Prelude to the Battle
Grant in Charge
On March 10, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Ulysses S. Grant as General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States. Grant brought with him, from his successes in the Western Theater of the war, a reputation for the doggedness that Lincoln was seeking in his generals. Unlike other Union generals, Grant was tenacious.
Grant Focuses on Lee
Upon his arrival in Washington, Grant drafted a plan to get the various Union armies in the field to act in concert. He also devised his Overland Campaign to invade east-central Virginia. Unlike previous campaigns into that area, Grant’s plan focused upon defeating General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed Major General George G. Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, “Wherever Lee goes, there you will go also.” Grant realized that, with the superior resources he had at his disposal, Lee would lose a war of attrition, as long as Northern troops persistently engaged the Confederates.
On May 4, 1864, Grant launched his Overland Campaign when the Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers, occupying an area locally known as the Wilderness. For the next eight weeks, the two sides engaged in a series of horrific battles that produced unprecedented numbers of casualties. Following a bloody frontal assault at Cold Harbor that cost the Federals roughly 13,000 casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee’s army head-on. Instead, Grant aimed to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and slowly starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia.
Petersburg, Virginia, sits on the south bank of the Appomattox River, approximately twenty miles south of Richmond. During the Civil War, the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad was an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. Besides the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, two other rail lines converged at Petersburg. The Weldon Railroad (also called the Petersburg and Weldon Railroad) connected Petersburg to the Confederacy’s last linkage to overseas markets at Wilmington, North Carolina. Farther to the west, the South Side Railroad joined Petersburg to Lynchburg, Virginia, and points westward. If Grant could cut the rail lines, it would force Lee to abandon Richmond.
Operations Against Petersburg
During the summer, Grant made several moderately successful attempts to extend his lines south of Petersburg to the west. By late June, the Army of the Potomac had taken control of the Jerusalem Plank Road, which ran northwest into Petersburg. By late August, Federal soldiers had destroyed several miles of the Weldon Railroad south of the city, depriving Lee’s army of its last direct rail link to the Atlantic Coast. On two occasions, Grant had launched assaults against Richmond—the First Battle of Deep Bottom (July 27–29, 1864) and the Second Battle of Deep Bottom (August 13–20, 1864)–to serve as diversions for achieving his objectives around Petersburg. In late September, he and Major General Benjamin Butler planned a third campaign that used the same strategy. Butler’s Army of the James, a force of nearly 35,000 soldiers, would threaten Richmond, while the Army of the Potomac moved against Grant’s primary objective—increasing his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines farther west.
Operations Against Richmond
The operation against Richmond began during the night of September 28–29 when Butler dispatched Major General David B. Birney’s 10th Corps across the James River at Deep Bottom. Major General August Kautz’s cavalry division soon followed Birney’s infantry. Birney’s objectives were to overrun the 2,000 Confederate defenders entrenched on New Market Heights and push on towards Richmond.
Butler chose Brigadier-General Charles Paine’s 3rd Division, detached from the 18th Corps, to spearhead the assault. Paine’s Division comprised three brigades of United States Colored Troops.
Kautz’s assignment was to race toward Richmond after Birney secured the New Market Road.
Farther upstream, Major General Edward O. C. Ord’s 18th Corps crossed the river over a newly constructed pontoon bridge at Aiken’s Landing. Ord’s orders were to capture Fort Harrison, to destroy the Confederate bridges near Chaffin’s Bluff, and then to assault Richmond from the southeast.
By 5 a.m., September 29, all of Butler’s force was across the river and poised to attack.
Action at New Market Heights
The first of Birney’s 10,000 soldiers moved out at 5 a.m. on September 29. In front of them, a double line of abatis protected 2,000 entrenched Confederates commanded by Brigadier-General John Gregg. The Rebels held their fire as the men of the 4th USCT advanced toward the breastworks. When the Bluecoats became entangled in the first line of abatis, the Confederates greeted them with a hailstorm of hot lead that ravaged their unit. As the Rebels cut the first wave of Yankees to shreds, the men of the 6th USCT surged forward but fared no better. In less than forty minutes, the Confederates wiped out nearly an entire brigade.
At approximately 7 a.m., Birney and Paine renewed the assault, ordering the 5th, 36th, and 38th USCT into the fray. Initially, the results were the same. Confederate sharpshooters mowed down the black soldiers for nearly thirty minutes as the Northern soldiers attempted to move through the maze of obstacles. When it appeared that the second wave would also falter, the Rebel fired slackened. With renewed enthusiasm, the remnants of Paine’s division stormed the Confederate fortifications only to discover that the Rebels had abandoned them. Gregg had ordered his men to withdraw toward Fort Harrison to deal with the threat being posed by Ord’s assault.
After securing the captured breastworks, Birney’s Corps advanced up New Market Road before encountering a second line of Confederate fortifications. Attempts to dislodge the Rebel defenders proved fruitless, and Birney’s prong of the offensive stalled. Consequently, Kautz’s planned cavalry dash for Richmond never materialized.
During the assault on New Market Heights, Paine’s division of USCT lost one of every three men engaged, leaving little doubt about the willingness of black soldiers to face grave danger in service to the Union. On April 6, 1865, the nation officially recognized the sacrifice by awarding the Congressional Medal of Honor to fourteen African Americans who took part in the offensive.
Action at Chaffin’s Farm
At the same time that Birney launched his initial attack at New Market Heights, the men of Ord’s 18th Corps began their assault on Fort Harrison. Led by Brigadier-General George Stannard’s division, the Yankees rushed the lightly defended Confederate position, sending the eight hundred Rebel defenders scurrying for shelter behind a secondary line to their rear. The triumph, however, was costly; Confederate soldiers killed or wounded all three Union brigade commanders who took part in the action. When Ord personally took charge, the Rebels wounded him also. Devoid of leadership, the Federal assault soon bogged down.
Alarmed by the initial Yankee successes, Robert E. Lee redeployed 10,000 reinforcements to the Petersburg defenses overnight. On the next day, he ordered an unsuccessful counterattack to retake Fort Harrison. Reaching a clear stalemate, both sides re-entrenched in their new positions eight miles outside of Richmond, where they remained until Lee evacuated the Confederate capital in April 1865.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights did not lead to the fall of Richmond, as Butler had hoped. In addition, the Union suffered more casualties than the Confederacy. The Bluecoats lost 3,372 soldiers (391 killed, 2,317 wounded, and 649 missing/captured); the Greycoats lost about 2,000 men (250 killed, 1,250 wounded, and five hundred missing/captured).
Still, the battle was a strategic Union victory. Grant achieved his aim of drawing Rebel defenders away from the Petersburg area, as he simultaneously increased his stranglehold on the city by extending his lines farther west.