It was September 29, 1864. General Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James finally arose from its slumber, crossing the James and launching attacks against the outer Confederate fortifications around Richmond. The plan was to pierce the works and then to “surprise and capture” the capital city. Early that morning Butler’s two corps, the 10th and the 18th, divided and carried out separate assaults. The 10th, under General David Birney, moved northward and took the Rebel position at New Market Heights. General E. O. C. Ord led the 18th to the east and captured the largest Confederate work, Fort Harrison. The day was off to a promising start, but it would not last.
A few miles to the south, the Confederates had a pontoon bridge they could use to send reinforcements across the James. Ord took part of his force and drove toward the river in an effort destroy this bridge, but he was soon wounded. The attacks of his corps soon bogged down for the day, and the men returned to Fort Harrison. After capturing New Market Heights, Birney followed orders and turned his army to the east, driving up New Market Road (today’s Rt. 5). He was to meet Ord’s corps and the two were to move together to capture the Confederate capital. There was no sign of Ord. As Birney waited, his men came under fire from two large enemy guns positioned at Fort Gilmer, about a mile to the south. Birney had to do something about this. He hurriedly ordered an undersized division under Robert Foster to march south and silence the guns. To this attack he added the brigade of USCTs under the command of his brother William.
David Birney did not provide enough time for the two attacks to synchronize, and unfortunately each moved independently of the other. Foster’s men marched down the road. To their front was Fort Gilmer, and to their right was a line of Confederate infantry and artillery. Moving forward they were hit by both, but mercifully there was a series of three ravines they had to traverse. As they went down each ravine, they were safe, but as they rose out, they came under fire again. After the third ravine there was nothing protecting them from being slaughtered by the fire from Fort Gilmer. They retreated, reformed, and tried again, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, William Birney was preparing his brigade. Two of his regiments were not present, leaving him only three for the attack. Foster’s 1,500-man division had failed to take the fort, but Birney was going to follow his orders and attack anyway. In a move of amazing ineptitude, he decided that one regiment at a time could accomplish what a division could not. He sent the 9th USCTs forward toward the southern end of the fort. They advanced about halfway when they were “immediately subjected to a very severe artillery fire, enfilading the line on both flanks.” The men were ordered to lie down, then to return to their original position. Birney next decided to throw in the 8th USCTs against Fort Gregg, a short distance to the south. They were met by the murderous fire of one of Gilmer’s large guns, four Napoleons at Fort Gregg, and three-inch rifled cannons from Fort Johnson, still further to the south. It was hopeless. Major George Wagner was convinced that to continue would be “to have them slaughtered and still make no impression on the enemy’s position.”
William Birney, never tiring of a bad idea, next ordered the 7th to advance against Fort Gilmer. Colonel James Shaw was to take his regiment across three-quarters of a mile of open ground; four companies of skirmishers, companies C, D, G and K, were thrown forward. Shaw’s orders were unclear, and he somehow interpreted them to mean that the four companies were to make the attack alone. He questioned the order, and Birney’s adjutant replied, “Well now, the general directs you to send four companies, deployed as skirmishers, to take the work.” Shaw sent the four companies forward, leaving the remainder of the regiment in the rear.
Captain Julius Weiss led nine officers and 189 men across the open field, under a hail of grape, canister and rifle fire. The men of the 7th reached the ditch in front of the fort, then scrambled to climb its earthen walls. Every time a soldier made progress he was shot down. The defenders cut short the fuses of artillery shells and rolled them down to the ditch, like large hand grenades. What could the attackers do? Clearly, they were not strong enough to storm the fort, and they could not stay where they were. If they retreated, would they be shot? They had but a few moments to decide. Surrender seemed the best option. General Ewell was in charge of the Confederate defenses, and he ordered the soldiers to be treated as any other prisoners, and they were marched off. Only a third would ever return to their homes.
The fighting abilities of Black troops had been questioned, but this day they had silenced the doubters. They took New Market Heights, and here at Fort Gilmer, they marched into the face of death with great courage, only submitting when they had no other choice. They did not succeed this day, but ironically some of these USCTs would be among the first troops to enter the captured Confederate capital the following April.
Note: The quotations above have been taken from Doug Crenshaw’s “Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm,” History Press, 2013.
For an excellent discussion of the events at New Market Heights, see Jimmy Price’s “The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will be Theirs by the Sword,” History Press, 2011.
If the reader wants to go still deeper, Dr. Richard Sommers’ “Richmond Redeemed,” Savas Beatie reprint 2014, is the gold standard.