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Civil War Series

The Battles for Richmond, 1862

   

Johnston moved his army to the Peninsula to reinforce Magruder at Yorktown, where Johnston assumed command. Though Magruder's extensive preparations and imaginative theatrics had halted the Federal advance—and the commanding general fully appreciated Magruder's "resolute and judicious" efforts to buy the Confederacy precious time—Johnston did not like what he saw along the Warwick. He was not as impressed with the fortifications as was McClellan. "The works had been constructed under the direction of engineers without experience in war or engineering," he later wrote, and there was a dangerous gap in the defenses near Yorktown. He felt certain a determined assault would pierce the Warwick line.

Perhaps the more compelling reason behind Johnston's disdain for the Confederate works on the lower Peninsula was that they did not fit in with his plans, and he did not wish to hold them. Johnston believed that however strong were the entrenchments themselves along the Warwick, "they would not enable us to defeat McClellan." He was convinced that "we could do no more on the Peninsula than delay General McClellan's progress toward Richmond." A Federal breakthrough along the Warwick was inevitable, he thought, and because the flanks of Magruder's line were vulnerable the position was doomed. If the Federal navy wrested control of either the York or the James and passed gunboats upstream beyond the Confederate flank, Johnston's position would be untenable. The general wished to withdraw from Yorktown immediately to take up a defensive position closer to the capital. President Davis and Robert P. Lee also understood that the rivers were the key to the defenses of Yorktown but saw that Johnston could buy valuable time for the Confederacy by keeping McClellan at bay on the Warwick. The longer the Federals sat stymied, the more time Davis and Lee would have to gather troops from across the Confederacy and move them to Richmond to confront McClellan. Johnston, Davis, and Lee met on April 14 in Richmond but could come to no agreement. Lee argued vehemently with his old friend (Lee and Johnston had been classmates at West Point) that time was of the essence. Johnston thought holding the Warwick was a flirtation with disaster and left the meeting determined to evacuate Yorktown as soon as possible, but he did not declare as much to Davis and Lee, who assumed the army commander would hold his position until they could all discuss it again.

JOHN B. MAGRUDER (LOUISIANA STATE UNIV.)

On the morning of April 30, McClellan wrote to his wife that preparations were almost complete for opening fire with the siege guns. "We are working like horses and will soon be ready to open. It will be a tremendous affair when we do begin, and will, I hope, make short work of it."

But the Confederates too had been working. For Johnston, the issue at Yorktown was whether he could get his army away before the Federals were ready to begin their bombardment. By May 3, Johnston and his army were about ready, and the general planned to screen his withdrawal with a bombardment from his own heavy guns. Later that day, Johnston's batteries opened on the Federal lines. "The shells from the rifled guns flew in all directions," noted one of McClellan's staff officers. The firing continued into the night, and the roar was deafening.

A SECTION OF THE CONFEDERATE LINES AT GLOUCESTER POINT, TYPICAL OF THE FORMIDABLE DEFENSES THAT STALLED MCCLELLAN'S ADVANCE. THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN AFTER JOHNSTON EVACUATED. (LC)

ALTHOUGH NEVER FIRED AGAINST THE CONFEDERATES, THESE SIEGE MORTARS WERE PART OF A MASSIVE CONCENTRATION OF UNION ORDNANCE THAT HELPED PERSUADE JOHNSTON TO RETREAT. (LC)

Dawn at last came, "silent as death," according to one Federal. Far forward, along the picket lines, the Federals crept forward and discovered the startling news: the Confederates were gone.

As soon as he learned of Johnston's pullout, a jubilant McClellan ordered his divisions forward in pursuit. Soupy roads slowed both armies, and rain continued to fall. Johnston kept with the head of his column as it labored through the mud, so not until the afternoon of May 5 did he learn that the Federals had attacked his rear guard at Williamsburg, eight miles from Yorktown.

