Written by Evan Hocter
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm and New Market Heights was a significant Union victory, both militarily and ideologically. The battle proved that black soldiers were more than capable of holding their own in combat. Not only that, but they were able to serve with distinction on the doorstep of the Confederate capital. The fact that fourteen Medals of Honor were given to black soldiers after the battle showcases their stellar performance. While not among the most well-known battles of the war, New Market Heights marked a monumental moment in African American military history.
The Civil War was fought primarily over the issue of slavery. Since the nation’s founding, the southern states’ economic and political power rested on the institution of slavery. As Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens once stated, “Our new government is founded upon…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” The Confederacy was built with slavery as its cornerstone. It is with this in mind that the Union army began to recruit black men starting in 1863. They boosted Northern manpower and served to spit in the face of Confederate notions of racial superiority. However, their track record was far from perfect. White commanders seemed to take more risks with the lives of their United States Colored Troops (USCT), sending them on more dangerous missions than their white comrades. As showcased in the Battle of the Crater, a mere two months before the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm, black soldiers’ lives were markedly less sacred to their enemies. Countless USCT were killed in the battle and over 200 were killed after surrendering by Confederates, and by some accounts, their own comrades.
Prior to September 29, 1864, the American Civil War had entered its second phase. The Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg had shifted the war in the North’s favor. Northern armies pushed deeper and deeper into the South, yet the Confederate capital of Richmond remained the ultimate prize. Despite being relatively close to the Union lines, it was a tough nut to crack for Union commanders. The first “major” battle of the war, First Bull Run in July 1861, was an attempt by American forces to march on Richmond, ensuring a swift end to the war. Following that, the Peninsula Campaign was yet another attempt to capture the southern capital. Both ended in failure, indicating that the War of the Rebellion would not be decided so easily. It was not until two years into the conflict that the North seemingly gained the upper hand at Gettysburg.
Helmed by newly-minted Commanding General Ulysses S. Grant, the Union army set its sights on Richmond on June 9, 1864. Dubbed the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, Grant’s intent was to threaten the Confederate capital while simultaneously crushing the army of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee. Lee fortified his troops in and around the city of Petersburg, Virginia, some twenty miles south of Richmond. This resulted in nine months of bloody and slow trench warfare. In an attempt to starve out the Confederates and their people, special attention was paid to railroad lines going in and out of Richmond. While sending troops to attack railroads Grant ordered his subordinate, General Benjamin F. Butler to march toward Richmond with his Army of the James in an attempt to distract Lee’s forces. Butler set his sights on Fort Harrison, one of the strongest points in the Confederate line. To relieve pressure on his forces attacking the fort, however, he ordered a section of his troops (consisting of many USCT regiments) to attack Confederate artillery positions located on New Market Heights. The stage was set for the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm.
In command of the Union forces was General Butler. A New England lawyer and businessman by trade with limited military experience, who was a controversial figure within the Union army. Up to the point of Chaffin’s Farm, his most notable position was that of military governor of New Orleans. His rule was met by stiff resistance by the local populace, which he harshly subdued. Arrests, censorship, and even executions were common, making him a reviled figure in the South. Despite his actions in New Orleans, Butler was a radical for his time, noted for his respect and admiration for USCT. After the battle, he had special medals made for those whom he felt had deserved the Medal of Honor and stated later that, “My White regiments were always nervous when standing in line flanked by colored troops, lest the colored regiments should give way and they [white soldiers] be flanked…Therefore, I determined to put them in position to demonstrate the fact of the value of the negro as a soldier…” It came as no surprise then, that his Army of the James had several regiments of black soldiers.
The Army of the James itself was made up of two parts: the X Corps under the Command of Major General David B. Birney, and the XVIII Corps under the command of Major General Edward Ord. The army numbered around 26,600 men in total. A relatively new army, it was formed by a merger of several departments in 1864. It first saw action in Grant’s Overland Campaign and served in the Siege of Petersburg.
