Editor’s Note: Charles Bowery, who grew up on the battlefield where the following action occurred, has made me aware of the immediate need to preserve this battlefield and those of the other two Darbytown Road fights in October 1864. This article covers his memories of growing up on a Civil War field of battle as well as a short look at what occurred on October 7, 1864. In one of the last actions of the Fifth Offensive against Petersburg, Robert E. Lee was determined to try to regain some of the ground lost in the September 29, 1864 assaults against Fort Harrison and Fort Gilmer. Charles Bowery describes what happened in this little known engagement:
When I was younger, relic hunters would often visit my grandfather’s farm. From time to time my grandfather and father found bullets and arrowheads whenever they plowed the fields. There were long standing stories of a battle on the farm during the Civil War, but no one seemed to know much about it. My father and grandfather saw no harm in allowing the relic hunters to walk the fields. All of that changed one day when a relic hunter unearthed the belt buckles of soldiers along a hillside not far from my parent’s house. My father told me if anyone asked if they could relic hunt on the farm, I was to tell them no, he did not want anyone digging anymore.
From that day forward, I knew there was something special about the place. It was a feeling I would get as I walked the fields or rode my bike down the old country path maintained by my grandfather, or as I drove our four-wheeler along the many trails my grandfather and father made through the woods. It was a magical place, a sanctuary, lush and peaceful. The woods were filled with little alcoves tucked away inside the dense forest. Many of those spots were jammed with huckleberry bushes, some up to six feet high. Those bushes gave the place its name, Huckleberry Knob Farm.
While we were free to roam around, there were places my sisters and I were not allowed to play. One was at the bottom of the northwestern slope of the hill. That spot was a slave burial ground. My grandfather wanted to make sure we left the cemetery alone, to “give those poor people their deserved rest.” If we rode our bikes too close, my grandfather always seemed to know.
The other place was one of the trails in the woods. The main trail wrapped around the southern end of a moderately sized pond and then ran along the southeastern edge of the property before heading deep into the woods where it branched off into additional trails. The first of these spur branches was along the eastern edge of the pond. My father told me never to go down that trail on the four-wheeler. I was to always use the main trail to ride into the woods. There were so many trail options, I did not give it a second thought and since I never walked in the woods, I did not venture down the trail.
Sadly, in 1988, my grandfather put the farm up for sale. My father pleaded with my grandfather to sell him 10 acres. He refused, fearing his other children would also ask for ten acres each, leaving him little to sell. The land did not remain on the market long and the family who purchased the farm said we could continue using the land as we always had. Eventually my grandfather moved and passed away a couple of years later.
Ten years after he sold it, the family that purchased the farm sold 40 acres to a construction firm so they could build the Pocahontas Parkway. The road obliterated the northern slope of the hill, leaving only the western slope. During construction, my father diligently directed the construction crew to the slave burial ground ensuring they did not build the roadway overtop of the bodies. The coffins were reburied a short distance from their original place of rest. During the same time, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer.
I stayed at home for a few years after graduating college, but never roamed the farm as I had when I was younger. Eventually, I moved away, but a year later, my mother called and asked if I would move back. My father had less than a year to live and she said she could not care for him alone. It was a tough decision, but I knew I could not say no. I moved home, and thirteen months later, he passed away. I stayed, knowing my mother would need help.
During that time, I began to develop an interest in the Civil War. Living a few miles from Malvern Hill and the Fort Harrison Unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park, I visited them often. The paths in those parks reminded me of the ones around Huckleberry Knob Farm. I began to feel nostalgic for the days when I ran around the farm as if it were my own park. One day, I decided to take a walk in the woods behind my parent’s house. It had been almost fifteen years since I had been beyond the pond and I wanted to see how much of the trail system remained.