Long before the Federals had arrived on the Peninsula, Magruder's Confederates had built a line of earthworks just east of the old colonial capital of Williamsburg. The defensive line's centerpiece, Fort Magruder, dominated the main road from Yorktown. In the cold, rainy dawn of May 5, Southern infantrymen and artillerymen lay in the muddy earthen ramparts of the fort and peered eastward into the murk. Federals of Brigadier General Joseph Hooker's division strode through the fog toward Fort Magruder and immediately deployed for an attack. Confederate artillerymen in the fort opened an accurate fire, and Confederate infantrymen soon joined the fight. Major General James Longstreet, a South Carolinian and perhaps Johnston's most trusted lieutenant, conducted the engagement in Johnston's absence and sent more Southern brigades that came forward to counter the persistent Hooker. The fighting shifted southwestward from Fort Magruder, where Brigadier General Richard H. Anderson advanced through tangled woods to assail Hooker's left. Longstreet eventually committed his entire division of six brigades against Hooker's three, and the Federals barely held their own.

Brigadier General Philip Kearny's division came to Hooker's relief. Certainly one of the more colorful figures in either army, Kearny led his men up from the rear, flourishing his sword in his one hand —he had lost his left arm in the Mexican War. Kearny cantered forward on a personal reconnaissance to draw enemy fire. Two riders with him fell dead, but the general returned to his troops pleased, for the Confederates in the woods had revealed their positions. "You see, my boys, where to fire!" he shouted, and his worshipful men sprang forward with a yell. Kearny urged regiment upon regiment forward, shouting, "Men, I want you to drive those blackguards to hell at once." Anderson's Confederates fell back, and the fighting southwest of Fort Magruder settled into a stalemate.

AFTER YORKTOWN, MCCLELLAN'S SOLDIERS STRUGGLED TO CATCH JOHNSTON'S RETREATING ARMY, BUT RAIN-SWOLLEN CREEKS AND MUDDY ROADS IMPEDED THEIR ADVANCE. (LOSSING'S CIVIL WAR IN AMERICA)

North of the fort, however, a Federal brigade moved forward into what appeared to be a gap in the Confederate line. Brigadier General Winfield S. Hancock, a Pennsylvanian, pushed his men onward until he found himself in the Confederate rear and approaching Fort Magruder from behind. Longstreet, with all of his troops engaged with Hooker and Kearny, had no reserve with which to counter Hancock and sent an urgent appeal to Major General D. H. Hill for reinforcements. Hill sent Brigadier General Jubal A. Early and his four regiments hustling to the Confederate left. Early's Virginians and North Carolinians emerged from a forest and found themselves in the open directly before Hancock's troops. Early launched an attack, and a Federal officer on the battle line recalled that Hancock's line moved swiftly to counter it: "We halted and opened fire, and the view of it through the smoke was pitiful. They were falling everywhere; white handerchiefs were held up in token of surrender. . . . We gathered in some three hundred prisoners before dark." All told, Early had lost more than 500 men (300 from the 5th North Carolina alone) and had himself been gravely wounded.

THIS FANCIFUL KURZ & ALLISON PRINT OF THE BATTLE OF WILLIAMSBURG REFLECTS THE ROMANTIC MOOD OF THE POST WAR YEARS, NOT THE BRUTAL REALITIES OF CIVIL WAR COMBAT. (LC)

MCCLELAN'S SUPERIOR LOGISTICAL ABILITY MANIFESTED ITSELF ON THE WHARVES OF YORKTOWN WHERE HE STOCKPILED STORES OF AMMUNITION AND EQUIPMENT. (USAMHI)

The battle sputtered to a close in the soggy darkness, and commanders were left to count their dead, wounded, and missing. In this first pitched battle of the Peninsula campaign, the Federals spent 2,200 men in trying to smash the Confederates from behind, and the Southerners lost 1,600 soldiers in fending off the Federal attackers.

