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.
Forcing Lee to Defend Two Fronts
Although Grant’s focus during the summer and fall of 1864 was on cutting off supply routes into Petersburg, he also launched several assaults north of the James River against Richmond. Grant recognized that forcing Lee to defend two fronts would thin the Confederate defenses around Petersburg, enhancing Union expectations for success. At the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights (September 29–30, 1864) federal soldiers captured Fort Harrison and other portions of Richmond’s outer defenses along Darbytown and New Market Roads.
Darbytown and New Market Roads run roughly parallel to each other into Richmond from the southeast. The federals anchored the right flank of their lines outside Richmond at Darbytown Road, several miles north of New Market Road. Attempting to regain the ground lost at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights, Lee ordered an offensive against the newly extended federal lines one week later.
Clash at Darbytown and New Market Roads
On October 7, 1864, two Confederate divisions, commanded by Major General Charles Field and Major General Robert Hoke, advanced down Darbytown Road. Supported by cavalry, Field’s infantry turned the Union right flank and attacked 1,700 cavalrymen, commanded by Major General August Kautz, from the rear. Caught by surprise, the federal troopers quickly retreated, leaving the Rebels in possession of the road and of eight Union cannons.
Following up on his initial success, Field turned south to attack Major General Alfred Terry’s infantry division along New Market Road. Armed with Spencer repeating rifles, Terry’s well-entrenched soldiers presented a formidable obstacle. When Hoke failed to support Field’s assault, the Yankees easily repulsed the out-manned Rebels. The battle ended before noon when the Confederates withdrew to the Richmond defenses.
Aftermath of the Battle
Despite the promising beginning for the Rebels, the Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads was a resounding Union victory. The Confederacy lost about 700 soldiers, including Brigadier General John Gregg, who died during the fighting. The Union suffered only 458 casualties (forty-nine killed, 253 wounded, and 156 captured or missing). Beyond the uneven differences in casualty totals, Lee failed in his attempt to regain the ground that he lost at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights. The unsuccessful Rebel assault was Lee’s last offensive north of the James River during the Civil War.