Seven Pines and Seven Days: Robert E. Lee Replaces “Old Joe” Johnston (part one)

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Late May 1862. General George B. McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac stood at the very gates of Richmond. There had never been an army like this in North America before. McClellan had more than 100,000 men and 288 pieces of artillery, many of them heavy siege guns, ready to move on the Confederate capital at their general’s command. Another corps of 30,000-plus men stood at Fredericksburg, prepared to head south and join McClellan. The Union general’s strategy was to amass so much power that the Confederates would see the utter hopelessness of resistance. He would take Richmond, then move south, taking city after city until the rebellion was crushed.

McClellan’s goal was simple: he sought only to put the Union together again. McClellan did not want to damage Confederate property; instead he hoped that the Confederates would see the Union army as benign. Importantly, he had no interest in dealing with the slavery—freeing the slaves was not on his agenda. 

Opposing McClellan was General Joseph E. Johnston. He had pulled the Confederate army up the Peninsula from the Yorktown area, fearing that the Federals would use the York or James rivers to land troops on his flank. In response, Johnston had moved his army behind the Chickahominy, just outside of the capital. His force numbered around 60,000 men.

Times were dark for the young Confederacy. To the west, Forts Henry and Donelson had fallen. Nashville had been captured, as had most of Tennessee. Large portions of the Mississippi were in Union control. The battle at Shiloh had been a defeat, and one of the South’s premier commanders, Albert Sidney Johnston, had been killed. New Orleans had fallen. Most of the North Carolina Coast was now controlled by the Union, as was Tidewater Virginia, all the way to Richmond. The Federals had troops as far south as Fredericksburg and were active in the Shenandoah Valley.

The bad news did not stop there. The loss of Richmond would be catastrophic, if not fatal. Not only would losing the capital be a huge blow, but the Confederacy could not stand the loss of the important manufacturing centers in the capital, such as the Tredegar Iron Works. However, Johnston’s situation was desperate, and he could not stay where he was. If McClellan moved just a few miles closer to Richmond, he could bring his heavy siege guns to bear. Johnston could not retreat, though. That left him only one option: his smaller army must attack and drive the Federals from Richmond. But how could this be done?

Despite his great advantages, McClellan also had three things working against him. First, the corps at Fredericksburg would never arrive. For one brief moment, the corps was ordered to move south, but it was immediately recalled, owing to fears caused by Stonewall Jackson’s dramatic actions in the Shenandoah Valley. Though the troops were key to McClellan’s plans, the administration feared the rebels would assault Washington. Never keen on McClellan’s Peninsula strategy, they demanded that troops be left in position to block any potential rebel advance.

McClellan’s second problem was the position of his army, which was divided by the Chickahominy River. One NPS historian has since said, “Calling the Chickahominy a river is an insult to rivers!” Usually this is true: the Chickahominy is a meandering mire composed of shallow streamlets. However, after heavy rains, the river swells and becomes a nearly impassable obstacle.

A reasonable person could ask why McClellan had allowed the river to divide his army in the first place. Because he was expecting the troops in Fredericksburg to arrive on his right flank, he stationed three of his five corps north of the river to link up with them. Also, he had set up his supply base on the Pamunkey River at White House Landing, the ancestral estate of Robert E. Lee’s wife. A railroad ran to Richmond from the landing, and this enabled McClellan to quickly ship supplies, and critically, provided a means to move his heavy guns to the front.

McClellan had one more issue: himself. He had a tendency to overestimate his enemy’s strength, and this was further fueled by the reports of Allan Pinkerton and his intelligence-gathering agents. McClellan at first was convinced that the Confederates had 200,000 men near the capital, but later his estimate was reduced to approximately 150,000. Added to this, however, was his great fear that the Confederates would ship troops quickly from the west to augment Johnston’s army.

McClellan can be commended for his tactical plans to make use of his siege guns to capture Richmond. He had been an observer during the Crimean War, and had no wish to sacrifice the lives of his beloved troops. However, his fears of Confederate strength and unwillingness to move until everything was perfect would cost him—and the Union—greatly.

In the midst of McClellan’s slow preparations, Joe Johnston saw his opportunity. Because the river divided the Union army, he could launch a massive attack against one portion, and hopefully destroy it, forcing McClellan to withdraw. What Johnston needed was a heavy rain that would swell the river—and he received an answer to his hopes at the end of May. The Chickahominy rose dramatically. The rebel commander thought it unlikely, if not impossible, that the Federals could move troops south of the river quickly enough to stop an attack there, and he ordered an assault against the Union position at Seven Pines for May 31.

Poorly executed, the two-day battle accomplished nothing except for causing thousands of casualties. At the time, it was the second-bloodiest battle of the war after Shiloh. Casualty reports varied, but a safe estimate is that 5,000 Union and 6,100 Confederates were killed, wounded or were missing.

On the evening of the 31st, Johnston received word that action had erupted by the railroad crossing at the Nine Mile Road. Due to an “acoustic shadow,” he had not heard the action himself, but his aids brought reports. He immediately rode to the front.

Johnston approached the tracks, but soon turned back, and after riding about two hundred yards was wounded twice. Carried from the field, he would never return to this army and would eventually be reassigned out west. “General Johnston was skilled in the art and science of war, gifted in his quick, penetrating mind and soldierly bearing, genial and affectionate in nature…” James Longstreet later said of his former commander. “Until his recovery the Confederacy experienced a serious deprivation.”

Hearing of Johnston’s wounding, a concerned President Jefferson Davis went to see General G.W. Smith, Johnston’s next in command. Asking Smith about his plans for the next day, Davis was clearly not satisfied. As Davis rode back to Richmond with his military advisor, Robert E. Lee, he turned to Lee and said that the next day he would appoint Lee to command the army—so make his preparations.

(to be continued)