FAIR OAKS, VIRGINIA
May 31, 1862 - June 1, 1862
Army of the Potomac
Fair Oaks was a small station on the Richmond & York River railroad, about 6 miles east of Richmond. Three miles farther east was Savage Station, and a mile southeast, on the Williamsburg stage road, about half-way between Richmond and Bottom's bridge over the Chickahominy river, was Seven Pines. North of the railroad and nearly parallel with it ran the New Bridge road, which at Old Tavern was intersected by another highway called the Nine-mile road. From Old Tavern this road ran southeast, crossing the railroad at Fair Oaks and forming a junction with the Williamsburg road at Seven Pines. Three miles from Richmond the Charles City road left the Williamsburg road to the right and ran southeast toward White Oak swamp.
After the reconnaissance of Gen. Naglee to Seven Pines (q. v.) on the 24th the 4th Corps, under command of Brig.-Gen. E. D. Keyes, was ordered to fortify a position there. A strong line of rifle-pits, protected in front by an abatis was constructed a little east of the junction of the Nine mile and Williamsburg roads. Fronting the Williamsburg road were two houses, exactly alike, called the "Twin Houses," near which a small pentangular redoubt was thrown up and manned by a battery of 6 guns. The 3rd Corps, Brig.- Gen. S. P. Heintzelman commanding, was ordered to cross the Chickahominy at Bottom's bridge and take position near White Oak swamp to guard the left and rear of the army. On the 30th the troops on the south side of the Chickahominy were stationed as follows: Casey's division of the 4th Corps on the right of the Williamsburg road at right angles to it, the center being at Fair Oaks; Couch's division of the same Corps at Seven Pines; Kearny's division of the 3rd Corps along the railroad from Savage Station to the Chickahominy, and Hooker's division of the 3rd Corps at White Oak Swamp. The Corps of Porter, Franklin and Sumner had not yet crossed the Chickahominy. On the morning of May 30, Gen. D. H. Hill (Confederate) sent Garland's brigade out on a reconnaissance on the Williamsburg road and the rifle-pits of the 4th Corps at Seven Pines were discovered. About noon on the same day Hill reported to. Gen. J. E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces about Richmond, that the Federals were in force on the south side of the Chickahominy.
Johnston had already learned that McDowell's Corps, some 40,000 strong, was on the way to join the Army of the Potomac, and now determined to strike McClellan before McDowell could come up. In his official report of the engagement of Fair Oaks he gives the following plan of battle, which was explained to his different commanders that afternoon: "Gen. Hill supported by the division of Gen. Longstreet (who had the direction of operations on the right), was to advance by the Williamsburg road to attack the enemy in front. Gen. Huger, with his division, was to move down the Charles City road in order to attack in flank the troops who might be engaged with Hill and Longstreet, unless he found in his front force enough to occupy his division. Gen. Smith was to march to the junction of the New Bridge road and Nine mile road to be in readiness either to fall on Keyes' right flank or to cover Longstreet's left. They were to move at daybreak."
The attack was expected by the Federals, as the cars had been heard running nearly all night, indicating a movement of troops to the front, and their suspicions were strengthened by the capture of one of Johnston's aides near the Union lines on the morning of the 31st. The Union generals had therefore exercised increased vigilance to prevent anything like a surprise. Keyes formed his men in two lines of battle, Casey's division moving to the left and taking a position in front of the abatis, Palmer's brigade on the left, Wessells' in the center and Naglee's on the right, with two regiments north of the railroad. Couch's division constituted the second line which was formed across the Williamsburg road and along the Nine mile road, Peck's brigade on the left, Deven's in the center and Abercrombie's on the right, two regiments of his brigade and Brady's battery being beyond the railroad at Fair Oaks. Casey's pickets were about 1,000 yards in advance of the first line. Owing to a severe storm on the night of the 30th, with some confusion in moving the troops to their positions the next morning, the Confederates did not begin the attack until 1 p.m. About noon a mounted vedette rode back to Casey's headquarters with the report that the enemy was approaching in force on the Williamsburg road. Casey ordered the 103rd and 104th Pennsylvania to move forward to the support of the pickets and the regiment was hardly in position when two shells were thrown into the Union lines.
