Battle of Fair Oaks

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Battle of Fair Oaks
American Civil War
Part of Peninsula Campaign
Date 31 May - 1 June 1862
Location Fair Oaks Station
Henrico County, Virginia
Outcome N/A
34 star flag.png
United States
Conf Navy Jack.png
Confederate States
Army of the Potomac Army of Northern Virginia
George B. McClellan
Major General, USA
Joseph E. Johnston
General, CSA
Gustavus W. Smith
Major General, CSA
40,000 est. 40,000 est.
Killed: 790
Wounded: 3,594
Missing/captured: 647
Killed: 980
Wounded: 4,749
Missing/captured: 405

The Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines was a battle fought in the American Civil War from 31 May to 1 June 1862, when Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston attempted to stop the advancing armies of Union Major General George B. McClellan during the Peninsula Campaign. The actual attack did little to change the positions of either army and ended indecisively, but during the engagement Johnston was wounded; his subsequent replacement by General Robert E. Lee after the battle proved critical and may have prolonged the war itself.[1]


McClellan had established a base of supply at White House, Virginia on May 15, after slogging through rain-soaked roads after the Battle of Drewry's Bluff. Five days later his advance crossed the Chickahominy River at Bottoms Bridge, and by the 24th the five Federal corps were established on a front partly encircling Richmond on the north and east, and less than 6 miles from the city. Three corps lined the north bank of the Chickahominy, while the two corps under Generals E. D. Keyes and Samuel P. Heintzelman were south of the river, astride the York River Railroad and the roads down the peninsula.

With his army thus split by the Chickahominy, McClellan realized his position was precarious, but his orders were explicit: "General McDowell has been ordered to march upon Richmond by the shortest route. He is ordered so to operate as to place his left wing in communication with your right wing, and you are instructed to cooperate, by extending your right wing to the north of Richmond"

Then, because of Stonewall Jackson's brilliant operations in the Shenandoah Valley threatening Washington, Lincoln telegraphed McClellan on May 24: "I have been compelled to suspend McDowell's movements to join you." McDowell wrote disgustedly: "If the enemy can succeed so readily in disconcerting all our plans by alarming us first at one point then at another, he will paralyze a large force with a very small one," which was exactly what Jackson succeeded in doing. This fear for the safety of Washington was the dominating factor in eastern military planning throughout the war.

Lincoln's order only suspended McDowell's instructions to join McClellan; it did not revoke them. McClellan was still obliged to keep his right wing across the swollen Chickahominy.

The battle

Learning of McDowell's withdrawal, Johnston decided to attack the two Federal corps south of the river, drive them back and destroy the Richmond and York River Railroad to White House. Early in the morning on May 31, after a violet rainstorm that threatened to wash all the Federal bridges into the river, Johnston fell upon Keyes and Heintzelman with 23 of his 27 brigades at Seven Pines.

The initial attack was sudden and vicious. About three-quarters of a mile west of Seven Pines Confederate General James Longstreet threw D. H. Hill's troops against General Silas Casey's division of Keyes' corps, overwhelming the Federal division and forcing Casey to retreat a mile east of Seven Pines. Keyes attempted to regain control, putting General D. N. Couch's division on a line from Seven Pines to Fair Oaks, with General Philip Kearney's division on his left flank. Not until 4 that afternoon, however, did Confederate General Gustavus W. Smith send Whiting's division against Couch's right flank at Fair Oaks, a delay that proved fatal. Although Couch was forced back slowly, he drew up a new line of battle facing south towards Fair Oaks, with his back to the Chickahominy River. Here he held until General Edwin V. Sumner, by heroic effort, succeeded in getting General John Sedgwick's division and part of General I. B. Richardson's across the tottering Grapevine Bridge to support him. Led by Sumner himself, Sedgwick's troops repulsed Smith's attack and drove the Confederates back with heavy losses.

The battle plan had been sound, but the attack was badly bungled. Directed by vague, verbal orders instead of explicit, written ones, whole brigades got lost, took the wrong roads, and generally got in each other's way. Nine of the 23 attacking brigades never actually got into the fight at all. Towards nightfall Johnston was severely wounded in the chest and borne from the field. The command then fell to Gustavus Smith. Fighting ceased with darkness.

Early next morning, June 1, Smith renewed the attack. His plan called for Whiting on the left flank to hold defensively, while Longstreet on the right swung counterclockwise in a pivot movement to hit Richardson's division, which was facing south with its right near Fair Oaks. The Federal troops repulsed the assault, and when Heintzelman sent General Joseph Hooker's division on the Federal left on the offensive, the Confederates withdrew and the battle was over before noon.


That afternoon President Jefferson Davis appointed his chief military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, as commander of the Southern forces, and it was under Lee that the Army of Northern Virginia was destined for fame in the annals of the Civil War.

Although the battle itself was indecisive, the casualties were heavy on both sides. The Confederates lost 6,184 in killed, wounded, and missing; the Federals, 5,031. Undoubtedly the most important result of the fight was the wounding of Johnston and the resultant appointment of Lee as field commander.


  1. Civil War: Battles and Leaders, edited by Aaron R. Murray, DK Publishing Inc., 2004, pp. 34-35.

See also