- 30 May 2020 14:29
May 31, Saturday
At dawn in Virginia, under lowering clouds and on roads turned muddy by the night’s rainstorm, General Johnston’s soldiers begin the march eastward. Johnston is so secretive that he has not informed President Davis or General Lee of his plans, but with that many troops in motion practically everyone in Richmond knows something is up. Expectant crowds gather early on the hilltops of east Richmond in hopes of catching a glimpse of the battle that might determine the fate of their city. The morning passes and no shots are heard. By noon, the thousands of spectators are growing impatient.
The attack, scheduled for about 8 am, is starting late because the usually dependable James Longstreet is confused by his orders. To the other division commanders, Johnston has sent specific written orders but not the overall plan. Only to Longstreet, who is entrusted with tactical command of the operation, has he given details of the entire plan—but not in writing. Though the two men talked for several hours the previous evening, either Johnston did not make his intentions clear or Longstreet, who is slightly deaf, did not hear him. As a result, Longstreet has marched his division south to the Williamsburg Road—the wrong road. This means that Johnston’s three-pronged assault will now be reduced to two. It also means the attack is hours late in getting started, as Longstreet’s forces moving the wrong way have blocked the path of the division under Huger, who is key to launching the initial assault. Only Hill’s march goes as planned. Advancing east on the Williamsburg Road, Hill stops 1,000 yards from the Federal picket line and waits impatiently for the signal indicating that Huger has moved into place. Hill’s 8,500 men are deployed on either side of the road in thick woods and undergrowth. Visibility is so poor that Hill, anxious to prevent his troops from mistaking one another for the enemy, has had each man wear a white strip of cloth around his hat.
At last, at about 1 pm, Hill learns that Huger’s lead brigade has come into position on the Charles City Road, five hours late. Immediately Hill orders the attack, and his men swarm forward toward the enemy division under Silas Casey. Casey’s men are the greenest troops in the Army of the Potomac; his division is also understrength and poorly equipped—clearly the wrong outfit to put in a position as critical as Seven Pines. To make matters worse, Casey has failed to send out scouts or patrols. The Confederates surprise and easily break his advance line before running into stiff resistance from Casey’s main line of defense. The Federals are entrenched in a clearing behind an abatis with an earthen fort defended by six pieces of artillery, and for a time the line holds. But the Confederates outnumber the Federals nearly 2 to 1 and use this advantage to the fullest. One brigade attacks along the front of the redoubt while another sweeps around to the right and rear of the little fort. The defenders begin to evacuate and the Confederates charge, screaming the Rebel yell. Threatened with encirclement and suffering 40 percent casualties, Casey’s men break for the rear despite his attempts to rally them. They won’t stop running until they reach Seven Pines. As they come streaming back down the Williamsburg Road, General Keyes, commander of IV Corps, sends two regiments forward to check the surging Confederates. One is driven back immediately, and the other nearly surrounded and subjected to a storm of fire until it also joins the retreat.
By 3 pm, though, the Federal battle lines have reformed at Seven Pines, and the going gets tougher for Hill’s attacking Confederates. They have fought without reinforcement for two hours, and now they face a much larger force of Federal defenders. The remnants of Casey’s division are buttressed by Couch’s division and by two brigades of Philip Kearney’s division. Kearney has come rushing up from three miles back. He deploys his two brigades on the Federal left, south of the Williamsburg Road, and launches a flanking counterattack that carries almost to Casey’s abandoned camp. The brunt of Kearney’s counterattack is borne by Rode’s brigade. Rode has been counting on support of Rains on his right, but Rains’s troops have bogged down on the fringes of White Oak Swamp and failed to keep pace. It is tough enough for Rodes’s men, fighting in water hip-deep, propping their wounded against tree trunks to keep them from drowning. Rodes himself takes a nasty wound in the arm but remains in command for two more hours until pain and weakness force him to give command to Colonel John B. Gordon and retire. Gordon has a horse shot out from under him and his coat nicked with bullets, and both his lieutenant colonel and major as well as his 19-years-old brother are killed as he leads his Alabamians on a charge through the abatis in front of Couch’s division. The 6th Alabama loses 59 percent of its men, including 91 killed, the most for any Confederate regiment during a single action in the entire war.