The commanders of the Confederate forces were General Lee with his Army of Northern Virginia and General Richard S. Ewell of the Department of Richmond. Robert E. Lee was born into a wealthy Virginia family with deep military roots. His father, Henry, served with distinction during the American Revolution and later became governor of the state. Lee himself was likewise set on a prestigious path. An excellent student at West Point and hero of the Mexican-American War, Lee had an outstanding resume as an officer. It came as no surprise that he went on to serve in the Civil War as possibly its greatest commander. Time after time, he defeated forces with far greater numbers due to expert tactics. For most of the war, the North seemed baffled by Lee, unable to find a commander who could match his skill. However, Lee met his most significant defeat at Gettysburg, turning his offensive campaign into a defensive one. By mid-1864, he was trapped. It is a testament to his skill that he forced the Union to fight for nine more months until he finally surrendered.
Richard S. Ewell was also raised in Virginia in an influential family. His grandfather Benjamin Stoddert was the first Secretary of the Navy. Like Lee, he was an accomplished student at West Point, and the two even served closely together during the Battle of Contreras during the Mexican War. Parallel to his foe, Benjamin Butler had a remarkably progressive stance towards enlisting African-Americans into the army. From the onset of the war, he offered to not only recruit but to lead black soldiers into battle. In the final days of the war, when the Confederate government finally allowed the enlistment of blacks, he spoke out about their treatment, stating that they “…were whipped, they were hooted at and treated generally in a way to nullify the law…” Despite respect for his character and abilities, Ewell was infamous for his physical frailty. He constantly suffered sickness and by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg, he could barely walk without assistance.
The Confederate forces at Chaffin’s Farm were comprised of the veteran and storied Army of Northern Virginia and Ewell’s command of the Department of Richmond. The Army of Northern Virginia made up the bulk of Confederate forces in the Eastern Theater and had seen some of the hardest fighting of the war. During Chaffin’s Farm, the Army was made up of the First Corps under Richard H. Anderson and the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia under Pierre G.T. Beauregard. The Department of Richmond was a formation tasked with the protection of the city of Richmond. It consisted of Ewell’s own forces and reserves commanded by James L. Kemper. As a whole, the armies totaled about 14,500 men.
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm took place on Chaffin’s Bluff in Henrico County, Virginia. It sat along the northern edge of the James River and was named for a local farmer. It consisted of difficult to navigate terrain marked by hills and winding streams. Fort Harrison was located on a hill on the western side of the Bluff. Confederate artillery was situated along New Market Road, due east of Fort Harrison on New Market Heights. Union forces had to trudge uphill in both sides of the battle, with Confederate defenders having superior positioning above their attackers.
The battle began in the early morning of September 29, 1864. The Army of the James crossed its namesake river on a pontoon bridge leading past Union lines. Confederate skirmishers were soon chased away by advancing Northern troops with ease, firing the first shots of the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. The first major event of the battle was the frontal assault of Colonel Samuel A. Duncan’s 3rd Brigade under General Charles J. Paine. It consisted of the 4th and 6th USCT regiments, numbering a total of 750 men. The division trudged through obstacles both natural and Confederate-made. Lines of wooden stakes slowed down the Union advance. Outnumbered and on vulnerable ground, Duncan’s vanguard suffered heavy casualties. Focused Confederate rifle fire soon turned to focused cannon fire. During the chaos of Duncan’s assault, Sergeant Christian Fleetwood of the 4th USCT’s color guard noticed two standard-bearers (Alfred Hilton and Charles Veale, who were both posthumously awarded Medals of Honor) go down with the unit’s flag. He rushed towards the gunfire to rescue the tattered standard before pulling back with the rest of the division. For his actions, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He observed the dysfunction of the operation later, writing, “…it was sheer madness, and those of us who were able I had to get out the best we could. Reaching the line of our reserves and no commissioned officer being in sight, I rallied the survivors around the flag…” By the end of the assault, the 750 men of Duncan’s brigade had been reduced by 387, a loss of fifty-seven percent.
