The shootout at Chaffin's farm: black soldiers helped save the union.
The name was deceptive. Chaffin's Farm was no farm or, to be more precise, it was no longer a farm. A former producer of the raw materials of life, the farm on the outskirts of Richmond, Va., had been transformed formed in the course of the Civil War into a producer of the raw materials of death. The land where cattle and swine once grazed was now honeycombed with foxholes and fortifications. The fields that once yielded harvests of grain and vegetables now yielded harvest of corpses.
Geography defined this death farm. It lay athwart the main approaches to the Confederate capital and was the key to the defense of the city. Whoever controlled the fortifications in and around Chaffin's Farm controlled Richmond.
By a quirk of fate, these fortifications so vital to the war effort of the defenders of Black slavery, became the focal point of perhaps the greatest thrust by Black soldiers in any war. In some 30 minutes of fighting on New Market Heights on a bloody Thursday morning in September, 1864, and in succeeding operations, Blacks captured the outer defenses of the Chaffin fortifications and won 13 Congressional Medals of Honor (more Medals of Honor than were awarded to Black soldiers in all the wars and years between the Spanish-American War and the Korean War).
The charge at New Market Heights and the subsequent thrust and parries at other Chaffin's Farm entrenchments [Fort Harrison and Fort Gilmer] grew out of and reflected the ambiguities of the Civil War which, by the fall of 1864, was grinding to a bloody climax. By this time, the Army of the James was stymied on the Petersburg fine. By this time, too, Black soldiers, who had fought splendidly in hundreds of battles, had been relegated to support roles and suicidal charges. This bothered a number of men and women, including a controversial and crafty Union general named Benjamin Franklin Butler. Butler was a New England lawyer with an instinct for dramatic gestures. He had no previous battle-field experience, and it was widely said that he was a political general who couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag. Partly to meet this charge, and partly, he said, to vindicate Black soldiers, Butler conceived the idea of a surprise attack on the supposedly impregnable fortifications on Chaffin's Farm. In drawing up his plans, Butler was not unmindful of the fact that a White force commanded by General W S. Hancock had just been repulsed at New Market Heights. Butler intended to succeed where others had failed, and he intended to succeed with an integrated force. As Butler saw it, he had everything to gain and nothing to lose. If his plan succeeded, he would establish the first Union toehold in the Richmond suburb. If he got a little luck, he would capture the Chaffin forfications and march into the Confederate capital. Either way, he would have a laugh on critics who said he could talk but couldn't fight. Beyond all that, Butler wanted to deal with the Black-White issue. He told his superior, General Ulysses S. Grant, that "the Negro troops had had no chance to show their valor or staying qualities in action" on the Virginia front. "I told him," he added, "that I meant to take a large part of my Negro force, and under my personal command make an attack upon New Market Heights, the redoubt to the extreme left of the enery's line .... I said I want to convince myself whether, when under my own eye, the Negro troops will fight; and if I can take with the Negroes, a redoubt that turned Hancock's corps on a former occasion, that will settle the question." That question, of course, had long since been settled, but in this war, as in every other war, Black soldiers were called upon to prove, over and over again, that they were human.
With Grants approval, Butler drew up a plan that relied heavily on the skill and courage of Black soldiers. The all-Black Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps would initiate the assault at dawn with a bayonet charge up Spring Hill, which commanded the approaches to New Market Road and the intersection of New Market and Kingsland Roads. The Mute divisions of the Tenth Corps would then proceed up New Market Road toward Richmond. Simultaneously, the Mute divisions of the Eighteenth Corps would advance on Varina Road, near the James River, and assault the Confederate works at Fort Harrison, near Chaffin's Bluff. The key to the plan was surprise. The Black and White soldiers were to cross the James River on muffled pontoon bridges at midnight and fall on the surprised rebels at dawn.
