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150 Years Ago Today: Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 29, 1864

Chaffin’s Farm: Combat at New Market Heights and Forts Harrison and Gilmer: September 29, 1864

Note: Click to see maps of the Battle of New Market Heights and maps of the Battle of Fort Harrison, which together make up the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.

Brief Summary: The first day of the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm was contested 150 years ago today, on September 29, 1864.  It actually consisted of several related but separate actions along the New Market Heights line and the Confederate fortifications near Chaffin’s Bluff.  These efforts were the right wing of Grant’s two-pronged Fifth Offensive against Richmong and Petersburg in late September 1864.  The Battle of Peebles Farm would begin the next day on the left, with the Army of the Potomac battling A. P. Hill’s Third Corps near the farms of Peebles and Pegram near the Boydton Plank Road.  While the Peebles Farm fighting would flare until October 2, most of the action on the Richmond front occurred on September 29.

The Battle of New Market Heights saw the USCT regiments of the 3rd Division, Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James take on the famed Texas Brigade of John Gregg.  After several assaults, the Texans retreated to the main line near Forts Gilmer and Harrison.  Whether they were driven from that line by the USCTs, retreated of their own volition after hearing of the assault on Fort Harrison, or a little of both, remains a controversy.

Battle of New Market Heights

by Jimmy Price

Editor’s Note: Jimmy Price, author of The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword, was kind enough to write up this summary of the Battle of New Market Heights for the Siege of Petersburg Online.  I reuse it here because it’s an excellent introduction to that portion of the Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff.


Following the Federal victories at Opequon Creek and Fisher’s Hill in late September 1864, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant prepared an offensive to prevent Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from reinforcing his troops in the Shenandoah Valley. Grant planned a two-pronged assault with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac striking at the Southside Railroad near Petersburg while Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James struck north of the James River to threaten the Confederate Capital. Butler called his subordinates together on September 28th and outlined the plan, part of which called for Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s X Corps to attack from the Deep Bottom Bridgehead and take New Market Heights. Spearheading this attack would be Brig. Gen. Charles Paine’s Third Division of the XVIII Corps, a unit comprised entirely of United States Colored Troops. The Army of the James crossed over on the night of September 28-29, 1864 and was in position by 5:00 AM. Facing the bluecoats were 2,000 veteran troops under the overall command of Brig. Gen. John Gregg. Lt. Col. Frederick Bass’ Texas-Arkansas Brigade and dismounted cavalry under Brig. Gen. Martin Gary manned the earthworks while the Rockbridge Artillery and 3rd Richmond Howitzers provided artillery support. Paine displayed his inexperience as a commander when he designated only Col. Samuel A. Duncan’s Third Brigade (4th and 6th USCT) to take New Market Heights. Duncan’s men deployed in a skirmish line 200 yards long and soon encountered obstacles that hampered their movement. A marshy stream called Four Mile Creek ran across their line of advance and a slashing of abatis and chevaux-de-frise blocked access to the Rebel entrenchments. Duncan’s men advanced into the thick fog around 5:30 AM and, in the words of one survivor, were “all cut to pieces.” Intense musket and artillery fire shredded the ranks of the oncoming Federals and soon Col. Duncan was down with four wounds. The Third Brigade soon withdrew, losing 350 of its 700 effectives. Paine then sent in the Second Brigade (5th, 36th, and 38th USCT) under the command of Col. Alonzo Draper. As the sun began to rise, Draper’s men went in over the same ground that Duncan’s men had crossed and they were soon entangled in the slashing. For thirty brutal minutes, Draper’s men endured a barrage from the Confederate lines before the Confederates began to withdraw. When the fire slackened the USCT’s burst through the slashing and advanced up the slopes of New Market Heights. Draper would lose 447 out of his 1,300 men. Overall, Paine lost 1 out of 3 men in the attack on New Market Heights. While Benjamin Butler did not capture Richmond that day, the fighting prowess of the African American soldiers under his command was put on display for all to see. Throughout the entire course of the American Civil War, only sixteen black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Of that number, fourteen were awarded to the black troops who stormed New Market Heights.

Battle of Fort Harrison and Fort Gilmer

By Brett Schulte

The Battle of Fort Harrison (and Fort Gilmer) was fought to the west near Chaffin’s Bluff.  Confederate defenders in the vicinity of Fort Harrison were scarce, and George Stannard’s First Division, Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James successfully took the formidable work on September 29.  More fighting would follow the next day when the Confederates attempted to retake it.

Battle of Chaffin's Farm, Sept. 29th 1864

While the Tenth Corps and Paine’s 3rd Division, Eighteenth Corps formed the right flank of Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James and faced off against New Market Heights, the remaining two White divisions of the Eighteenth Corps under Stannard and Heckman were detailed to attack Fort Harrison near Chaffin’s Bluff.  Stannard’s Division attacked in column of divisions, each brigade forming a column.  Perhaps, had the Confederate trenches been fully manned, Stannard’s force could have faced a bloody repulse.  As it was, Fort Harrison was thinly defended by artillerymen and Johnson’s Tennesee Brigade from the Department of Richmond, and Stannard’s decision to quickly attack won the day for the Federals.

When Fort Harrison fell, the New Market Heights line to the east became untenable.  The troops under John Gregg, including Martin Gary’s cavalry, the Texas Brigade, and Benning’s Georgia Brigade, made their way west to the entrenchment s north of Fort Harrison.  They would play a role in defending Fort Gilmer shortly.

Meanwhile, Paine’s USCT Division and the Tenth Corps moved up the New Market Road in the direction of Fort Gilmer.  Gregg’s men had managed to retreat in time and held the lines in and around Gilmer.  The Federal attacks by Foster’s Division, Tenth Corps were delivered piecemeal in brigade sized increments, diluting their effectiveness.  William Birney’s Colored Brigade also attacked Fort Gilmer and was also repulsed.  This latter attack, the first time some of the Confederates had encountered Black troops, resulted in a lot of recollections in the Confederate Veteran in later years.  The unfortunate “Corporal Dick”, whose bravery earned him only a shot between the eyes, was mentioned often in these Confederate accounts.

Despite the Federal reverses north of Fort Harrison, they had done damage to the integrity of the Confederate lines near Chaffin’s Bluff.  Robert E. Lee considered Fort Harrison important enough that he personally supervised a counterattack the next day, on September 30, 1864.  But that is a story for tomorrow.

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