While Duncan’s forces bore heavy of Confederate fire, the rest of the Union army slowly advanced up the hill. When Duncan’s 3rd Brigade finally fell back, General Paine ordered his 2nd Brigade, under Colonel Alonzo G. Draper, to take its place. Unlike Duncan’s assault, however, Draper’s charge would be assisted by elements of the X Corps’ First Division under the command of General Alfred H. Terry. Terry’s Division was to engage the forces of General Martin W. Gary’s dismounted cavalry to relieve pressure on Draper’s men. In addition, skirmishers of the 22nd USCT were sent to the opposite flank to draw fire from General John Gregg’s Texas Brigade. Draper utilized more sound formational tactics, unlike Duncan, spreading his men thinner to increase their firing line, but his forces fell to the same pitfalls as the final assault: concentrated artillery fire. The advance was soon halted. After what Colonel Draper called “Thirty minutes of terrible suspense,” his officers began to rally their men and the advance continued. Through precision Confederate fire, the 3rd Brigade broke through the fortifications and engaged the Texas Brigade in hand-to-hand combat. Soon after, both Terry’s men and the 22nd USCT had broken through the Confederate lines, forcing southern batteries to limber and retreat. This was followed by Gary’s cavalry, and soon the entire army had begun to pull back to various fortifications along the line. Draper’s Brigade had started the battle with 1,300 men but had lost over 400 in the assault. While paying a heavy toll, the Union had won the Battle of New Market Heights.
With the breakthrough at New Market Heights, Forts Harrison, Gilmer, and Gregg were left without artillery support and soon fell to advancing Union troops. The advance came as such a shock to Robert E. Lee that he personally saw to the reinforcement of the Confederate line to retake the forts, but their counter-attacks proved futile. The actions of Duncan and Draper’s USCT were irreplaceable in the victory. Colonel Duncan wrote of his men after the battle that, “They fought splendidly that morning, facing the red tempest of death with unflinching heroism.” Their resolve swayed not only their white comrades but some of their Confederate foes. As Texas soldier J.D. Pickens wrote, “…in my opinion, no troops to that time had fought us with more bravery than did those negroes.” Indeed, their service was so great that fourteen USCT were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions at Chaffin’s farm, out of a total of twenty-five awarded to black troops over the course of the entire war. Benjamin Butler, feeling that not enough of his African-American soldiers were recognized for their gallantry, created his own medals to honor them.
As the smoke cleared from Chaffin’s Bluff, the Army of the James continued to fight against the Confederacy. Benjamin Butler would lead his troops to more engagements until the Battle of Fort Fisher, where his failings as a commander would come back to haunt him. He was relieved of duty less than three months after his success at Chaffin’s Farm. He was replaced by General Edward Ord, the taker of Fort Harrison. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would prove a resilient foe, fighting on until April 9, 1865, when he finally surrendered his forces at the Battle of Appomattox Courthouse to General Grant. Richard S. Ewell, himself was defeated and captured at the Battle of Sailor’s Creek only three days before Lee.
USCT veterans of Chaffin’s Farm would go on to live varied and interesting lives after the war. Christian Fleetwood would go on to have a successful life as a bookkeeper and government clerk but would continue to support African-American military causes for the remainder of his life. Powhatan Beaty, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for rallying his unit during Draper’s Assault, would become an actor in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Beaty’s comrade, Robert Pinn, received the medal under similar circumstances and had many buildings in his home state of Ohio named for him. Notably, the National Guard Armory in Stow, Ohio.
The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm gave African-American soldiers the chance to prove their worth to their comrades and their Confederate enemies. They proved themselves ten times over. While suffering high casualties due to mismanagement by their commanders, they rallied behind their desire to fight for their people’s freedom and overpowered some of the best soldiers the South had to offer. The number of Medals awarded to USCT over one day of fighting is a testament to their prowess and bravery. Chaffin’s Farm may not be the most well-known Civil War battle, but it has a historical importance that cannot be denied.
Stephens, Alexander H. “Corner Stone Speech.” 21 March 1861, The Athenaeum, Savannah, GA. Oration.
Bryant, James K. The 36th Infantry United States Colored Troops in the Civil War. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.
Price, James S. The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs By The Sword. Stroud: The History Press, 2011.
Calos, Katherine. “Black soldiers in the Civil War: Who did they fight for and why?” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 14 Mar. 2015. http://www.richmond.com/news/special-report/the-civil-war/black-soldiers-in-the-civil-war-who-did-they-fight/article_317568c2-1ba4-5f88-a18a-45d24a900a22.html
Slotkin, Richard. “The Battle of the Crater.” The New York Times, 29 July 2014. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/the-battle-of-the-crater/
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