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Chaffin's Farm
New Market Heights Virginia


American Civil War
September 29-30, 1864

  Colored Troops displayed their worth at the Battle of New Market Heights (Chaffin's Farm) near Richmond on September 29, 1864. Fourteen men, including Christian Fleetwood, who later became an active community leader in Washington, D.C. were presented the Medal of Honor for valor at New Market Heights. Several were awarded to men who took charge of their units after all white commanders had fallen. Soldiers of distinction were also given the Army of the James or "Butler" medal, designated by champion of the black troops, Gen. Benjamin Butler and the only medal created solely for the United States Colored Troops  
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During the night of September 28-29, Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James crossed James River to assault the Richmond defenses north of the river. The columns attacked at dawn. After initial Union successes at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison, the Confederates rallied and contained the breakthrough.

Lee reinforced his lines north of the James and, on September 30, he counter attacked unsuccessfully. The Federals entrenched, and the Confederates erected a new line of works cutting off the captured forts.  Union general Burnham was killed.

As Grant anticipated, Lee shifted troops to meet the threat against Richmond, weakening his lines at Petersburg.

The Battle became one of the most heroic engagements involving African Americans (colored troops). The Colored Troops division of the Eighteenth Corps, after being pinned down by Confederate artillery fire for about 30 minutes, charged the earthworks and rushed up the slopes of the heights.

During the hour-long engagement the division suffered tremendous casualties. Of the sixteen African Americans who were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, fourteen received the honor as a result of their actions at New Market Heights.

Result(s): Union victory

Location: Henrico County

Campaign: Richmond–Petersburg Campaign (June 1864-March 1865) next battle in campaign    previous battle in campaign

Date(s): September 29-30, 1864

Principal Commanders: Major General Benjamin Butler [US]; General Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell [CS]

Forces Engaged: Armies

Estimated Casualties: 4,430 total


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July 18, 1863, the African American soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Infantry led a courageous but ill-fated charge on Fort Wagner, a key bastion guarding Charleston harbor. Confederate defenders killed, wounded, or made prisoners of half the regiment. Only hours later, the body of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the regiment's white commander, was thrown into a mass grave with those of twenty of his men.

Fort Burnham, Virginia (the former Confederate Fort Harrison). Federal soldiers in front of bomb-proof headquarters

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Where Death and Glory Meet: Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry
The history of how our culture determines manhood. Although a rather detached supporter of abolition, Shaw was skeptical about the fighting abilities of freedmen, and initially declined the command. When he did accept, he was aware that the eyes of the nation were on his regiment, and his training of them was relentless. The 54th measured up by proving itself in battle
The Civil War Battlefield at New Market, Virginia
The Civil War Battlefield at New Market, Virginia Photographic Print
24 in. x 18 in.
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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.

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Sources:
U.S. National Park Service
U.S. Library of Congress.
City of Alexandria Virginia