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150 Years Ago Today: Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 30, 1864

The Battle of Fort Harrison: September 30, 1864:

Lee’s Counterattack is Easily Repulsed

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: Robert E. Lee personally commanded a counterattack against Fort Harrison on September 30, 1864, 150 years ago today.  Fort Harrison had fallen the day before to George Stannard’s First Division, Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James.  The fort was located near Chaffin’s Bluff and was a key work on the Confederate exterior line.

Lee felt he had to do something of an offensive nature on September 30, 1864, but he had other choices.  He could have tried to assault the Union left flank which was tenuously tied to the James River, but he risked his attacking force being cut off by the Union center.  Likewise, he could have attacked the Union right on the Darbytown road, but August Kautz had his cavalry division well out front to provide advance warning of such an attack.  Ultimately, Lee decided on a frontal assault on Fort Harrison itself.

The divisions of Hoke and Field were tabbed for the assault.  Given the history of these two generals, Hoke blaming Field for a bloody repulse at Hare’s Hill on June 24, 1864, one wonders how Lee felt about them working together again.  In any case, he really didn’t have much of a choice.  The other infantry in the area were inexperienced reserves and other troops from the Department of Richmond.  A portion of Wilcox’s Division, the famed “Light Division” of A. P. Hill, had turned around to help repulse the Army of the Potomac’s advance at the Battle of Peebles Farm southwest of Petersburg.

Lee waited until late morning to begin the contest, and even then it was simply artillery coming from the big naval guns of the James River Squadron and the Confederate land artillery in the vicinity of Fort Harrison.  The bombardment did little good, but it did provide cover while the Confederate infantry to move into place for the attack.  It would be up to them to try to carry the fort.


Map of the September 30 Fighting at Fort Harrison from Richmond Redeemed, 2nd Edition, page 139

Used with Permission and May Not Be Reproduced without Savas Beatie’s Express Written Consent.

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Lee’s attack plan was complicated, with Field on the left and Hoke on the right charging separately, starting at different times, and hoping to come together at the point of attack simultaneously.  It didn’t happen that way.  Tige Anderson’s Georgians were supposed to kick things off and advance part way to Harrison before lying down to wait for the rest of Field’s attack force.  When they were all ready, Field and Hoke would attack together.  Instead, Anderson’s men didn’t stop, charging at the fort.  Field tried to make the best of a bad situation and advanced all three brigades of his attack force.  Hoke, perhaps remembering Field’s failure to support him on June 24 at Hare’s Hill, now refused to advance until his orders indicated, despite the clearly changed situation.

Stannard’s First Division, Eighteenth Corps, along with the USCT regiments of the Third Division, Eighteenth Corps and William Birney’s Colored Brigade of the Tenth Corps had more than enough firepower to combat the disjointed Confederate attacks.  Some of Stannard’s Union regiments in Fort Harrison had Spencer repeaters, adding to the firepower there.

Stannard, with some assistance from the USCTs, dealt first Anderson’s Georgians and then Bratton’s South Carolinians from Field’s Division, which delivered two separate attacks.  These both were bloodily repulsed.  Bowles Alabama Brigade (formerly Law’s brigade) never even attacked.

Hoke, adhering to his orders, launched his attack at 2 pm, after Field’s Division had been wrecked.  The Federals were thus able to focus all of their firepower on Hoke when he advanced.  To make matters worse, Hoke only sent in two of his five brigades, McKethan’s North Carolinians (Clingmans Brigade) and Colquitt’s Georgians.  McKethan’s men attacked first and were trapped under the guns of Fort Harrison, unable to escape.  Colquitt’s attack didn’t even make it that far.  In only an hour of disjointed assaults, the Confederates conceded defeat.  Further attacks were called off.

Lee focused on distracting the Federals for the rest of the afternoon in the hopes of rescuing McKethan’s men, but he was unsuccessful.  Near sundown, the sharpshooter battalion of Stannard’s Division rushed the remnants of the Confederate brigade and captured hundreds.  McKethan had less than 400 men left at the end of the day, losing over 50 percent in this fight.  Overall, the day was a decisive Union victory.  Fort Harrison had held, and at the cost of only 250 or so casualties.  Disjointed Confederate counterattacks, on the other hand, led to over 1200 Southern casualties, a ratio the South simply could not afford.

There would be further skirmishing over the next few days, but the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm was essentially over.  Fort Harrison became a key work in the new Union lines, and the Federals now had a much larger bridgehead to work with in future forays against Richmond.  In fact, several more battles would occur along this new line as the opposing forces extended their lines northward, resulting in the First and Second Darbytown Road battles in early to mid October 1864.  Look for posts on those in the coming weeks.


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