Contrasts in Command: The Battle of Fair Oaks. May 31 - June 1, 1862

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by Victor Vignola

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. (A future volume in the works will examine the related Seven Pines combat).

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.

Author Vignola based his study on a host of primary and archival sources, many of which have never been published. The result is a well-illustrated and mapped readable tactical and leadership account that will please the most discriminating reader. Sandwiched between Shiloh and The Seven Days’ Battles, the combat at Fair Oaks (and Seven Pines) has been mostly forgotten or overlooked. Although tactically inconclusive, the ramifications were far-reaching in ways no one could have foreseen. And like Shiloh, the battle provided a clear warning that the war would be long and bloody.

  • Release date: October 2023
  • Hardcover
  • 312 pages