Editor’s Note: This article was transcribed by Brett Schulte.
The Capture of Fort Harrison.
A British field officer of ability and experience, who has recently visited the Army of the Potomac, has written a letter to the London Star, which is copied by the Army and Navy Journal, and in which we find the following passage:
“Gen. [Benjamin F.] Butler was in New York, and so, having partaken of the hospitality of his Adjutant General, I rode off about six miles further to the nearest point to Richmond in possession of the Federal Army. This place I understand to be called Fort Harrison. It is about six miles and a quarter from Richmond, a strong earthen fort, and so placed that the taking of it is quite unaccountable. It is on a hill with a natural glacis of six or seven hundred yards, and which good gunners should sweep against all comers—taking into account an extensive abattis, which is constructed by merely felling the trees and pointing them outwards. It should have been [illegible], dangerous work to have traversed that long slope. However, there is the fort in the hands of the Federals, be it attributable to pluck, luck, surprise, treachery, scare, or whatever other explanation.”
The history of the capture of Fort Harrison has not yet been written, and perhaps never will be. But it was one of the most brilliant achievements of the War. The strength of the position is indicated by this British officer, and it is only necessary to add that the armament of the fort was correspondingly strong, consisting of 64 and 100 pounders, and an 8-inch columbiad. It was pluck, and not luck or treachery which gave us this formidable work. It will be remembered that Fort Harrison was the main fortification and key of the line of works on Chapin’s [sic, Chaffin’s] Farm. To the carrying of the line on the 30th [sic, 29th] of September last , the Eighteenth Corps was assigned and the task of storming the Fort was given to STANNARD, of Vermont. The assault [illegible] was made in line of battle. For the storming of the Fort, however, Gen. [George J.] Stannard, believing that only by the momentum of a column could it be carried, formed his division1, 3000 strong, in “column by division,” which for the benefit of our unmilitary readers, we may remark, would make a long column with a narrow front. He had asked for a brigade to cover the right flank of his column, but not receiving it, was obliged to detach a brigade from his column for that purpose. So formed, he carried his men across an open space of 1500 yards, under fire all the way, and having to order a daring officer to find a practicable opening in the abattis, across the glacis, through a deep ditch up the steep parapets (so steep that the men could hardly crawl up on all fours) and into the fort. Gen Stannard rode at the side of the column, and lost four aides shot down by his side, the last of whom fell in the ditch. About half of the division reached the fort, the balance being missing, killed, and wounded.
The capture of the Fort made necessary the abandonment of the rest of their line, by the rebels, and it was only, as we understand it, after the success of Stannard’s division, that the other divisions succeeded in effecting a lodgment within the entrenchments they were to carry. The repulse of the enemy in his effort to retake the Fort next day [September 30, 1864], was equally brilliant. The fort, it should be understood, was open to the rear, and so afforded no protection against an assault from that direction. From want of time and entrenching tools, not much was done in the way of throwing up breastworks, and the assault was repulsed by Stannard’s men, standing without cover or protection, in the open ground in the rear of the work, and without the aid of artillery.2 The attack was made under General Lee’s eye in three lines of battle, was twice repeated after the first repulse, and was pressed each time by the rebel commanders, with desperate energy. Their dead lay thickly within 50 yards of Stannard’s lines, but beyond that point, at which his command opened fire, they made no progress. To their repulse the hot and incessant fire of a regiment which had been armed but a day or two before with Spencer rifles, contributed greatly. It was after the final and disorderly retreat of the enemy, that Gen. Stannard, standing on the parapet of Fort Harrison, from which he had directed this most successful defence, was struck by a sharpshooter’s ball, which shattered his good right arm.3
- SOPO Editor’s Note: Stannard commanded the First Division, Eighteenth Corps, Army of the James at the storming of Fort Harrison. ↩
- SOPO Editor’s Note: The claim that Stannard’s men defended the open rear of the fort is a major exaggeration. By this point in the war, veterans such as these knew breastworks, no matter how rudimentary, were often the difference between success and failure, life and death. Other sources indicate Stannard’s men had successfully enclosed the rear of Fort Harrison by the time of the first Confederate attack on September 30, 1864. ↩
- “The Capture of Fort Harrison.” Burlington (VT) Free Press. January 27, 1865, p. 1 col. 2 ↩