I missed the series of August battles of Grant’s Fourth Offensive due to real life issues, but I’m back with a look at perhaps the North’s best chance to drive Lee out of Petersburg and Richmond between July 30, 1864 and April 2, 1865. The events of September 29, 1864 nearly proved fatal to Lee’s attempts to hold these important cities. Benjamin Butler, commander of the Army of the James, believed (correctly) that the Confederates had very few forces covering the eastern approaches to Richmond, and he devised a plan to take part of the Outer Line of Richmond’s three lines of fortifications. Grant, as was becoming a habit, also decided to send part of the Army of the Potomac west from his newly won gains along the Weldon Railroad at Globe Tavern, hoping to stretch Lee’s already thin line to the breaking point.
Butler’s Army had some success on September 29. Birney led one column (his X Corps) against New Market Heights. The United States Colored Troops under his command distinguished themselves in their attacks at that point, just north of the Deep Bottom bridgehead, earning quite a few Medals of Honor in the process. While this attack was underway, another column of the Army of the James (Ord’s XVIII Corps) was moving forward against Ft. Harrison, a defensive work that was part of Richmond’s Outer Defense Line. Stannard’s Division managed to take the fort, but this was to be the high point of the day. Ord himself was wounded, and the Northern assaults from this point forward, even with reinforcements from Birney’s column, were only able to achieve a stalemate near Ft. Gilmer, northeast of Harrison. To make matters worse, Confederate reinforcements began to arrive and the Federals were forced to pull back to the vicinity of Ft. Harrison. Lee’s attempts to retake the fort the next day ended poorly, and the Federals had gained a toehold on the Outer Line. If things had gone differently, they could have done much more.
Grant’s efforts on the south side of the Appomattox River southwest of Petersburg jumped off on September 30, 1864, a day after Butler’s successful attack. Grant saw that Lee was making an effort to retake Fort Harrison and the Federal occupied portion of the outer line. In order to exploit this, he sent portions of Warren’s V Corps and Parke’s IX Corps, Army of the Potomac west from the vicinity of Globe Tavern. Grant hoped to stretch Lee’s already weak line and possibly gain a foothold on the Boydton Plank Road, one of Lee’s few remaining supply routes. This column encountered the Squirrel Level Line in the area of Poplar Spring Church, and they were easily able to drive away the cavalry force which was attempting to hold it. The next objective was the Boydton Plank Road, but the line here was now held by Harry Heth’s Division, which Lee had been holding as a mobile force to be used in trouble spots. Parke’s IX Corps cautiously moved north towards the Boydton Plank Road, but Heth launched a crushing attack that drove the Union troops away in confusion. Charles Griffin’s V Corps Division helped the rallied portion of the IX Corps finally blunt this attack near Pegram’s Farm, and each side tried unsuccessful attacks over the next few days. The fighting was over, but Grant had gotten that much closer to breaking Lee’s lines.
If you are interested in learning more about the events of late September-early October 1864, I cannot recommend Richard Sommers’ Richmond Redeemed highly enough. The book’s subject is Grant’s Fifth Offensive, including all of the fighting mentioned above. As always, Jim Epperson’s Petersburg Campaign web site is also an excellent place to go to start learning about this subject.
Other sources, courtesy of this list at the United States Army Military History Institute, include:
Sommers, Richard J. “Petersburg Autumn: The Battle of Poplar Spring Church.” In The Confederate High Command and Related Topics: The 1988 Deep Delta Civil War Symposium. Shippensburg, PA: White Mane, 1990. pp. 30 52. E468D42.1988.
Bruce, George A. “Petersburg, June 15 Fort Harrison, September 29: A Comparison.” In Papers of the Mil Hist Soc of MA, Vol. 14, cited above. pp. 83 116. E470M65v14.
Sommers, Richard J. “Fury at Fort Harrison.” CW Times Illus 19 (Oct 1980): pp. 12 23. Per.
NEW MARKET HEIGHTS
Aliyetti, John F. “Gallantry Under Fire.” CW Times Illus 35 (Oct 1996): pp. 50-55. Per. On the Medals of Honor.
Brinsfield, John. “The Battle of New Market Heights.” Soldiers 51 (Feb 1996): pp. 50-52. Per.
Longacre, Edward G., ed. “Edward Ripley Recalls the Battle of New Market Heights.” CW Times Illus 20 (Feb 1982): pp. 38 44. Per.
Popchock, Barry. “A Shower of Stars at New Market Heights.” CW 46 (Aug 1994): pp. 30-31 & 34-39. Per.On the Medals of Honor.
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