This Day (Seven Pines, One Bullet Edition)

Published:May 31, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day 150 years ago, at nightfall, Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston was personally inspecting the lines near Fair Oaks, just outside of Richmond. He had battled George B. McClellan‘s Army of the Potomac all day, and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the outcome of the war stood in the balance.

Warned by a staff officer that he was riding dangerously close to the front, Johnston replied, “Colonel, there is no use dodging; when you hear them [the bullets] they have passed.” Almost immediately thereafter, a spent bullet hit him in the shoulder. Moments after that, one of the last Union artillery shells fired that day burst in the air, throwing fragments into Johnston’s chest and thigh. Gravely injured, the general relinquished command.

Whether he felt kind of stupid and apologized to that staff officer has gone unrecorded.

PS: Robert E. Lee famously took command after the battle and, in the Seven Days’ Battles, pushed McClellan back from the Confederate capital. But when Johnston initially relinquished command, it was not Lee who took over but one Gustavus W. Smith. While our entry states only that illness soon overcame General Smith, various histories have speculated that he suffered a nervous breakdown. Is that true? Dimitri Rotov examines the evidence here, here, and here.

PPS: What would have happened if McClellan had won?

IMAGE: Battle of Seven Pines–Fair Oaks by Currier and Ives