But McClellan had already undertaken a more ambitious movement aimed not at the tail of the retreating Confederate column but at its head. As his divisions had streamed through Yorktown and on to Williamsburg on May 4 and 5, McClellan went to the wharves of Yorktown to oversee the loading of 11,000 soldiers and their supplies and equipment on to steamers and barges. The general's plan was for his close friend Brigadier General William B. Franklin to lead a division up the York River, which, with the abandonment of the Confederate batteries at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, was open to Federal shipping. Franklin was to establish a landing near West Point and, if possible, strike inland at Johnston's retreating column. If all went well for the Federals, Franklin's move might be the bold stroke of the campaign—the blow that might severely hurt Johnston and, perhaps, set enough dominoes tumbling to lead to the fall of Richmond. But neither McClellan nor Franklin seemed to have the heart to deliver a crushing blow. McClellan seemed more concerned about the risks involved than the victory to be won and emphasized caution. Rather than releasing this flanking force for a daring thrust, McClellan seemed satisfied to place Franklin on Johnston's flank and keep him there on a leash.

Franklin landed at Eltham's Landing on the Pamunkey River on the afternoon of May 6 while most of Johnston's army was still slogging along the muddy roads from Williamsburg. Instead of striking inland to intercept the enemy, Franklin adhered to the spirit of his orders and fortified the landing site. Three Confederate brigades stifled a small Federal sally the next day, ending McClellan's best opportunity yet to hit the Confederates hard away from the protection of their earthworks.

Franklin did, however, establish a beachhead, and McClellan's supply officers immediately sent heavily laden vessels up the York. For the next seven weeks, the York would be one of the busier rivers in America as craft of all types labored to supply the army as it moved toward Richmond.

The James River, to the south, would be less busy but no more placid. In the second week of May, the U.S. Navy at last got its chance to add its heavy ordnance to the contest on the Peninsula. When Johnston had evacuated Yorktown, the commander of the Confederate garrison at Norfolk withdrew his troops toward Richmond, abandoning the Gosport Navy Yard, home port of the ironclad Virginia. The James River was too shallow for the ironclad to retreat toward Richmond so, reluctantly, the captain scuttled and burned his ship before dawn on May 11. It was an ignominious end for the ship that had dominated the campaign for two months.

JOHN B. HOOD COMMANDED THE CONFEDERATES ENGAGED AT ELTHAM'S LANDING ON MAY 7. (LC)

Free at last from the shadow of its nemesis, the U.S. Navy immediately entered the waters of the James that the Virginia had so long denied them. Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough placed five gunboats under the command of Commander John Rodgers and ordered the squadron to push upriver to Richmond. Goldsborough told Rodgers to "shell the place into a surrender."

Davis and others in Richmond clearly understood the gravity of the situation. The president told Virginia's legislature that he intended to hold Richmond, but the statement was neither a promise nor very convincing. "There is no doubt," wrote Richmond newspaperman Edward Pollard, "that about this time the authorities of the Confederate States had nigh despaired of the safety of Richmond." While their leaders spoke of brave deeds and the need for courage, the people of Richmond watched as the Confederate government began packing up. "They added to the public alarm by preparations to remove the archives," Pollard wrote. "They ran off their wives and children to the country." Davis himself had sent his wife and children to safety in North Carolina. "As the clouds grow darker and when one after another of those who were trusted are detected in secret hostility," he wrote, she must try to "be of good cheer and continue to hope that God will in due time deliver us from the hands of our enemies and 'sanctify to us our deepest distress.'"

