as the fighting ceased.

Hill's division was now worn out, and Longstreet relieved it from the seven idle brigades still left on the Charles City and Williamsburg roads.

Hill's forces during the battle had averaged about four brigades, for R. H. Anderson had come up, after Rains dropped out with a loss of only 14 per cent. Anderson's losses are not given, but they were severe and probably equalled the average of Hill's. Jenkins's official report says:—

‘We never fought twice in the same place, nor five minutes in one place, and steadily on the advance; were under fire from 3 P. M. to 7.40 P. M. The service we did will be evidenced by our list of killed and wounded. In my two color companies out of 80 men who entered, 40 were killed or wounded, and out of 11 in the color guard 10 were shot down, and my colors, pierced by 9 balls, passed through four hands without touching the ground.’


The following shows a comparison of the total casualties of Hill's part of the battle, as nearly as they can be ascertained, including the three brigades already given: —

Casualties. Hill's battle. Williamsburg road, May 31, 1862

Keyes's CorpsCasey8,5001779273251429
Keyes's CorpsCouch28,5001957731271095

The Confederates captured 10 guns, 5000 muskets, and about 400 prisoners. The following extracts from official reports give an idea of the fighting. Rodes writes:—

‘The total number of men carried into action was about 2200. The aggregate number present at camp was, however, 2587. The 6th Ala. lost nearly 60 per cent of its aggregate force. Some of its men were drowned after having been wounded, as they fought at times in a swamp in which the water was from six inches to two feet in depth. The right company of the 6th Alabama was thrown back at right angles to the line of battle by Col. Gordon, to protect his rear, and engaged the enemy at such close quarters that its brave commander, Capt. Bell, after having fallen wounded mortally, was able to use his revolver with effect upon the enemy. The company fought with great heroism. Its loss was 21 killed and 23 wounded out of a total of 55’ (80 per cent).

It remains to say a few words of the movements of the unengaged troops on the Williamsburg and Charles City roads. Longstreet at 3.30 P. M. placed Wilcox in charge of his own, Pryor's, and Colston's brigades, and ordered him to follow and support Huger. Soon after this order was modified and Wilcox was ordered to precede Huger. But, having moved to the front, he was soon countermarched and ordered to return to the Williamsburg road, and then to follow that road to the front. He had retraced his steps about a mile when his fourth order [84] again reversed his direction. He was now to follow down the Charles City road, keeping abreast of the firing which was heavy. And soon a fifth order came, of which Wilcox writes in his report: —

‘Again orders were received in writing to move across to the Williamsburg road, following country roads and paths through woods and fields, a guide being furnished to conduct the command. The intervening distance between the two roads was low and flat, and in many places covered with water, at one point waist deep. The march was of necessity very slow. It was about 5 P. M. when the head of the column reached the Williamsburg road.’

It was at this time that the 11th Ala. and 19th Miss. of Wilcox's brigade were sent into the action, as has already been told. Later, these brigades with the others of Longstreet and Huger, which were brought up, relieved the troops which had been so heavily engaged.

So terminated what should properly be called ‘D. H. Hill's Battle,’ for the whole, as we shall see, embraced three minor battles, at different times and places, and under different commanders. Hill's battle was fought principally against Keyes's corps; and we have seen that Couch with four regiments and a battery retreated northward toward the Chickahominy.

Here he soon found friends. Sumner's corps on the north side of the river had been formed about 1 P. M., and moved toward two recently constructed roadways and bridges across the Chickahominy. At 2.30 P. M. orders to cross were received, and Sumner, having two roads, was able to cross quite rapidly. The river was high and rising, and by nightfall and until next morning the stream was impassable.

Now we enter upon the second, which may be called ‘Johnston's Battle.’

It has been told how his original plans were destroyed by Longstreet's taking his division to the Williamsburg road. It must have been near eleven o'clock when Johnston learned where Longstreet was, and realized that it was too late to get the troops back for that day. He hesitated whether to wait and prepare for the morrow or to go on, and unfortunately decided to let it go on. He took no measures to supply the [85] place on the Nine Mile road of the six brigades of Longstreet. Whiting's five brigades, however, were at hand. Three of them, Whiting's, Hood's, and Pettigrew's, were at the fork of the Nine Mile and New Bridge roads; Hatton's and Hampton's in reserve near by.

