Editor’s Note: After recently reading the bibliography of Douglas Crenshaw’s new book Fort Harrison and the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: To Surprise and Capture Richmond I found reference to this excerpt from General Richard S. Ewell’s Letterbook. The Letterbook is held in the collecti0ns of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, in the Benjamin Stoddert Ewell Papers. Librarian Kate Collins promptly and courteously located the manuscript for me and copied the relevant pages. Her help is greatly appreciated, and this transcription of Ewell’s letterbook would not have been possible without it. Thanks Kate!
On September 29 , 1864, the Union Army of the James made a concerted push to break the Confederate lines guarding Richmond, successfully capturing the imposing Fort Harrison and holding it against determined Confederate counterattacks the next day. Over several pages written in early November 1864, Ewell covers the initial Union assaults on the morning of September 29, 1864 south of Richmond. This detailed reminiscence is a far better account of the action than Ewell’s brief report found in the Official Records. I do not know who Ewell was writing this account to or if it was ever read by that person. If you know, please Contact us.
I am publishing this account with the express written consent of the David M. Rubenstein Library at Duke. The images below are copyrighted by the Rubenstein Library. The transcription is copyrighted by Brett Schulte. Neither may be reused without the express written consent of the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.
Richard S. Ewell’s Description of the Battle of Fort Harrison, September 29, 18641
Excerpt from Richard S. Ewell Letterbook, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell Papers,
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University
Transcribed by Brett Schulte, January 17, 2014.
Memoranda of the attack on North side James River 29th September ’64.
I told you when in Richmond that I would send you a short account of the attack on these lines on the 29th Sept. We had been directed to hold the line from the Signal Hill to New Market (Lilly’s house ¼ mile north of drill house) whence there was a line partly constructed to White Oak Swamp + marked out thence to the Chickahominy. From Signal Hill to New Market the line was naturally strong but not worked sufficiently to help the defence. All available means were at work + less than a week would have made it tenable with heavy batteries on Signal Hill covering the enemy’s canal at Dutch Gap. Gen Lee could spare no troops + the Sec’ty of War to call out the Local Defense troops all that were available, or a part, unless unless (sic) the city was were in immediate danger. The enemy’s works were within musket range of our picket line at Signal Hill + Deep Bottom + in fact along the most of this line of four miles. While being for the whole distance close to the river the enemy could, whenever
he pleased cross troops at any point without our being aware of it until the attack. The line of four miles was held by less than 1500 muskets + at Four A. M. on the 29th Sept. Thursday, I being at Chaffins received notice that the enemy were crossing to the North of James River at Varina + Deep Bottom. Notice was at once sent to Richmond + to Gen. Lee, but it requires hours to get out the Locals + Gen. Lee’s disposable troops were near Petersburg. We were attacked at dawn at New Market Heights + Johnsons Tenn. Brigade under Col. Hugh [SOPO Editor’s Note: Colonel John M. Hughes] at Signal Hill was turned on its left from Varina + driven back before overwhelming numbers fighting as it retired. The Brigade had between 200 + 300 muskets. A few moments after sunrise the enemy appeared in front of Fort Harrison, a commanding redoubt on the line running from Richmond below Chaffins + at the point where this line turns to approach the River. This redoubt was held by the gunners for its artillery ; a portion of Hughs command + some of the artillery soldiers armed with muskets + a regt of Va reserves also guarded the fort while Gen. Gregg’s
command consisting of his own + Benning’s Brigade (under Col Du Bose) were on the left extending towards New Market, covering those approaches to Richmond. The enemy carried Fort Harrison with more than their usual bravery + some loss. Fortunately for us a screen of woods prevented their seeing that there was nothing between them + Chaffins Bluff + consequently Richmond. A very few days extended to the left after a short time, but after time had been given to collect a few fugitives in Wise’s old entrenchments this looked like resistance + they satisfied themselves with occupying the next redoubt to Harrison as a work of advanced posts towards the river. Some of Stark’s art. was also as soon as time allowed placed on this line to make more show. The main column of the enemy turned to their right from Fort Harrison + attacked Fort Field a small work close to Harrison on the line towards Richmond. Here Gregg had collected his few hundred men + with some of Hardaway + Stark artillery drove them back with loss and thus between 7 + 8 A. M. saved Richmond. The enemy marched up the Varina + New
Market Roads toward Richmond + about 12 M[eridian, i.e. Noon] made a determined + formidable attack on Fort Gilmer a strong enclosed work one + quarter miles from Ft. Harrison on same line works. Some of their blacks got into the ditch but here Gregg again drove them back, with even greater loss than before. Maj. Gen. Field was by this time across the river with the balance of his division + consequently so much did not depend on this as on the attack at Ft. Field. Brig. Gen. Gregg fell one week after in the attack on the enemys right. He was a brave + able officer + no individual of his rank had been more directly instrumental in saving our capitol. Gen. Lee ran a strong line cutting off the corner where the enemy held Ft. Harrison, a place of not much consequence to them, as the possession of Signal Hill gives them all the advantages in the way of command of the river + while they neutralize much force in holding it. Probably the moral effect in holding making our authorities active in getting out some who should have
been in the ranks long since is worth the place to us. Some of our papers call the loss of Ft. Harrison a surprise. This is absurd as is shown by my statements, written and verbal to the authorities Sec’ty of war it was in the enemys power not only to have taken that taken that place but Richmond. If all Gregg’s force had been at once withdrawn to these lines, there would have been nothing to prevent the enemy from marching down the New Market road to R[ichmon]d ; but they were held in check on the line from Ft. Harrison to that road until their reverses at that point made it necessary to withdraw everything to resist further advances. When a place has more than the wanted garrison, has two hours notice + uses all the means intended for its defence, its loss can hardly be called a surprise—When the authorities received due notice—When for months the almost certainty of such a movement by the enemy had been stated—When able officers who saw the position of affairs thought the fall of R[ichmon]d must follow the expected move of the enemy. What sane person could be surprised
that two army corps of the enemy could, being able to fall on any point unexpectedly of a line four miles in length held by less than 1500 be able to carry whatever they went against? It has been said : Why was not Ft. Harrison more strongly guarded? It was held by more than its share of men + while to some degree Ft. Harrison was the key to R[ichmon]d we could not save the city for the key.
I write the above not for publication but that history which you are compiling may have facts at its disposal. I don’t suppose of course that all this will be copied or any portion—but it gives the general color + I suppose will be used as suits the author. I send map showing the position of the points. [Map not included.]
Nov 4 / 64.
- Ewell, Richard S. Excerpt on the Battle of Fort Harrison, September 29, 1864 from his letter book, 1864-5, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University ↩