Butler went to extraordinary lengths to insure the secrecy of the plan. All instructions were transmitted verbally and subordinates were ordered to keep the details to themselves. No one below the rank of corps commander was told the objectives or the route of march. Despite the secrecy, there was considerable speculation in the tents of the Eighteenth Corps on the south side of the James River and the Tenth Corps on the Petersburg front. An echo of this can be detected in the Writings of Private A. H. Newton of the all-Black Twenty-ninth Regiment of Connecticut. "U somehow had the feeling," he wrote, "that something was going on, or was going to happen, that would require one to be wise and cunning The officers had a queer expression on their faces, and in fact all the the field officers seemed to be uneasy."
The foreboding of the foot soldiers became more precise on Wednesday afternoon, September 27, when the Tenth Corps was ordered to prepare for an immediate march to an unknown destination. The soldiers were told to leave all their worldly goods except a single blanket rolled over their shoulders and a haversack with "three days' cooked rations" and sixty rounds of cartridges. Later that day, similar orders were issued to the Eighteenth Corps.
The Tenth Corps marched all afternoon and reached the banks of the James River after midnight. Meanwhile, the first detachments of the Eighteenth Corps were stealing silently across the James on pontoon bridges at Aiken's Landing. Before dawn, the first phase of the plan was complete, and the soldiers (Black and White) were bivouacked in corn fields and woods on the north side of the James. There were nine Black regiments in this attacking force, including the Fourth (Maryland), Fifth (Ohio), Sixth (Pennsylvania), Seventh (Maryland), Eighth (Pennsylvania), Thirty-sixth (North Carolina), and Thirty-eighth (Virginia) USCT regiments. Most of the soldiers in these regiments were former slaves, and most of them were seasoned veterans who had won battle stars at Wilsons Wharf, Suffolk, Petersburg, and Olustee.
It did not take these soldiers long to realize that something big was in the works, and that the sun would bring trouble and blood. Some soldiers prayed. Some cursed. Some sang:
Sure, I must fight if I would win,
Increase my courage, Lord....
At about 3 a.m., the Black soldiers of the Third Division of the Eighteenth Corps (temporarily attached to the Tenth Corps) were marched to a point near the intersection of New Market and Kingsland Roads and ordered to lie down in place. An hour passed, and then Maj.Gen. B. F. Butler materialized with the orders of the day.
"At half past four o'clock," General Butler remembered later, "I found the colored division, rising time thousand men, occupying a plain which shelved towards the river, so that they were not observed by the enemy at New Market Heights. They were formed in close column of division right in front. I rode through the division, addressed a few words of encouragement and confidence to the troops. I told them this was an attack where I expected them to go over and take a work which would be before them after they got over the hill, and that they must take it at all hazards, and that when they went over the parapet into it their war cry should be `Remember Fort Pillow."
Butler was a dandy with a flair for dramatics, and one can imagine the passion he invoked in this little scene, which ended with a chilling order. The soldiers were to advance in close column by divisions. There was to be no halt after they turned the brow of the hill.
The soldiers advanced, disappearing into an early-morning fog "that enwrapped them," an onlooker said, "like a mantle of death." Far to the east, the first red glow of the sun pierced the darkness, and tiny beams of light searched the faces of the candidates for death and heroism. It was 4:30 a.m., Thursday, September 29, 1864.
As soon as the men reached the brow of the hill, the enormity of the task before them became apparent. The hill plunged downwards to a creek, which drained a swamp to the left. The ground then rose at an angle of 30 to 35 degrees to an abatis (heavy trees, cut down and arranged end to end, with the tops cut off and the branches sharpened and interlaced). One hundred yards from this first abatis, straight up, was a second abatis. Fifty yards from this was a square redoubt manned by some 1,000 rebel soldiers, who opened fire and shouted, "Come on, darkies, we want your muskets!"
The Black soldiers obliged, marching down the slope, Butler said, "as if on parade." The line wavered at the creek, where the left wing became enmired in the mud of the swamp. There was confusion for a moment; and then, under a withering fire of artillery and musketry, the line righted itself and the soldiers splashed through the creek, holding their rifles over their heads. Having crossed this barrier, the soldiers abandoned formal maneuvers and thundered up the hill, line after line falling to the ground, Sergeant Major Christian A. Fleetwood wrote, "as hailstones sweep the leaves from the trees." On the way up the slope, the soldiers recoiled for a moment and then reformed at the call of a brave Black bugler, who led them to the first line of abatis. The first line of axmen was cut down by enemy fire and was replaced by a second and third line. Finally, after what seemed like hours, gaping holes were opened in the abatis and the soldiers barreled through, heads low, knees high, presenting as small a target as possible. There was only one abatis left, and it was one hundred yards away. The soldiers charged this final obstacle, vaulting over the bodies of their fallen comrades.
Now, by this time, all was confusion, and the laws of death had nullified the Jim Crow laws of the Union Army by eliminating almost all of the White company officers. As a consequence, whole companies and whole columns were under the command of Black sergeants and Black corporals. In the Fifth USCT, for example, Sgt. Maj. Milton M. Holland of Athens, Ohio, was commanding Company C; First Sergeant James H. Bronson of Indiana County, Pa., was in charge of Company D, First Sergeant Robert Pinn of Massillon, Ohio, was the de facto captain of Company I; and First Sergeant Powhatan Beaty of Richmond was calling the shots in Company G. In the Thirty-eighth USCT, First Sergeant Edward Batcliff of James County, Va., was thrown into command of his company by, the death of the captain and was, according to the official report, "the first enlisted man in the enemy's works, leading his company with great gallantry."
Under the leadership of these soldiers, all of whom received Congressional Medals of Honor for "gallantly and meritoriously" leading their companies after all the company officers had been killed or wounded, the Fifth USCT and the Sixth, Eight, Thirty-sixth and Thirty-eighth regiments, many of whose companies were also led by Black noncommissioned officers, reached, historic heights of courage. When the color sergeant of the Fourth USCT was cut down beside him, Sgt. Alfred B. Hilton, bearer of the United States flag, picked up the regimental standard and surged forward with both colors until he was disabled by a severe wound at the second line of abatis. And "when on the ground," the official report said, "he showed that his thoughts were for the colors and not for himself." Similar feats were performed by Charles Veal, color bearer of Company D, Fourth USCT; Alexander Kelley, first sergeant, Company F, Sixth USCT, and Christian A. Fleetwood, sergeant major, Fourth USCT, all of whom received Congressional Medals of Honor "I have never been able to understand," Fleetwood said later, "how Veal and I lived through such a hail of bullets, unless it was because we were both such little fellows. I think I weighed then about 125 pounds and Veal about the same. We did not get a scratch. A bullet passed between my legs, cutting my boot leg trousers and even my stockings, without breaking the skin."
In the midst of all this, Cpl. Miles James, Thirty-sixth USCT, was slammed to the ground by a bullet that shattered his arm so badly that immediate amputation was necessary. Despite the pain of the gory stump on his side, Cpl. James got up, loaded and discharged his piece with one hand and urged his men forward.
Led and inspired by these and other men, the Second and Third Brigades of the Third Division pressed forward, reaching the second and final abatis. Again the axmen sprang forward. Again sharpshooters leisurely picked them off. Again the fallen axmen were promptly replaced by new men, who finally breached the final obstacle, Screaming "Remember Fort Pillow!" the Black soldiers rushed through the holes and swept up the hill. The astonished Confederate soldiers threw down their arms and ran, pursued by triumphant Blacks, who drove them from a second line of entrenchments. The official records are not entirely clear, but it was apparently at this point that a Confederate officer leaped upon a parapet, waving his sword, and shouted, "Hurrah my brave men." Pvt. James Gardner, Thirty-sixth USCT, rushed in advance of the Second Brigade and ran his bayonet through the officer's body to the muzzle. Another hero of the day was Pvt. William H. Barnes, who was, the official report said, "among the very first to enter the rebel works, although himself previously wounded...." General Butler said later, "As I rode across the brook and up towards the fort along this line of charge, some eighty feet wide and three or four hundred, yards long, there lay in my path five hundred and forty-three dead and wounded of my colored comrades. And as I guided my horse this way and that way that his hoof might not profane their dead bodies, I swore to myself an oath, which I hope and believe I have kept sacredly, that they and their race should be cared for and protected by me to the extent of my power so long as I lived."
The capture of New Market Heights opened the front door of the Chaffin's Farm fortifications, and many rebel soldiers, finding their position untenable, fell back to the inner lines of defense. This made it possible for the entire Tenth Corps to move down the New Market Road toward Richmond. Lt. Col. James F. Randlett of the Third New Hempshire Infantry (White) reported that "the enemy, discovering the success of the colored troops on my left, gave up their works without much struggle."
The situation at this point was fraught with portentous possibilities, and the leading men on both sides rushed to the battlefield. General Grant came up from City Points, and General Robert E. Lee rushed to the scene from his headquarters.
Meanwhile, the pressures on Richmond increased. As the Tenth Corps advanced on New Market Road, the Eighteenth Corps pressed the attack on the Varina Road, smashing through the rebel defenses and capturing Fort Harrison. For a brief moment, the road to Richmond was wide open. But poor communications delayed the Union advance and permitted the Confederates to reinforce the last line of defense at Fort Gilmer, some four miles from Richmond. Here, late in the afternoon, Confederate troops repulsed a charge by a White regiment, which fell back, the official report said, "in some confusion." At that juncture, the Black brigade of the Tenth Corps was thrown into the fray. After the Ninth USCT attempted unsuccessfully to storm the works to the left of Fort Gilmer, four companies of the Seventh USCT were ordered to make a suicidal charge on the main entrenchments. The task, as Captain Julius A. Weiss pointed out, was virtually impossible for such a small force. The fort was some 1,400 yards away. The attacking force would have to cross an open plain and three ravines, filled with fallen trees; and it would be exposed along the whole way to enfilading fire from artillery on the left and right. Despite Weiss's protests, the four companies were ordered to prepare for an immediate assault.
The battlefield resounded now with and second waves. But the first and screams and curses, punctuated by the explosion of artillery shells and the whining pitch of minie balls.
It was in this setting that Companies C, D, G and k of the Seventh USCT made one of the most gallant charges of the war, springing across the open plain, struggling through three ravines and reaching the great ditch which protected the fort.
When it became apparent that the mission was impossible, Captain Weiss and the survivors surrendered. Every soldier in the four companies with the exception of three men, was either killed, wounded, or captured.
The successful stand of the Fort Gilmer rebels halted the Union advance, but the new Union outposts at New Market Heights and Fort Harrison were drawn daggers pointing to the aorta of the Confederacy. General Lee perceived this almost immediately and called in all available forces for a desperate counter-offensive. On the next day, Friday, September 30, Lee sent ten of the South's best bridges against the Black and White Union soldiers in Fort Harrison.
After the first and second charges were driven back, Lee or one of his lieutenants ordered a charge against the section of the line manned by the Black veterans of New Market Heights. With a wild rebel yell, the Confederate soldiers dashed across the plain, fear and hate in the eyes. The Black soldiers held their fire until the last minute and then squeezed the triggers, splattering the first second waves were followed by other waves and the rebels finally reached the edge of the Union lines. For a long agonizing moment, free Black men, freedmen and former slaves, stood toe to toe and bayonet to bayonet with the Souths finest, hacking and slashing. This classic confrontation, so important to the Union and the Confederacy, held the attention of both generals and foot soldiers.
So great was the realization of the danger, wrote Lieutenant R. B. Prescott, "so keen the anxiety, so doubtful the issue, that every eye was riveted upon [the scene], unmindful of the storm of lead and iron that the Confederate sharpshooters and artillery poured upon us from every available point. It seemed impossible for any to escape, but happily in a few moments, the Confederates broke in disorder and sought safety under the protecting guns of Fort Gilmer, while the Union troops shouted themselves hoarse with delight."
The meaning of this episode was clear to all the parties concerned. Union soldiers (black and White) occupied unassailable ramparts within sight and sound of the Confederate capital.
And Lt. Prescott, cheering on the parapet of Fort Harrison, believed he could see "the beginning of the end" of the Confederacy.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||excerpt from 'Great Moments in Black History' about a tribute to black soldiers who fought in Civil War|
|Author:||Bennett, Lerone, Jr.|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1996|
|Previous Article:||The Medal of Freedom Awards.|
|Next Article:||'Neither black nor white.'(mixed race people demand new census race category)|