Toward noon Johnston left his headquarters, which were on the Nine Mile road about three miles from Richmond, and took his position at a house near the fork of the Nine Mile and New Bridge roads. His intention now was to send Whiting's division down the Nine Mile road to cooperate with D. H. Hill's attack down the Williamsburg road.

By coincidence of bad luck, his right wing having lost several hours in the morning, his left wing lost about three hours in the afternoon. The signal for Whiting's advance was to be the sound of Hill's musketry on the Williamsburg road, two miles southeast, through a wooded country. This musketry began about one o'clock, and was heard in the Federal lines, five miles northeast; also, near Richmond five miles west; but was not audible two miles to the northwest at the position occupied by Whiting's division and by Gen. Johnston.4

Longstreet reports having sent a message, upon the capture of Casey's first line, but it was not received, and Johnston's first knowledge of the battle came about four o'clock, from an officer whom he had sent at three to investigate and report.

Soon after 4 P. M., Whiting's five brigades were put in motion, with Hood in front. Hood was directed to leave the Nine Mile road to his left and to push over toward the York River Railroad, and find Hill's troops, while the remaining brigades moved down the railroad. Already there had been upon the railroad all day Pickett's brigade of Longstreet's division, sent there by Longstreet before the beginning of the action, ‘to report any advance of the enemy up that road.’ It is remarkable that Longstreet contented himself with this, and did not utilize this road as a route of advance for some of his many brigades. [86] Besides his own six he could have called on some of Huger's three, and have led a strong attack down the railroad, turning Casey's right flank. An opportunity for one of the most brilliant strokes in the war was here overlooked and lost. Soon after five o'clock, Whiting's four rear brigades had straightened out upon the Nine Mile road, with Whiting's own brigade in front near Fair Oaks Station, when a battery opened fire upon the column from its left.

It was the battery with four regiments of Couch's division, which had been cut off from Casey's second line and had retreated northward, unpursued, toward the Sumner bridges. Here it had met Sedgwick's division of Sumner's corps and Richardson's division was not far away. Johnston was riding with Whiting when the Federal battery opened fire, but supposing the Chickahominy to be impassable, he thought that there could be no great force there, and Whiting was ordered to charge the position with his brigade. Near the Chickahominy the ground was rolling, and the enemy's guns secured fine positions. For fully 800 yards the Confederate advance was exposed to fire.

The reception which it met, however, made it speedily apparent that the errand upon which it had been sent was much beyond the dimensions of a brigade.

Johnston was impatient, and directed the attack to be renewed at once by all the brigades present. Hood's brigade might have been recalled, and several batteries of artillery, not far off, could have found positions against the two batteries the enemy presently had in action. But a very hurried formation of the three remaining brigades—Hatton's, Hampton's, and Pettigrew's—was made, and the attack was renewed without bringing up artillery, although there was much of it near. It was met by Sedgwick's division and Abercrombie's four regiments, and received a bloody repulse, to which the enemy's artillery contributed largely, having a fair sweep and no artillery opposing them. Hatton was killed, Pettigrew wounded and captured, and Hampton wounded.

The casualties of the division for the day were reported as follows: — [87]

Hood's Brigade1,9221313
Whiting's (Law)2,3982828642356
Total Confederate10,59216410101091283
Sedgwick's Division8,000622823347
Abercrombie's Brigade2,00012451269
Total Federal10,0007432715416

Before sundown Johnston recognized that his attack was a failure, and he was about to arrange that his troops should sleep on their arms and renew the fight at dawn, when he received two wounds. The first was a flesh wound in the shoulder from a musket ball, and the second, a few moments later, was a blow in the chest from a heavy fragment of shell, knocking him from his horse. He was placed in an ambulance and started toward his headquarters, but suffered such pain from the motion caused by the fearful roads that a litter had to be substituted. He was incapacitated for service until the middle of November, when he was assigned to the principal command of the Army in the West.

