The Real War that Never Got into the Books: Operations North of the James River, July-October 1864

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Jimmy Price

Part One in a Series.

First Deep Bottom. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
First Deep Bottom. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

What if I was to tell you that a series of desperate battles was fought on the footsteps of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia? You’d most likely think that I was referring to the Seven Days Battles of 1862, right?


Skip forward two years past the famed debut of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and you will encounter a complex series of battles and skirmishes fought within an hour’s march of the very nerve center of the Confederate nation.

These lesser known battles saw, among other things:

  • Approximately 15,000 combined casualties
  • Four general officers killed or mortally wounded
  • The first twelve Medals of Honor issued to African American infantrymen in U.S. history
  • Old Marse Robert’s final offensive actions before the last three weeks of the war in Virginia

But Richmond was a hard road to travel, as the song went, and even though the Union war machine would hurl entire armies at the city’s gates in 1864, the despised bastion would not fall until that fateful April day in 1865.

This series of battles would be fought east of Richmond and north of the James River and would center around the road networks and fortifications that ringed the eastern approaches to the city. The names associated with these battles remain largely forgotten – places like Tilghman’s Gate, Gravel Hill, Strawberry Plains, and Fussell’s Mill. Thanks to the efforts of a growing group of Civil War scholars, other names like Deep Bottom, Fort Harrison, New Market Heights, and Darbytown Road are becoming more familiar.

Fighting along the Darbytown Road. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Fighting along the Darbytown Road. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the names of many of these battles are confused and used interchangeably in the official records, the litany of major actions north of the James breaks down as follows:

  1. The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 26-29, 1864
  2. The Second Battle of Deep Bottom: August 14-20, 1864
  3. The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 29-30, 1864
  4. The First Battle of Darbytown Road: October 7, 1864
  5. The Second Battle of Darbytown Road: October 13, 1864
  6. The Second Battle of Fair Oaks: October 27-28, 1864

In an upcoming series of posts, I plan to extract a few noteworthy samplings from each of the abovementioned clashes rather than attempt a detailed explanation of each individual fight. We will begin with the events that led to the establishment of the Deep Bottom bridgehead in late June of 1864 and then spend some time with the first battle that bore its name in late July. We will survey each of the two major days of fighting and then look at one of the more notable instances of heroism on the Confederate side – South Carolina’s Sgt. Adam Ballenger, who more or less captured a Federal cannon all by himself and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for doing so.

For the Second Battle of Deep Bottom we will look at a dark day for the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia: August 16, 1864. That day would see the deaths of two generals – John R. Chambliss, Jr., a brigade commander in J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, and the flamboyant Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey who had made a name for himself at the Battle of the Crater.

We will then shift our gaze to the experience of a white Union officer who led African American soldiers during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Lt. John Viers of the 5th USCT dodged death at the Battle of New Market Heights on the morning of September 29, 1864 only to be captured later in the day during the horrific assault on Fort Gilmer. As we will see, white USCT officers did not always have the easiest time when they fell into the hands of the Rebel army.

Next we will look at the First Battle of Darbytown Road and the death of another Confederate general, John Gregg. This Alabamian went from serving in the Provisional Confederate Congress to fighting in the Western Theater where, through a strange series of events, he found himself placed in command of one of the most famed fighting units of the entire war – Hood’s Texas Brigade.

The concluding post will pick up the story of the U.S. Colored Troops in late October 1864, when a controversy broke out over the use of black prisoners to construct new Confederate fortifications and the massacre of black troops who had surrendered during the fighting on October 27th.

As we will see, there is much fresh and exciting material to unpack from the fighting on this forgotten front of the American Civil War.

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