The Battle of Fair Oaks, published by Currier and Ives; Image courtesy of Virginia Historical Society, 1999.161.306
At 8:30 p.m. on May 31, 1862, following the murderously mismanaged day of war known as the Battle of Seven Pines, Confederate Maj. Gen. Gustavus Woodson Smith inherited command of the Army of Northern Virginia.
In the moments leading up to Seven Pines, his superior and pre-war friend, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, had pulled back Smith's authority from leading the left wing to overseeing the North Chickahominy bridge crossings. Smith instead left new Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill in charge, and on May 31, Smith waited for something to do alongside his superior.
The morning wore on. The Confederates were supposed to march down three roads toward a Union corps, but inexplicably, the attack failed to occur. Johnston was joined first by Gen. Robert E. Lee and next by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
"There was a tenseness in the air," historian Douglas Southall Freeman wrote in Lee's Lieutenants . "Officers were coming and going. Johnston was preoccupied. A general movement evidently was afoot. That obvious fact Johnston must have announced to Lee. He may have added that he was disposing his troops anew for an attack on the Federals supposed to be around Seven Pines and Fair Oaks, two miles ahead, but he did not explain his plan in detail or tell Lee when the battle was to open."
What became apparent later was that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, for reasons still debated, didn't follow Johnston's orders. He took the wrong road, jammed up a bridge crossing and argued with Brig. Gen. Benjamin Huger about who should go first.
Every element of Johnston's plan went wrong.
At about 4 p.m., muffled, bellicose sounds reached the headquarters. Johnston discerned an artillery duel and Lee, the echoes of distant musketry.
A dispatch arrived from Longstreet that he needed support in his attack: Johnston seized personal command of three idling brigades to lead them into the fray.
He dispatched Smith to bring up two other brigades, but the eager Johnston was shot in the right shoulder and blown off his horse by a shell. He was carried from the field.
It fell upon Smith, a division commander, to sort out the whole army scattered from west of Fair Oaks Station down to White Oak Swamp. He didn't know the condition of divisions commanded by Longstreet or Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill. In addition to Johnston, he'd lost three of the four brigade commanders in his own division: Robert Hatton was dead; Johnston Pettigrew and Wade Hampton had been wounded.
After having served as New York City commissioner of streets, Smith, 41, joined the South late. In strategy conferences, he'd advocated concentrated attacks on Washington, D.C., and beyond. Davis liked such bold talk. Johnston, who knew Smith prior to the war, vouched for his appointment to high rank and called him "G.W."
Though considered courageous under fire — he barely raised his voice — in the months leading up to Seven Pines, Smith had exhibited some unsteadiness when under pressure. "Bulky, occasionally frowning and always determined to impress," as Freeman portrayed him, he didn't seem fit for this fight.
The sudden battlefield promotion at Seven Pines and the realization of responsibility made Smith ill, perhaps causing a small stroke. Davis, who couldn't resist meddling in tactical matters, tried coaxing a plan of action from his new commander.
Historian Clifford Dowdey wrote, "[Smith] spoke … he faltered … the assurance slipped, fell away. … The units bungled through the deepening dusk. The battle was over and so was Smith."
Davis and Lee began their ride back to Richmond "under a sickle moon" on the Nine Mile Road, as historian Shelby Foote described it, clogged "with wounded and disheartened men who had stumbled and hobbled out of the day-long nightmare of bungled marches and mismanaged firefights."
Davis knew one thing: He couldn't keep Smith in command.
Lee's war career to that point had been checkered, but other ranking officers were either too old or too disagreeable. Davis told Lee that tomorrow, the army was his, with paperwork to follow.
At about 1:30 p.m. on June 1, Davis rode to Smith's headquarters in the Hughes house on Nine Mile Road, asking after Gen. Lee. Smith wondered to Davis why Lee was needed. Davis told him that he'd appointed Lee to the command. Smith replied, "Ah! In that case he will probably soon be here."
In the wake of Seven Pines, both sides claimed victory.
Caravans of wounded and dead flowed into Richmond.
A few weeks later, the Seven Days Battles assured Lee's rise in the Confederacy. Smith, temporarily paralyzed on one side, convalesced in Richmond and eventually left the army.
Johnston was sidelined for six crucial months. Davis gave Old Joe the thankless task of commanding the Western theater of operations for the Confederacy.
Confederate losses came to 6,134, and Federals 5,031. "The tragedy of this extravagant bloodshed," writes Richard Wheeler in Sword Over Richmond , "was heightened by the fact that it accomplished nothing; the fight was a draw."