The Battle of Fair Oaks

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The American Civil War

By Gary Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

The Battle of Fair Oaks or Seven Pines, at the end of May 1862, set the stage for the larger and more famous Seven Days’ Battles, which would come just a month later. The Battle of Fair Oaks led to some major changes in the configuration of the Civil War, changes that nearly ended up changing the trajectory of the war.

Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan sitting inside a tent.
After watching mangled corpses at the Battle of Fair Oaks, George B. McClellan admitted that “victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost”. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The Status Quo

Stonewall Jackson was operating in the Shenandoah Valley campaign in May, winning his victories at McDowell, at Front Royal, and at First Winchester. There was not much significant action on the front where the armies of McClellan and Joseph E. Johnston were arrayed outside Richmond.

Learn more about Antietam.

Joseph E. Johnston Reaching the Point of No Retreat

Johnston had reached a point, as the end of May drew near, where he really had no more room to retreat. This was often the case during the Civil War: when one side was on the strategic defensive, they would find themselves at some point where they either had to take the offensive against their opponent or find themselves in a siege situation.

All the major sieges of the war ended in the same way—with the surrender of a Confederate army. It had already happened at Fort Donelson. It would happen at Vicksburg; it would happen, in effect, at Petersburg with Robert E. Lee’s army later in the war. It also happened in Atlanta.

Well, here Johnston had run out of retreating room. He had to find some way to get at McClellan’s army, or he would be inside Richmond, and it would look very dark indeed for the Confederacy.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Plan of Joseph E. Johnston

Joseph E. Johnston thought he saw an opportunity late in May when McClellan placed his army in a position with about one-third of it south of the Chickahominy River and two-thirds of it north of the Chickahominy River. Since it was hard to move reinforcements back and forth across a river, Johnston decided to hit one-third of the army located south of the Chickahominy River.

He put together a plan. It was not a great plan, but the plan, such as it was, was not executed well by the Confederates on May 31, so what it ended up with was a sort of bumbling battle at Fair Oaks or Seven Pines. Neither side won a decisive tactical victory—there were about 5,000 casualties on each side. In that sense, it was not a very important battle. But it was indeed an important battle in terms of its impact on later events, and there are two ways especially where it was important.

Learn more about the Peninsula Campaign.

The First Impact of the Battle of Fair Oaks

A profile image of the Union Army General George B. McClellan.
After the Battle of Fair Oaks, George B. McClellan became more and more reluctant to commit to a major battle. (Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

The first and less important of the two impacts concerned McClellan. McClellan was reluctant to commit himself to battle, to risk losing a big part of his precious Army of the Potomac. That part of his personality was reinforced after the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks because, as he rode over the battlefield and saw the wreckage of his troops who had fought there, he shrank from that vision.

He admitted to someone that he was upset by “the mangled corpses”, as he put it, and he added that “victory has no charms for me when purchased at such cost”.

Well, that was an admirable attitude in one sense. He did not like to see bodies that had been torn apart in combat; but in another sense, it spelled trouble for the North because it meant that McClellan was going to be even more reluctant to commit his army to a major battle.

It was a fatal flaw in him as a commander because, as much as he loved his army, and as much as his troops loved him, he had to be willing at some point to risk them, and McClellan was simply not willing to do that. So that was one consequence of this battle.

Learn more about Shiloh and Corinth.

The Second Impact of the Battle of Fair Oaks

A portrait of Robert E. Lee in the army uniform.
Robert E. Lee was named as the replacement for the wounded General Joseph E. Johnston. (Image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

However, by far the more significant impact of the battle was that Joseph Johnston was wounded on May 31. He was hit in the chest by a shell fragment from an artillery round. The Union soldier who pulled the lanyard on that artillery piece fired the worst shot of the war for the North because that round that wounded Joseph Johnston opened the way for Jefferson Davis to put Robert E. Lee in command of the army defending Richmond, the army that Lee would call the Army of Northern Virginia.

This brought to the fore the man who would become the greatest by far of the Confederate generals. A man who, well before the war was over, would be the most important figure, political or civilian, in the Confederacy. The man who would become the great rallying point for most Confederates.

Common Questions about the Battle of Fair Oaks

Q: Why was the Battle of Seven Pines important?

The Battle of Seven Pines was important because it directly led to the appointment of General Robert E. Lee as the Confederate commander.

Q: Where was the Battle of Fair Oaks?

The Battle of Fair Oaks took place at Henrico County, Virginia.

Q: What was the result of General Joseph E. Johnston’s attack at Seven Pines?

Johnston’s attack at Seven Pines led to nothing more than a stalemate, but the injury that he sustained during the attack had far-reaching consequences.

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