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Battle of Fair Oaks - Seven Pines
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Battle of Fair Oaks - Seven Pines
The Battle of Fair Oaks, or the Battle of Seven Pines, marked many epiphanies for both the Union and Confederate Armies. It was the last battle before the Peninsula Campaign became The Seven Days Retreat. It ended Joe Johnston's command of the Confederate Army of the Potomac and started Robert E. Lee's command of the Army of Northern Virginia. It can even be argued that it was the beginning of the end for George McClellan.
From Williamsburg McClellan moved north to West Point on the York River. He avoided the southern end of the Chickahominy River, a wide, coastal river protected by swamps, with few roads and no bridges near its confluence with the James. McClellan's men instead headed west along the Richmond & York River Railroad, then turned south, spreading five corps behind the Chickahominy northeast of Richmond.
From Richmond, Joe Johnston watched his opponent, hoping for a mistake. When Erasmus Keyes' 4th Corps crossed the Chickahominy at Bottom's Bridge on May 23, 1862, Johnston thought his time had come. The Rebels, though, couldn't attack quickly enough, and Keyes completed his crossing and had begun moving towards Richmond south of the Chickahominy. From across the river Samuel Heintzelman [US] could tell when Keyes Corps had passed his position, making it relatively safe to cross the river. He pushed two divisions, Phil Kearny [US] and Joe Hooker [US], across the river on Long's Bridge.
Originally planning on striking McClellan's right flank near Mechanicsville, Keyes crossing of Chickahominy seemed so fortuitous that Johnston completely reworked his plans to strike Keyes corps instead. General James Longstreet never liked the plan of attacking Mechanicsville, but he did like the idea of hitting the 4th Corps as it was crossing the Chickahominy. It was not until Daniel Harvey Hill moved west on May 30 that the Confederates realized that Heintzelman's 3rd Corps had also crossed the Chickahominy.
Aiding the Rebels was a portentous thunderstorm that passed through the area the night before. High winds and a wall of water wrecked havoc on the federals crossing the Chickahominy. Taking a page from Jomini, Johnston concentrated his force, including 21 of his 29 brigades of infantry, east of the rail depot at Fair Oaks (Both towns are now part of Richmond, just north of the Richmond International Airport). Johnston's plan called for A. P. Hill and John Magruder to screen Longstreet's move east along Nine Mile Road from the Union army north of the Chickahominy while additional troops moved forward along the Charles City (Huger), Williamsburg (Harvey Hill) and Nine-Mile (Longstreet) Roads. Johnston intended for Benjamin Huger to let Hill know when he was in position, then Hill would start the attack.
Instead, for some reason James Longstreet's men were on Williamsburg and Charles City Road, not the Nine-Mile Road as ordered. Huger got caught aside and then behind Longstreet's men so Hill could not advance. Finally, Harvey Hill became impatient and began to move forward without Longstreet or Huger.
Riding east on the Williamsburg Road in the early afternoon of May 31, Brigadier General Samuel Garland [CS] unexpectedly ran into federal pickets in front of hastily constructed works across the road. Keyes ordered the fortification built at Fair Oaks to protect the important crossroads at Seven Pines, named for the seven tall, ramrod straight loblolly pines nearby. Garland deployed in battle formation.
Brigadier General Silas Casey's [US] pickets sounded the alarm as the Confederates advanced on the entrenched federal position. With the roar of battle Harvey Hill moved two more brigades towards the sound on either side of Garland. Rebel artillery joined the conflict, concentrating on Brigadier General Darius Couch's men moving south in support of Casey. The forward movement of the Rebels could not be stopped, however, by entrenchments or additional troops.
Soon, Casey ordered the works abandoned and fell back with both his troops and more than half of Darius Couch's division, inadvertently cutting Couch from part of his division. Couch would spend the rest of the day with a brigade of men around the depot at Fair Oaks Station protecting the right flank of a Union line that no longer existed.
Future U. S. Senator and Governor of Georgia John B. Gordon, then a colonel of the 6th Alabama regiment, would remember the fighting that day at Fair Oaks as being "...as murderous as any..." he ever saw. The veteran commander of the Raccoon Roughs (boys from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee) ran into a stubborn Union line (85th New York) and came away with almost 400 casualties out of 700 engaged.
