The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights, also known as Laurel Hill and combats at Forts Harrison, Johnson, and Gilmer, was fought in Virginia on 29 to 30 September 1864, as part of the Siege of Petersburg in the American Civil War.
From the very beginning of the war, Confederate engineers and slave laborers had constructed permanent defenses around Richmond. By 1864, they had created a system anchored south of the capital on the James River at Chaffin’s Farm, a large open area at Chaffin’s Bluff, both named for a local landowner. This outer line was supported by an intermediate and inner system of fortifications much closer to the capital. In July and August 1864, these lines were tested by Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in offensives designed to attack simultaneously north and south of the James.
On 27 to 29 July, the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock and cavalry under Major General Philip Sheridan attacked New Market Heights and Fussell’s Mill in the First Battle of Deep Bottom (named for the section of the James River used for the Union crossing). The attacks failed to break through to threaten Richmond or its railroads, but they did cause Confederate General Robert E. Lee to transfer men from the Petersburg fortifications in preparation for the Battle of the Crater on 31 July. The Second Battle of Deep Bottom was conducted by Hancock on 14 to 20 August, attacking in almost the same areas once again to draw Confederate troops away from south of the James, where the Battle of Globe Tavern (also known as the Second Battle of the Weldon Railroad) was an attempt to cut the railroad supply lines to Petersburg. The second battle was also a Confederate victory, but it forced Lee to weaken his Petersburg defenses and abandon plans to reinforce his men in the Shenandoah Valley.
In late September, Grant planned another dual offensive. Historians sometimes enumerate Grant’s offensives during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. Richard J. Sommers, John Horn, and Noah Andre Trudeau call these operations “Grant’s Fifth Offensive”. Grant’s primary objective was to cut the railroad supply lines to the south of Petersburg, which would likely cause the fall of both Petersburg and Richmond. He planned to use a cavalry division under Brigadier General David McM. Gregg and four infantry divisions from the V and IX Corps of the Army of the Potomac to sever the South Side Railroad, an operation that would result in the Battle of Peebles’ Farm from 30 September to 02 October. Once again hoping to distract Robert E. Lee and draw Confederate troops north of the river, Grant ordered the Army of the James under Major General Benjamin F. Butler to attack toward Richmond.
Butler devised a plan that historian John Horn called his “best performance of the war.” Rather than repeat the efforts of July and August to turn the Confederate left, Butler planned surprise attacks on the Confederate right and center. His XVIII Corps under Major General Edward O. C. Ord, would cross the James River to Aiken’s Landing by a newly constructed pontoon bridge. At the original Deep Bottom pontoon bridge, his X Corps under Major General David B. Birney would cross, followed by his cavalry under Brigadier General August V. Kautz. In a two-pronged attack, the right wing (Birney’s X Corps, augmented by a United States Colored Troops division under Brigadier General Charles J. Paine from the XVIII Corps) would assault the Confederate lines at New Market Road and drive on to capture the artillery positions behind it on New Market Heights. This action would protect the flank of the left wing (the remainder of Ord’s XVIII Corps), which would attack Fort Harrison from the south-east, neutralising the strongest point of the entire Confederate line. Then, the right wing would assist the left by attacking Fort Gregg and Fort Gilmer, both north of Fort Harrison. Kautz’s cavalry would exploit Birney’s capture of the New Market Road by driving for Richmond.
New Market Heights
Major General David B. Birney moved the X Corps north from the Deep Bottom bridgehead toward the Confederate works atop New Market Heights manned by Brigadier General John Gregg. A brigade of US Coloured Troops attacked the heights but was repulsed. In this attack, Christian Fleetwood’s actions would later earn him the Medal of Honour. Birney reinforced the assault force and stormed the heights again. Alfred H. Terry’s division managed to turn the Confederate left flank, thus turning the tide of the battle. Word of Union success against Fort Harrison then reached Gregg, compelling him to pull Confederate troops back to Forts Gregg, Gilmer and Johnson. Confederate defenders at New Market Heights were Lee’s “Grenadier Guards”, the First, Fourth and Fifth Texas and the Third Arkansas, numbering about 1,800 men. They inflicted 850 casualties on the attacking 13,000 Union troops while suffering only 50 casualties.
Once Birney’s troops had taken New Market Heights, the X Corps turned to the north-west along the New Market Road and moved against a secondary line of works guarding Richmond north of Fort Harrison. Brigadier General Robert Sanford Foster’s X Corps division assaulted a small salient known as Fort Gilmer. David Birney’s brother, Brigadier General William Birney, led a brigade of US Coloured Troops against Fort Gregg south of Fort Gilmer. These attacks were marked by heroism among the Coloured Troops but were ultimately repulsed.
At about the same time Birney’s first attack moved forward, the Union XVIII Corps under Major General Edward Ord, assaulted Fort Harrison to the west of New Market Heights. Ord’s assault was led by Brigadier General George Stannard, a veteran of Gettysburg. Stannard’s men rushed across an open field and took cover in a slight depression just in front of the fort and, after a moment’s rest, took the fort. The Confederate defenders broke to the rear, seeking refuge behind a secondary line. Brigadier General Hiram Burnham was killed during the attack, and the Union troops renamed the captured fort in his honour.
Once inside the fort, the Union attackers became disorganised. All three of Stannard’s brigade commanders were wounded or killed. A supporting column under Brigadier General Charles A. Heckman veered far off to the north and was repulsed. Ord personally attempted to rally the troops to exploit their success, but he too fell with a critical wound. The loss of commanders and the presence of Confederate ironclads on the James put an end to the XVIII Corps’ drive on Chaffin’s Bluff along the James River.
Robert E. Lee realised the severity of the loss of Fort Harrison and personally brought 10,000 reinforcements under Major General Charles Field north from Petersburg. On 30 September, Lee ordered a counter-attack to retake Fort Harrison, now commanded by Major General Godfrey Weitzel, replacing the wounded Ord. The Confederate attacks were uncoordinated and were easily repulsed.
Aftermath and Legacy
Just as Grant had anticipated, the fighting around Chaffin’s Farm forced Lee to shift his resources and helped the Union army south of Petersburg win the Battle of Peebles’ Farm. After October, the two armies settled into trench warfare that continued until the end of the war. The fighting around Chaffin’s Farm cost the nation nearly 5,000 casualties.
Medal of Honour Recipients
The following men received the Medal of Honor for action in the battle:
- William H. Barnes.
- Joseph H. Shea.
- Powhatan Beaty.
- Thomas Belcher.
- James H. Bronson.
- George A. Buchanan.
- Nathan Huntley Edgerton.
- Christian Fleetwood.
- James Daniel Gardner.
- James H. Harris.
- Thomas R. Hawkins.
- Alfred B. Hilton.
- Milton M. Holland.
- William Stone Hubbell.
- Miles James.
- Franklin Johndro.
- Alexander Kelly.
- Nathaniel A. McKown.
- Robert A. Pinn
- Edward Ratcliff.
- John Schiller.
- Ebenezer Skellie.
- Charles Veale.
- William Laing.
Three Medal of Honour recipients from the 6th US Coloured Infantry Regiment are depicted in a painting, Three Medals of Honour by artist Don Troiani. The painting was unveiled 24 June 2013 at the Union League of Philadelphia. Portrayed in the painting are Nathan H. Edgerton, Thomas R. Hawkins, and Alexander Kelly.
The Civil War Trust (a division of the American Battlefield Trust) and its partners have acquired and preserved 31 acres (0.13 km2) of the battlefield.