Fought on May 31 and June 1, 1862, the battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks, was the largest battle in the Civil War’s eastern theater at that time. The battle was second only to Shiloh in the number of combined casualties in the early stages of 1862. Despite the scale of the fight and number of casualties, Seven Pines is best known for the wounding of General Joseph E. Johnston which led President Jefferson Davis to place General Robert E. Lee in command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
By late May 1862, Johnston stopped his tactical withdrawal in front of Major General George B. McClellan’s Army of the Potomac. For much of the war Johnston and Davis had been at odds over a myriad of issues. Presently, Davis thought Johnston was too cautious and wanted him to attack McClellan before the Union army crossed the Chickahominy River.
Two Union corps was already across the Chickahominy and was only six miles from the Confederate capital of Richmond. Union soldiers were so close that they wrote they could hear church bells ringing in the city. Without conferring with Davis, Johnston chose to strike the two exposed Union corps.
Johnston’s plan was in all probability too elaborate and led to confusion among the ranks. Major General James Longstreet took the wrong road which led his corps away from the fighting instead of to it. Even with Longstreet’s ill-advised journey, the Confederates smashed into the two Federal corps thanks to a spirited attack by Major General D. H. Hill.
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Soon, more and more troops were sent to the fighting and the battle of Seven Pines became a full scale affair. Late in the afternoon, Johnston brought up reinforcements. The fighting was heavy and determined. Alexander Hunter of the 17th Virginia described the melee, “Every deadly projectile which could take a human life and maim and disfigure were showered upon us.”
An officer riding with Johnston would flinch whenever he heard the sound of a bullet or shell whizzing past. Johnston chided the officer, telling him “there is no use dodging, when you hear them they have passed.”
Moments later, Johnston was struck in the right shoulder by a bullet. Then, a shell exploded in Johnston’s front. A shell fragment ripped into Johnston’s chest, knocking him from his horse. Wounded in his shoulder and chest, Johnston was knocked unconscious. He also came out of the fight with a broken shoulder blade and two cracked ribs.
His aides gathered the fallen general and carried him a quarter of a mile to the rear. Johnston regained consciousness and immediately asked for his sword and pistols. Both had fallen to the ground when Johnston was knocked from his horse.
A distraught Johnston told the men around him, “The sword was the one worn by my father in old Revolutionary War and I would not lose it for ten thousand dollars; will not someone please go back and get it and the pistols for me?”
Drury Armistead of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry and a few more men agreed to retrieve Johnston’s sword. Upon returning to the battlefield, Armistead saw the spot where Johnston had fallen was now a no man’s land between the fighting Confederates and Federals.
Risking his life, Armistead spurred his horse and dashed to the location of the sword and pistols. Leaping from his horse, Armistead gathered Johnston’s prized possessions as shot and shell fell around him. Although a superior officer attempted to take the sword and pistols from Armistead, the Virginian refused to part with them until he could personally hand them to Johnston.
With Johnston wounded and out of action, command fell to his second in command, Major General Gustavus Smith. Although he renewed the attack on the Federals, Smith proved to not be up to the task.
Although both sides claimed victory, the battle of Seven Pines stopped McClellan’s push to Richmond. Upon seeing the battlefield, McClellan wrote his wife, “I am tired of the sickening sight of the battlefield, with its mangled corpses & poor suffering wounded! Victory has no charms for me when purchased as such cost.”
On June 2, 1862, Davis removed Smith from command and replaced him with his current military advisor, Robert E. Lee. The news of the Confederate change of command was music to McClellan’s ears.
McClellan wrote “I prefer Lee to Johnston.” McClellan’s logic was based on Lee’s poor showing against the Union general early in the war in western Virginia. McClellan thought Lee was “wanting in moral firmness when pressed by heavy responsibility & is likely to be timid & irresolute in action.”
While McClellan was happy, there were those in the South who were not. In the spring of 1862, Lee was not the Confederate deity that he is now. Some called him “Granny Lee” due to his advanced years. Southern soldiers called Lee the “King of Spades” given his insistence to dig fortifications around Richmond.
When asked if Lee had the audacity to command, Colonel Joseph Ives, who had worked closely with the Virginian, gave a prophetic description of Lee. “His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any other general in this country, North or South.”
From June 1862 until his surrender in April 1865, Lee embodied the Southern cause, becoming one of the greatest generals in American history. In the coming weeks, Lee pushed McClellan from the Peninsula in the Seven Days Battles. He would continue to garner victories at Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Lee’s rise to field command in the Civil War came about thanks to a Federal bullet and shell fragment at the battle of Seven Pines.