Keyes got so involved in the battle that he failed to wire his situation to headquarters or ask for help. When McClellan wired Heintzelman, at 2:30 pm, the 3rd Corps commander's response was that he had heard nothing from Keyes and therefore there were no serious problems, but his actions spoke differently than his words. He ordered Phil Kearney forward and Kearney reported quickly that Keyes was "being driven back."
By three o'clock the Union Army, in fact, had been driven back to the crossroads at Seven Pines where some of the retreating men fell in behind a second set of log works while others, too tired or afraid to fight continued to the rear for safety. Luckily, Darius Couch's division and Phil Kearny's forward brigades took up most of the Yankee line at Seven Pines. Heintzelman did maintain communication with headquarters and gave an acurate description of the battle (as he knew it) to McClellan shortly after 3:00pm. Based on Heintzelman's report McClellan issued an order to Edwin Vose Sumner to advance, but by the time Sumner received the order he had already sent Brigadier General John Sedgwick across Grapevine Bridge with orders to advance to the battle.
Daniel Harvey Hill had been fighting the Battle of Seven Pines without support. When forward units of Longstreet's Corps arrived under the command of Colonel Micah Jenkins [CS], Hill sent them on a flanking maneuver that took him up to Nine-Mile Road, then crashing down on Keyes left flank. In 5 distinct battles, Jenkins' South Carolinians worked their way behind enemy lines, coming to the Williamsburg Road just before dusk. This caused a less than orderly withdrawal of the Yankees when word reached the Yankee line of Rebels along their path of retreat.
Major General Gustavus W. Smith, to the north of Hill, ordered General Chase Whiting to began moving east shortly after 4:00pm. His lead brigade under Evander Law ran into Darius Couch and his small federal force at Fair Oaks Station and was about to overrun them when Sedgwick's Yankees arrived at 5:30pm. Sedgwick deployed his artillery on both sides as he advanced down the road to Fair Oaks, something Whiting couldn't do - he had failed to bring any artillery in support of his infantry.
As Whiting's brigades arrived they spread out north of Nine Mile Road over the rolling hills south of the Chickahominy. Although they initially outnumbered the federals, as more of Sedgwick's men arrived the numbers evened up and the fight turned into a series of frontal assaults. Soon the federals were pushing the Confederate line back. One of Whiting's brigadiers, Wade Hampton, was wounded and another, Robert Hatton, was killed in the federal advance. Brigadier General James Pettigrew was captured. From a hill just southwest of Fair Oak Station, Joe Johnston watched as the Union line swept forward with surprising speed. Soldiers near General Johnston warned him that he was not only within range of Sedgwick's artillery, but he was now in range of the advancing Union line. Before he could move, he was struck in the shoulder by a Yankee bullet as his position came in range of the advancing federal line. Moments later an artillery shell exploded in front of him, wounding him and knocking him off his horse. For Joseph E. Johnston, the Battle of Fair Oaks was over, as was his command of the Army of Northern Virginia. While Johnston was being moved to Richmond, G. W. Smith found out about his commander's injuries. Smith, Johnston's second-in-command, was now in charge of the Confederate Army.
Born in Kentucky, Major General Gustavus W. Smith graduated 8th in the class of 1842 at West Point. When he arrived at the scene of the battle, he conferred with both Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, who had arrived earlier in the day. Smith knew as little about Johnston's plans as either one of his superior officers and asked President Davis how the fighting was going (his corps had been screening the battle to the north). By now night was falling and he called an end to the first day of battle.
Fighting at Seven Pines resumed the following morning, but neither army made much of an effort at it. Brigadier General Oliver O. Howard lost an arm to a bullet during a Rebel assault, but G. W. Smith would not support Hill or James Longstreet, who finally made a belated appearance. At 11:30 the battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines ended. Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee arrived at the Hughes home and Davis had Smith turn command of the Army of Northern Virginia over to Lee.
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A. P. Hill
Battle of Fair Oaks - Seven Pines was last changed on - July 17, 2007
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