As September 1864 drew to a close, Lt. Gen. U. S. Grant renewed his efforts to cut Petersburg off from its supply routes. Only two such routes remained south of the Appomattox River, the Boydton Plank Road and the South Side Railroad. As a rubber band can only stretch so far before it breaks, so Grant tried to force Gen. Lee to stretch the Confederate lines at Petersburg beyond their breaking point. This strategy became action in twin battles at opposite ends of the long siege lines, Chaffin’s Farm at the northeastern end and at Peeble’s Farm at the southwestern end.
Grant ordered Gen. David Birney’s Tenth Corps and Gen. E. O. C. Ord’s Eighteenth Corps of Gen. Benjamin Butler’s Army of the James to cross the James River at Deep Bottom, just as the Second Corps had done twice before. The long columns of troops, about 26,000 in all, quietly crossed the pontoon bridges late at night on Wednesday, September 28th.
The following morning Birney’s corps attacked Rebel positions at New Market Heights. The assault was led by a division of U. S. Colored Troops, and the approach to the Confederate works was covered by all sorts of obstacles, including abatis (below left) and chevaux de frise (below right). The black soldiers fought their way through, all the while taking heavy casualties, until finally they drove the Confederate defenders from their entrenchments. This display of courage silenced many who said negro soldiers would never make good soldiers and do their duty in a fight.
Meanwhile, Ord’s corps, at about 1:00 p.m., with Gen. Stannard’s division leading the way, stormed and took Fort Harrison. The fort was thought by many to be the strongest point in Richmond’s outer works and vital to its defenses. About an hour later, U. S. Colored Troops assaulted Fort Gilmer, just to the south of Fort Harrison. Again, the black soldiers fought very well, but they were not successful. A few did make it so far as to stand upon the rampart, but they were immediately shot down.
The following day, September 30th, Gen. Lee assembled eight brigades of veteran troops. During the afternoon these troops tried desperately to retake Fort Harrison, but the Yankee defenders had turned the fort into a bastion of their own. Every Confederate charge was met and shattered with heavy, deadly fire. Fort Harrison remained in Union hands and became a strong-point in their newly advanced line of fortifications.
BTW: Fort Harrison is part of Richmond National Battlefield Park. It can easily be found on Google Earth by searching on “Fort Harrison, Henrico, VA.” Next week we’ll look at the Battle of Peeble’s Farm which was fought September 29 to October 2, 1864 and set the stage for action the Fourteenth Connecticut would see later in October.