One Man’s Opinion

Dick Nicholas

Volume 9, Number 10
October 2001

One of the axioms of military command is never to divide your army in the face of a superior enemy. To do so, is to invite defeat “in detail” by an overwhelming force. The logic is that you have a much greater chance of success if you keep your army together and mass its firepower, rather than dividing it up into a number of smaller components, which could then be destroyed piece by piece by a more powerful opponent. At the same time, it has been demonstrated throughout history that great advantage can be obtained by assaulting the enemy with overwhelming force at the point of attack. Throughout the Civil War numerous generals attempted to follow these principles by maneuvering their commands in such a way as to obtain the maximum advantage of both numbers and position.

In planning his first offensive operation of the war, Confederate General Joe Johnston apparently neglected to apply either of the basic maxims of battle. By late May of 1862, General George McClellan’s ponderous army of about 100,000 men had moved slowly and relentlessly up the James-York River peninsula to within a few miles of Richmond, and was preparing for a major assault and siege operation against the Confederate capitol. General Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, pursued a policy of weary retreat, and apparently decided that he could no more than await the next movement of the Federals and look for an opening for a counterstroke. By pursuing this policy of retreat and reaction, Johnston let McClellan retain the initiative for the campaign.

In moving towards Richmond, however, McClellan had divided his army into two columns with three corps of about sixty thousand men positioned north of the Chickahominy River, and two corps totaling thirty-six thousand men south of the river. McClellan apparently believed that it was to his advantage to advance against the enemy on a broad front. In addition, the corps north of the Chickahominy was expected to connect with General Irwin McDowell’s force that was supposed to be moving south from Fredericksburg to join his army in the final assault on Richmond. Besides, the Chickahominy was a relatively narrow and shallow stream which, under normal conditions, would have little impact on communications between the two wings of the army.

To his credit Johnston recognized that McClellan had placed his army in a potentially dangerous situation. Although the Confederates had only about sixty thousand men, here was a chance to mass the major portion of his army and overwhelm the Federal wing south of the river before the enemy could unite and overwhelm him.

Unbelievably, however, Johnston’s original plan was to attack the stronger of McClellan’s two wings, north of the Chickahominy River, on May 29, 1862, where the Federal corps of Porter, Franklin, and Sumner totaled almost sixty thousand. Generals A. P. Hill and Gustavus W. Smith of Johnston’s army were scheduled to lead the assault with only twenty-nine thousand infantry! As Clifford Dowdey said: “. . . no action in the war was planned with such slovenly thinking or prepared so carelessly.”

Johnston and his forces were spared the consequences of this proposed suicidal attack when McDowell’s column venturing south from Fredericksburg halted, and then retreated back north. As a result, Johnston no longer felt threatened from that direction and changed his plans for giving battle. Perhaps something about the experience brought Johnston to his senses, because a few days later he ordered a more sensible and orthodox assault on the smaller Federal force located south of the river.

Perhaps Johnston’s characteristic lack of enterprise lulled McClellan into complacency when he positioned thirty-six thousand men of his III and IV corps south of the Chickahominy on the direct road to Richmond. After all, Johnston had never given any indication of aggressiveness or inclination to give battle. He had done nothing but retreat since Yorktown while McClelland doggedly persisted in his basic plan to lay siege to Richmond.

Surprising everyone, including President Jefferson Davis and his advisor Robert E. Lee, Johnston prepared to do the unthinkable—attack the smaller two corps of Federals, isolated and vulnerable, in the vicinity of Seven Pines and Fair Oaks. He planned to use two-thirds of his army in the attack with the key role being played by James Longstreet’s command. The remaining third of the army would hold the line of the Chickahominy against the Federals north of the river. For the first time in the war, the Confederate army in Virginia would take the offensive. It was militarily a good plan by the normally very cautious and conservative Johnston.

The attack was scheduled for May 31, and the night before nature literally showered its blessings on Johnston’s plan. A violent downpour during the night turned the sluggish Chickahominy into a raging torrent that washed over the bridges and completely separated the two parts of McClellan’s army. After the battle, Major General Keyes, commanding the Federal’s Seven Pines-Fair Oaks front, said that Johnston had been given the opportunity to destroy two-fifths of McClellan’s army.

Johnston’s plan was simple and straightforward. Intending to throw two-thirds of his army, about fifty-thousand men, into battle south of the river, he decided to approach the enemy near Seven Pines and Fair Oaks along three roughly parallel roads so as to strike him head-on on both flanks simultaneously. He would have a decisive edge in manpower because on the day of attack, the Federals in the vicinity counted less than thirty-three thousand. The remaining third of the army would hold the line of the Chickahominy against the Federals north of the river.

Unfortunately for Johnston and the Confederates, the relatively simple plan of battle miscarried from the very beginning. Johnston neglected to develop a written plan, staff work was almost non-existent, Longstreet’s men took the wrong road, coordination was atrocious, delays occurred, and confusion reigned through the ranks of the attackers. The result was a stalemate with Johnston himself being wounded and forced to give up command of the army to Robert E. Lee. Unlike Johnston, Lee was not content to wait on the “Little Napoleon” to make some incautious move and open himself to attack. He would create opportunity himself.

The similarity of Johnston’s tactical situation at the gates of Richmond in 1862 to Robert E. Lee’s execution of the battle of the North Anna River in May of 1864 is striking. In the latter battle Lee defensively maneuvered grant into separating his much larger army into three components separated by the North Anna River, with the isolated eastern and western wings being subject to annihilation by Lee’s smaller army concentrated south of the river. In the latter case, however, Lee had created the situation through maneuver and Grant had unwittingly fallen into the trap. At Seven Pines, Johnston had nothing to do with inducing McClellan to divide his army. McClellan through his own deployment had carelessly allowed his army to become separated. In both battles poor Confederate execution failed to exploit the great opportunities presented to the defenders. At the North Anna, Lee was a sick man, and his officer corps so depleted that his plan could not be executed. At Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, Johnston’s ineptitude and lack of planning and coordination were the primary contributors to failure.