Fort Harrison, 5th Major Offensive
by Daniel Moran
The object was to capture Richmond, Virginia in late September 1864. After a
hard summer of offensive battles along the earthworks at Petersburg, Virginia,
most had been quiet towards the latter portion of the month of September. The
II Army Corps, of Major General Winfield Hancock had been used by Major General
George G. Meade as the Army of the Potomac's mainstay throughout the summer and
now was so depleted among the ranks, having taken nearly 27,000 casualties
since June, that it had been posted in the immediate vicinity of Petersburg
mostly to watch, and tie down any shifting of combat troops either north or
south of the James River by General Robert E. Lee.
In late September, Major General Benjamin Butler had conceived of an idea that
he would place before Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. An operation that
would shift the Army of the James north of the James River and launch an
offensive against the Confederate Outer Defenses just outside of Richmond. The
Federal Army of the James would attempt to take control of the entire road
system southeast of the Confederate Capitol, and finally to capture Richmond,
The current active operations before Petersburg were virtually at a stand still
as things began to heat up in the Shenandoah Valley. The battle at Fisher's
Hill on 22 September had produced many casualties, but none so critical as the
son of Brigadier General William Nelson Pendleton, who Lee had sent off to the
Valley for the purpose of retrieving the body for burial.
After a boat trip up the James River, despite resistance from staff officers of
Grant's staff, Benjamin Butler had convinced Grant to use the Army of the James
in the primary role of launching an offensive north of the river.
The situation north of the James River was simple. The Confederates figured
that the Federal Armies couldn't produce enough of an offensive north against
Richmond as the Confederates had soldiers there to defend those earthworks. The
Confederate manpower north in the outer defenses was seriously lacking and
despite Robert E. Lee's attention being called to the foreseeable problem, he
assumed if there had ever been a real threat in that sector, he'd be able to
shift troops to man the works in time before an offensive could be launched in
vigor against it.
On the night of 28-29 September 1864, Major General Benjamin Butler had called
his principle officers together for a briefing on the objective movements of
his army. Present this evening would be: Major General Edward O. C. Ord,
commanding the 18th Army Corps, Major General David B. Birney, commanding the
10th Army Corps, and Brigadier General August V. Kautz, commanding the Cavalry
The 18th Army Corps, under Ord, was to make a surprise crossing of the James
River at Aiken's Landing and move up the Varina Road cut the Confederate
bridges at Chaffin's Bluff and then head up the Osbourne Road for Richmond
itself. The 10th Corps, under Birney, was to advance from Deep Bottom and carry
New Market Heights. Striking northwest, his divisions would march up the New
Market Road towards the Confederate Capitol. While these two corps were
engaged, Kautz with his cavalry was to gallop down the Darbytown Road for
Richmond as well.
By 2:00 AM on the morning of September 29th, the pontoon bridge consisting of
67 boats was in place. Fatigue details then spread dirt, hay and perhaps manure
across it all to deaden the sound of marching troops across it. The strike
force would consist overall of 27,000 men.
While the 18th Army Corps began it's movement north across the river, hours
went by before the 10th Corps was in position to cross. By a misunderstanding
of orders, General Birney did not get his army corps moving to Bermuda Hundred
until 2:00 am. Although it was the Army Commander's wish that all combat troops
received sufficient rest before the opening of hostilities, the last of David
Birney's Corps did not reach the Hundred until 3:30 am. At 4:00 am, Grant's
finest hour came and 10th Army Corps was ordered to "Stand to Arms." The entire
10th Army Corps was moving on practically no sleep.
Despite the late start, Major General Birney had avowed that his tardiness
would not delay the attack, and as a result his troops would march with no
sleep and no breakfast.
In General Butler's army was the Third Division of the 18th Army Corps, under
Brigadier General Charles Paine. This entire division consisted of United
States Colored Troops, and unlike most Northern Officers, Benjamin Butler
considered them combat troops and not uniformed ditch diggers. Major General
David Birney had seen his brother's brigade of USCTs operate quite well in the
field only the month before and backed Butler's decision to have the colored
troops open the assault here.