While Gordon and others in D.H. Hill’s division struggle to maintain their momentum, Hill sends an urgent plea for help to Longstreet, who has remained in the rear. Longstreet, still confused about the battle plan, has misdirected four of his six brigades. He has sent one brigade north to guard the railroad, though there are no Federals in that direction, and three more down a road where three of Huger’s brigades are already idly guarding the southern flank. At last, responding to Hill’s calls for help, Longstreet puts his two remaining brigades to good use. He sends one under Colonel James L. Kemper to support John B. Gordon’s mangled ranks on the Confederate right opposite Kearny. As Kemper’s troops cross the abandoned earthworks and charge through Casey’s empty camp, they are caught in a murderous crossfire from artillery at the second line and from Kearney’s brigades on their right flank. Now disorganized and despairing, Kemper’s men rush rearward and dive into the empty Federal earthworks. They dare not retreat across the empty field behind them. Meanwhile, the other brigade under Brigadier General Richard H. Anderson that Longstreet commits is executing a bold maneuver. It attacks northeastward on a dirt track splitting the Federal defense line between Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. Then, at about 4 pm, Anderson orders two regiments to fight south to Seven Pines, then brashly cut east on the Williamsburg Road, slicing through the Federal center. General Couch, four of his regiments, and an artillery battery are separated from the rest of the Union division and retreat north toward Fair Oaks. Not long before dusk, the two Confederate regiments smash into a point half a mile east of Seven Pines.
Back on the Williamsburg Road, Longstreet, who still knows little about the progress of the battle, has decided around 4 pm that the right flank needs help, and sends General Johnston a note requesting reinforcements. Though his attack is succeeding, Longstreet reports, his troops “were as sensitive about the flanks as a virgin.” On the Nine Mile Road, Johnston has spent much of the day in a muddle, not even aware that a battle is raging at Seven Pines. One of the few things he knows is that Longstreet has taken the wrong road. Nevertheless, Johnston has still hoped to salvage his plan for a three-prong attack. He has decided to launch Whiting’s division—the one originally earmarked as Longstreet’s support—against Fair Oaks as soon as he has heard firing from D.H. Hill’s division on the Williamsburg Road. Before noon, Johnston moves Whiting’s five brigades down the Nine Mile Road to a place called Old Tavern, two miles from Fair Oaks. Here, setting up headquarters in a farmhouse, Johnston has waited for the sound of Hill’s musketry. The hours pass. General Lee, who has ridden out from Richmond with President Davis, comes up to the farmhouse and says he thinks he has heard musket fire. No, Johnston assures him, it is just an artillery duel. For some reason, he cannot hear the heavy musketry scarcely two miles to the south. Not until Longstreet’s call for reinforcements arrives shortly after 4 pm does Johnston realize what is happening. He wastes no time on recriminations, though he is doing what Longstreet was supposed to have done three hours before. Taking personal command of Whiting’s division and starting it down the Nine Mile Road toward the battlefield, he gallops away just as President Davis arrives at the farmhouse.
Shortly before 5 pm, Johnston finds Fair Oaks abandoned—the first encouraging sign that the general has seen all day. Now Seven Pines is only a mile away, and while Johnston is not sure of the situation there, he has at his disposal Whiting’s 10,000 fresh troops, enough to deliver a decisive blow. But General Whiting suspects that Fair Oaks is not as deserted as it seems. He has a hunch, he tells Johnston, that the enemy is nearby in some strength on their left and rear, in the impenetrable wilderness toward the Chickahominy where no Federal forces are supposed to be. Just as Johnston is testily rejecting Whiting’s caution shells begin to burst around them, pouring in from hidden artillery emplaced about 800 yards to their left and rear. The Federal attackers are the four regiments and battery of guns, along with General Couch, cut off from the rest of his division by Longstreet’s bold maneuver. They have made several attempts to fight their way back to their main force east of Seven Pines, but Couch has given it up as suicidal after two of his regimental commanders are killed. He was leading his remnant up a path toward the Chickahominy when he spied Johnston’s Confederates and hastily established a line of battle before ordering his artillery to open fire. Now Whiting quickly responds, sending four regiments charging across the clearing against the Union line. The Union artillery beats back three attacks, but has used all its canister and is firing regular explosive shells with the fuses set for point-blank range. Nonetheless, Couch’s troops are badly outnumbered and are about to be overwhelmed, when a long stream of blue-clad reinforcements suddenly appear from an unexpected quarter—across the flooded Chickahominy.
Their arrival, shortly after 5 pm, is the culmination of a daring trek that began four hours before on the north bank of the river, when the sounds of battle reached McClellan’s headquarters at Gains Mill. General McClellan, bedridden with malaria, sent a message that warned General Edwin Sumner to be ready to move his corps across the river towards Seven Pines. The old general who had bungled at Williamsburg was taking no chances, immediately marching his two divisions down to two temporary bridges. Then, when the order to actually move came from McClellan at about 2:30, Sumners was ready to cross. However, the Chickahominy was still rising, and one bridge had its flooring already under two feet of water—a single brigade managed to wade across before the span collapsed. The other bridge a mile and a half downstream looked no better, the rope that bound the log flooring chafed apart so gaps separated the logs and the flooring in the middle of the span threatening to float away. But Sumners pushed across anyway, only to find the going even harder on the far side of the bridge, where the logs of the corduroy approach drifted uselessly on the water covering a march 200 yard wide. The fieldpieces bogged down axle-deep and had to be unhitched and wrestled to firm ground by infantrymen. Undeterred, Sumner bulled ahead toward the sound of gunfire. Two hours later, he leads his troops up to Couch’s beleaguered regiments.
