150 years ago – the Battle of Seven Pines / Fair Oaks

Thursday, May 31, will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Seven Pines. The two day battle was the culmination of the Union offensive leading to Richmond, VA, the Confederate capital. The Army of the Potomac, in the command of Gen. George McClellan, pushed to within a few miles from Richmond in late May. McClellan failed to press his advantage, and Richmond was not taken. Instead, the Battle of Seven Pines was inconclusive, and eventually McClellan would be pushed back nearly to Washington by the first week of July 1862. It was one of those moments in history that, if acted upon, might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and years of war. Who knows how much shorter the war would have been if McClellan had attacked Richmond and taken the city in 1862?

The conflict was referred to as the Battle of Fair Oaks by Union soldiers, though Seven Pines is the official name.

Vermonters were deeply involved in the battle, including some Vermont Cavalry companies who made a daring escape from being encircled by Confederate forces. Companies A and G of the Vermont cavalry were protecting wagons of supplies and got caught in an ambush. In the chaos, the main body of men followed the lead of Major Tompkins who was aware of an escape route from previous knowledge of the area.

The June 6, 1862 edition of the Watchman & State Journal features a remarkable summary of the events as they transpired:

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This issue contains much more about the battle, discussion about Congress regarding a failed emancipation bill, and the debate leading up to the Confiscation Act of 1862. To see this issue online, click through here. We have also digitized other Vermont titles that have their own perspective on the battle, including the Burlington Free Press (see the June 6 issue here, and the June 13 issue here), and the Vermont Phoenix (see the June 5 issue here, and the June 12 issue here). The June 5, 1862 edition of the Phoenix has a remarkable account of the actions of Professor Thaddeus Lowe of the ill-fated Union Balloon Corps.:

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All of these titles contain letters from Vermonters at the front and perspectives from Vermonters “in the moment” as they hoped for a speedy end to the war and the well being of their sons, husbands, friends, and relatives fighting the war. Following the progress of the war on the pages of Vermont newspapers gives us an opportunity to see this terrible conflict through new eyes.

For more background, Wikipedia has a fine overview of the Battle of Seven Pines, and a descriptive article on the Union Army Balloon Corps.

Tom McMurdo

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