New Market Heights had twice before resistently defied attacks by two army
corps. As the Federal Strike Force moved towards their targets by columns of
divisions, a small brigade consisting of only 1,100 troops would assault this
position for the third time. These troops consisted of Paine's third brigade
under Colonel Samuel Duncan, the 4th and 6th USCTs, along with the 2nd USCTs
(dismounted) Cavalry as skirmishers.
The ball opened up at 5:00 AM that morning along the Kingsland Road. This would
have been about sunrise. The crackling of musketry informed the 4th and 5th
Texas as well as the 3rd Arkansas Infantry of the Yankee Advance. At about 5:30
AM, the long blue lines of Colonel Duncan's troops were becoming more and more
visible in the morning fog that held low to the ground. The Texans closed up
their haversacks, loaded their muskets and took posted along the parapets.
The Confederate defenders began to see their picket lines falling back among
the defensive positions and moments later their targets began to appeared
As the USCTs began to reform coming out of a ravine, the assault began in
earnest as blue clad black soldiers charged the abatis. Some awaited the
pioneers to come along and make a path for them, while others struggled across
the obstacles. It had been the moment the Confederates had been waiting for.
The Rebel Infantry and artillery opened up on the black soldiers with telling
and deadly effect.
This battle tested brigade were truly hard fighters and the only thing
intensified their resistance was their hatred for the black soldier. Many of
the negros were killed, many tried to surrender, some were taken prisoners, but
later killed, by some Confederate reports. The 6th USCTs were terribly cut up.
Colonel Draper then threw in the 22nd USCTs followed by Paine's piece meal
feeding tactics, the 5th, 36th, and then the 38th USCTs supporting the assault.
Finally the committed black troops had battle lines too strong for further
Confederate resistance and boys in gray began to fall back to their inner
defenses, yielding New Market Heights a tactical accomplishment and a strategic
breakthrough to the United States Colored Troops.
The taking of New Market Heights was won more by the Confederates falling back
and giving the ground up. Brigadier General John Gregg now in command of the
Texas Brigade had ordered them to fall back on Chaffin's Farm and give up the
heights. The first success of the day was won.
The hour was now 6:00 AM and Major General Edward O. C. Ord's columns were
striking up the Varina Road towards Battery No. 9, or Fort Harrison. In the
lead, where the 118th New York Infantry, and 10th New Hampshire Infantry, along
with the First Division's Sharpshooter Battalion.
The 10th New Hampshire and 118th New York had been carried with them a weapon
that was no match for the Confederate muzzle loaders, Spencer Repeating Rifles.
They had first been challenged the 17th by and 23rd Tennessee Infantry, but
they were forced to withdraw due to the heavy return fire of these two
regiments. Brigadier General Hiram Burnham, a Mainer, and in command of the 2nd
Brigade ordered them to pursue at the double quick.
Fort Harrison had commanded all the ground northeast to the Exterior Line. It
was an open earthwork. The east face built to defend, the west end open to the
Chaffin Cornfield. It's Confederate defenders were few, only about four hundred
were present at the time Burnham's brigade had struck the fort. It's artillery
was a variety of hodge podge calibers and the ammunition present for the guns
did not match the bores they were to be loaded into.
Major Richard Cornelius Taylor had commanded the infantry within the fort.
First ordering his men to spread out using their muskets. As he approached the
walls and looked out seeing the Federals mass in both Cox's Woods and
Childrey's Field more to the north, he realized his mistake too late. His
troops had fanned out to far south. Ord was after the upper part of the camp,
where few were to defend. All Taylor had there were Guerrant's thirty five men
and all that could be done was to get them to man it's pieces.
With the ammunition proving too large in two of his four pieces when fired, the
Confederates had dismounted two of their pieces disabling their artillery fire
power from the first shot.
Enroute in vicinity of the Fort was Major James Moore's 17th Georgia Battalion.