WITH THE GALENA IN THE ADVANCE AND THE FAMOUS MONITOR NEARBY, RODGERS'S SQUADRON BOMBARDED DREWRY'S BLUFF FOR MORE THAN THREE HOURS BUT WAS UNABLE TO SILENCE THE CONFEDERATE BATTERIES. (FRIENDS OF THE NAVY MEMORIAL MUSEUM)

A PHOTOGRAPH OF THE BATTERED IRONCLAD GUNBOAT GALENA TAKEN SHORTLY AFTER ITS FAILED ATTACK AGAINST DREWRY'S BLUFF. (LC)

Just eight miles south of Richmond, hundreds of Southern soldiers, sailors, marines, militiamen, and civilians labored to obstruct the James River and thus seal off the greatest immediate threat to the capital. For weeks, men had worked to finish a fort high atop the 90-foot-high Drewry's Bluff. Work on the defenses continued through the night of May 14, when the Southerners sank cribs full of stones and small ships to close off the river's channel.

Rodgers's squadron steamed around a sharp bend at 7:30 A.M. on May 15 and came under fire from the guns on the bluff (the Federals referred to the earthworks on the heights as Fort Darling). Rodgers boldly steered his flagship, the ironclad USS Galena, to within 600 yards of the fort. The other gunboats, the Monitor, Aroostook, Port Royal, and Naugatuck, anchored behind the Galena and returned fire. The Southern artillerymen concentrated their fire on the Galena, and the riflemen along the river's edge sniped at the Federal gun crews. More than three hours after the fight had begun, Rodgers decided he could do no more. "It became evident after a time that it was useless for us to contend against the terrific strength & accuracy of their fire," wrote an officer on the Monitor. The Galena, having expended 360 rounds, was nearly out of ammunition and was on fire. Rodgers ordered his ships to retire downriver.

The Galena had been hit 45 times. One onlooker thought her iron sides had offered "no more resistance than an eggshell." An officer of the Monitor was stunned by what he saw belowdecks on the Galena, where 13 men had been killed and 11 others wounded—"she looked like a slaughterhouse. . . . Here was a body with the head, one arm & part of the breast torn off by a bursting shell—another with the top of his head taken off the brains still steaming on the deck, partly across him lay one with both legs taken off at the hips & at a little distance was another completely disemboweled. The sides & ceiling overhead, the ropes & guns were spattered with blood & brains & lumps of flesh while the decks were covered with large pools of half coagulated blood & strewn with portions of skulls, fragments of shells, arms legs, hands, pieces of flesh & iron, splinters of wood & broken weapons mixed in one confused, horrible mass."

Richmond celebrated the repulse of Rodgers as the first good news in weeks. The James River route to the city had again been denied to the Federal navy at the cost of just seven Confederates killed and eight wounded.

THIS PANORAMIC VIEW SHOWS CUMBERLAND LANDING ON THE PAMUNKEY RIVER, USED BY MCCLELLAN BEFORE HE MOVED THE ARMY'S SUPPLY BASE TO WHITE HOUSE LANDING. (USAMHI)

THE "WHITE HOUSE" AT WHITE HOUSE LANDING WAS HOME TO CONFEDERATE OFFICER W. H. F. "ROONEY" LEE, SON OF GENERAL ROBERT E. LEE. THE HOUSE WAS UNFORTUNATELY BURNED TO THE GROUND DURING THE FEDERAL EVACUATION IN JUNE. (BL)

With proper management and good fortune, any of the three Federal thrusts in the first half of May—those at Williamsburg, Eltham's Landing, and Drewry's Bluff—might have proved fatal to Johnston's defense of Richmond. But the Federals had been neither adroit nor lucky, and the Confederates drew confidence from the Federal failures as the initiative in the campaign shifted slightly toward Johnston. McClellan seemed willing to let it pass, for after the setback at Eltham's Landing, he had ceased pursuing Johnston with vigor and moved haltingly toward the Pamunkey River, where his quartermasters were accumulating vast supplies.

On May 16, McClellan established his base of supply at White House Landing, where the Richmond & York River Railroad crossed the Pamunkey. Just a few miles west of White House lay Johnston's army, where it had been resting undisturbed for more than a week. McClellan expected a climactic battle within days near the Chickahominy River, but he admitted he could not discern what Johnston was up to. "I don't yet know what to make of the rebels," he confided to his wife. "I do not see how they can possibly abandon Virginia and Richmond without a battle."