The whole division was then ordered under arms and Spratt's battery moved to the front about a quarter of a mile to shell the enemy as soon as the pickets and their supports could be withdrawn. Bates', Regan's and Fitch's batteries were also placed in position, with instructions to open on the enemy as soon as he debouched from the woods. They had not long to wait, for in five minutes the pickets and their supports were forced back by the overwhelming force of the enemy. Gen. Webb says of this part of the action: "The pickets, reinforced by the 103rd and 104th Pennsylvania, soon broke and joined by a large number of sick, camp followers and skulkers, flowed in a steady stream to the rear, thus giving the impression that Casey's division had broken in a panic, and left the field without making any firm or prolonged resistance."
Such, however, was not the case. When the pickets fell back the Confederates advanced and soon the "rebel yell" resounded on all sides. They were met by a steady fire of canister that thinned their ranks, but failed to check their advance. Seeing himself greatly outnumbered, Casey sent back to Keyes for reinforcements. In response to his request the 55th New York, under Lieut.-Col. Thourot, was sent forward into the rifle-pits to support the center; the 23rd and 61st Pennsylvania., commanded by Cols. Neill and Rippey, were ordered to the right; and Gen. Pack, with two regiments of his brigade-the 93rd and 102nd Pennsylvania-was sent to the left. In order to save his artillery Casey ordered a bayonet charge against the center. This charge was made by part of Naglee's brigade and the enemy driven back, giving the batteries an opportunity to withdraw from their exposed positions. On the right Neill and Rippey repulsed one attack, but the Confederates rallied and, were reinforced, when they again assaulted and the two regiments were forced back, though they brought 35 prisoners with them. In trying to reinforce them the 7th Massachusetts and 62nd New York, commanded by Couch in person, to avoid being cut off, joined Abercrombie at Fair Oaks and fought with his brigade during the remainder of the day. Peck, on the left, held his position for over two hours, when the heavy force massed against him compelled him to retire, which he did in good order. Mill then began moving troops to the right and, left "to take the Yankee works in reverse," and Casey again sent back for reinforcements, but as the second line had already been weakened to support the first, Keyes deemed it inadvisable to send any more troops to the front. Casey then fell back to Couch's line, after having maintained his position for over three hours against a vastly superior force. Here he rallied part of his division, and reinforced by part of Kearny's division which was just then coming up, tried to recapture his works, but the enemy was too strong and the attempt was abandoned.
Up to this time Hill's division had been the only portion of the Confederate forces actively engaged. Johnston, who was with Smith on the left gave the order at 4 p.m. for that wing to move forward. About the same time Longstreet sent in the brigades of Anderson, Wilcox and Kemper on the Williamsburg road, and those of Colston, and Pryor on the right, and with the addition of these fresh troops a general attack was made all along the line. Although Berry's and Jameson's brigades of Kearny's division arrived on the field in time to reinforce the Union troops before this general assault was commenced, the weight of superior numbers was with the enemy and after a stubborn resistance of more than an hour the Federals fell back slowly to a narrow strip of woods across the Williamsburg road. Here Heintzelman succeeded in rallying a sufficient force to hold the enemy in check until a new line of battle could be formed in the rear of the wood. In the formation of this third line Keyes noticed that the key to the position was at the left of the wood, where the ground sloped to the rear, and determined to occupy it. Concerning this action he says in his report: "I hastened to the 10th Mass. Col. Briggs, which regiment I had myself once before moved, now in the rifle-pits on the right of the Williamsburg road and ordered them to follow me across the field. Col. Briggs led them on in gallant style, moving quickly across an open space of 700 or 800 yards under a scorching fire, and forming his men with perfect regularity. * * * Had the 1Oth Massachusetts been two minutes later they would have been too late to occupy that fine position, and it would have been impossible to have formed the next and last line of battle of the 31st, which stemmed the tide of defeat and turned it toward victory." In forming the new line it was impossible to pay attention to brigade organizations. Regiments and fragments of regiments were thrown into position at the most convenient points, and none too soon, for scarcely had the line been formed when the Confederates bore down upon it, elated with success and confident of again driving the Union forces from their position. But they never entered the wood. When they came within range they were met by a deadly fire that checked their advance. Another volley caused them to fall back in some disorder, and as it was now after 6 o'clock they did not make another attempt to carry the position.