The vanguard of Sumner’s column, 8,000 troops, strengthen Couch’s north-south defense line, then establishes a second line perpendicular to it. This new line extends west into the woods about the clearing so it faces south. Thus the Federals are capable of pouring heavy crossfire on any Confederates who come into their murderous angle. Johnston, out on the Nine Mile Road, doesn’t yet realize that he is now facing a force equal in size to his own. He has Whiting order three brigades to renew the attack against Couch’s defenses. Advancing across the meadow without artillery support, the Confederate troops take another severe pounding from the reinforced Federal guns. Some Confederates gallantly charge and manage to get within 15 yards of the Federal cannon before falling. Others enter the woods and blunder about haplessly in the devastating musketry crossfire. Two of the three Confederate brigade commanders are quickly put out of action.
Toward dusk, Johnston finally realizes what he is up against at Fair Oaks and reluctantly concludes that the battle will have to continue tomorrow. At about 7 pm he rides toward the front with his young orderly and a staff colonel, seeing to the disposition of his troops. As they near the edge of the battlefield Johnston sees the officer duck his head as an enemy shell whistles by. Johnston smiles and says, “Colonel, there is no use of dodging; when you hear them they have passed.” Just then a Federal musket ball strikes Johnston in the right shoulder. A moment later, a heavy fragment of shell slams into the general’s chest, knocking him to the ground unconscious. As Johnston’s orderly is dragging him from the field, President Davis and General Lee ride up. Davis asks Johnston if there is anything he can do. Johnston opens his eyes and shakes his head, then realizes that he has left behind the sword his father had used in the American Revolution and asks for it to be retrieved. Once it is recovered he is carried away to be taken back to Richmond. His recovery from broken ribs—and from the bleedings and purgings of the system that are currently standard treatment—will take nearly six months.
With Johnston out of action, command falls upon the second-ranking officer, Major General Gustavus W. Smith. When Smith takes over on the battlefield, he faces mixed prospects. The advance of General Whiting’s division has petered out into bloody stalemate at Fair Oaks. Farther south, however, the Confederates still appear to have the upper hand. Generals James Longstreet and D.H. Hill have driven the Federals back to their third defense line, more than a mile east of Seven Pines, for a total Confederate gain of two and a half miles. But at every point the Federal lines are being strengthened. Meanwhile, this evening, the exhausted troops of both sides slump to the ground wherever darkness finds them, in bog or woodland, and sleep among the casualties through a night of drizzling rain.
In the Shenandoah Valley, at 8 pm, three hours after his self-ordained deadline for reaching the Valley Turnpike, a message from General Fremont arrives in Washington from Wardensville, 15 miles west of Strasburg: “Roads heavy and weather terrible. Heavy storm of rain most of yesterday and all last night. The army is pushing forward and I intend to carry out operations proposed.”
By 2:30 pm Jackson’s army, less the Stonewall Brigade, has cleared Winchester on the turnpike to Strasburg. In the lead come the supply wagons in a double line eight miles long, heavily laden with captured Union goods. Then 2,300 Federal prisoners march under guard. They are followed by Jackson and the infantry, with Ewell’s division at the end of the marching column. Guarding the rear, contingents of Ashby’s cavalry extend back toward the Stonewall Brigade on the Potomac. At dusk, as the column nears Strasburg, Jackson rides ahead to take a look. To the east, there is no sign of General Shields. To the west, Fremont has yet to appear. While the wagons continue southward, the army stops just north of Strasburg, and Jackson issues orders for the morning. Ewell’s command will move from the rear of the infantry to the front, enter Strasburg and then turn off to the west to meet Fremont’s expected advance. For as long as Ewell can, he must hold open the Strasburg gate so that the Stonewall Brigade can catch up and pass through. Ewell is delighted.
In Washington Lincoln anxiously awaits news from Richmond and the Valley, hopeful for the best.
In Missouri there is skirmishing on Salt River near Florida, near Neosho and Waynesville; while in Mississippi there is skirmishing at Tuscumbia Creek.
For the Confederates, Major General T.C. Hindman assumes command of the Tran-Mississippi District.
The expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat, because the aristocrat is only the man who lives well, while the expert is the man who knows better.
—G. K. Chesterton