Johnston did not intend to give up Richmond without a battle, but he wished only to fight where and when it would favor his outnumbered army. The Confederates stood with their backs to the Chickahominy River, a shallow but broad, swampy morass prone to severe flooding. Johnston decided he wished this obstacle between him and the enemy rather than between his army and Richmond. On May 16, Johnston crossed the army to the south bank of the Chickahominy and took up positions west of the crossroads of Seven Pines.

THE PRESENCE OF UNION SOLDIERS ON THE PENINSULA REPRESENTED THE POSSIBILITY OF FREEDOM FOR THOUSANDS OP SLAVES, MANY OF WHOM RAN AWAY FROM THEIR MASTERS AND SERVED AS LABORERS IN THE UNION ARMY, INCLUDING THIS GROUP OF MEN AT WHITE HOUSE LANDING. (USAMHI)

Despite having made his third retrograde movement in the first three weeks of the month, Johnston was thinking offensively. He knew he would have to fight McClellan soon, but he wished to do so under the most advantageous circumstances possible. The Confederate commander believed that if he soundly defeated McClellan far from his safe haven at Fort Monroe, the Southerners could vigorously pursue the broken Federals and destroy the Army of the Potomac. "If the Federal army should be defeated a hundred miles away from its place of refuge, Fort Monroe," he wrote, "it could not escape destruction. This was undoubtedly our best hope." Contemplating this scenario, Johnston waited west of Seven Pines and watched for an opportunity to strike.

McClellan now had a serious strategic problem before him, and he knew that how he resolved that problem would affect every decision he would make for the rest of the campaign. The Federal commander was having trouble feeding his enormous army. He discovered that his 3,000 wagons, working in tandem with the railroad, were just barely adequate to satisfy the daily requirements of his 115,000 men and 25,000 horses and mules. The thought that he might not be able to supply his army by wagon alone, particularly in rainy weather over muddy roads, understandably made McClellan reluctant to leave the railroad. Logistically, the railroad offered McClellan a great advantage in moving supplies to his troops, but to capitalize on this advantage, he had to hold both banks of the Chickahominy. Strategically, it would have been better to have consolidated the army all on one side of the river so neither wing would be isolated from the other. The principles of strategy and logistics were thus working against each other in McClellan's approach to Richmond. Opting to resolve supply problems first, even at the expense of creating strategic problems, McClellan followed Johnston across the Chickahominy with part of his force.

On May 17, after McClellan had established his base at White House, he received welcome news from the War Department. Irvin McDowell's 30,000 troops, then at Falmouth on the Rappahannock River, would march overland and join McClellan in his operations on Richmond. McClellan was pleased indeed to have these long-awaited reinforcements, but he was correspondingly outraged when a week later the War Department suspended the order and sent McDowell instead to the Shenandoah Valley. Confederate Major General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's fast-marching troops had defeated one Federal force in the Valley, attacked another, and seemed capable of crossing the Potomac River and threatening Washington. Jackson's hyperactive campaign in the Valley—in which his men would march more than 600 miles and fight five engagements—was part of a scheme developed by Jackson and Robert E. Lee to divide Federal attention. Jackson's force was relatively small—never more than 17,000 men—but the two generals hoped that by swift forced marches and surprise attacks Jackson's little army could raise havoc with the Federals in the Valley and thereby create in the minds of strategists in Washington the impression of a serious crisis. Lee hoped Washington would try to subdue Jackson by diverting troops from McClellan, thereby decreasing Federal pressure on Richmond. The Federal War Department unknowingly complied with Lee's wishes and ordered McDowell westward to help corral Jackson. McClellan saw the Lee-Jackson scheme for what it was—a diversion—and he complained bitterly to Washington about sending troops to the Valley on a wild goose chase, but to no avail; he would have to do without McDowell for a while longer.

