The Battle of New Market Heights
September 29-30, 1864 in Henrico County, Virginia
Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler
Confederate Forces Commanded by:
Gen. Robert E. Lee and Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell
**Missing and Captured
Conclusion: Union Victory
New Market Heights was part of a larger operation planned and directed by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Besides New Market Heights, heavy fighting also occurred at Fort Harrison, Fort Gilmer, and Laurel Hill. Taken together,
the events of September 29 and 30 are known as the Battle of Chaffin's Farm. For now, however, we will focus on the action at New Market Heights.
Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant approved a plan sending Butler's Army of the James against the Confederate defenses protecting Richmond. If Butler's men broke through, the capture of the Confederate capital became possible. The campaign involved over 20,000 Union troops including 3,000 blacks serving in units designated United States Colored Troops, or USCTs.
Just before dawn on the 29th, the Army of the James launched a 2-pronged attack. One prong, Maj. Gen. Edward Ord's XVIII Corps, crossed the James River at Aiken's Landing and attacked up the Varina Road toward Fort Harrison. The other prong, Maj. Gen. David Birney's X Corps, along with Brig. Gen. Charles Paine's division of USCTs, crossed the James River at Deep Bottom Landing and advanced north toward New Market Heights. Butler had recommended that Paine's division lead the Union attacks; he believed blacks would fight as well as whites, and New Market Heights offered a perfect opportunity for the USCTs to prove their ability.
Advancing north from the protected river crossing at Deep Bottom, Paine's division quickly came under Confederate fire. Waiting behind earthworks along the New Market Road below New Market Heights were perhaps 2,000 Confederate solders belonging to the famous Texas brigade and Brig. Gen. Martin Gary's dismounted cavalry brigade. Paine's 3 brigades - commanded by Cols. John Holman, Alonzo Draper and Samuel Duncan, formed behind Four Mile Creek and steadied themselves before the grand rush toward the enemy's line. The Federals had initial successes at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.
Unfortunately for the Union effort, the attacks came piecemeal. Duncan's brigade charged first, but was soon bogged down, unable to penetrate the 2 lines of fallen trees and debris the Confederates had prepared to protect their position. Next came Draper's attack across the same ground. Under constant infantry and artillery fire, Draper's men spent 30 brutal minutes pinned down by southern firepower. Finally Confederate fire slackened, providing an opening for the USCTs to charge New Market Heights. Union infantrymen crossed the Confederate earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights only to find most of the Confederate defenders gone. But the courage and determination shown by those making the attacks could not be denied. Paine's division suffered over 800 casualties in just over an hour. Meanwhile, the other prong of the Union offensive, two divisions of the XVIII Corps, advanced north and captured Fort Harrison and a small section of Richmond's outer defenses. Later that day, Confederates repulsed assaults against Fort Johnson, Fort Hoke, Fort Gregg and Fort Gilmer and contained the initial Federal success.
On the 30th, after Lee reinforced his lines north of the James, he counter attacked unsuccessfully against Fort Harrison. Following 2 days of battle, producing an estimated 5,000 casualties, both armies once again entrenched - continuing the seemingly endless cycle of attack, dig, and wait. The Federals entrenched, and the Confederates erected a new line of works cutting off the captured forts. Union general Burnham was killed. As Grant anticipated, Lee shifted troops to meet the threat against Richmond, weakening his lines at Petersburg.
The battle became one of the most heroic engagements involving African-Americans (colored troops). The African-American division of the XVIII Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights.
During the hour-long engagement, the division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the 16 African-Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, 14 received the honor as a result of their actions at New Market Heights. The Battle of Chaffin's Farm was the North's most successful effort to break Gen. Robert E. Lee's defensive lines north of the James. The attack at New Market Heights forever established the fighting spirit of the African-American soldier.