One-hundred-and-forty-years ago this Friday (May 31, 2002), the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston began its attempt to raise the Siege of Richmond. For weeks, the Confederates had retreated up, up, up the Peninsula from Yorktown to the very gates or Richmond. On May 30, 1862, most of the men in the Union Army of the Potomac could either see the church spires of Richmond or clearly heard them toll.
Attaching an exposed portion of the Army of the Potomac near Fair Oaks/Seven Pines, the Confederate battle plan went awry from the start. Portions of the various commands took wrong roads, maps were often in error, the weather was not only humid but also rainy, the Chickahominy River was at its highest stage in more then twenty years. The same problems that beset the Confederates in their advance also hindered Federal movements.
When the Confederate attack did finally start, it fell like a thunder-clap on the exposed troops belong to Brigadier General Silas Casey's Second Division of the IV Army Corps, Army of the Potomac. The original Confederate battle plan called for three Confederate divisions to strike the isolated Federal divisions at Seven Pines and at Fair Oaks. Had the plan been followed and the Confederates in proper position, the victory attained would have promised to be decisive. A torrential thunderstorm the night before further increased Federal difficulties in reinforcing their units below the Chickahominy. On paper, things looked as if at least two entire Union divisions could be routed and gobbled up.
Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill led his division to the attack at Seven Pines. The fighting was as ferocious as it was bloody. The Federals in Casey's division, one of the greenest in the entire Union Army of the Potomac and under-supplied, broke and fled down toward Hooker's divisional encampment near Bottom's Bridge along the Williamsburg Stage Road. In a nearly separate battle north of the Richmond and York River RR, at Fair Oaks, W. H. Whiting's Confederate division failed to budge the Federal line.
When the fighting on that May 31st died down, the Confederates had won a narrow victory but at tremendous cost. Not only had they lost many promising line and field officers in addition to rank and file soldiers, the Army of Northern Virginia lost its commander to wounds suffered from a Federal musket ball and a piece of shrapnel from a Federal shell. Joe Johnston was taken back to Richmond where his recuperation would be at least six months. Command of the Army of Northern Virginia devolved upon Major General Gustavus W. Smith. Smith became unstrung and suffered what we would today consider a nervous breakdown, completely disabling him from command at a time when command presence was so sorely needed.
On June 1, 1862, the battle of Seven Pines/Fair Oaks resumed and ground to a bloody standstill after more bloodletting for both Blue and Gray.
The moment of crisis had come, but had it passed? Confederate President Jefferson Davis had to act. Joe Johnston, whom Davis did not like, was out of action (perhaps for good) and his successor was not more able to lead an army than he was to care for himself. What was Davis to do? He turned to his military advisor, General Robert E. Lee, asking him on June 2 to take command of the Army of Northern Virginia in the crisis.
Lee's greatness was, at the time, not generally known in the Confederacy outside of a few in the highest levels of government. Indeed, there were many that considered Lee a most unwelcome and poor appointment due to the disastrous Confederate campaign in western Virginia where Lee had commanded. However, Col. Joseph Ives, who had served under Lee in South Carolina when the latter was in charge of the defenses of Charleston, told a fellow officer, Maj. E. Porter Alexander, when the question was asked if Lee would be able to take the long chances necessary to have their interior strength army take "the aggressive and to run risks"
"Alexander, if there is one man in either army, Confederate or Federal, head and shoulders above every other in audacity, it is General Lee! His name might be Audacity. He will take more desperate chances, and take them quicker, than any other general in this country, North or South; and you will live to see it, too."
Interestingly enough, Joe Johnston, whose wound cost him command of the Army of Northern Virginia, told a friend that his wounding and the appointment of Lee was the best thing that could have happened to the Confederate cause.
The long and famous association of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, the army which he would so clearly make his own and the stuff of immortal legend, had begun.