MAJOR GENERAL THOMAS J. "STONEWALL" JACKSON. (LC)

On his own, with no prospect of reinforcement any time soon, McClellan tried to sort out the strategic situation before him in the final week of May.

On his own, with no prospect of reinforcement any time soon, McClellan tried to sort out the strategic situation before him in the final week of May. Johnston lay behind fortifications west of Seven Pines. To get at him, McClellan would have to cross the Chickahominy in sufficient force to defeat Johnston yet leave a strong force north of the Chickahominy to protect the railroad. In looking for his next move, McClellan's gaze turned to a gathering Confederate force north of the river near the village of Hanover Court House. McClellan saw that advancing on Johnston south of the river would place these Confederates on his flank, where it might prove troublesome, so the Federal commander decided to eliminate it before he turned his full attention to Johnston.

In the predawn hours of May 27, a Federal column commanded by Brigadier General Fitz John Porter moved northwestward through a rain storm toward Hanover Court House. Porter surprised a Confederate brigade commanded by former U.S. congressman Lawrence O'B. Branch, but the Southerners, mostly North Carolinians, fought bravely against more than twice their number. The ugly little fight sprawled through the woods and farm fields south of Hanover Court House for several hours before Branch withdrew his battered regiments toward Richmond. The Southerners had lost more than 750 men and the Federals 355, but McClellan had accomplished his objective and could now attend to Johnston.

But Johnston had already been studying McClellan's positions, and he saw that for all the Northerner's deliberations and meticulous planning, McClellan had made a careless error. While retaining most of his army north of the Chickahominy, the Federal commander had sent just two corps—the Fourth and the Third—across to the south bank. The Third Corps, under Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman, remained in a reserve position close to the river while Brigadier General Erasmus D. Keyes's Fourth Corps advanced to the Seven Pines intersection, nine miles from Richmond. This single corps of 17,000 men confronted the majority of the 63,000 men Johnston had at his disposal. Neither Keyes nor McClellan seem to have realized the extreme danger of the Fourth Corps's position, separated as it was from most of the army with only one bridge linking the wings across the Chickahominy. Even worse was that Keyes had pushed his weakest division, Brigadier General Silas Casey's 6,000 men, the smallest and least experienced division in the army, farthest forward to hold the most advanced position in McClellan's army—a line of earthworks just west of Seven Pines. In advancing on Johnston, McClellan had arguably put his worst foot forward.

THREE DAYS BEFORE THE BATTLE OF HANOVER COURT HOUSE, THE LEADING ELEMENTS OF MCCLELLAN'S ARMY ENTERED MECHANICSVILLE. (BL)

BRIGADIER GENERAL SILAS CASEY (BL)

Johnston had been looking for an opportunity to attack McClellan on favorable terms, and his numerical superiority south of the Chickahominy gave him the advantage he sought. Johnston decided to attack the Fourth Corps at Seven Pines and met with General Longstreet on the afternoon of May 30 to complete a plan. Johnston's design was not complicated. Two strong columns, one of six brigades under Longstreet and the other of four brigades under D. H. Hill, would converge via separate roads on the Fourth Corps at Seven Pines. A third column of three brigades under Major General Benjamin Huger was to support Hill's right (the far Confederate right). G. W. Smith's division, temporarily under Brigadier General W. H. C. Whiting, was to follow Longstreet's column to add support as needed. If all went well, the Fourth Corps would be crushed and the Third Corps would be pinned against the Chickahominy and overwhelmed.

But three factors conspired to complicate the attack. The first was James Longstreet, who, without informing Johnston, decided to drastically alter the plan. For reasons he never satisfactorily explained, Longstreet chose to forsake his assigned attack route on the Nine Mile Road and move his column to join Hill on the Williamsburg Road. By this movement, the two converging columns became one very large force packed into a very narrow space so that it could only attack frontally and with a fraction of its force at a time.

