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Book Review: Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm

Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin's Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond by Douglas CrenshawCrenshaw, Douglas. Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond  (The History Press, 2013). 144 pages, over 40 illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 978-1-61121-140-5 $19.99 (Paperback). Note: Also available in Kindle format.

Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond is another in a growing number of books which focus on a single battle during the Siege of Petersburg.  Richard Sommers’ massive Richmond Redeemed looked at the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm in greater detail, but a description of Chaffin’s Farm formed only a portion of his book.  Crenshaw’s book is valuable as a less intimidating entry level account which gives readers new to the lesser known actions of the Petersburg Siege a good starting point.

Compared to the number of tomes covering most Eastern battles of the Civil War, very few books have been written on the specific battles of the Petersburg Campaign.  Many of those cover the Crater.  It was with pleasant surprise then that I recently discovered Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond from The History Press.  Interestingly, this is the second History Press book to deal with a portion of Grant’s Fifth Offensive against Petersburg.  Jimmy Price’s 2011 effort The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword looked at the right flank of Butler’s northern prong of Grant’s offensive (review here).  Crenshaw’s book fills in the rest of the story north of the James River, giving readers an overview of the fighting near Chaffin’s Farm, especially at Forts Harrison and Gilmer, between elements of the Army of Northern Virginia and Department of Richmond on one side, and Butler’s XVIII Corps from the Army of the James on the other.

As summer faded into fall in 1864, Grant had already mounted four offensives against Petersburg and Richmond, slowly tightening the noose around these important Virginia cities.  He had tried several two-pronged attacks earlier, and this Fifth Offensive launched in late September 1864 would prove no different.  As Meade and the Army of the Potomac struck southwest of Petersburg near Peebles’ Farm, Butler’s Army of the James was to cross its namesake river and advance on the Confederate fortifications guarding the southern approaches to Richmond.  Butler struck first, on September 29, 1864.  The Tenth Corps, reinforced with a division of the Eighteenth Corps, formed the right wing of his attack, and assaulted the Confederate forces guarding New Market Heights.  This attack was the subject of The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword.

Crenshaw’s book focuses on the left wing of Butler’s attack.  The Eighteenth Corps, led by E. O. C. Ord was tasked with trying to take Fort Harrison and the other strong points on the Confederate works near Chaffin’s Farm.  If they were successful, the road to Richmond would be open.  These works were lightly guarded by Local Defense Troops and Reserves, with Lee able to call on Field’s Division of the First Corps, ANV at the first sign of trouble.  Gregg’s Texas Brigade at first held the New Market Heights line, and was unavailable for the initial assaults, a fact which proved disastrous for the Confederates.

Stannard’s Division successfully assaulted and Fort Harrison on September 29, 1864.  Corps commander Ord was wounded in this time frame, causing no small matter of confusion in the Union ranks as far as further action was concerned.  This happened at an inopportune moment for the Union troops.  The road to Richmond was open, and a strong move could capture Richmond.  Shortly after that success, however, assaults by other divisions in the Eighteenth and Tenth Corps failed to take forts farther north along the Confederate defense line.  These attacks were marred by indecision and their piecemeal nature, for which Crenshaw mainly blames Eighteenth Corps division commander Charles Heckman, who had taken over the unit after Ord was wounded.  These delays and piecemeal attacks allowed the Confederates to bring in reinforcements, including Gregg’s Brigade from New Market Heights, more of Field’s Division from across the James River via pontoon boats, as well as vessels from the James River Naval Squadron, which poured shells blindly into the Federal ranks from the nearby river.  September 29 ended with the Federals holding Fort Harrison and desperately attempting to enclose its open rear with entrenchments while also digging rifle pits connecting it to the James River.

Robert E. Lee personally commanded the Confederate counterattack on September 30.  It ended in a bloody failure as elements of Field’s and Hoke’s divisions failed to coordinate their attacks.  Crenshaw points to the Spencer repeating rifles some Union regiments were carrying as another decisive factor in this portion of the battle.  Ultimately, Fort Harrison was renamed Fort Burnham and became a piece of a new, permanent Northern trench line north of the James River.  Although not covered in this book, further battles occurred along the Darbytown Road to the north as this new line and matching Confederate lines sprung up in the early weeks of October 1864.

As is the case with all History Press titles, space is an issue.  Crenshaw makes good use of this space, however, providing a lively and coherent introduction to one of Lee’s closest calls at Petersburg before April 3, 1865.  The book will be familiar to readers who have read other entries in the publisher’s Civil War series of books.  Illustrations abound, especially contemporary and modern views of Fort Harrison, and the maps by Hal Jespersen are his usual excellent work.  These go down to the regimental and battery level in many cases, and clearly show the various phases of the action.  It would have been nice to see a short section devoted to how the battle changed the strategic situation and led to the early October battles, but I suspect space was a concern and this couldn’t quite fit.

Crenshaw relies heavily on the Official Records, Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed and Louis Manarin’s  Volume 2 of Henrico County: Field of Honor, but these are the logical sources to lean on and it makes sense to do so in an introductory book like this one.  The author sprinkles in dozens of first person accounts from a wide variety of sources including not readily available archival sources.  In fact his bibliography allowed me to find, obtain, and transcribe Richard Ewell’s unpublished account of the September 29 fighting from the Confederate perspective.  Crenshaw also uses newspaper accounts and other sources mined from the files of Richmond National Battlefield Park.  Appendices cover the orders of battle, the battlefield today, and short biographies of the more important players on both sides during the battle.

Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond is a nice introduction to one specific portion of Grant’s Fifth Offensive.  Readers looking for the definitive account of this battle will want to own Richmond Redeemed, but even those who own that large and important work would benefit from this lively survey of the battle.  Anyone interested in the tactical battles fought during the Siege of Petersburg will want to own this book.  Crenshaw really shines with his use of primary sources to give readers a “you are there” feel.  This book is recommended as another in a growing line of books looking solely at a specific Petersburg Siege battle.

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