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

TurningPoints-logo(Part one of three)

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)

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

  1. David Corbett says:

    Seven Days are always an interesting read !

    • John Foskett says:

      True dat. Fair Oaks is a great example of how to screw up the articulation, delivery, and implementation of orders.

  2. tuffncuddly says:

    Dear mr. Crenshaw I wanted to say I recently purchased and just finished your book on the seven days campaign. I have previously read all the complex and drawn-out books on the campaign and I have to say I learned more from your book without a doubt. The beautiful Maps, I Believe by mr. Hal J., that accompanied your precise, diligent, highly researched,

  3. tuffncuddly says:

    I’m sorry mr. Crenshaw I was cut off accidentally. I was saying that I recently purchased your book and after having finished reading it I have nothing but great things to say about it. The Peninsula Campaign is a favorite of mine for more reasons than you could list here with all the Back stories involving McClellan, Lee taking over for Johnston, the army of Northern Virginia being born as General Lee discarded in-app generals to the West and promoted his hard-hitting no excuse taking generals. I have read all the previous books that have previously been published all being complex, lengthy, and quite frankly hard to follow. With your book and your beautiful writing style that you have found which is diligent, fact-driven, researched as far as can be, and yet at the same time the words flow gently like a calm stream which is easy to follow and at the same time branches out it many different directions all educational. In addition to your writing with the superb Maps of I believe, Mr. Hal J., this book is an A+. I am not an Easy Grader For Eyes you not only created I’m quantity of riding but the quality, and if it’s a tactical battle I grade on the number and quantity of maps. As you go along pictures of lesser-known generals are always a welcome addition to help the name and the man stick in your mind. Your book has all of these. If I have time do to my love of this particular campaign I would like to go back and read one of the more lengthy complex books but use your book and maps and pictures so that I can understand it and become better educated. Thank you for the welcome addition to my civil war must have bookshelf. God bless and Merry Christmas

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