Forts: Fury at Fort Harrison

General Benjamin Butler

General Grant needed a good idea…

To his utter astonishment Ben Butler had one!

During July and August of 1864 Ulysses S. Grant was trying to find a way to either get Robert E. Lee out of his fortifications that ran from Richmond to Petersburg, or at least find a way to break his line. The strategy he twice employed was to send a large force across the James and threaten the Confederate capital, forcing Lee to send troops across the river in response. Once Lee thinned his lines around Petersburg, the Army of the Potomac would strike. The attack might break through, or the drive across the James might seize Richmond. Either way was a huge win, one that might end the war in Virginia. The results were disappointing: two battles resulted north of the James; First and Second Deep Bottom, neither of which accomplished its objective. The first attack near Petersburg was the Crater, of which little needs to be said.

Butler’s Army of the James had landed on Bermuda hundred, near modern-day Hopewell, Virginia in early May. It was to drive towards Richmond or Petersburg, drawing troops away from the Army of the Potomac, or perhaps seizing one of the cities. Instead, Butler’s ineptitude left it bottled up and accomplishing nothing.

However, Butler had been receiving reports from spies and others that the Confederate works north of the city were very thinly manned, by as few as 3,000 men. He proposed taking 20,000 of his men across the river at night and “surprise and capture” Richmond. Grant was certainly no fan of Butler, what did he have to lose? This just might work… he ordered Butler to go ahead, but to get it done by the end of September. It was an election year and Lincoln needed victories.

Butler drew up extensive plans. The X Corps, under Major Gen. David. B. Birney, would cross at Deep Bottom and strike at a place called new Market Heights. It was to drive the Confederates, then turn and head for Richmond.

A map of “The Plan”

The XVIII Corps, under Maj. Gen. Edward O. C. Ord, would cross at Aiken’s Landing (near modern-day Varina-Enon Bridge), and head up Varina Road. It would reach Fort Harrison, turn, and take it. There were a number of forts along the line with Fort Harrison, but all had open backs. By piercing the line, all the rest could easily be taken. Ord would then join Birney in the drive to the capital. Richmond would be theirs.

General Ord

If it was only that easy.

Butler made a change that would prove to be important. He took the Third Division from the XVIII Corps and assigned it to the X Corps. These were USCTs. They would attack in the area that two previous Federal attacks had failed. If they succeeded (which they did), it would prove that African American soldiers could fight at least as well as whites. Unfortunately, it weakened the XVIII Corps, which was launching the main attack of the campaign.

Ord proceeded to make a number of fatal mistakes. Early in the pre-dawn morning of the attack he gave verbal instructions to his two division commanders, Brig. Gens. George J. Stannard and the inexperienced Charles A. Heckman. He instructed Stannard to directly attack the fort, and Heckman to attack “on the right.” Ord attacked the fort, suffering about 500 casualties, including all three of his brigade commanders. There were only about 200 defenders in the fort, and it fell quickly. Heckman did attack “on the right,” but not at the fort. Rather he attacked some works further off and never broke through the main Confederate line. His division would not be a factor. So much for clear orders.

Ord then decided he would personally lead troops down to the river, about two miles away, and destroy the Confederate pontoon bridge there. He took Stannard with him, leaving no one in the fort who knew what to do. And… at this time the door to Richmond was basically open! Ord was wounded, and instead of coming back to the fort and sending his men to meet up with Birney, he rode off looking for Grant. Stannard failed to cut the bridge and came back to the fort and began digging in. When Ord was wounded, he placed Heckman in charge, who appeared to be clueless as to the plans. He had seniority over Stannard, who was a seasoned leader. Would Stannard have attacked if he still had the Third Division under his command? We can’t be sure, but his force would have been much more powerful.

A map of the actual attack

A bit of irony… while Ord was on his way to the river, Grant arrived at the fort. Happy that New Market Heights and Fort Harrison had fallen, He rode off. Little did he know that with some leadership, Richmond might be his that day. And where, you might ask, was Butler? He was back at New Market Heights congratulating the USCTS. They certainly deserved that, but in the meantime his plan was falling apart.

Would Richmond have fallen on August 29, 1864? We’ll never know. The Federals retained Fort Harrison, forcing Lee to leave more troops north of the James than he would have liked, and some of the Federals who attacked that day would be the first to enter Richmond the next April. But, for want of clear orders and good leadership, Richmond did not fall. A good plan was wasted by poor execution..

P.S. You might wonder what happened to the X Corps. It’s a good story, but one for another day.

Fort Harrison is about eight miles southeast of Richmond. If you choose to visit, you will be rewarded with seeing a string of Confederate (and one Federal) fortifications, extending all the way to the James.


[1] The title is a nod to the true expert on the battle, and one of my favorite historians, the late and greatly missed Richard J. Sommers. He used it as the title of his talks on the subject. Sommers was a true gentleman and the author of Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.

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