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


by Victor Vignola

El Dorado Hills, Ca.: Savas Beatie, 2023. . Pp. xviii, 269. Illus., maps, tables, appends, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1611216826

Command Decisions at Fair Oaks

In this fresh look at the opening round of the two-day Battle of Fair Oaks (also known as Seven Pines), author Vignola opens by arguing that most past treatments on the fight were based chiefly on Union reports, newspaper accounts, soldiers’ letters and memoirs, and regimental histories.

Advancing up the Virginia Peninsula in the Spring of 1862, general George McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac had reached within a dozen miles of Richmond. His Confederate opponent, Joseph E. Johnston, who had hitherto only lightly opposed the Union advance, chose to undertake a major counter attack in late May, seeing an opportunity to strike two of McClellan’s army corps that were separated from the main body of his army.

Vignola offers a good discussion of Johnston’s decision making before attacking on May 31st. The assault initially went well. But Johnston was wounded that evening, which caused a loss of command control, several of his officers performed poorly, while some Union ones did well, and the battle ended in a draw on June 1st.

In his analysis of the outcome, Vignola argues that battle would have resulted in a Confederate victory had Johnston not been wounded, a point made by Robert Krick in his forward to the book. The loss, however, had a silver lining in that Johnston was replaced two days later by Robert E. Lee, who would prove a more aggressive general to command what became the Army of Northern Virginia.

Vignola’s thorough research, knowledge of the terrain, and enthusiasm for the subject, help bring the battle to life. We not only get the ‘Big Picture” of generals leading corps and divisions in the fighting, but also see lesser officers in action at the regimental level, making life and death decisions.

While Vignola might offer rather more coverage of the Union side, he does cover it reasonably well, and in fact argues that Union commanders general outperformed their rivals, praising only D.H. Hill, while commending the Union’s Edwin V. Sumner, and Darius Couch.

Vignola’s conclusions also note that the weather played a significant factor in the battle, helping turn it into a lost opportunity for the South.

This reviewer highly recommends Contrasts in Command for anyone who has an interest in the Civil War, and particularly in the protracted duel between the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.


Our Reviewer: David Marshall has been a high school American history teacher in the Miami-Dade School district for more than three decades. A life-long Civil War enthusiast, David is president of the Miami Civil War Round Table Book Club. In addition to numerous reviews in Civil War News and other publications, he has given presentations to Civil War Round Tables on Joshua Chamberlain, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the common soldier. His previous reviews here include Navigating Liberty: Black Refugees and Antislavery Reformers in the Civil War South, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 1, "The Bullets Flew Like Hail", John Brown's Raid, Searching For Irvin McDowell, A House Built by Slaves, They Came Only To Die, General Grant and the Verdict of History, Gettysburg In Color, Vol 2, Man of Fire, To the Last Extremity, Hood's Defeat Near Fox's Gap, "If We Are Striking for Pennsylvania", Vol. 2, Outwitting Forrest, All That Can Be Expected, Force of a Cyclone, Lincoln and Native Americans, Detour to Disaster, Lincoln in Lists, A Wilderness of Destruction, Twelve Days, The Civil War Memoirs of Captain William J. Seymour, Stay and Fight it Out, Calamity at Frederick, John T. Wilder and The Sergeant: The Incredible Life of Nicholas Said.



Note: Contrasts in Command is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: David Marshall   

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