MAJOR GENERAL DANIEL H. HILL (LC)

BATTERY A, 2ND U.S. ARTILLERY AFTER THE BATTLE OF SEVEN PINES. (LC)

The second factor complicating Johnston's attack was the weather. On the night of May 30, a raging storm lashed the Chickahominy basin. "Torrents of rain drenched the earth," recalled an awed General Keyes, "the thunder bolts rolled and fell without intermission, and the heavens flashed with a perpetual blaze of lightning." The deluge turned the river into a furious flood and swelled small tributaries beyond fordability. Slippery mud made the Confederates' task of moving large numbers of men over small roads even more difficult than it already was.

Finally, the imprecision of Johnston's instructions to his generals would contribute to the confusion. Huger suffered most from Johnston's muddled orders, and the mud and high water in creeks and streams coupled with Longstreet's crowding onto the Williamsburg Road delayed Huger's march by several hours. The scheduled dawn attack did not begin until 1 P.M., when an impatient D. H. Hill sent his brigades forward unsupported.

Immediately in the path of Hill's men, hunkered down in flooded rifle pits, lay the novices of Silas Casey's division. Casey himself admitted that his men were ill trained and poorly equipped, and though the general was working diligently at making his men better soldiers, he knew they probably were not ready for a fight. D. H. Hill's men were about to accelerate the learning process for Casey's green Yankees. The Federal line shuddered under Hill's initial blow, some units broke and ran, but as the crucial minutes passed it became clear that Casey's untested rookies would hold their ground and fight. Still, the attacking Confederate force was too large for Casey to handle alone, so as his men withdrew deliberately he called for reinforcements. Casey's corps commander, Keyes, was slow in sending supports to threatened points, and Hill's men continued advancing.

UNION SOLDIERS PERFORMING THE GRUESOME TASK OF BURNING SLAIN HORSES AND BURYING THE DEAD AFTER SEVEN PINES, NOT FAR FROM THE FAMOUS TWIN HOUSES AND CASEY'S REDOUBT. (BL)

The recent downpours had turned part of the battlefield into a swamp and flooded rifle pits and entrenchments. Confederate regiments went forward through hip-deep water, and officers had to form details to follow along behind the battle line and prop up the wounded against trees to prevent their drowning. The volume of fire was terrific, and men on both sides fell in incredible numbers. An Alabama colonel was so engrossed by the effort to save his regiment that he considered it his duty to ignore a personal tragedy. Colonel John B. Gordon passed his brother, a 19-year-old captain. "He had been shot through the lungs and was bleeding profusely," recalled Gordon. "I did not stop; I could not stop, nor would he permit me to stop. There was no time for that—no time for anything except to move on and fire on."

About 4:40 P.M., D. H. Hill, strengthened by reinforcements from Longstreet, surged forward to hit a new Federal line near Seven Pines, this one anchored by troops under Brigadier General Samuel P. Heintzelman, commander of the Third Corps. Heintzelman's line held, even after a lone Confederate brigade commanded by Colonel Micah Jenkins stove in Heintzelman's right flank. Unsupported, Jenkins had to retire when the Federals brought up reserves.

Johnston remained near his headquarters through the early part of the day. He had not heard from Longstreet and did not know about the altered plan, but by mid-morning, he knew something had gone seriously wrong. About 4 P.M., Johnston received a note from Longstreet asking his commander to join the battle. Puzzled and still in the dark, Johnston went forward with three brigades of Smith's Division (under W. H. C. Whiting). Near Fair Oaks Station on the railroad, Johnston's column encountered resistance. These Federals finally halted the Confederate column but only when reinforcements arrived after one of the more remarkable forced marches of the war.


(click on image for a PDF version)
BATTLE OF SEVEN PINES—MAY 31
After a morning of confused and misunderstood orders, the Confederates finally struck McClellan's advance at Seven Pines. Silas Casey's untried division fell back to Seven Pines intersection, where reinforcements halted the Southern advance. Army commander Joseph E. Johnston fell wounded while watching his troops in action near Fair Oaks Station.