G. W. Smith succeeded Johnston in the command, and the action of the next day is therefore to be called ‘Smith's Battle.’ It is sometimes stated in Confederate accounts, that this day offered the Confederates their best opportunity to crush the enemy, because it is supposed that the Chickahominy was now entirely impassable. This is a mistake. The railroad bridge had been repaired and covered with plank, and was always available for infantry and for horses, though not for vehicles. By 8 A. M., June 1, the Federal engineers had built a pontoon bridge at the site of the New Bridge, but it was under Confederate fire, and the approaches to it were impassable during the flood. By noon Sumner's upper bridge was again practicable for infantry, and by dark the lower one. By morning, June 1, therefore, the Federal army was practically safe from any Confederate attack. It had six divisions on the ground and a good line of battle, extending across the railroad nearly parallel to the Nine Mile [88] road, with its left flank retired and protected by White Oak Swamp. The only chance of a successful assault by the Confederates would have been with a heavy artillery fire upon the obtuse angle where Sedgwick's line bent back to connect with the other divisions. The condition of the ground, as well as the unorganized state of the Confederate artillery service, made such an attack impossible, and no effort at it seems to have been made. Late at night, May 31, Longstreet reported to Smith, and received orders to attack in the morning from the Williamsburg road northward, Smith proposing to take up the battle, with Whiting and other troops, when it was well developed.

It is easy to see that the Federals had nothing to fear from anything the Confederates were likely to do.

Early in the morning there was some sharp firing at many points along the line, where daylight brought into view troops and skirmishers which had been posted after dark; and, in accordance with Smith's instructions, four of Longstreet's brigades — Pickett's, Wilcox's, Pryor's, and Colston's — and two of Huger's, Mahone's and Armistead's, advanced upon the enemy's position, which ran largely through the woods. There resulted a number of more or less severe affairs at different points, which were waged with varying fortunes for some hours. The brigades which had been engaged the day before were held in reserve near the captured redoubt. Meanwhile, with daylight, the enemy's position of the afternoon before, opposite Whiting, showed itself strengthened by intrenchments, and Smith thought there was evidence of additional reenforcements being sent from the north side. So the battle in Whiting's front was not renewed. Longstreet, too, soon began to call for reenforcements. The following notes were received from him in quick succession:—

‘June 1st. Yours of to-day received. The entire army seems to be opposed to me. I trust that some diversion may be made in my favor during these attacks, else my troops cannot stand it. The ammunition gives out too easily.’

‘10 A. M., June 1. Can you reenforce me? The entire army seems to be opposed to me. We cannot hold out unless we get help. If we can fight together, we can finish the work to-day and Mac's time will be up. If I can't get help, I fear that I must fall back.’

On receipt of these notes, Smith ordered 5000 men to [89] be withdrawn from Magruder's force along the Chickahominy, above New Bridge, and sent to Longstreet, but meanwhile D. H. Hill, seeing that the fighting was accomplishing nothing, sent orders withdrawing the troops to the line of the night before. This was done rapidly at some points, and more slowly at others, but the enemy made no marked advance, and the action soon died out, it being now about 11 A. M.

About 1.30 P. M. President Davis arrived at Smith's headquarters, and informed him that Lee had been assigned to the command of the army, and Lee himself soon arrived. The party then rode over to Hill's position, whence Magruder's troops, which had arrived, were ordered back to the Chickahominy. After dark orders were received by Hill from Longstreet for all troops to return to their camps within the Confederate lines. In his official report, Hill says: ‘The thirteen brigades were not got together until near midnight. . . . We regained our own intrenchments near sunrise.’ The moon that night was about five days old.