He was on his way to re-enforce New Market Heights, but on their own, they
entered Fort Harrison to assist in its defense. Between Fort Harrison and
Battery No. 11 to the north, the manpower was equally divided between the two,
800. Fort Harrison had massed before it, 8,000 Federal Troops.
In the edge of Cox's woods stood, Major General Edward Ord, Brigadier General
George J. Stannard, commanding the First Division, and three of his own brigade
commanders. They spent about fifteen minutes reconnoitering. As Ord's right
continued up the Varina Road to assault Battery No. 11, he elected to attack
Harrison itself. If captured would control the entire outer line of these
It was Ord's intent to attack with both Stannard's First Division and Charles
Heckman's Second Division on the left of Fort Harrison. But Stannard could no
longer wait for Heckman's arrival being still down the Varina Road out of
Although Guerrant's first artillery shots flew over the heads of Stannard's
men, when the third struck, the laughing from the Yankee's had stopped.
Thirteen men had been stuck down killed and wounded, and the reality of battle
set the Yankee's determination in the assault.
The general officers from Cox's Woods now sped staff officers off on horse back
prompting the divisions in the rear to make haste with their arrival. The
Virginians were now reloading their artillery pieces only to find that the
Federals had left the road, stamping across Three Miles Creek.
A Confederate Columbiad had roared from the walls of Harrison, only when the
smoke cleared, the gun was found about the ground completely dismounted.
Only an hour or so before the men of the 17th, 23rd and 63rd Tennessee
Infantries were laughing at how they had been cutting down the troops in their
front before New Market Heights, but as Burnham's men and Stannard's Division
had approached the walls with a determined effort to capture the bastion, the
humor had gone out of them all.
John Hughes, a Confederate Guerilla considered lowering the drawbridge and
riding out on horseback emptied his pistol into the Yankees attacking the
walls, and harmlessly rode back into the fortifications. Many of the bluecoats
were simply amazed that this man had the brass to do such a thing.
The over excertion of Federal Manpower on the run and over the walls drove the
defenders out the backside of the fort, trying to save themselves from capture.
Brigadier General Hiram Burnham, from Narraguagus (Cherryfield), Maine, went
into the attack with his men, and also fell like some of them. He had been shot
in abdomen and mortally wounded, he'd pass away later that day.
Federal Troops began to gather up what Confederates remained with the fort, as
well the military stores. It was now about 7:00 am, and the raising of the
United States Flag over Fort Harrison, had marked the end of this portion of
the conflict. So far, all was looking good for the Federal Army of the James.
Major General Edward Ord was growing impatient and felt that the operation
needed to continue moving along. The Federal Troops within Fort Harrison had
lost their military cohesion and the movement slowed down. Ord had gathered the
troops within his charge in the area and decided the time was right to move
towards the James River and attack Fort Maury, and instead of staying behind to
guide the operations, Ord himself chose to lead the attack with what he had.
To meet him at the defenses of Fort Maury, was none other than Lieutenant
General Richard Ewell himself. Now in overall command of defenses around
Richmond itself, Ewell took to the field the moment the Army of the James began
attacking, and now was defending Fort Maury along the James River itself.
Resistance here would be stiffer. The Confederates how had a bit of time to
prepare and met General Ord's attack with tenacity. Only in the midst of
striking, Edward Ord received a wound in the right thigh, which was serious
enough to order Brigadier General Charles Adam Heckman up to assume command.
Heckman had not seen alot of fighting during the war, and was Edward Ord's
Second Division commander. Barely able to command a brigade, Heckman found
himself in command of a division at first, and one shot placed him in control
of the 18th Army Corps. A messenger was sent off for Heckman notifying him of
Ord's wounding and that he was now in command, while Ord rode back to Deep
Bottom in search of Ulysses S. Grant.
The unfortunate thing was that although Ord had placed Heckman in command of
the army corps, he left him no instructions or a brief on where the operation
presently stood. He was on his own. But lack of imagination would cause Heckman
to launch piecemeal and very uncoordinated assaults against Maury,
accomplishing nothing more than heavy Federal Casualties.
Just before General Ord had arrived at Deep Bottom in search of Grant, the
Lieutenant General had left Deep Bottom in search of Butler. He first went on
to New Market Heights having been told he could be found there, Butler had out
to see the progress of David Birney's 10th Army Corps about to assault Fort
Gilmer. Not finding Butler, Grant rode out to take a look at the progress of
the assault himself and rode as far as Fort Harrison.