When Brigadier General Edwin V. Sumner, commander of the Second Corps on the north side of the Chickahominy, heard the sounds of battle at Seven Pines, he, on his own initiative, sent troops forward as reinforcements. His men had to cross the swift and turbulent waters of the rain-swollen river, but the only crossing available was Grapevine Bridge, which was partially submerged and threatening to wash away at any moment. Sumner ordered his men on to the groaning, swaying span. The weight of the passing column helped the bridge hold against the rushing waters, but soon after the last man reached the south bank, the timbers collapsed and were borne away by the roiling stream. Sumner's men, led by Brigadier General John Sedgwick, hastened forward and arrived on the battlefield in time to play a key part in halting Johnston's advance.

IN A DESPERATE ACT OF HEROISM, COLOR SERGEANT HIRAM W. PURCELL OF THE 104TH PENNSYLVANIA SAVES HIS REGIMENT COLORS AT SEVEN PINES AS CONFEDERATES RUSH FOR THE HIGHLY COVETED PRIZE. (COLLECTION OF THE MERCER MUSEUM OF THE BUCKS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

AS PART OF AN EFFECTIVE UNION COUNTERATTACK ON JUNE 1, THE 88TH AND 69TH NEW YORK DROVE THE CONFEDERATES FROM THE FIELD, RECAPTURING GROUND LOST THE PREVIOUS DAY. (FRANK AND MARIE WOOD PRINT COLLECTION)

The most important event of the day—perhaps of the war—occurred near Fair Oaks Station late in the afternoon. Johnston, who had been actively exhorting his troops since entering the battle, suddenly reeled in his saddle, struck by a bullet and a piece of shrapnel. Anguished aides carried him to Richmond and out of the Peninsula campaign. With Johnston disabled, command of the army fell to G. W. Smith, who was bedeviled by ill health and, so it seemed, excessive caution. Davis felt he could not lay the fate of Richmond in such uncertain hands and that night made his most important decision of the war. Effective the next day, June 1, Robert E. Lee would command the army in the field.

Before Lee assumed command at Seven Pines on June 1, the armies at Seven Pines resumed the battle. The Confederates fended off Federal attacks and ventured counterassaults that made no headway against fresh Federal troops in strong positions. The fighting ended leaving 6,100 Confederates and 5,000 Federals killed, wounded, captured, or missing in the two-day fight. It had been the bloodiest battle of the war in the East to that point, and only the armies engaged at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee on April 6 and 7 had killed or wounded more men than fell at Seven Pines (or Fair Oaks as the Federals called it).

ALTHOUGH IN WORKING ORDER IN THIS PHOTOGRAPH, GRAPEVINE BRIDGE WAS PARTIALLY SUBMERGED BY THE WATERS OF THE CHICKAHOMINY ON MAY 31, KEEPING ELEMENTS OF EDWIN SUMNER'S SECOND CORPS FROM REACHING THE SEVEN PINES BATTLEFIELD. (USAMHI)

UNION ARTILLERISTS POSE AT THEIR POSTS NEAR THE SEVEN PINES BATTLEFIELD. (USAMHI)

Seven Pines marked the end of a phase in the Peninsula campaign. The large, climactic battle Johnston had wished and McClellan had expected had been attempted, but while Seven Pines had been large, it had not been climactic. McClellan called the battle a victory, but his army had been hurt and had very little to show for the win except that it had not been destroyed. Confederate leaders had much more reason to be depressed at the outcome of Seven Pines. Southerners had based their hopes of saving Richmond and their young nation on the premise that Confederate troops would at the moment of crisis somehow defeat the overwhelming invading hordes in battle—but when the battle came, the Yankees had survived. McClellan's army stood ready to resume its march on Richmond. After Seven Pines, the already darkening future of the Confederacy arguably took on a deeper hue of gloom.

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