The official reports do not show separately the casualties either of this last action or of Hill's battle on the 31st, though those of Johnston's battle are given by both sides. But Kearny's division and some of Longstreet's brigades were engaged both on the 31st and the 1st, and, on the latter day, two of Huger's. The totals of the whole affair, as nearly as can be estimated, are shown in the following table, averaging where exact figures are wanting:—

Total casualties. Seven Pines or fair Oaks

May 31Federal18,00056525165343615
May 31Federal10,5007432715416
June 1Federal17,000151751981000


A glance at this table suggests at once the weakness of our army. Three separate times we advanced to give offensive battle, expecting to meet and to crush two Federal corps which we knew would average over 15,000 men each. We had about 50,000 men to do it with, and it was necessary to do it quickly when once begun, for three other Federal corps were close at hand. On neither of the three occasions did we succeed in getting over about 14,000 men into action at all.

The fighting qualities of the troops engaged proved excellent, but the trouble was in our organization, which could not handle the available force effectively. That was due partly to our lack of staff-officers trained to military routine, partly to the unwieldy structure of our army into large divisions, instead of into corps, and partly to the personal peculiarities of our commander, whose impatience of detail appears in the misunderstanding between himself and Longstreet, and in the lack of written orders to officers charged with carrying into effect important plans.

Perhaps our greatest deficiency at this period was in the artillery service. None of our batteries were combined into battalions, but each infantry brigade had a battery attached to it. There were no field-officers of artillery, charged with combining batteries and massing them to concentrate heavy fire upon important points. There was never greater need or better opportunity for this than in Johnston's battle of the 31st. The enemy had but two batteries, Kirby's and Brady's, and no more were available. They did not receive a single hostile cannon shot, and were able to devote their whole fire to our infantry lines, which in every case seemed to be finally repulsed only by heavy canister at close quarters.

We had no lack of batteries. The roads were full of them, but there was no organization to make them effective. Both roads and open fields were in very miry condition, and all movements would have been slow, but a competent officer by doubling teams could have brought up guns with little delay.

The opportunity to place Lee in command of the army was a very gratifying one to President Davis, and it increased our chances of success to have cordial relations established between [91] the War Department, under the Chief Executive, and the army under its commander.

Relations had not been cordial before, and at this particular time the strain upon them was being increased daily by Davis's feeling that he was not being taken into Johnston's confidence as to his plans.

In Volume II of his Rise and fall of the Confederacy, Davis writes of this period as follows: —

Seeing no preparation to keep the enemy at a distance, and kept in ignorance of any plan for such purpose, I sent for Gen. Lee, then at Richmond in general charge of army operations, and told him why and how I was dissatisfied with the condition of affairs.

He asked me what I thought it was proper to do. I answered that McClellan should be attacked on the other side of the Chickahominy before he matured his preparations for a siege of Richmond. To this he promptly assented, as I anticipated he would, for I knew it had been his own opinion. He then said: “Gen. Johnston should, of course, advise you of what he expects or proposes to do. Let me go and see him and defer this discussion until I return.”

No date is given, but in the War Records the following letter from Lee to Johnston appears, and it was probably the result of this conversation:—

May 21, 1862. (Wednesday.)
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston:—
General: The President desires to know the number of troops around Richmond, how they are posted, and the organization of the divisions and brigades; also the programme of operations which you propose.

The information relative to the composition and position of your army can readily be furnished, but your plan of operations, dependent upon circumstances, perhaps yet to be developed, may not be so easily explained, nor may it be prudent to commit it to paper. I would, therefore, respectfully suggest that you communicate your views on this subject personally to the President, which perhaps would be more convenient to you and satisfactory to him. I am, etc.,

R. E. Lee, General.

The War Records follow this letter with a statement of the army's complete organization, and its strength (53,688), but there is nowhere record of any other reply. From Mr. Davis's narrative it is clear that no further communication took place. The narrative goes on: — [92]

‘When Gen. Lee came back, he told me that Gen. Johnston proposed, on the next Thursday, to move against the enemy as follows: Gen. A. P. Hill was to move down the right flank and rear of the enemy; Gen. G. W. Smith, as soon as Hill's guns opened, was to cross the Chickahominy at the Meadow bridge, attack the enemy in flank, and by the conjunction of the two it was expected to double him up. Then Longstreet was to cross on the Mechanicsville bridge, and attack him in front. From this plan the best results were hoped for by both of us.’

