Trees can lend their names to many things, from people to towns. It should be no surprise that they can lend their names to battles as well. One particular battle of the Civil War was given a different dendrologic name by each side. It was not the biggest or the bloodiest battle of the war but what happened during the battle had far reaching consequences.
In the spring of 1862 the war was not going well for the Confederacy. Much of Western and Middle Tennessee were in Federal hands with their fingers reaching into Mississippi and Alabama. In Virginia George McClellan was leading a vast and powerful army against Richmond, the Confederate capitol, intending to end the war by the end of the summer. McClellan was leading a 105,000 man army, the largest this continent had ever witnessed up until that point.
McClellan was born in Philadelphia but resided in New Jersey. A West Point educated soldier, he had served during the Mexican War and was one of the up-and-comers in the antebellum army. Despite this there was little room for advancement and he resigned his commission in 1857 and became the vice-president of a railroad operating in Illinois. It was there that he first met Abraham Lincoln, a Springfield-based lawyer who did work for the railroad. He had distinguished himself in 1861 winning several small victories in western Virginia.
Opposing him was Joseph Johnston, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. Born near Farmville, Virginia he was a career military officer. A veteran of the Mexican War he was the chief quartermaster of the US Army when secession began and as a brigadier general he was the highest ranking officer in the army to resign and cast his lot with the Confederacy. It was not easy for him to do, reportedly doing so with tears in his eyes. He was one of the heroes of the first major battle of the war at Manassas and his quarrel with Confederate President Jefferson Davis that would define his career had not intensified yet. Outside of Richmond he commanded an army of 75,000 soldiers.
McClellan was driving slowly but steadily toward Richmond after landing near Fort Monroe in April 1862. Whether this was because of his cautious nature or because his intelligence was telling him that Johnston had 200,000 men we will never know. The roads were poor and the Chickahominy River separated his two columns. Johnston saw an opportunity and decided to strike at the weaker of the two columns south of the river. He made an excellent choice as McClellan’s least experienced troops, Erasmus Keyes’ IV Corps were leading the march. He chose to send 50,000 men to attack about 40,000 of McClellan’s. It was a gamble as he would only have 25,000 men of his own to stop 60,000 of McClellan’s if his opponent chose to attack himself. Johnston decided to launch the assault near the village of Seven Pines and its nearby Fair Oaks railroad station.
As its name implies, the village itself had seven pine trees standing near each other. Other than that it’s only remarkable features were the Fair Oaks station and a junction between the Williamsburg Road and Nine Mile Road. South Carolina-born Georgian James Longstreet was selected to command the movements south of the Chickahominy, a serious oversight on Johnston’s part as another general involved with the movement was senior to him. Johnston’s plan was well conceived but was poorly executed. He issued orders verbally to Longstreet (which he either misunderstood or ignored) and in written form to his other senior commanders, which contradicted with Longstreet’s account. Traffic jams occurred as Longstreet maneuvered his men into position creating confusion and delays. It was not easy going and a thunderstorm on May 30 made things worse. That same thunderstorm did flood the Chickahominy and destroyed several bridges over it that connected the two wings of McClellan’s army. Despite all of the problems, if all went well on May 31 Keyes’ corps would be destroyed and Johnston could then pin Samuel Heintzelman’s III Corps against the river and destroy it or capture it.
The attack was scheduled to go off in the morning of May 31 but again there were delays moving into position and it did not begin until 1:00 PM when the commander on site got tired of waiting and launched his attack. He pushed Keyes men back to their earthworks around Seven Pines but did not have the strength to continue the assault. Neither army commander was aware that a battle had begun. Johnston was in an acoustic shadow and McClellan was sick in bed but a Confederate attack should have been no surprise. McClellan’s aeronaut*, Thaddeus Lowe, had observed a buildup near the Fair Oaks train station on May 29 and observed them moving into position on May 30. Despite sending numerous reports nothing was acted upon. Late in the afternoon of May 31 a new Confederate attack drove the Federal troops a mile and a half from Seven Pines. Federal reinforcements though were streaming in.
One bridge over the Chickahominy had remained intact and despite nearing collapse reinforcements were sent from Edwin Sumner’s II Corps to aid Heintzelman. The bridge collapsed as the last of the troops crossed but those men proved key in stopping the Confederate onslaught. Night ended the fighting or nearly so. Johnston had finally arrived on the field but was hit by an artillery shell fragment breaking his right shoulder and two ribs. He was evacuated and Kentuckian Gustavus Smith was placed in command by seniority.
On June 1 the Confederates again attacked but this time made little headway. More Federal reinforcements arrived and the Confederate attack was unable to pierce their lines and they were forced back. The way to Richmond was potentially open but McClellan, who had arrived on the field from his sickbed, did not order an advance. When the dust settled both sides claimed victory. The Confederates had stopped McClellan’s advance but the Federal’s had stopped their attack and drove them back. Casualties were high, 5,000 Federal and 6,300 Confederate. One general, Confederate Robert Hatton of Lebanon, Tennessee was killed. The battle was of course given a name, Fair Oaks by the Federal soldiers since most of the fighting was near the Fair Oaks Station and Seven Pines by the Confederates since their glory was there.
McClellan was shaken though. Believing he was outnumbered he continued to be cautious and demanded more men from Washington. He would not make a serious move for nearly a month and only did so when he was attacked again. On the Confederate side Gustavus Smith was found wanting and had cracked under the strain of responsibility after less than a day in command. Confederate President Jefferson Davis realized there was only one man available to save their fledgling nation, his military advisor Robert E. Lee. Late on June 1 Lee was placed in command of the Army of Northern Virginia and he would remain at its head until he surrendered with it at Appomattox in April 1865. Johnston would drift in and out of favor with Davis though he would surrender one of the last major Confederate forces in May 1865 in Durham, NC. One has to wonder how much differently the war would have turned out had Johnston not been hit that day?
Today almost all of the battlefield has been lost to modern development. Seven Pines National Cemetery inters fallen Union soldiers and a handful of markers have been placed around the area. Outside of that the battlefield is now occupied by the village of Sandston which was built to house soldiers during World War I, as well as Interstate 64 and its Sandston Interchange as well as the Richmond International Airport. Perhaps the most famous anecdote of the battle was when a Confederate soldier’s mother was told that her son had seen action near a place called Seven Pines and was asked if she was worried about him. She replied something like “If there are seven pines there I know my boy is taking cover behind one of them.”