Meeting of May 9, 2024

Victor Vignola on “Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks”

Surprisingly little has been written about the important Battle of Fair Oaks (and the simultaneous Seven Pines). The bloody two-day affair (May 31-June 1, 1862), fought on the doorstep of the Confederate capital, was the first major battle in the Eastern Theater since Bull Run/Manassas the previous summer. It left more than 11,000 casualties in its wake and the primary Southern army without its commander. The possession of Richmond hung in the balance. Victor Vignola’s Contrasts in Command, which is centered around the Fair Oaks fighting, rectifies this gap in the literature.

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan marched his Army of the Potomac up the Virginia Peninsula during the spring weeks of 1862 before committing a near-fatal error by placing his inexperienced IV Corps at the tip of the spear south of the flood-prone Chickahominy River. Opposing McClellan at the head of the Virginia army was Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, who had fallen back without offering much in the way of opposition. When the opportunity to strike beckoned, Johnston crafted an overly complex attack plan to crush the exposed IV Corps. A series of bungled Confederate marches, piecemeal assaults, and a lack of assertive leadership doomed the Southern plan. One of the wounded late in the day on May 31 was Gen. Johnston, whose injury led to the appointment of Gen. Robert E. Lee to take his place—a decision that changed the course of the entire Civil War.

Victor Vignola is a lifelong student of the Civil War and has written articles for publication in North and South Magazine and other forums. Victor delivers historical programs, conducts tours, and regularly visits various Civil War sites. Vic’s career included executive-level labor and interagency relations for the Office of Mental Health in New York State. He lives with his family in Orange County, New York, home of the 124th New York “Orange Blossoms” Regiment.