Thursday, May 31, 2012

May 31, 1862

May 31, 1862: Gen. Joseph Johnston, in command of the Confederate army (that will soon be known as the Army of Northern Virginia) in defense of Richmond, plans a surprise attack on the isolated Union troops in the corps of Keyes and Heintzelman (about 33,000), south of the Chickahominy River, due east of the city of Richmond. The Chickahominy as risen due to heavy rains, so that many of the bridges are impassable, making it nearly impossible for McClellan to send reinforcements. Porter, Franklin, and Sumner with their corps are trapped north of the river. Johnston plans an attack at dawn, and the participating divisions are assigned specific roads that converge near Fair Oaks and Seven Pines. But things do not go according to plan. For one thing, there has been scattered skirmishing, some of it severe, in the Seven Pines area, in preceding days.
Situation on the Peninsula at the outset of the Battle of Seven Pines
(map courtesy of USMA Dept. of History)
Battle of Seven Pines
(or Fair Oaks)

Eastern Theater, Peninsula Campaign

U.S.      Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan      Army of the Potomac             110,000
C.S.     Gen. Joseph E. Johnston                  Army of Northern Virginia     74,000

Day 1: Johnston’s transmission of orders was inconsistent: Gen. James Longstreet was given orders verbally, and the rest of the Southern commanders received written orders that were contradictory. Also–the division commanders were not told that Longstreet was in command south of the river: a problem, since two of them outranked him. A.P. Hill and Magruder were to launch a diversionary assault north of the Chickahominy. South of the river, Longstreet was to take his six brigades and the division of D.H. Hill (4 brigades), supported by Whiting’s division, and strike the Union line in three places. Huger’’s division was to support Hill on the right flank, and Whiting to support Longstreet on the left. Things were confused in the beginning: Longstreet took the wrong road, going the opposite direction, and thus held up the advance of Huger’s troops, who had gotten a late start. (Johnston was too far to the rear to know what was happening tactically at the front.) Longstreet’s men took most of the morning to build a narrow bridge over a swollen creek so they could cross it. The resulting traffic jam in the heavily-wooded area meant that the attack did not begin until 1:00 PM, when D.H. Hill launched his attack without waiting for Longstreet. Hill struck the Union division of Gen. Silas Casey, whose troops were all green and very new. Casey’s line breaks, but only after heavy casualties on both sides. Hill organizes another attack on the Yankee line, with Casey, and troops from the divisions of Couch and Kearney. A flanking maneuver by Jenkins’ brigade causes this line to give way before the Rebel onslaught also. Longstreet’s brigades are backed up on the Nine-Mile Road, and he is able to get just a few troops into the fight.
Gen. D. H. Hill's attacks on Union positions at Fair Oaks, May 31, 1862
(map courtesy of Civil War Trust)
Late in the day, Johnston is finally convinced that the battle actually requires his attention, and so he takes Whiting’s division and personally leads it to the battelines. As he watches the battle from a rise, within musket shot, Johnston is struck in the thigh with a bullet, followed by another in the shoulder–and fragments from a shell pepper him in the chest and legs. He is taken from the field severely wounded, as Gen. Robert E. Lee and Pres. Davis, present on the battlefield, watch him being carried off. Command is turned over to Gen. Gustavus W. Smith, the second-in-command. Failing light at dusk brings the fighting to a halt. The Rebels hope to renew the attacks in the morning and pin the Federals against the swamp of the swollen Chickahominy.
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, CSA

On the Union side, Prof. Thaddeus Lowe and his scouts in his reconnaissance balloon see that the Confederate left flank is not in action, and send a message to McClellan that the opportunity is ripe to attack the Rebels, who are weak on that flank. The suggestion is ignored.

—With Federal armies about the close in on all sides, Stonewall Jackson pushes his troops southward to safety in the upper Shenandoah Valley. To the east, Gen Shields is only 10 miles from Straburg, where the Valley Pike goes through, but he is waiting for some of his troops in Front Royal to join them, and Turner Ashby’s cavalry is contesting the Yankees’ every step. Fremont is only 4 miles west of Strasburg, but for no apparent reason at all, he stops his march, and camps. When Jackson’s "foot cavalry" come rushing through, they find no Yankees in Strasburg. Jackson calls a halt, builds a semi-circle line of defense, and waits for the Stonewall Brigade (covering their retreat) to rejoin them from Winchester. Jackson had pried open the jaws of death and, in the morning, will escape through the opening.
Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Part 2, showing Fremont and Shields trying to trap Jackson
---The Philanthropic Society of the University of North Carolina on this date votes to impose a law that "fifteen lashes be inflicted upon any colored man or woman, who, for the sake of convenience, and unaccompanied by any white person, may walk on forbidden ground after being admonished of the punishment which such a violation of our laws produces." Forbidden ground was identified as certain areas of campus, such as McCorkle Place. Perhaps "philanthropic" meant something different than it does now.

—The Richmond Daily Dispatch, still fuming over the infamous "woman order" in New Orleans, threatens Gen. Butler with this denouncement:

No Quarter to Picayune Butler!
Let this be the sworn resolve of every Southern man. The debased wretch and it human tyrant who has published his proclamation consigning to the horrid embraces of a bestial soldiery the mothers and daughters of a Southern city, which, for the time, is at his mercy, deserves not to be treated according to the laws of honorable warfare. If he is caught, hang him! If he keeps out of harm’s reach, and ventures not upon the field of battle, let poison or the knife do its secret but deadly work. He has forfeited his life, in any manner by which it can be taken, to every man, woman and child, in the Confederacy. As God is our judge, says the Missippian, we believe that the day of retribution is coming for the monster, and for the Government which sustains him in his crimes.

—John Beauchamp Jones, a clerk in the Confederate War Department, describes the scenes in Richmond that night as the wounded come pouring in:
At night. The ambulances are coming in with our wounded. They report that all the enemy’s strong defenses were stormed, just as we could perceive from the sounds. They say that our brave men suffered much in advancing against the intrenchments, exposed to the fire of cannon and small arms, without being able to see the foe under their shelter; but when they leaped over the breastworks and turned the enemy’s guns on them, our loss was more than compensated. Our men were shot in front; the enemy in the back—and terrible was the slaughter. . . . We got a large amount of stores and refreshments, so much needed by our poor braves! There were boxes of lemons, oranges, brandies and wines, and all the luxuries of distant lands which enter the unrestricted ports of the United States. These things were narrated by the pale and bleeding soldiers, who smiled in triumph at their achievement. Not one in the long procession of ambulances uttered a complaint. . . . Every house is offered for a hospital, and every matron and gentle daughter, a tender nurse.

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