In late May 1862 George McClellan’s massive army was at the outskirts of Richmond, trying to move a few miles closer to the city so it could employ its massive siege guns. Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston was desperately searching for an opportunity to strike and drive McClellan back. At the end of the month he found his opportunity. The rain-swollen Chickahominy River divided the Federal army. Three corps were positioned north of it, and south of the river Erasmus Keyes’ IV Cops was dangerously exposed at a place called Seven Pines. According to Johnston’s second-in-command, General Gustavus W. Smith, the Confederate commander planned an attack for May 31. D. H. Hill would move west and attack Keyes along the Williamsburg road. James Longstreet would move down the Nine Mile road and strike the Federal right flank. Benjamin Huger would march down the Charles City road and strike the Federal left. Keyes could be destroyed. It was a bold plan, but it held promise.
As so often happens in a battle, plans are soon ruined by faulty execution. Instead of taking the Nile Mile road, Longstreet moved his troops to the Williamsburg road, in support of D.H. Hill. In doing that he crossed a swollen stream called Gillies’ Creek… this took some time. Unfortunately, Huger needed to cross at the same place, and had to wait for Longstreet’s division. Huger was seriously delayed, and he also lacked clear instructions. As ordered, Hill attacked, the Federals were driven back a short distance, but by the end of the next day things were pretty much as they had been before the battle began, less some 11,000 unfortunate casualties (one of which was Johnston himself).
This is where things get interesting. In his Battles & Leaders article, “Manassas to Seven Pines,” Johnston stated, “Longstreet … was instructed verbally to form D. H. Hill’s division as first in line, and his own as second, across the road at right angles.” However, in his own B & L article (“Two Days of battle at Seven Pines”), Smith stated that Johnston wanted Longstreet to move down the Nine Mile road.
In his report in the Official Records, Johnston said “Had Major-General Huger’s division been in position and ready for action when those of Smith, Longstreet and Hill moved, I am satisfied that Keyes’ corps would have been destroyed.” Longstreet echoed this in a June 7 letter to Johnson, in which he said, “I can’t help but think that a display of his forces on the left flank of the enemy by General Huger would have completed the affair.” He continued: “The failure of the complete success on Saturday I attribute to the slow movements of General Huger’s command.” An interesting comment considering that it was his division that held Huger’s command up!
Smith was having none of this. To him, Huger was, in today’s terms, being “thrown under the bus.” In his book The Battle of Seven Pines, he repeated his assertions as to Johnston’s plan, and further stated that Huger’s instructions were not clear (Johnston’s orders of May 30 & 31). He also cited a letter from D.H. Hill of May 18, 1865, in which Hill said, “I cannot understand Longstreet’s motive in coming over to the Williamsburg road, nor can I understand Johnston’s motives in shielding him.” On June 13, 1885, Hill wrote to Smith about Longstreet’s June 7, 1862 letter to Johnston saying, “I can’t understand how he (Longstreet) had the brass to write such a letter.”
The most damning evidence of all was mentioned in Smith’s B & L article, on which he quoted a June 28 letter to him from Johnston. The latter mentioned “two subjects which I never intended to make generally known, and which I have mentioned to no one but yourself…. I refer to the misunderstanding between Longstreet and myself in regard to the direction of his division… as it seems that both of these matters concern Longstreet and myself alone, I have no hesitation in asking your to strike them out of your report.”
Did Longstreet’s mistake result in the unraveling of Johnston’s plan? Were the casualties pointless? Was Huger unfairly made the scapegoat? If you’re interested, be a detective. Look into it yourself and decide!