CHAFFIN'S FARM/NEW MARKET HEIGHTS
In September of 1864, Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign to take Petersburg and Richmond entered its fifth month. With the operation stalled, and Northern opposition to the war growing ahead of November’s presidential election, Grant felt that swift action was necessary to break the logjam and secure a Northern victory. His plan included an attack both north and south of the James River, along the roads leading into Richmond and Petersburg. A result was the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm (also referred to as the Battle of Chaffin’s Bluff or the Battle of New Market Heights -- and not to be confused with the Battle of New Market Heights that occurred in May of 1864), one of many battles that built the body of the Richmond-Petersburg campaign.
General Ulysses S. Grant
That campaign was based on the premise that if Grant could successfully weaken Lee's army and the outer defenses around Petersburg and Richmond, Union forces would control of all of the railroad systems which ran into Richmond and supplied the Confederate capital with food and equipment. Grant was certain that if he could capture Petersburg, Richmond would undoubtedly fall. While he sent a part of his army against the Confederate works in Petersburg, Grant would use General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James (which included the 29th Connecticut) to attack toward Richmond as a distraction to draw Confederate troops away from Petersburg. The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm took place on September 29th and 30th, and had two main objectives: to capture Fort Harrison, part of Richmond’s defenses, and to seize control of the New Market Road.
"Field of Honor" by Joseph Umble depicts the 4th United States Colored Troops in the Battle of New Market Heights, September 29th, 1864
An additional importance to the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm was the opportunity for the over 3,000 African American soldiers to enter the fight against slavery and to have the chance to be involved with real combat. Prior to this movement of Grant’s, African American troops in the war’s Eastern Theater had spent most of their time digging trenches. Now, however, an opportunity presented itself in which they could prove their abilities as soldiers by fighting in combat alongside white Northern soldiers. Not only was this a chance for the soldiers to prove themselves, but if they did well, it was a chance for Federal General Benjamin Butler, the commander of the Army of the James to which the 29th Connecticut belonged, to prove to Grant that he and his colored regiments had the skill and the right to fight alongside his men. This battle was planned in advance, with the Army’s Corps of Engineers building one pontoon bridge at Aiken’s Landing and another at Deep Bottom for the X and XVIII Corps to cross. It was calculated that the Union troops would greatly outnumber the Confederate men even when reinforcements arrived, which gave the Union soldiers, both black and white, immense hope. At 4:00 am, the troops positioned themselves at their jumping off points. All together, there were over 18,000 men in offense, against a predicted 6,500 Confederates. At 5:30, Major General Edward Ord and his XVIII Corps troops engaged in combat with 1,800 Confederates, who were stationed behind a strong defensive line. At 6:00, Major General David Birney attacked with his X Corps troops, including the 29th Connecticut. Birney believed he had a 10 to 1 numerical advantage and when the Confederates pulled troops from New Market Heights to reinforce other parts of their line Birney’s men took control of the road. Meanwhile, Ord and his men had made it inside Fort Harrison, and by 7:00 it was under Union control. Not only were there fewer Confederates there than expected, but they also lacked ammunition, and they retreated without putting up much of a fight. The fort was an important part of the Confederate defensive line. Unfortunately, after this victory, the Union troops conducted a series of uncoordinated attacks and were unable to follow it up with further success Confederate General Robert E. Lee, anxious to recover Fort Harrison, launched counterattacks against it from three nearby forts. These were all repulsed, and the two armies settled back into trench warfare, a little closer to Richmond. The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm resulted in over 5,000 casualties, 3,300 of which were in the Union army. Of those, eighteen were in the 29th Connecticut, including John W. Williams of Hamden who was killed in the fighting on September 30th.
A Butler Medal
Following the battle, General Butler had a medal created for about 200 of the black troops involved in the action. It was engraved with the Latin words, “Ferro iis libertas perveniet,” or “Freedom will be theirs by the sword.” It was a fitting tribute to these men who risked so much in the war to end slavery.