I found the trails to be in remarkably good condition considering no one used them anymore. There was some overgrowth, but they could be easily followed. I walked the trail around the edge of the pond and when I came to a fork in the trail I stopped, and heard my father’s voice reminding me that I was not to go down the trail along the eastern edge of the pond. Considering I was not on the four-wheeler and he was no longer around to scold me, curiosity took over and I continued along the path. It was bumpy and it took irregular dips as it descended down the backside of a small hill. When the ground leveled out, the trail took a hard left into the woods. A short distance later, I discovered why my father did not want me going down the trail.
In front of me were two rows of earthworks, close together. They were largely overgrown but easily discernable. I could not believe what I was seeing. I walked up to them, and a shiver ran through me. Memories about the relic hunters and how the farm had been a battlefield populated my mind. I sat down on the ground before the earthworks and began to cry. My father understood that this was hallowed ground and he wanted to respect those who fought and died here, which was why my sisters and I were not allowed to drive the four-wheeler down that particular trail. As I gazed at the neat rows of raised earth, I wondered who made them and why. What had happened here on the farm?
A few years of difficult and frustrating research has given me the answers. On October 7th 1864, during the Richmond/Petersburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee launched the last offensive he personally led north of the James River, the Battle of Darbytown and New Market Roads. It was his attempt to regain ground lost during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. The assault upon the Federal Cavalry on Darbytown Road was a success, but when the battle shifted to New Market Road, the Federals had gained the upper hand. The battle gave birth to two further fights over much of the same ground, the Battle of Darbytown Road on October 13th and the Battle of Fair Oaks and Darbytown Road, sometimes referred to as Second Fair Oaks, on October 27th.
Huckleberry Knob Farm, known as the Duke Farm during the war, was situated across Darbytown Road from Dr. Johnson’s Farm and behind Pioneer Baptist Church. General August V. Kautz selected this area to serve as his headquarters because it provided perfect observation of the Confederate Outer Defensive Line about a mile to the west. In early October of 1864, the Confederates were busy constructing a new line, the Alexander Line (named for General Edward Porter Alexander) west of the original Outer Defensive Line across Darbytown Road, which they had abandoned after the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.
On the Duke Farm, Kautz ordered Lieutenant Colonel Robert M. Hall of Battery B, 1st United States Light Artillery to construct earthworks for his Battery. Hall identified the perfect spot, north of the Baptist Church between two branches of Four Mile Creek. On that ground he constructed two lines of earthworks, close together. These were the earthworks I had discovered. Members of the X Corps, Army of the James, would remark that they were the strongest works on the field. Battery B took their place in the works with the 4th Wisconsin Battery (Horse Artillery) to their left stretching to and across the Darbytown Road.
Around 2am on October 7th, General Edward Porter Alexander met General Robert E. Lee a few miles from Darbytown Road. Though Alexander thought he was early, Lee was certain he had told the young General to meet him at 1am. Alexander later remarked that at no point in the war had he seen Lee so hostile and agitated. Lee’s bad mood would last until they reached Darbytown Road.
The battle was to begin in two parts. The 7th South Carolina Cavalry of Gary’s Brigade, led by Lt. Col. Alexander Cheves Haskell, was to lead Law’s Brigade down Charles City Road and push the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry back to their Headquarters at White’s Tavern then south into Kautz’s Right Flank. Law’s Brigade was to immediately turn south once the action was underway and attack the rest of the Right Flank. The combined actions would cause the Flank to collapse on itself. At the same time, Anderson’s and Bratton’s Brigades on Darbytown Road were to attack the Federal Cavalry, specifically the 3rd New York on Darbytown Road and push them back onto Kautz’s Left Flank where the 1st New York Mounted Rifles were positioned.
On the morning of October 7th, the 7th South Carolina Cavalry burst forward in a silent charge, a few moments later, Law’s Brigade turned south, not long thereafter a bugle call could be heard. The Confederates along Darbytown Road had begun their attack and with it, the Rebels unleashed the dreaded Rebel Yell up and down their line of attack. One portion of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry turned south towards the position of the 3rd New York Cavalry. The other portion broke into a run towards their Headquarters at White’s Tavern, and then turned south. All was going to plan.
