By the end of May 1862, McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was menacing the Confederate capital at Richmond. Johnston had successfully slowed McClellan’s advance, in part by skillfully playing for time at the siege of Yorktown until the Confederate evacuation on May 3. Johnston continued his withdrawal up the, and no substantial fighting took place apart from a sharp skirmish between the Confederate rear guard and the Army of the Potomac at on May 4. Confederate president Jefferson Davis, as well as his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, demanded action from Johnston, especially because the Army of the Potomac was now camped within miles of Richmond.
The deployment of McClellan’s army suggested a possible avenue of attack. Two of his corps lay south of the Chickahominy River, separated from the remainder of the Union army. Of these two corps, the Fourth Corps of Union general Erasmus D. Keyes had moved on May 24 to the village of Seven Pines, several miles from the nearest supporting Union troops. Three major roads led to the town—Nine Mile Road, Williamsburg Road, and Charles City Road. Johnston prepared a plan of attack: first, he would envelop the lone Fourth Corps and then, once it had been shattered, attack the Third Corps of Samuel P. Heintzelman. The Chickahominy River, swollen by heavy rains, would prevent reinforcement from Union troops north of the river, who relied on a lone, rickety structure known as the Grapevine Bridge to get across. Confederate troops, moving along the three roads, would encircle Keyes. Johnston initially planned the attack for May 29, but delays by subordinate Gustavus Woodson Smith pushed it back to May 30.
Johnston’s plan ran into trouble from the start. He could not coordinate his command effectively; Confederate regulations made no allowance for the organization of troops into corps, so Johnston had to divide his army into ad hoc “wings.” This unwieldy command structure, coupled with the plan to move along three different thoroughfares, spelled trouble. Johnston’s most trusted subordinate,, created additional difficulties. Longstreet, a sometimes shameless self-aggrandizer thirsty for additional authority and acclaim, changed the plan of attack without informing Johnston so that his troops could enjoy a more prominent role in the assault. Finally, the contributed to Confederate difficulties, as wet and muddy roads slowed troop movement.
Johnston’s plan called for D. H. Hill to open the battle at eight o’clock in the morning, but Longstreet’s meddling resulted in a traffic jam, delaying Hill’s assault. Meanwhile, Union division commander Silas Casey observed Confederate activity along the roads throughout the morning. Suspecting an attack rather than a probe, Casey ordered some of his troops under arms.
About one o’clock in the afternoon, the pugnacious and combative Hill launched the attack with his division despite the fact that he had no idea whether any of the other Confederate elements had reached their assigned positions. Casey, while leery of a Confederate attack, had failed to inform his men that he suspected one was imminent, and thus Hill’s men shattered the first line of Casey’s division shortly after 1:00 p.m. The Union forces subsequently put up a strong fight and fell back to a line of rifle pits, but by three o’clock the Confederates had broken that position as well. Exhausted by the fighting, Hill’s division, in the parlance of the time, was “played out.” Union troops from the Third Corps under Philip Kearny began to arrive on the field, bolstering the Union line.
Meanwhile, Union general Edwin V. Sumner of the Second Corps, under orders to remain in readiness to move but having received no direct instructions, moved his divisions south, across the Chickahominy, after hearing the firing. Despite fears that it might fail, the Grapevine Bridge held as Union soldiers tramped across. Confederate general G. W. Smith, receiving word from Hill that his attack had run out of steam, advanced his wing of the Confederate army, intending to strike the Fourth Corps in the flank. W. H. C. Whiting’s division led the advance. Proceeding along Nine Mile Road, Whiting’s men encountered Darius Couch’s division of the Union Second Corps, and swung into battle at Fair Oaks Station at four o’clock. Union general John Sedgwick’s division of Sumner’s Second Corps had reached Couch at around three o’clock, and they too aligned for battle. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Postmaster General John Reagan, and Joseph Johnston all supervised Smith and Whiting’s advance. Fighting raged, but the Confederates could gain no solid advantage despite the fact that Whiting kept feeding more troops into action. As fighting petered out toward nightfall, the Union line at Fair Oaks had extended its flank to rest on the Chickahominy River, protecting the Grapevine Bridge and thus ending the isolation of the Fourth Corps.
Near nightfall, while riding behind Confederate lines near Fair Oaks, Johnston inspected the lines personally. Warned by a staff officer that he was riding dangerously close to the front lines, Johnston replied, “Colonel, there is no use dodging; when you hear them they have passed.” Almost immediately thereafter, a spent bullet hit him in the shoulder. Moments after that, one of the last Union artillery shells fired during the battle burst in the air, throwing fragments into Johnston’s chest and thigh. Gravely injured, Johnston relinquished command. Next in line stood G. W. Smith, who temporarily assumed command, but relinquished it because of ill health. The Confederate attack had not gone well.
The next morning, June 1, at 6:45, Hill’s division renewed attacks in its sector, but, failing to make much headway, ended the effort by 11:30 a.m. Equally exhausted and disorganized by the fighting, the Union troops also settled into their positions. The Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks had ended.
At 1:30 p.m., Davis arrived at Confederate headquarters and informed Smith that General Robert E. Lee would take command of the army. At two o’clock Lee, out on an inspection of the Confederate lines, arrived and received the command he would retain for the remainder of the war.
The Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks resulted in heavy casualties for both sides: approximately 5,000 for the Union and 6,100 for the Confederates. A stalemate, the battle had little significance beyond the replacement of Johnston with Lee. McClellan, ever cautious and deliberate, remained within easy reach of Richmond. The scene was set for Lee’s, which succeeded in defeating McClellan and freeing Richmond from danger.