Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862. By Victor Vignola. El Dorado Hills, CA: Savas Beatie, 2023. Hardcover, 254 pp. $34.95.
Reviewed by Doug Crenshaw
While the names Seven Pines and Fair Oaks are generally interchangeable for the May 31-June 1, 1862, battle outside of Richmond, they are actually two distinct parts of the battlefield. The York River Railroad divided the two areas, and the actions and results of the two halves were quite different. In Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks, May 31-June 1, 1862, author Vic Vignola puts most of his effort toward examining the Fair Oaks portion of the fight, where he believes the outcome of the battle was decided.
Vignola writes a compelling battle study that attempts to show the difference in the effectiveness of the Confederate and Federal leadership. In his brief overview of the Seven Pines sector, the author describes how James Longstreet failed to follow Joseph Johnston’s battle plan; a move that probably ruined any chance for a significant Confederate victory. Although he would place the blame on Benjamin Huger, Longstreet himself did not follow orders. Vignola also assigns responsibility to Johnston for poor communications and lack of follow-up. Longstreet did not attack according to the plan. Why was Johnston not aware of this early in the battle? Why did he not know his plan was in disarray?
However, as mentioned above, the focus of the book is on the Fair Oaks part of the field, which does not often get enough emphasis. The author effectively remedies this. Through rigorous scholarship and significant time spent walking the ground, Vignola believes the key to the Federal position was at the Adams farm, which lay north of the railroad’s intersection with Nine Mile Road. It was the decisive action of Edwin “Bull” Sumner and the cooperation of the commanders under him that saved the Federal position and turned back the Confederate attacks. Had Sumner not aggressively crossed the swollen Chickahominy River, the Confederates might have turned the Federal flank south of the railroad and changed the outcome of the battle. It was Sumner’s finest hour. With the bridges being swamped by the rising river, and the roads turned into seas of mud, as Sumner crossed, Confederate Gen. William Henry Chase Whiting was then threatening to attack the Federal flank. Instead, the Rebel flankers themselves were flanked.
As for the Confederates, Vignola makes a strong case that Johnston did not provide even a minimum of effective leadership, and his subordinates, Whiting, G. W. Smith, and Longstreet didn’t contribute much, either. Only two Confederate leaders garnered praise: D. H. Hill and William Dorsey Pender. Vignola describes the ineffective attacks of the next day, June 1, which adds further ammunition to his thesis.
Vignola is very effective in proving his point. His statement that “Effective leadership, provided by professional soldiers, was vital. In general, Union senior officers provided it; except for D. H. Hill, their Confederate counterparts did not,” sums up the battle nicely.
The book provides some interesting appendices, most notably the one looking into Longstreet’s failure to follow Johnston’s battle plan. Vignola also offers some compelling descriptions of the scenes after the battle. Historian R. E. L. Krick’s comments in the foreword are very accurate: “Nearly everything in the following pages is fresh and convincing . . . and shows that room remains for original research and new discoveries.” One thing that is missing, and that would have been of value to readers, is an order of battle.
If you are interested in a fresh look at an often-overlooked battle, and the results that ineffective leadership could produce, consider taking a look at Contrasts in Command.