An Outcome Predetermined, Second Fight at Fort Harrison at Petersburg
by Gordon Thorsby
From Inside the Breastworks of Ft. Harrison (LOC)
How important was Ft. Harrison? Very. It was the largest redoubt on the Confederate line protecting Richmond and it was a potential key to the gates of the city. To attack it, the idea came from Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler. Butler, infamous for his lack military skills but at this time, he actually got it right. On Aug 29, Maj. Gen Edward C. Ord (below right) with 2500 US Colored troops attacked the position and poured over the works against only 200 poorly armed men in the works. The rest of the day, Union forces missed one opportunity after another trying to expand the penetration. At days end, colored troops lay dead on the fields beyond the fort toward Chaffin’s Farm. That evening, Confederate troops received new firearms and ammunition from the dead Colored troops. With Fort Harrison in control, Gen. Grant, who rarely was on the field, showed up to observe the positive results.
Lee, not satisfied with the situation came on scene as well and planned a counter assault for the next day scraping brigades together as could best retake the fort. By the morning of September 30, all was in final stages of preparation to accomplish the task.
Lee’s plan was to send forward two assembled groups totaling 8800 men to attack a small point, a method used by Lee before. The group on the left comnsisted of the brigades of Bratton’s South Carolinians, Bowles Georgians and “Tige” Anderson’s Alabamians. The group on the right had the brigades of Kirkland, McKeth, and Scales in front with Hagood’s and Colquitt’s brigades in the rear. Johnson Hagood’s brigade had arrived only on 8/22 and the brigade had been whittled down in fighting.
Two groups going in seemed somewhat unsound and commanders registered concerns but orders were orders. The two groups were also inferior in numbers… also not good. Cuts and swales protected the approach for the right group. The left had little cover. Unbeknownst to the attacking brigades, Federal forces had only three guns in Harrison so it would be almost entirely an infantry defense.
At 1:45, it began. Lee’s line of 40 guns began opened on the fort, added by Confederate naval fire from the James River from gunboats, Drewery, Beaufort and Hampton. and ironclad CSS Fredericksburg provided additional fire. The artillery fire when finished had inflicted less than hoped but unfortunately what was expected. The infantry was going to have to do the job. The infantry started off but uncoordinated. The two groups had no way to be simultaneous in their efforts. Meanwhile, the Union troops in the fort realized they were about to be attacked, had forgotten to build good defensive works facing Confederate forces and they began it now.
Across the field Bowles, Bratton, and Anderson came and almost from the start, regiments, companies, and lines broke up. When at two hundred yards the blue lines four deep opened up, it would seem a wonder any Confederate remained alive after a few minutes. The Yankees let them have it with everything and many regiments had Spencer Repeating rifles. Recalled by one Confederate officer, “With terrible fury they blasted the line as it emerged from the depression.” Bowles Georgians were the first to break up.” All order was lost, many went to ground and more broke rearward. Bratton’s line to the right of Bowles and Bratton’s South Carolinians broke as well hanging but only a little longer.
The Palmetto Sharpshooters on the right broke first. The other four South Carolina regiments continued on until Stannard’s Federal line suddenly volleyed. Col James R. Hagood of Bratton’s Brigade (related) of the 1st SC recalled of his experience of their charge, “Its effects were soon discovered in the wilted state of the troops who breathed it.” The hundreds of bleeding bodies stretched on the slope west of the run made it clear that no one could long endure that fire and live.”
Across the ground of USCT dead Southern soldiers had charged and minutes later, some returned in groups and some by ones and twos, back across that field now with blue and gray intermixed on the field. “All colonels ordered charges, few succeeded in moving farther. The 2nd Carolina Rifles on the left center refused to move. The 5th on the left feeling abandoned by the 2nd fell back. The 1st and the 6th came to within 60 yards but went to ground unable to handle the amount of lead. There was no second or third attempts. The fort secured, was renamed Fort Burnham for the Union general who had died the previous day in the assault on the redoubt.
An adjutant at Lee’s headquarters stated, "Our effort to retake [Fort Harrison] was not an energetic nor a systematic one.” The inference was that it was due to bad execution. Artillery Chief Porter Alexander indicated Lee was more worried at failure than he [Alexander] had seen before. The fighting over, Lee decided it best to retrench and lose some ground. Efforts to retake the redoubt was no longer an option.
Brig Gen. John Bratton (above) may have put it most simply, that the attack was “too much for human valor.”
Note: On September 22, 2014, park staff at Richmond National Battlefield Park discovered an artillery shell within the moat around the fort.
Richmond Redeemed, by Sommers, Richard J., Savas Beatie, Revised 2014. Ppgs. 134-146.
“Fort Harrison, Chaffin’s Farm,” American Battlefield Trust.
The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies Series I, Vol. LXII, Pt. I, 937-939.
The History Engine, https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4750.
Fury at Fort Harrison, Emerging Civil War, Posted on February 8, 2022 by Doug Crenshaw.
The Map is from the “Save the Richmond Battlefield” Organization.