About 2:30 p.m. the sound of firing was heard at McClellan's headquarters on the north side of the Chickahominy, and Sumner was ordered to move his two divisions across the river to the support of Heintzelman and Keyes. The troops were already in marching order, so that no time was lost in getting started. Sedgwick's division moved in advance on the road directly to Fair Oaks, the head of his column coming up just in time to join Couch, as that officer with four regiments and Brady's battery, was holding in check Smith's entire division. Col. Sully, with the 1st Minnesota, was the first of Sedgwick's command to reach the field, and without waiting for orders he swung his regiment into line on Couch's right, charged across a field and took position with his right resting on a farm house and his left on the edge of the woods. Gorman quickly followed with the rest of his brigade, moving to Couch's left, where Kirby's battery was planted in a position to command the road. It was immediately charged by the enemy in an attempt to capture the guns, but Gorman threw three regiments on their flank and this was followed by a bayonet charge that drove the Confederates from the field. This closed the battle on the Federal right for the day. Richardson's division arrived just as the enemy were retiring, but too late to take part in the engagement.
At 2 o'clock on the morning of June 1, a council of war was held at Sumner's headquarters, at which it was decided to attack the enemy as soon as the different commands could be properly disposed. Richardson's division was posted along the railroad east of Fair Oaks, French's brigade in the first line, Howard's in the second and Meagher's in the third. On the left of Richardson was Birney's brigade of Kearny's division, Berry's and Jameson's brigades being at the cross- roads east of Seven Pines, where the Union forces made their last stand in the first day's battle. Here were also the rest of Keyes' Corps and Hooker's division of Heintzelman's, which had come up from White Oak swamp about dark on the 31st. Gen. Johnston was severely wounded by a shell near the close of the first day's fight, and in the battle of June 1, the movements of the Confederate forces were directed by Gen. G. W. Smith, second in rank. About 5 a.m. the enemy's skirmishers and a small body of cavalry appeared in front of Richardson, but a few shells from Pettit's battery dispersed them. Soon afterward a large force of Confederates debauched from the woods and opened a heavy musketry fire at short range. French's division returned the fire for some time, when, the enemy being heavily reinforced, Howard was ordered to French's assistance. One regiment of Howard's brigade - the 81st Pennsylvania - had been sent to close a gap in the line between Richardson and Kearny, but with the rest of his command Howard moved promptly forward on French's left, as the enemy was trying to turn that flank, and forced the Confederates back through the woods beyond Casey's old camp at Seven Pines. In this action Howard received a wound that resulted in the loss of his right arm, and turned over the command of the brigade to Col. Cross, of the 5th New Hampshire.
As soon as Hooker heard the firing he advanced with the 5th and 6th New Jersey, of Patterson's brigade, with Sickles' brigade in support, to attack the Confederates in the rear. Skirmishers were thrown forward and the two New Jersey regiments were soon engaged. Sickles had been ordered to the left by Heintzelman, but Birney's brigade, now under command of Col. J. H. Ward, happened to be in a convenient position, and it was ordered to Hooker's support. As the line had to move through a swamp the advance was slow, but Hooker says in his report: "Our lines were well preserved, the fire brisk and unerring, and our troops reliant-all omens of success. After an interchange of musketry of this character for more than an hour directions were given to advance with the bayonet, when the enemy were thrown into wild confusion, throwing away their arms, hats and coats, and broke through the forest in the direction of Richmond. At this moment chivalry and rebellion presented a deplorable picture. Pursuit was hopeless."
When Sickles was withdrawn from Hooker's support his brigade was moved to the left of the Williamsburg road. The ground here was too boggy to permit the use of artillery but Sickles pushed forward the 71st and 73rd New York, under Col. Hail and Maj. Moriarty, supported by the rest of the brigade, and his victory here was no less brilliant than that of his division commander. After firing one or two volleys Hall charged and started the enemy in retreat, when the whole brigade pressed forward to take advantage of the situation, and the Confederates were forced back until Sickles occupied the field of the previous day. Concerning this part of the fight Sickles, report says: "The fields were strewn with Enfield rifles, marked 'Tower, 1862,' and muskets marked 'Virginia,' thrown away by the enemy in his hurried retreat. In the camp occupied by Gen. Casey and Gen. Couch on Saturday, before the battle of Seven Pines were found rebel caissons filled with ammunition, a large number of small arms, and several baggage wagons, besides two barns filled with subsistence and forage."
Thus the Confederate army that had marched out so proudly on the morning of May 31, to drive McClellan's left wing into the Chickahominy and cut the Federal line of supplies, returned to Richmond the next day defeated, panic-stricken and disorganized. The Union losses at the battle of Fair Oaks amounted to 790 killed, 3,594 wounded and 647 missing. The Confederates lost 980 killed, 4,749 wounded and 405 missing.
"The Battle at Fair Oaks, Virginia"
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