May 31, 1862 (Saturday)
Confederate General Joe Johnston had been waiting for his counterpart, General George McClellan, to make a mistake. Johnston knew he was greatly outnumbered and had been put on the defensive for the entire Peninsula Campaign. For several weeks, he and the 74,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia had their backs to the walls of Richmond, digging in as McClellan’s Army of the Potomac, 110,000-strong, dug in themselves; readying and waiting, as McClellan readied his army and waited.
Separating the two forces was the Chickahominy River. For a week or so, Johnston had been aware that McClellan was slipping two corps across the river on his left, as he moved a large part of his army north, hoping to link up with the promised reinforcements from General McDowell at Fredericksburg that never came.
There had been some minor skirmishes, some scrapes near a crossroads called Seven Pines, and it appeared as if McClellan’s troops were there to stay. By the end of May, the spring rains has swollen the creeks and rivers. The Chickahominy was no different, its banks covered by a four foot rise since the two Union corps had crossed it. The flooded river now severed 33,000 Union troops from the rest of their army. Johnston saw this and smelled blood.
His plan was a simple taking noticedouble envelopment. He would send a larger force, split into thirds. One third would attack the enemy’s left, the next would attack his center, and the last would attack his right. Done simultaneously, they would crush two-fifths of McClellan’s Army of the Potomac.
But no matter how simple it was, things are never as simple as they appear on paper – or in the verbal orders given to General James Longstreet who was to command the assault and lead the attack on the Confederate left down Nine Mile Road. To the two officers leading the other two prongs, Generals D.H. Hill and Huger, Johnston wrote out the orders, but to Huger, who was to signal the assault, he failed to even mention what the other commanders were doing, saying only to “be ready for action.” While it seemed as if Huger’s men were mere reserves, in Johnston’s plan, they were the right hook.
Along with two divisions of reserves and reinforcements, Johnston was committing over 50,000 troops to the assault. Things went wrong from the start.
While Johnston remained at this headquarters, Longstreet marched his troops south towards the center of the attack, via the Williamsburg Road, instead of north towards the left along Nine Mile road. After several hours of calls to Johnston to straighten the mess out, a courier was finally sent to find Longstreet. Believing him to be down Nine Mile Road, he searched, but could not find Longstreet or his command. The scout rode so far that he bumped into Federal pickets who fired a few shots at him, but he found no Longstreet.
This is because Longstreet’s men were down the Williamsburg Road, holding up Huger’s men while they constructed a bridge over a swollen creek he was never supposed to cross anyway. Finally finished, Longstreet’s 14,000 men crossed Gilles Creek in a single file line. Meanwhile, Generals Longstreet and Huger were arguing about who was the senior commander, in a farmhouse several miles away. This second mess wasn’t cleared up until 11am, three hours after the battle was to begin.
There was even more confusion on the Confederate right, as Longstreet’s debacle caused D.H. Hill’s reinforcements to be delayed. Finally, at 1pm, Hill, fed up with waiting, attacked in a frontal assault. The Federals put up a fight behind their redoubts, but soon they wavered and fell back. According to the plan, Longstreet was now to attack on Hill’s left. There were, however, no Confederate troops on the left. Longstreet was behind Hill, and could only feed in a couple of brigades as support.
Hill’s troops broke through the line, but found even more Federals as he pressed forward. The Union right flank, where Longstreet was supposed to attack, dangled precariously in the open, but there was nobody to attack it.
Back at his headquarters, Johnston knew something was wrong. Due to a strange atmospheric condition, Johnston could only hear the booms of artillery, and didn’t believe the actual battle had commenced. General Robert E. Lee, who had just arrived from Richmond, however, had heard them, and told Johnston, who refused to believe it. Finally, at 4pm, a call for reinforcements came from Longstreet, who claimed the Federals to be in retreat.
Johnston snapped into action. He commandeered General Whiting’s three brigades and began to march them out Nine Mile Road towards the battle. These brigades were spread out and fed into fray on the Union right flank, which had just been reinforced by McClellan. With the element of surprise completely thrown away, Johnston’s additional troops, accompanied by the falling darkness, could do little.
Observing the failure from a rise within rifle range of the action, Johnston and his staff sat upon their mounts, as shot, shell and ball flew all around them. Immediately after the General chastised one of his officers for dodging at the sound of a bullet zipping by, Johnston was struck. In quick succession, a ball from a musket hit him in his shoulder, and then an artillery shell exploded in his front, sending shreds of iron into his chest and legs. The blow threw him from his horse. He was severely wounded, but still alive.
President Jefferson Davis had ridden out to the field, following General Lee, and came upon Johnston being borne away. Between these two men, there had been myriad differences and arguments, but that was all forgotten as Davis spoke a few gentle words to his General before he was carried to the rear.
The command of the Army of Northern Virginia fell to Johnston’s second, General Gustavus Woodson Smith, who planned to renew the assault at dawn.1
Stonewall About to Slip Away
In the Shenandoah Valley, Union Generals Fremont and Shields were about to snap shut Stonewall Jackson’s only remaining avenue of escape: The Valley Pike. Jackson knew all too well that his 16,000 troops were in grave danger and started them south from Winchester at dawn.
Twenty miles south, 25,000 Federals were crowding close to the Pike at Strasburg. General Shields, who had just taken Front Royal the previous day, was ten miles – a few hours march – from the pike, but had to deal with Turner Ashby’s Rebel cavalry holding up any advance. He was also waiting for Ord’s Division to come up. General Fremont, who had been insubordinate and sluggish, was a mere four miles from Strasburg, but halted. Neither were completely sure where the other was, and both were certain that Stonewall Jackson’s force greatly outnumbered them.
Jackson, moving south, figured that he would have to fight his way out of the lower Valley, probably around Strasburg. But when his troops reached the town, they found it abandoned. Jackson sent his supply wagons south, while he formed his troops in a semi-circle along Cedar Creek, north of town to wait for the Stonewall Brigade, which had been left behind at Harpers Ferry to create a diversion to cover the retreat.
That night, Jackson issued orders for General Ewell to cover Fremont to the west, while he covered Shields to the east. They would be staying in Strasburg until the Stonewall Brigade, now encamped at Newton, ten miles north.2
- As I sometimes do with large battles that are better studying in depth, rather than in a short blog article, I constructed this short account from several sources. Tot he Gates of Richmond by Stephen Sears; The Peninsula Campaign of 1862 by Kevin Dougherty; and Joseph E. Johnston by Craig L. Symonds. [↩]
- Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens; Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson; and Stonewall in the Valley by Robert G. Tanner. [↩]