Fort Harrison having already been captured and no corps commander, about to
tell him otherwise, Grant liked what he saw of the operation and felt that
things were moving on according to schedule. He rode back to New Market
Heights, still not finding Butler, he simply rode back to Deep Bottom, only
moments before, Major General Ord had left Deep Bottom enroute for Bermuda
Hundred for medical attention.
Major General David Birney, commanding the 10th Army Corps this day, was a
proven fighter and very trustworthy on the battlefield. However, today, for
whatever reason, he would himself organize piecemeal attacks on Fort Gilmer.
Again the USCTs would be used as the assaulting columns, and again these troops
would be stand against Hell Unleashed in all it's fury.
Fort Gilmer and Maury would fight tenaciously driving back the Federal
Attackers time and time again with fearful losses. Fort Harrison would prove to
be the only Federal success here, and yet it was a punched hole through Robert
E. Lee's outer defenses. The Army of the James knew, and could expect an attack
the following day in order to reclaim the lost real estate.
Major General Benjamin Butler then made command changes. Having recalled Major
General Godfrey Wietzel from North Carolina, he relieved Charles Heckman of
command and place Weitzel in his place. Weitzel would move to the front at Fort
Harrison and ready it for the assault the following day, 30 September, that
they all knew was coming.
The night of 29-30 September, the 18th Army Corps was busy throwing up new
earthworks, now facing the west towards Chaffin's Farm, the Confederate Counter
Attacks would be coming from that direction, and now as night past Fort
Harrison took on a whole new shape, the backside of the fortifications now
being what the Federal Troops named Fort Burnham, in honor of their brigade
commander who had fallen that morning.
At 2:00 PM the following day, General Robert E. Lee himself would be on the
field with the divisions of Charles Field and Robert Hoke in an attempt to take
back the lost Fort Harrison. The capture of this fortification was too precious
to General Lee and he felt compelled to lead the counter attack himself against
Placing Robert Hoke's North Carolianians on his right and Charles Field
marching into the assault line from Fort Gilmer at the north, both divisions
were to step off together. However, one brigade in Charles Field's division was
not the same as it had been a year earlier at Gettysburg. Brigadier General
Tige Anderson's new 1864 troops were almost as green as those he lead in 1861,
and might as well have been. They stepped off for the attack before the other
two brigades had pulled up along side them and before Robert Hoke had gotten
his division of Tarheels into place further to the right.
From here on out, the coordinated attacks planned by Robert E. Lee, would
continue the rest of the day being fed into the fight piecemeal one brigade at
a time. Major General Robert Hoke had been slow to get his division into line
and practically uncooperative when it came to lending support in the attack.
Again within these fortifications came the popping sounds of the 10th New
Hampshire and the 118th New York Infantries. The Spencer Rifles were tearing
holes into the Georgians of Tige Anderson's division, and then continued to
litter the field with more Confederate casualties as Charles Field's brigades
began to assault the works at Burnham.
It was hopeless, all General Lee could do was to readjust his outer works
surrounding Richmond just a bit closer to the city itself. Despite all his
efforts, Fort Harrison could not be retaken. Although Richmond itself would
have to wait another six months before capture, the Federal Army of the James
had gotten Grant's armies just that much closer to the Confederate Capitol
itself, but yet it still remained the vocal point of a rebelious government.
The Army of the Potomac south of the James River had taken Fort Archer south of
the city, had advanced as far as Peeble's Farm, but had been driven back from
the real estate surrounding Jones' Farm, and had to give up any attempt of
capturing the Boydton Plank Road and possibly the Southside Railroad as well.
All offensive movements of both the Army of the James and Army of the Potomac
could not ultimately reach its objectives and once again have to go to trench
warfare through October and November and spend one more winter opposite it's
Confederate Counterparts at Petersburg.
The Battle of Fort Harrison written by Daniel Moran.
Copyright © 2001 Daniel Moran