The Battle of Ft. Harrison: Richard S. Ewell’s Previously Unpublished Account

by Brett Schulte on January 18, 2014 · 8 comments

Lt. General Richard S. Ewell

Lt. General Richard S. Ewell is well-known among students of the early was battles, perhaps being most famous for his decision not to attack the Union position on Cemetery Hill on the evening of July 1, 1863 at Gettysburg.  Ewell’s performance at Gettysburg, in the Fall of 1863 and in the Overland Campaign caused General Lee to the Department of Richmond, assigning the Second Corps, ANV to Jubal Early.  It was in his role as commander of the Department of Richmond that Ewell found himself facing a determined Union effort to capture the Confederate capital on September 29, 1864.  As you will see, Ewell had little to work with, approximately 1,500 men to hold four miles of trenches guarding the southeastern approaches to the city.  The Army of the James eventually took Fort Harrison that day, and held on to the fort the next day despite repeated Confederate counterattacks.

Ewell’s report of the September 29 action found in the Official Records is brief, and only refers to the later Federal attempt to take Fort Gilmer, further north on the Exterior Line guarding Richmond.  I was with great excitement then, 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 an account of the action at Fort Harrison in General Richard S. Ewell’s late war 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.

After some initial inquiries on my part, librarian Kate Collins promptly and courteously located the manuscript for me and copied the relevant pages.  After receiving the manuscript on Thursday evening, I eagerly read it over.  Ewell appears to have been writing to someone to provide them with detail on the action so they could publish an accurate account of the battle.  I am not sure who Ewell intended this account for or if that person ever read it.  If you know, please Contact me.  In any event, Ewell describes what he saw on the morning of September 29, 1864 in some amount of detail over 5 1/2 pages in his Letterbook.

Battle of Ft Harrison September 29 1864 Harpers Weekly Waud

Ewell’s thinly defended lines southeast of Richmond cracked on September 29, 1864, losing Fort Harrison to the Union Army of the James.

***

In this account, written on November 4, 1864, it is clear he is attempting to deflect blame for the failure to hold Fort Harrison onto the authorities in Richmond, writing:

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.1

If you’re interested in more, you can read the full account of Richard S. Ewell’s experiences at the Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff on September 29, 1864 over at The Siege of Petersburg Online.  Images of the pages are also available if you want to see Ewell’s description of the battle in his own handwriting.  This transcription and the images of Ewell’s recollections wouldn’t have been possible without Kate Collins’ help.  I want to thank her again for all of her help.  Thanks Kate!

Notes:

  1. Ewell, Richard S. Excerpt on the Battle of Fort Harrison, September 29, 1864 from his letter book, 1864-5, Benjamin Stoddert Ewell PapersDavid M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

***

Check out the Siege of Petersburg Online for daily posts on battle accounts in newspaper articles, diary entries, letters and more!

What are your Top 10 Gettysburg Books? See what a panel of bloggers said recently.

Want to read some interesting Civil War content from amateurs and pros alike? Check out the Top 10 Civil War Blogs and Top 10 Civil War Blogs: 11-20.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Drew W. January 18, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Brett,
Did you get a copy of that new Fort Harrison & Chaffin’s Farm book from History Press? It was published late last year.

Reply

Brett Schulte January 18, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Drew,

Yes I did. That book’s bibliography is where I learned of Ewell’s account of Fort Harrison. I’m reading it now and I hope to have a review of it out soon. I think I know the answer to this, but did you review it already?

Brett

Reply

Drew W. January 19, 2014 at 2:46 pm

No, I didn’t request one and didn’t get an unsolicited copy either.

Reply

Drew W. January 19, 2014 at 2:50 pm

Ha. It appears that if I’d actually read the post rather than skimmed it, my question was already answered.

Reply

Brett Schulte January 19, 2014 at 5:04 pm

I’ve never gotten a review copy from the History Press either unless the author specifically asked them to send it. 🙂 I was trying to be nice by not mentioning that part…

Reply

James F. Epperson January 18, 2014 at 10:09 pm

I have that book, but have been occupied with other portions of “Mt. ToBeRead” so I haven’t looked at it yet. You may have moved it up the stack some.

IIRC, Sommers suggests that Ewell’s work to contain Ord’s breakthrough may have been his greatest service to the Confederacy.

Reply

Brett Schulte January 18, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Jim,

Based on Ewell’s description of what he was facing that day, I think Dr. Sommers has a good point. I’ve found both the Fort Harrison book (reading now, on chapter 4) and Jimmy Price’s book on New Market Heights to be pretty good accounts of these little known battles, especially given that the authors I’m sure had space constraints due to the format of The History Press’ Sequicentennial series of books.

Brett

PS I’m with you on Mt ToBeRead, and the pile seems to be growing rather than shrinking on a 5:1 basis…

Reply

James F. Epperson January 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

I’ve read the New Market Heights book (also bought the Troani painting).

Ewell was helped by Ord getting shot.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: