The Battle of New Market Heights, Henrico County, Virginia, fought on September 29, 1864, remains among the lesser known engagements of the Civil War. Its significance, however, in American military history and African-American history deserves recognition.
New Market Heights was part of a larger operation planned and directed by Union Major General 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.
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 September 29, the Army of the James launched a two-pronged attack. One prong, Major General 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, Major General David Birney's X Corps, along with Brigadier General Charles Paine's division of USCTs, crossed the James River at Deep Bottom Landing and advanced north toward New Market Heights. General 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 Brigadier General Martin Gary's dismounted cavalry brigade. Paine's three brigades - commanded by Colonels John Holman, Alonzo Draper and Samuel Duncan, formed behind Four Mile Creek and steadied themselves before the grand rush toward the enemy's line.
Unfortunately for the Union effort, the attacks came piecemeal. Col. Duncan's brigade charged first, but was soon bogged down, unable to penetrate the two lines of fallen trees and debris the Confederates had prepared to protect their position. Next came Col. Alonzo Draper's attack across the same ground. Under constant infantry and artillery fire, Draper's men spent thirty 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 Rebel 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. For their valor, 14 African Americans received the Medal of Honor. This was an especially significant event in American military history given that only 16 Army Medals of Honor were awarded to black troops during the entire Civil War.
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 September 30, General Robert E. Lee directed an unsuccessful counterattack against Fort Harrison. Following two 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 Battle of Chaffin's Farm was the North's most successful effort to break General 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. For the next six months the two armies held fast to their opposite positions just eight miles from Richmond. On April 2, 1865, the Confederate government evacuated its capital city. The following day the Army of the James, including hundreds of USCTs, proudly entered Richmond.