A Lost Opportunity: Fort Harrison

Fort Harrison, looking soutwest from outside the northeast corner of the fort, photograph by author

During the summer of 1864, Union General U. S. Grant made several attempts to break Lee’s lines by attacking both sides of the James River, hoping to stretch the Confederates to the breaking point. In July, he sent troops to the north bank of the James and attacked (First Deep Bottom). That effort failed, as did the disastrous attack at Petersburg that today is known as the Battle of the Crater. In August, he tried a similar strategy, attacking across the James (Second Deep Bottom) and in Petersburg. Again, no advantage was gained.

By early September Grant was thinking of sending troops south to Cape Fear to close the port there, but the commander of the Army of the James, General Benjamin Butler, had another idea. With the information gained from spies like Elizabeth Van Lew, he believed there were only about 3,000 Confederate troops north of the James, and many of those were “home guard,” government clerks, invalids or men too old for the draft. The estimate was off… there were actually about 8,000 total troops, but only half of those were veterans. Butler proposed to Grant that he would send his 10th and 18th corps from his Army of the James north of the river, make a surprise attack, and capture Richmond. While no fan of Butler, the commanding general figured there was nothing to lose. Butler’s plan might work, and it would at least pull troops away from Meade, who was commanding the Army of the Potomac in front of Petersburg. Perhaps the final breakthrough could be made. Butler was told to draft his plans, but he must attack in late September. It was an election year and victories were needed quickly to secure Lincoln’s re-election.

Butler’s orders were detailed. His men were to advance secretly and “with celerity.” Supply wagons and artillery would not initially accompany them. It was a good plan, and it should have worked. He then made a fateful decision, one which contributed significantly to the outcome. Charles Paine’s division of U. S. C. T.’s was taken from the 18th Corps and given to David Birney’s 10th. Butler was a believer in the potential of the black troops, and thought they might win a victory where two previous attempts by white troops had failed. He was proven correct. Birney’s Corps crossed at Deep Bottom and assaulted the enemy position at New Market Heights, driving the Confederates from the field. Fourteen of the U. S. C. T.’s were awarded the Medal of Honor. While part of the reason for the Confederate retreat was owing to the attack by the 18th at Fort Harrison, it by no means diminished the valor demonstrated by the black troops. Butler would spend most of the day with them, celebrating their victory.

Things also began well for Edward O. C.’s 18th Corps. His men quietly crossed the James at Aiken’s Landing (close to the present-day Rt. 295 bridge). Two regiments received repeating rifles and were taught how to use them while they marched. The corps quickly pushed aside Rebel pickets and marched up the Varina Road. Ord now made the first of several key errors… he did not issue his orders in writing. He had been instructed by Butler to pierce the Confederate line and not to delay, but to quickly turn north and meet Birney’s men, who would be marching towards Richmond on the New Market Road (today’s Rt. 5). Together they would have over 20,000 men to take Richmond. Having pierced the Confederate defenses, little would stand in their way. A small contingent should be sent south to the river to destroy the pontoon bridge so as to prevent Lee from sending reinforcements. The instructions seemed clear. The opportunity was great, and things were very promising.

Ord verbally instructed the commander of one division, the skilled George Stannard, to attack Fort Harrison. The other division, under the unexperienced Charles Heckman, was to attack on Stannard’s right. Stannard’s 2,800 men quickly overwhelmed the 200 Confederate defenders, but with a loss of about 500 men. All three brigade commanders went down: Hiram Burnham was killed, Aaron Stevens was wounded, and Samuel Roberts succumbed to his illness. Heckman apparently was unclear about his orders. He indeed attacked on Stannard’s right, but was hundreds of yards off target. He took a few redoubts, but did not pierce the main enemy line. Instead of having both divisions at Fort Harrison, behind the Confederate wall and ready to move north, Ord had only half of his men in position.

He then made his next serious error. His orders from Butler were clear… meet up with Birney’s men and take Richmond. The door was open now, the opportunity was great, the best the Union would have until April 2, 1865. But Ord was a believer in personal leadership, and decided that he should command the troops heading for the river to destroy the pontoon bridge. He took Stannard with him. That left most of the latter’s division in the fort, without even a brigade commander, and with no written instructions. Ord was wounded during the drive to the river, and due to seniority, command of the corps fell to Heckman, who was contributing nothing of significance. Wounded, Ord did not return to the fort to ensure that Butler’s orders were carried out, but instead rode off to find Grant and seek artillery and reinforcements. Stannard failed to reach the bridge and returned to the fort. He seemed to be unclear about Butler’s orders. Instead of moving north, he began to entrench the rear of Fort Harrison, fully expecting that Lee would counterattack.

The Union attack had run out of steam. Had things gone according to plan, Ord should have been able to advance and meet up with Birney. His force would have been even more powerful with its third division, Paine’s U.S.C.T.’s. Instead, the corps’ power was diluted by the fouled movement of Heckman, Ord’s personal move to the river, and the lack of Paine’s men. Lee did counterattack the next day, but a lack of coordination led to no result, except the loss of 1,200 irreplaceable men. The Union army now had a permanent toehold on the north side of the river, and Lee would be forced to weaken his Petersburg lines to leave adequate men to watch for any Federal moves.

One might logically ask, “where was Butler, the army commander and the man who designed the plan?” He spent most of the day celebrating at New Market Heights, and never made a contribution to the Fort Harrison effort. He missed what was his greatest opportunity… to surprise and capture Richmond.

The day was not all it could have been. By all rights, Richmond could have fallen. Of the day, the Confederate General Richard Ewell would write, “It was in the enemy’s power nor only to have taken that place, but Richmond.” The war would go on for another six months. On April 2, many of these men would be the first to enter the fallen Confederate Capital. Unfortunately for the thousands lost in between, the Army of the James might have entered it on September 29.

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