150 Years Ago This Week: General Lee assumes command

May/June 1862

Saturday, May 31: In the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Stonewall Jackson and his 15,000 troops hurried south through Winchester from Harpers Ferry in a heavy rain, squeezing through converging Union forces of Gen. Fremont and Gen. McDowell. There was a brief skirmish near Front Royal but the Federals were too late in trying to halt the Confederates. Gen. Jackson was pushing his men south towards Harrisonburg.

On the Peninsula east of Richmond, Gen. McClellan split his army, putting three corps north of the Chickahominy River and two on the south side. He expected Gen. McDowell’s men to approach and reinforce him from the north, not realizing that the majority of McDowell’s troops were diverted to stop Gen. Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley.

Gen. Joseph Johnston ordered his Confederates at 1 p.m. to attack the two corps south of the river, at Seven Pines or Fair Oaks station on the railroad east of Richmond. Most of the fighting was done by individual units, with others failing to go into action. President Davis came out from the city to tour the battlefield. When he heard the firing, Gen. McClellan ordered Gen. Edwin Sumner’s corps to cross the river and attack the Confederates. The Union reinforcements blunted the Confederate drive, and in the severe fighting of the afternoon, Gen. Johnston was severely wounded in the right shoulder and chest by an artillery shell filled with grapeshot. Command of the army devolved on Maj. Gen. Gustavus Smith as evening approached and fighting ended. Little had been decided on the field of battle; the Confederates failed to rout or destroy the two isolated Federal army corps. During the night, the Federal positions were considerably strengthened.

The fighting on Sunday, June 1, began with an attack by Maj. Gen. James Longstreet’s command. Coming out from Richmond where he had been serving as a military advisor to President Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee was appointed by the president to assume command of the Confederate army in Virginia. Soon it bore a new name—the Army of Northern Virginia—and Gen. Lee was to lead it with distinction for the next three years.

By the afternoon, Gen. Lee ordered a withdrawal of the Confederates to their original positions, with a loss of 6,134 casualties (980 killed, 4,749 wounded and 405 missing or captured) out of a force of about 42,000. Gen. McClellan commanded an army of more than 100,000 but of those, about 42,000 were engaged in the battle, sustaining 5,031 casualties (790 killed, 3,594 wounded, 647 missing or captured). Most of the Federal army had not been engaged. Three times President Lincoln wired McClellan: “Hold all of your ground, or yield any only, inch by inch, and in good order.”

On June 2, President Davis wrote of the two-day battle on the Chickahominy: “On Saturday we had a severe battle, and suffered severely in attacking the enemy’s entrenchments of which our Generals were poorly informed. Unaccountable delays in bringing some of our troops into action prevented us from gaining a decisive victory. The opportunity being lost, we must try to find another.”

In the Shenandoah Valley this same day, Gen. Jackson’s men were at Strasburg, with Gen. Fremont’s men coming at him from Warrensburg and Gen. Shields of McDowell’s command at Front Royal. Jackson ordered his men up the Valley Pike towards Harrisonburg between the two foes; now considerably outnumbered, Gen. Jackson was enhancing his reputation and instilling fear in the North. Near Richmond, both armies remained still, tending to their sick and wounded.

Tuesday, June 3, was President Davis’ 54th birthday. He wrote to the absent Mrs. Davis: “It is hard to see incompetence losing opportunity and wasting hard-gotten means, but harder still to bear, is the knowledge that there is no available remedy.” In the Shenandoah Valley, Gen. Jackson’s march to Harrisonburg was marked by skirmishes at Mount Jackson and Tom’s Brook.

On the Mississippi River, Confederates evacuated Fort Pillow, defending Memphis, threatened by a U.S. Navy flotilla on the river. There were practically no Confederate units left to protect the city from Federal attack. When the Union troops reached Fort Pillow on June 5, they found it deserted. Memphis was practically in their grasp, and the battle for the city began. It was to give the Union a new and important base of operations for military campaigning into the heart of the South. At 11 a.m. on June 6, the mayor of Memphis surrendered his city after a two-hour battle with Union land and river forces.

Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles

A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.