The ‘next Thursday’ was May 29. In the Records appear no signs of battle until May 27. On that day came news that McDowell was starting south from Fredericksburg. Johnston immediately ordered troops into position for the attack at dawn on the 29th. But, as has been told, on the 28th he received news of McDowell's recall north. That night he countermanded the battle orders, and had the troops withdrawn under cover of darkness from all advanced positions.

The President's narrative goes on :—

‘On the morning of the day proposed, I hastily despatched my office business and rode out toward the Meadow bridge to see the action commence. On the road I found Smith's division halted, and the men dispersed in the woods. Looking for some one from whom I could get information, I finally saw Gen. Hood, and asked him the meaning of what I saw. He told me that he did not know anything more than that they had been halted. Riding on to the main road, which led to the Mechanicsville bridge, I found Gen. Longstreet, walking to and fro in an impatient, it might be said, fretful manner. Before speaking to him, he said his division had been under arms all day waiting for orders to advance, and that the day was now so far spent that he did not know what was the matter. Thus ended the offensive-defensive programme from which Lee expected much, and of which I was hopeful.’

But two days afterward, May 31, the President rode out again late in the afternoon, and when on the Nine Mile road, heard firing in the direction of Seven Pines. Mr. Davis writes: —

‘As I drew nearer I saw Gen. Whiting with part of Gen. Smith's division file into the road in front of me; at the same time I saw Gen. Johnston ride across the field from a house before which Gen. Lee's horse was standing.5 I turned down to the house and [93] asked Gen. Lee what the musketry firing meant. He replied by asking whether I had heard it, and being answered in the affirmative, he said he had been under that impression himself; but Gen. Johnston had assured him that it could be nothing more than an artillery duel. It is scarcely necessary to add that neither of us had been advised of a design to attack the enemy that day.’

It seems clear from this narrative that Gen. Johnston entirely disregarded the letter of May 21, so far as it required him to acquaint the President with his proposed programme of operations. The verbal message conveyed by Lee, that he proposed to attack north of the Chickahominy on the 29th, may serve to acquit him of literal disobedience; but the change of programme was neither notified beforehand, or explained afterward, nor was any notice given of the attack at Seven Pines on the 31st, although there was ample opportunity to do so.

It is not probable, however, that Johnston intended his course to be one either of disrespect or disobedience. It had its source, doubtless, in his aversion to detail, or to committing himself as to what he proposed to do, when he was fighting a superior force and was really waiting for opportunities to turn up.

It must be admitted that at Seven Pines our prospects, had Johnston not been wounded, would have been dismal. Besides the lack of cordial relations between the President and Johnston, the latter's effort to handle the army in battle had been an utter failure. His orders were given, he says, ‘for the concentration of 23 of our 27 brigades against McClellan's left wing.’ Yet nowhere were ever over four brigades in action at one time. No complaint is made of any disobedience, slowness, or nonperformance, by any officer, except Huger, and the facts in his case distinctly relieve him from any blame whatever. Indeed, it is almost tragic the way in which he became the scapegoat of this occasion, the true history of which is even yet not generally understood. Gen. Smith, however, in 1891, published all the facts for the first time with documentary proof.

1 Rains was a graduate of West Point of class of 1827, and was now fifty-nine years of age. He had had some Indian fighting in Florida, and had been wounded, but he was not in the Mexican War. He was an expert and enthusiast upon explosives, and, soon after the action at Seven Pines, he was relieved of his brigade and assigned to the Torpedo Bureau, which was organized for submarine defence of our rivers and harbors.

2 This includes 12 killed, 45 wounded, 12 missing, total 69, which occurred in Johnston's battle on the left.

3 This omits Kemper, who was not seriously engaged.

4 Such phenomena, called acoustic shadows, are of common occurrence and are to be expected upon every battle-field, in some direction; especially in wooded localities. Here the intervening ground was moderately wooded. The artillery could be distinguished, but the amount of it was not great.

5 Among the staff-officers who saw this incident, it was believed that Gen. Johnston saw Mr. Davis approaching, and that he sought to avoid a meeting by mounting quickly and riding rapidly to the extreme front, where he remained until he received his wounds. I was a witness of the scene.

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