Battery B, 1st U.S Light Artillery and the 4th Wisconsin were in the best position. A hill to their north blocked them from view and each time the Confederates from Alabama and Georgia attempted to reach the top of the hill, they were blasted by artillery. Unfortunately for the Federals, the 3rd New York Cavalry, who were in front of their position, had been wiped off the field. Nothing except the artillery of Battery B and the 4th Wisconsin was preventing the Confederates from reaching their line.
Suddenly, the 4th Wisconsin had to retire their artillery and leave the field. Hall, believing he could hold off the Rebels, remained, unaware of what had occurred to the 3rd New York. Their absence from the field quickly became apparent and after having fired over 300 rounds, he realized he could no longer hold his line. Hall ordered the Battery to move their artillery out. They were the last remaining Federal position on the field.
As the 4th Wisconsin attempted to leave, their artillery and horses became stuck in a creek and when Battery B attempted to retreat, they crashed into the 4th Wisconsin causing their artillery to become stuck as well. The jam left them and other retreating Federals exposed to the approaching Confederates. At this point, the 7th South Carolina Cavalry had caught up with Law’s Brigade and with sabers drawn, they poured down upon the men capturing eight pieces of artillery. Lt. Col. Haskell said the attack was a perfect example of what makes a cavalry charge a thing of beauty. Lt. Hall and one of his officers barely escaped with their lives, managing to flee into the woods as the cavalry decimated the Federals.
Having successfully pushed Kautz off Darbytown Road, Lee had his men line up along the road facing south. They were to march through the thick brush and attacked General Terry’s position along New Market Road. Unfortunately for Lee, Terry had learned of the attack on Kautz’s position and called for reinforcements. The Rebel attack, which had begun so promising, became a miserable defeat as the Federals forced the Confederates back across Darbytown Road and behind their lines. When the day ended, Kautz had regained his position on Darbytown Road. Both sides suffered a combined 1,158 casualties. Among the killed was Confederate Brig. Gen. John Gregg. Members of the Texas Brigade remarked that the battle was the worst fighting they had seen since The Wilderness. By the end of the month, over 3,000 men on both sides would fall.
Today, the battlefield remains mostly rural. In fact, you can walk the entire length of the battlefield from beginning to end, from various angles, with minimal modern intrusion. However, situated closer to Richmond than Glendale and Malvern Hill, the battlefield is in a desperate fight for survival. Nearly 80 acres are currently for sale including the area where the battle first began and where the 7th South Carolina Cavalry gave chase to the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry on Charles City Road. Fifty-five acres where the two Cavalry divisions turned south is also for sale. That land also served as the starting location for an extraordinary cavalry battle led by “Rooney” Lee on August 16, 1864, during the Battle of Second Deep Bottom.
The good news is that portions of the second half of the battle have been saved as part of Dorey Park. However, the park has no interpretation of the battle and baseball and soccer fields grace a sizeable portion of the field. Sadly, the farm where I grew up, including the surviving earthworks of Battery B, 1st U.S. Light Artillery, the strongest and last remaining Federal position on the field, is targeted to become a gravel mine. The company that owns the land has not ruled out preserving it. However, they will not do it just for me.
All three battles of Darbytown Road have been listed by the American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) as worthy of protection. Not only do Lt. Hall’s earthworks remain, but near the farm is an original portion of Darbytown Road that crosses Four Mile Creek. The old road remains in very good condition. This portion of the road was utilized by General Longstreet and his men in 1862 to reach the Battles of Glendale and Malvern Hill. Edwin Jemison walked along the road days before he was killed at Malvern Hill.
I am reaching out to anyone who will listen and help me get the word out and save what remains of the Darbytown and New Market Roads Battlefield. Acting now will essentially save the entire battlefield. At the same time, inroads can be made in preserving the battlefield of Second Deep Bottom, which is sometimes referred to as the Second Seven Days. The same opportunities that exist today, will not exist a year from now. Like Lt. Hall, I refuse to leave the field until I am forced off of it.