September 29-30, 1864
Fought on September 29-30, 1864, during the Petersburg Campaign, the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights was noteworthy for the heroism displayed by members of the United States Colored Troops.
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 previous Union generals, whose leadership was marked by their own timidity, Grant was tenacious. 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's Army of Northern Virginia, rather than capturing or occupying geographic locations. Grant instructed General George 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 was destined to 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 an estimated thirteen thousand casualties, Grant abandoned his hope to defeat Lee's army head-on. Instead, Grant decided to isolate the Army of Northern Virginia at Richmond and, then, slowly to starve it into submission by cutting off its supply lines. The key to the plan was capturing Petersburg, Virginia. By early June 1864, Grant's forces were digging in around the east side of Petersburg.
Petersburg, Virginia, is located on the south bank of the Appomattox River, roughly twenty miles below Richmond. During the Civil War, the two cities were connected by the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad, which served as an important conduit for supplies to the Confederate capital. In addition to 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 these rail lines, Lee would be forced to abandon Richmond.
During the summer, Grant made several moderately successful attempts to extend his lines south of Petersburg to the west. By late June, the Army of the Potomac had taken control of the Jerusalem Plank Road, which ran northwest into Petersburg. By late August, Federal soldiers had destroyed several miles of the Weldon Railroad south of the city, depriving Lee's army of its last direct rail link to the Atlantic Coast. On two occasions, Grant had launched assaults against Richmond–the Battle of Deep Bottom I (July 27-29, 1864) and the Battle of Deep Bottom II (August 13-20, 1864)–to serve as diversions for achieving his objectives around Petersburg. In late September, he and Major General Benjamin Butler planned a third offensive that employed the same strategy. Butler's Army of the James, a force of nearly thirty-five thousand soldiers, would threaten Richmond, while the Army of the Potomac moved against Grant's primary objective–increasing his stranglehold on Petersburg by extending his lines farther west.
The operation against Richmond began during the night of September 28-29. Major General David B. Birney’s 10th Corps crossed the James River at Deep Bottom. Birney's infantry was followed by Major General August Kautz's cavalry division. Birney's objectives were to overrun the two thousand Confederate defenders entrenched on New Market Heights and, then, push on towards Richmond. Butler chose Brigadier-General Charles Paine’s 3rd Division, detached from the 18th Corps, to spearhead the assault. Paine's Division consisted of three brigades of United States Colored Troops. Kautz's assignment was to race toward Richmond after Birney secured the New Market Road.
Farther upstream, Major General Edward O. C. Ord's 18th Corps crossed the river over a newly constructed pontoon bridge at Aiken's Landing. Ord's orders were to capture Fort Harrison, to destroy the Confederate bridges near Chaffin’s Bluff, and then, to assault Richmond from the southeast. By 5 a.m., September 29, all of Butler's force was across the river and poised to attack.
Action at New Market Heights
The first of Birney's ten thousand soldiers moved out at 5 a.m. on September 29. Before them was a double line of abatis protecting two thousand entrenched Confederates commanded by Brigadier-General John Gregg. The Rebels held their fire as the men of the 4th USCT advanced toward the breastworks. When the Bluecoats became entangled in the first line of abatis, they were greeted by a hail of hot lead that ravaged their unit. As the first wave of Yankees was being cut to shreds, the men of the 6th USCT surged forward but fared no better. In less than forty minutes, the Rebels wiped out nearly an entire brigade.
At approximately 7 a.m., Birney and Paine renewed the assault, ordering the 5th, 36th and 38th USCT into the fray. Initially, the results were the same. Confederate sharpshooters mowed down the black soldiers for nearly thirty minutes as the Northern soldiers attempted to move through the maze of obstacles. When it appeared that the second wave was doomed to fail, the Rebel fired slackened. With renewed enthusiasm, the remnants of Paine's division stormed the Confederate fortifications only to discover that they had been abandoned. Gregg had ordered his men to withdraw toward Fort Harrison to deal with the threat being posed by Ord's assault.
After securing the captured breastworks, Birney's Corps advanced up New Market Road before encountering a second line of Confederate fortifications. Attempts to dislodge the Rebel defenders proved fruitless, and Birney's prong of the offensive stalled. Consequently, Kautz's planned cavalry dash for Richmond never materialized.
During the assault on New Market Heights, Paine's division of USCT lost one of every three men engaged, leaving little doubt about the willingness of black soldiers to face grave danger in service to the Union. On April 6, 1865, the nation officially recognized their sacrifice by bestowing the Congressional Medal of Honor on fourteen African Americans who participated in the offensive.
Action at Chaffin's Farm
At the same time that Birney launched his initial attack at New Market Heights, the men of Ord's 18th Corps began their assault on Fort Harrison. Led by Brigadier-General George Stannard's division, the Yankees rushed the lightly defended Confederate position, sending the eight hundred Rebel defenders scurrying for shelter behind a secondary line to their rear. The triumph, however, was costly; all three Union brigade commanders were killed or wounded during the action. When Ord personally took charge, he too was seriously wounded. Devoid of leadership, the Federal assault soon bogged down.
Alarmed by the initial Yankee successes, Robert E. Lee redeployed ten thousand reinforcements to the Petersburg defenses overnight. On the next day, he ordered an unsuccessful counterattack to retake Fort Harrison. Reaching an apparent stalemate, both sides re-entrenched in their new positions eight miles outside of Richmond, where they remained until Lee evacuated the Confederate capital in April 1865.
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights failed to subdue Richmond as Butler had hoped. In addition the Union suffered more casualties than the Confederacy. The Bluecoats lost 3,372 soldiers (391 killed, 2,317 wounded, and 649 missing/captured); the Greycoats lost an estimated two thousand men (250 killed, 1,250 wounded, and five hundred missing/captured). Still, the battle was a strategic Federal victory. Grant achieved his objective of drawing Rebel defenders away from the Petersburg area, as he simultaneously increased his stranglehold on the city by extending his lines farther west.
Ohio units that participated in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights included:
62nd Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry
67th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry