Thursday, December 31, 2015

He Had Won for Himself an Honorable Name: The Untimely Death of John Chambliss

Part six in a series.

The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign witnessed many dark days for the Army of Northern Virginia, but one that has received scant attention is August 16, 1864. On that day, Lee’s army lost two brigadier generals. This post will briefly examine the life of Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss, Jr. and the impact his death had upon events north of the James in 1864.

John R. Chambliss, Jr. was a native of Greensville County, Virginia. He was the son of John R. Chambliss, Sr., a lawyer who would later serve in the First Confederate Congress and would tragically outlive his son by 11 years. The future Confederate general went to West Point and soon became close friends with future Union cavalier David McM. Gregg. He graduated 31st in the Class of 1853, which also included John Bell Hood, Phil Sheridan, and James B. McPherson among others. He resigned after teaching at the cavalry school at Carlisle and was a civilian until he joined the local militia in 1858. When war broke out he was an aide-de-camp to Henry A. Wise and colonel of the 41st Virginia Infantry before transferring to the 13th Virginia Cavalry.
Brig. Gen. John Chambliss

Chambliss conducted himself well in many of the eastern theater’s better known cavalry actions, including important roles at Beverly Ford and East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. He was promoted to brigade command in December of 1863 after meritorious service at Morton’s Ford and Brandy Station during the Bristoe Campaign. He commanded a brigade of Virginians and Tarheels under Maj. Gen. “Rooney” Lee, a command he had briefly held once before following Lee’s wounding at the June 1863 battle at Brandy Station.

Chambliss’s last ride would take place during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, fought August 14-20, 1864. Part of Grant’s Fourth Offensive, this Union foray north of the James River involved Hancock’s II Corps again crossing at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, along with Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James and a division of cavalry.

On this third day of the campaign, August 16, 1864 (usually referred to as “The Battle of Fussell’s Mill”) the heaviest fighting of the campaign occurred. While a two-pronged infantry assault was launched against the main Confederate line, Nelson Miles’s infantry brigade and cavalry under Chambliss’s old pard David Gregg launched a diversion down the Charles City Road that would set the two old friends on a collision course.
Courtesy: Richmond Battlefields Association
Chambliss’s brigade, on picket duty, was pushed back towards White’s Tavern by this Union attack. David Gregg’s brother, J. Irvin Gregg, was wounded in this initial contact and said to the troopers who charged past him, “Tell the boys to avenge this!”

Avenge it they did.

Chambliss rode with his staff towards the fighting and soon came under fire from elements of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The New York Herald later related, “The rebel general endeavored to rally his troopers, but without avail; for when the head of our charging column was close upon the rear of the flying fugitives he was seen almost alone upon the field where his men had deserted him.”

When the Pennsylvanians called out for Chambliss to surrender, the general spurred his horse to the rear and was promptly fired upon by the Federals. The general was immediately hit in the neck and chest and dropped dead from the saddle. Curious Yankees surrounded the corpse and began cutting of mementos from his uniform until Davis Gregg arrived on the scene. “The general was a small man, neatly dressed having on a fine, white linen shirt with coat, hat and pants to match,” recalled a member of the 5th New Hampshire.

Gregg had the body of his old friend searched. A copy of the New Testament was found with the inscription, “If I am killed in this struggle, will some kind friend deliver this book to my dear wife? J.R.C., Jr., June 8, 1864.”

Also found on his person was a detailed map of the fortifications around Richmond. This map would prove extremely valuable when Grant and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler were planning the Fifth Offensive that would result in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Butler had photographic copies of the map distributed to his subordinates when they prepared their assaults on New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.
The Chambliss Map
Federal solders placed Chambliss’s body in a wooden coffin and buried him near a place known locally as the Potteries, marking his grave with a wooden headboard. Confederate troops found the grave the next day and had the general’s remains shipped home for burial in the family cemetery.

Robert E. Lee was grieved to learn of the loss of yet another one of his talented young subordinates, writing that “the loss sustained by the cavalry in the fall of General Chambliss will be felt throughout the army, in which, by his courage, energy and skill, he had won for himself an honorable name.”

As we will see in my next post, Chambliss was not the only talented young brigadier to fall during the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Valor in Blue and Gray: Timothy O’Connor and Adam Ballenger at First Deep Bottom

Part five in a series.

In my last post we finished off the First Battle of Deep Bottom by examining the final day of major fighting, July 28, 1864. This day saw intense combat that pitted Confederate infantry under Brig. Gen. James Conner against Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg at the Darby Farm.
During that fight, two individuals stood out for heroism above and beyond the call of duty – Federal cavalry trooper Timothy O’Connor and Confederate sergeant Adam Ballenger.

Timothy O’Connor and the Fight for the Lower Field

As we have seen, the fighting at the Darby Farm kicked off when men led by Gen. James Conner from Lane’s Brigade (under Col. Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lt. Col. J.F. Hunt) and Kershaw’s Brigade (under Col. John W. Henagan) left their earthworks at Fussell’s Mill at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1864. Their mission was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck on the James River, where he could be defeated in detail. Unfortunately for the Rebels, there was no reconnaissance conducted to scout the Federal positions. Thus, Conner’s men set forth unaware of a mounted threat moving their way in the form of Union cavalry troopers under Brig. Gen. David Gregg and the always inept Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz.

When Conner’s battle line hit a prominent thumb of trees, it split in half with the 1st and 14th South Carolina of Hunt’s Brigade going with Cowan to the right and the remainder of the brigade splitting off to the left with Henagan. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the thumb of trees, two separate fights quickly developed, which I call the fights for the lower and upper field.
In the lower field, the attacking Confederates were met with stubborn resistance from Federal cavalry which had the decided advantage of repeating carbines. After stalling in the face of superior firepower, the attacking Confederates soon began to give way.

The 18th North Carolina had just begun to retreat when the Regular Brigade of the U.S. Cavalry counterattacked. Lt. Col. John McGill, commanding the 18th, reported that “my Regiment had to fall back under a most galling fire, and I fear that several of my men who are now missing were either wounded or killed as several were to start to fall back and have not been seen since.” Among those he feared missing was Cpl. David M. Barefoot of Company H, who “received the colors and bore them at the front until I ordered the Regiment to retreat.” As it turned out, Barefoot had the worst of an encounter with a young trooper in the 1st U.S. Cavalry named Timothy O’Connor.

O’Connor was originally from County Kerry, Ireland, but settled in Chicago once he came to the United States. When war broke out he initially enlisted in the 23rd Illinois before joining the 1st U.S. Cavalry. By the time of First Deep Bottom, O’Connor was a high private who found himself in the vanguard of the Federal counterattack. Before long, he was looking poor Cpl. Barefoot in the eye and wrestling the regimental colors out of his hands. For this daring action, O’Connor was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation notes that he was awarded the medal “for extraordinary heroism on 28 July 1864, while serving with Company E, 1st U.S. Cavalry, in action at Malvern, Virginia, for capture of flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry.”
O'Connor's Memorial at Arlington.

O’Connor was discharged from the army in December of 1865 and returned to Chicago. He died on March 26, 1915, at the age of 72. There is a memorial headstone at Arlington National Cemetery with an incorrect death date, but research indicates that his remains are in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago – which also happens to be the final resting place of Al Capone. However, I was recently contacted by a distant family member who says O’Connor went back to County Kerry after the war and his mortal remains are in an unmarked grave in the land of his birth. This family member further stated that they are attempting to relocate his Medal of Honor.

Adam Ballenger and the Upper Field

While O’Connor and his compatriots were getting the best of the situation in the Lower Field, his compatriots in the other sector of the battlefield were not so lucky initially.

The sheer force of the Confederate attack here caused several regiments of horse soldiers to fall back to better ground. This withdrawal left several 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Lt. William Dennison’s horse artillery vulnerable. For 22 year old Sgt. Adam W. Ballenger of Company C, 13th South Carolina the alluring site of an exposed enemy gun was too much. The impetuous youngster ran out ahead of the column to take on Dennison’s battery almost singlehandedly.

Ballenger ran up to one cannon that had had several horses killed and jumped on it, causing the driver to run off. Incredibly, Ballenger then “jumped off the piece, cut loose the traces and unfastened the off-horse, which he mounted.” He enlisted help in hauling off the piece, encouraging several men to grab the prolonge and begin leading the prize back to the rear.

Ballenger later in life.
Col. Hunt saw all of his transpire and credited the short-lived Confederate success to Ballenger, stating, “I consider our success due in a great measure to the conduct of Sergt. Ballenger.” After the battle, Gen. McGowan summoned Ballenger to his headquarters and promoted him from sergeant to 2nd Lt. on the spot. Ballenger returned to South Carolina after the war and lived until December of 1912. He is buried at Inman Baptist Church Cemetery in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

While the Confederate Medal of Honor was not created until 1977, Adam Ballenger’s heroism would eventually win him the award in the 1990’s. According to the website of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the Medal of Honor service was held at Sgt. Ballenger’s grave site on September 30, 1995 at the Inman Baptist Church in Inman, SC. Over 200 people attended the service. Over one hundred of them were descendants of Sgt. Ballenger.”

The exploits of these two young heroes reveal that there is still much to be gleaned from examining the clashes north of the James River in 1864.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Collision at the Darby Farm: July 28, 1864

Part four in a series.

In my last post we examined the first large-scale fighting of the First Battle of Deep Bottom – the clash at Tilghman’s Gate on July 27, 1864. When we left Hancock and Sheridan, they were hesitant to follow up the gains they had won when they pushed the Confederates out of their line along the New Market Road. Hancock spent the rest of the morning of the 27th reorienting his corps from facing north to facing west. The cavalry began to push up the Long Bridge Road, encamping near the Darby Farm.

The Darby House
As word of the day’s events trickled back to Lee’s headquarters, it was readily apparent that Kershaw needed to be heavily reinforced. Lee thus decided to send Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Third Corps division over to help Ewell and Kershaw’s beleaguered forces. Lee looked to First Corps chieftain Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson to take overall control of the operation, ordering him to “examine the enemy’s position, endeavor to ascertain his strength, and if practicable drive him away and destroy his bridges.”

When Anderson arrived at Chaffin’s Bluff, he reported that “it was decided to attack the enemy’s right at as early hour as was possible the following morning.” Thus, both sides settled down for the evening planning to go on the offensive the next day.

On the morning of the 28th, Anderson ordered a battle group of four brigades – Lane’s Brigade (under Colonel Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lieutenant Colonel J.F. Hunt), Kershaw’s Brigade (under Colonel John Williford Henagan) and Wofford’s Brigade – to attack. Leading these four brigades into action was Brig. Gen. James Conner. Anderson’s objective in this assault was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck, where he could be defeated in detail.

After leaving the safety of the Confederate earthworks at Fussell’s Mill, Conner’s battle group had to traverse nearly two hundred yards of dense woods before they would enter a cornfield that was split almost completely in twain by a finger of woods jutting out from the opposite tree line. Conner would be put to the test to see if he could keep his three brigades in good order as they advanced through such treacherous terrain.

Map by Steve Stanley
Conner’s boys stepped off at 10:00 a.m. and halfway through the woods part of Hunt’s command and Henagan’s full brigade encountered the forked county road. Despite an outcry from their officers, the men began to pour into the road, causing Hunt’s Brigade to break up. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the finger of trees mentioned earlier, two separate fights were about to develop.
The first of these fights developed among the fragment consisting of Cowan and Hunt’s men that had inadvertently maneuvered itself into the field west of the finger of trees. Hunt’s men emerged in the cornfield of the Darby Farm, where Sheridan’s troopers had camped on the evening of the 27th, and discovered that they were facing off against the Union cavalry all by themselves.

Unperturbed, they pushed toward the Federals, loading and firing as they went. In the meantime, Cowan encountered not only a swamp that slowed him down, but also Federal skirmishers. After pushing the pesky horse soldiers back, Cowan’s men pushed out of the woods into the open clearing, where Hunt’s men were already engaged. Seeing that Hunt was out in front all by himself, Cowan passed down the order for his men to advance at the double quick.

Meanwhile, Col. Thomas C. Devin was ordered to file down to Merritt’s left, putting him squarely in position to deal with Cowan’s oncoming troops. When Cowan’s men were within 200 yards of the Darby Farm, the Yankees opened fire into their flank and rear, causing a panic. One Tarheel noted that Col. Cowan “don sum of his big Swaring” and ordered the men to fall back. The same soldier who noted this heated use of profanity engaged in some of his own when he summed up the fight as follows: “we had our asses whip[ped] off us if the truth was knone.”

There was plenty of whipping to be had in the upper field as well. Just as Conner’s attack force was emerging from its works, Federal cavalry was advancing up the Long Bridge Road. This was the vanguard of Gregg’s Division, which had been tasked with spearheading the long-awaited turning movement of Sheridan’s cavalry. Gregg’s force arrived just as the cracks from Merritt’s skirmishers began to fill the air with the sound of carbine fire.

The remainder of Hunt’s and all of Henagan’s Brigades, numbering around 1,700 men, emerged from the woods and quickly closed the distance between themselves and their blue coated counterparts. Gregg was fortunate to have the assistance of two cannon under Lt. William N. Dennison’s battery of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. As the Confederates advanced, Dennison’s pieces “knocked gaps through their exposed columns, which were almost instantly filled by closing up.”

But the Rebels on this part of the field put up a more stubborn fight and they surged forward, driving the Federals back. The horse artillery kept firing but was forced to retire after one gun was captured by an enterprising young South Carolinian. The loss of Dennison’s gun enabled the Yankee cavalrymen to withdraw without serious loss.

While Hunt and Henagan’s men were ecstatic over their hard-won victory over the Yankee artillery and cavalry, their revelry was cut short by the realization that their comrades in the lower field had not been as successful. One startled soldier was heard to exclaim, “My God, men look yonder. You may all be fools enough to stay here but I’ll not.” With the remainder of Gregg’s Division nearby and Kautz’s troopers beginning to arrive, the Confederates were forced to retreat.

Map by Steve Stanley
In the end, Conner had taken severe casualties with not much to show for it. In all, it is estimated that the Confederates suffered 377 casualties in this attack, while the Federals suffered approximately 200. This would be the last large scale combat of the First Deep Bottom Campaign.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Center of Military History, Here I Come

Greetings, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone -- I hope you all have a chance to relax, gorge yourself on some turkey, and do some light reading over the next few days (may I suggest catching up on my Operations North of the James series? I'd certainly be thankful if you do!)

In any case, while I usually keep personal stuff off of this page, I have an announcement that directly applies to the mission of Freedom by the Sword and will certainly open up more opportunities for some unique posts!

Next Monday I will start a new job with the U.S. Army Center of Military History as part of a team working on the future National Museum of the U.S. Army.

Renderings of future National Museum of the US Army
Needless to say, I'm very excited and honored to play a small role in the creation of what looks to be a world-class museum!

And while we're on the subject of the Center, I would be remiss to not congratulate Dr. Richard W. Stewart on his retirement as Chief Historian. Dr. Stewart took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with little old me and give me some career advice back in 2014, which says a lot about the type of person he is. Here's to a productive and enjoyable retirement!

Keep your eyes peeled for more on the First Battle of Deep Bottom later this week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 27, 1864

The First Battle of Deep Bottom– also occasionally called the Battle of Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, Tilghman’s Gate, New Market Road ,Gravel Hill, and even Malvern Hill (the latter causing a great deal of confusion) – was part of Grant’s Third Offensive of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which culminated in the infamous mine attack known as the Crater. It lasted from July 27-29, 1864.

In addition to what would become the Battle of the Crater, Grant also sent a force to the north side of the James River via the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, along with two divisions of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry and one division of Brig. Gen. August Kautz’s Army of the James cavalry was tasked with crossing the James River at Deep Bottom and menacing the Confederate capital.

The cavalry’s mission was to ride hard and fast to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as far north as the South Anna River, then turn back towards Richmond and attempt to capture the city in a joint effort with Hancock’s infantry. If everything went according to plan, Richmond would fall and Grant could call off the mine attack.

Thus, over the night of July 26-27, the II Corps marched from Petersburg, crossed the James River, and advanced east of the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Hancock wasted little time in attempting to locate the enemy and begin the grand offensive that would open the way for Sheridan to commence his raid. In the pre-dawn darkness of July 27th the II Corps spread out into an open area called Strawberry Plains.

Map by Steve Stanely
Just north of the Union expeditionary force at a place called Tilghman’s Gate were three of Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s Confederate brigades, temporarily under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grubb Humphreys. In the middle of this line of infantry were four 20 lb. Parrott Rifles of Capt. Archibald Graham’s 1st Rockbridge Artillery battery. In supporting distance were the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, 24th Virginia Cavalry, and the Hampton Legion, all under the command of the “Bald Eagle,” Brig. Gen. Martin Gary.

Tilghman’s Gate stood right in Hancock’s path, and the corps commander wasted little time in sending out a skirmish line to take the position. The assault would be supported by field artillery under the command of Maj. John G. Hazard and the gunboat USS Mendota, which was anchored at Deep Bottom.

On the skirmish line, a see-saw battle developed, with troops under Regis de Trobriand pushing forward and then falling back under an intense volume of Confederate fire. The Yankees were eventually able to mount a concerted effort and angle their attack towards the middle of the line, where Graham’s Parrott Rifles continued to blast away.

When Humphreys’s men observed the bluecoats zeroing in on Graham’s guns, they immediately moved forward to meet them. Humphreys had also seen the threat and called for the artillery horses in case the cannon needed to be withdrawn in a hurry. He was met with bad news – the horses had been sent to the rear. Within minutes more bad news arrived – a courier from Gary’s brigade informed him that he was flanked. Desperate, Humphreys sent the courier back to Gary with orders to come to his support and attack immediately.

The situation was rapidly deteriorating.

In order to fire more effectively, Graham’s Battery moved its guns into the New Market Road and pointed them towards the advancing Federals, now only fifty yards away. Once in the road, the battery could only bring two guns to bear on the Yankee menaces, but the experienced gunners fired several rounds of canister that caused the Union skirmishers to balk.

Seeing the plight of Graham’s guns, Humphreys attempted to shift his right wing to come to their assistance, but in doing so he created a fifty-yard gap in the Confederate line. This was almost directly across from where De Trobriand’s skirmish line continued its halting advance.

At this point, future Commanding General of the U.S. Army Nelson A. Miles rode up to the front of the skirmish line and cried out, “Men, let a general lead you.” The men surged forward, and the Rebel infantry soon gave way. In the fog of battle, the word to retreat did not filter down to the gunners of Graham’s Battery, who were left to fight on their own. Once they realized the tenuous position they were in, Graham’s artillerists fled for the rear. The Federals were ecstatic when they captured all four of Graham’s Parrott rifles, along with their caissons and ammunition chests.
"The Bald Eagle" - Gen. Martin Gary

They did not have much time to celebrate, however, because Gary’s brigade arrived on the scene in response to Humphreys’s earlier order to come to his assistance. Gary did not waste any time making a reconnaissance – he threw caution to the wind and attacked.

The Bald Eagle was able to buy Humphreys’s retreating soldiers enough time to get to safety and begin to form a new line, but he was quickly swallowed up by the oncoming Federals. The 24th Virginia Cavalry was the first to break and as the rest of the brigade looked for a path to safety Gary rode up and ordered the 7th South Carolina Cavalry to charge down the road and retake the line. No one took this order seriously and one Gary’s aides recalled how he “took out his pistols and threatened to shoot us if we did not move on. He ranted and fumed, but the men were dogged and remained firm.” Within minutes, the graycoats were in full retreat.

Thus ended the fighting at Tilghman’s Gate.

Back at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, Sheridan and Hancock received updates about the progress of the attack. One of Grant’s aides was visiting with the two celebrity generals and was astonished that they both “seemed to think…the thing was a failure.”

The rest of the day was frittered away with maneuvering, while the Confederate high command planned an attack that would drive the hated enemy away from Deep Bottom once and for all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Establishing the Deep Bottom Bridgehead

Part two in a series.

In my previous post I outlined the important series of actions fought north of the James River during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign from July – October 1864. This post will explore the means by which Federal forces participated in these battles – the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The name “Deep Bottom” refers to an area on the James River 11 miles southeast of Richmond located at a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river known as Jones’ Neck. This area remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but all of that changed once the first series of Union assaults on the Petersburg defenses failed.

Determined to avoid a prolonged siege, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant boarded a ship with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of the Army of the James on June 20, 1864 to seek out a location to open up simultaneous operations against Richmond.

Grant determined that Deep Bottom was the most suitable location. Since it was convenient to the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, where Butler’s army was currently operating, Deep Bottom was the perfect place to “divide the attention of the enemy’s troops, and to confuse them as to whether to expect an attack upon Richmond or Petersburg,” according to Grant’s aide Horace Porter.

Grant ordered Butler to send a brigade of 2,000 men “to seize, hold, and fortify” Deep Bottom and have the army’s engineers construct a pontoon bridge. Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster of the X Corps was chosen to lead this small expedition. At 5:00 p.m. on June 20th, Foster’s command marched three miles through intense heat and dust to Jones’ Neck, where the pontoons were assembled and waiting.

The expedition was fraught with danger: Confederate pickets were only three hundred yards away and, once on the north side of the river, the wooded bluffs would have to be scaled and a perimeter established before any work could commence.

Fosters headquarters at Deep Bottom. LOC
Still, by 11:00 p.m., all of Foster’s men were on the far side of the river and by the early morning hours of June 21st the bridgehead was in place and expanding. At 1:15 a.m., Foster proudly reported back to headquarters, “I have established my picket-line without resistance. My intrenching and slashing parties are at work.”

Word of the Yankee incursion came to Lee’s headquarters early on the morning of June 21st from his eldest son, Brig. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee. When the size of the force was determined, Richard S. Ewell, newly appointed commander of the Department of Richmond, appealed to Old Marse Robert for “an increase of force on this side of the river.”

Lee dispatched Henry Heth’s Third Corps division to the north side of the James on June 22nd to assuage Ewell’s fears. The front would remain static for over a month while the two main armies focused on Petersburg.

But Robert E. Lee was none too pleased about the irksome presence of the Yankee troops, telling Ewell, “I do not like the continuance of the enemy on the north side of the James River and the maintenance of the pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom.” On July 23, 1864 Lee reached a breaking point and decided to send Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s entire division across the river to destroy the pesky bridgehead once and for all.

Giving up that many troops from the Petersburg front was extremely stressful for Lee, and the harried commander wrote to his son on the 24th to unload his secret worries:
I sent yesterday Genl. Kershaw’s division to Chaffin’s, which I can ill spare & which I fear I shall be obliged soon to recall…I directed Genl Kershaw to take command of the brigades under Conner, examine the enemy’s position at Deep Bottom, & see what could be done. I have not heard from him yet…Where are we to get sufficient troops to oppose Grant?
Kershaw wasted no time taking up the offensive. On July 26th his men launched an attack against Foster’s troops, shouting “Go home you red devils!” to a regiment still brave enough to wear Zouave uniforms at this point in the war. The attack successfully dislodged Foster’s men from their advanced positions, but they clung tenaciously to the Deep Bottom bridgehead.

As the evening fighting tapered off, the Confederates were blissfully ignorant of the fact that over 25,000 Union soldiers were marching their way at that very moment.

The stage was set for the First Battle of Deep Bottom.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Operations North of the James River: June - October 1864

Part One in a Series.

What if I was to tell you that a series of desperate battles was fought on the footsteps of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia? 

You’d most likely think that I was referring to the Seven Days Battles of 1862, right?


Skip forward two years past the famed debut of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and you will encounter a complex series of battles and skirmishes fought within an hour’s march of the very nerve center of the Confederate nation.

These lesser known battles saw, among other things:
  • Approximately 15,000 combined casualties
  • Four general officers killed or mortally wounded
  • The first twelve Medals of Honor issued to African American infantrymen in U.S. history
  • Old Marse Robert’s final offensive actions before the last three weeks of the war in Virginia

But Richmond was a hard road to travel, as the song went, and even though the Union war machine would hurl entire armies at the city’s gates in 1864, the despised bastion would not fall until that fateful April day in 1865.
Henry Hardenbergh wins the MOH at 2nd Deep Bottom. 

This series of battles would be fought east of Richmond and north of the James River and would center around the road networks and fortifications that ringed the eastern approaches to the city. The names associated with these battles remain largely forgotten – places like Tilghman’s Gate, Gravel Hill, Strawberry Plains, and Fussell’s Mill. Thanks to the efforts of a growing group of Civil War scholars, other names like Deep Bottom, Fort Harrison, New Market Heights, and Darbytown Road are becoming more familiar.

While the names of many of these battles are confused and used interchangeably in the official records, the litany of major actions north of the James breaks down as follows:
  • The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 26-29, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Deep Bottom: August 14-20, 1864
  • The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 29-30, 1864
  • The First Battle of Darbytown Road: October 7, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Darbytown Road: October 13, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Fair Oaks: October 27-28, 1864
In an upcoming series of posts, I plan to extract a few noteworthy samplings from each of the abovementioned clashes rather than attempt a detailed explanation of each individual fight. We will begin with the events that led to the establishment of the Deep Bottom bridgehead in late June of 1864 and then spend some time with the first battle that bore its name in late July. We will survey each of the two major days of fighting and then look at some of the more notable instances of heroism, including Sgt. Adam Ballenger, who singlehandedly captured a Federal cannon and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for doing so.

For the Second Battle of Deep Bottom we will look at a dark day for the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia: August 16, 1864. That day would see the deaths of two generals – John R. Chambliss, Jr., a brigade commander in J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, and the flamboyant Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey who had made a name for himself at the Battle of the Crater. We will also examine the Battle of Fussell’s Mill, which saw the heaviest sustained fighting of the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

We will then shift our gaze to the experience of two white Union officers who led African American soldiers during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Lt. John McMurray of the 6th USCT left a gripping account his regiment’s fateful charge against New Market Heights Lt. John Viers of the 5th USCT dodged death at the Battle of New Market Heights on the morning of September 29, 1864 only to be captured later in the day during the horrific assault on Fort Gilmer. As we will see, white USCT officers did not always have the easiest time when they fell into the hands of the Rebel army.

Next we will look at the First Battle of Darbytown Road and the death of another Confederate general, John Gregg. This Alabamian went from serving in the Provisional Confederate Congress to fighting in the Western Theater where, through a strange series of events, he found himself placed in command of one of the most famed fighting units of the entire war – Hood’s Texas Brigade.

The concluding post will pick up the story of the U.S. Colored Troops in late October 1864, when a controversy broke out over the use of black prisoners to construct new Confederate fortifications and the massacre of black troops who had surrendered during the fighting on October 27th.

Along the way I will stop to give character portraits of both individuals and units that saw action in this forgotten sector.

As we will see, there is much fresh and exciting material to unpack from the fighting on this overlooked front of the American Civil War.