The 13th New Hampshire Infantry and the Capture of Fort Harrison, Virginia
In the summer of 1864, the U.S. forces under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee were locked in siege operations at Petersburg, Virginia, after failing to capture Richmond during the Overland Campaign. While the Federals established siege lines, they were not static, and Grant continually implemented offensive operations to lengthen the siege lines, cut off transportation routes to Petersburg and Richmond, and attack Confederate defensive positions.
One of these operations against the Confederate lines occurred in late September when Grant launched simultaneous attacks to the west of Petersburg to extend Federal lines in that direction, and against Confederate defenses north of the James River between Petersburg and Richmond. Grant had two objectives in his attack north of the James; he wanted to capture the Confederate defensive works and possibly attack Richmond from that direction, and he wanted to prevent Lee from reinforcing General Jubal Early’s army in the Shenandoah Valley. Early was fighting Major General Phil Sheridan’s Federals at that time.
The operations north of the James River involved the 10th and 18th Corps. The 10th Corps was to attack Fort Gilmer and Confederate defenses at New Market Heights, while the 18th Corps, under Major General E.O.C. Ord, would attack defenses south of the 10th Corps. The main target for the 18th Corps was Fort Harrison, and Ord assigned the task of its capture to Brigadier General George Stannard’s division.
Early on the morning of September 29th, Stannard’s division prepared to attack. The 118th New York and 10th New Hampshire regiments, part of the division’s 2nd Brigade, had received seven shot Spencer rifles just before the assault. These two units were deployed as skirmishers and flankers and led the way on the advance. The rest of the 2nd Brigade, which was under the command of Brigadier General Hiram Burnham, followed. The 1st and 3rd Brigades went into formation behind the 2nd, with the 1st on the left and 3rd on the right.
The skirmishers with their Spencer rifles drove Confederate pickets back approximately two miles to Fort Harrison. The brigades then went into action,moving rapidly as Confederate artillery and musket fire opened fire. The Federals reached the walls and climbed over into fort itself, battling the outnumbered defenders. Those Confederates who weren’t killed or captured were driven out and Fort Harrison was in Union hands. Some of the artillery pieces were turned around and fired at the escaping Rebels.
As some the Union troops occupied the fort, others were deployed to attack and drive out Confederate defenders as far as the James River, but that effort was
thwarted by stiff resistance from those defenders, fire from Fort Gilmer, and from artillery fire from Rebel gunboats on the James. The Federals then prepared for a counterattack.
Lee considered Fort Harrison to be a vital part of the Confederate defenses, and planned a counterattack to recapture the fort on September 30th. But the counterattack was poorly executed, resulting in piecemeal attacks that ended in failure.
The fighting took a heavy toll on the Union command. General Ord, arriving at the fort in the midst of the fighting to personally direct operations, was wounded in the leg. General Burnham was killed, Colonel Aaron Stevens, commanding the 1st Brigade, was wounded, and General Stannard was shot in the right arm during action September 30th resulting in the amputation of that limb. In honor of Burnham’s sacrifice, the fort was renamed Fort Burnham.
One of the Union regiments taking part in the Fort Harrison fighting was the 13th New Hampshire Infantry, part of the 1st Brigade. Stevens, the brigade commander, had been elevated to that position two months earlier, so the 13th was commanded by Major Normand Smith in this action. Smith filed this after action report:
HDQRS. THIRTEENTH NEW HAMPSHIRE VOLUNTEERS,
Fort Harrison, Va., October 22, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of this regiment on the 29th and 30th of September:
The First Brigade, to which the regiment belongs, commanded by Colonel Stevens, broke camp at 9 p.m. of the 28th, and after several delays, during the night crossed the James at Aiken’s Landing, about 3 a.m. Marched above Aiken’s house and formed close column, this regiment being the right of the brigade, the Second Brigade in front, with two regiments deployed as skirmishers. Just before daylight the column was advanced up the road on which our right rested. The skirmishers found the pickets of the enemy near the woods and drove them rapidly up the road some two miles to the open field in front of Fort Harrison, closely followed by the main column. The column was halted near the edge of the woods, and the Ninety-sixth New York, of the Second Brigade, was deployed in line of battle, with the Eighth Connecticut formed close column in their rear, and the First Brigade following. The Third Brigade was formed in a similar manner on the right of the road. The column was then advanced rapidly up the road, under a severe fire from the enemy’s batteries until they obtained cover under the hill near the fort. Here the column was reformed by Colonel Roberts, of the Third, and Lieutenant-Colonel Raulston, of the First Brigade, Colonel Stevens having been severely wounded. We were again advanced under a heavy fire of musketry into the outer ditch of the fort without firing a shot. Then came the struggle who should first plant their colors on the fort. The entire color guard of this regiment (six in number) were killed or wounded, four of them with the colors in their hands, and the regiment claims that their colors were first on the fort, which was carried a few minutes past 7 a.m. Having been wounded at the ditch outside the fort, the command devolved upon Captain Stoodley, Company G, who furnishes the following particulars:
On entering the fort the regiment gathered around the colors, and some of them were sent to turn the guns in the fort, two of which were turned and fired several times on the retreating enemy. Soon after, we were formed on the left of the fort, placing the sentries on our left and toward the enemy. About 10 o’clock we joined the other regiments of the brigade and formed a line of battle in the rear, now front of the fort, posting pickets in advance of our present line, they remaining during the night. Late in the afternoon we commenced throwing up breast-works on the left of the fort. About an hour afterward we were moved out of the fort to the left, and worked all night upon the works, now running from the fort to the river. On the morning of the 30th the regiment was again moved into the fort and placed at work on the left, where we were when it was found the enemy were massing on the right, when we were moved to the extreme right of the fort, our right resting on the intrenchments. About twenty minutes afterward the enemy made the attack. The regiment was almost entirely unprotected during the engagement, but never flinched, and kept up a destructive fire upon the advancing enemy, who were repulsed in every attempt to recapture the fort. After the repulse of the enemy Captain Goss, Company I, commanding sharpshooters, advanced his men to the picket-line and captured the colors of three regiments of Clingman’s brigade and several prisoners.
Major Thirteenth New Hampshire Infantry.
Lieut. E. A. COOKE,
Actg. Asst. Adjt. Gen., 1st Brig., 1st Div., 18th Army Corps.
The 13th New Hampshire’s regimental historian also recorded what it was like for those on the ground who made the assault:
As the column advances and emerges from the wood, all at once the high walls of Fort Harrison come into view, occupying a very high crest of land, a strong natural position, nearly a mile distant. We have already been liberally treated with the enemy’s large shells, but at quite a long range; and now, as our skirmishers, moving directly in front of the column, gain the extreme edge of the brush and advance into the open field, and we, in the column, come into view of Fort Harrison, the enemy upon us with eight or ten of the most prominent guns in the fort…
Directly in front of us, and stretching up to the walls of the fort, is a broad, open field nearly a mile wide and swept by the enemy’s guns–on the two gunboats in the river, the redoubts to the left, and in Fort Harrison itself…Added to the fire from all these, comes an occasional and very large shell from the right–the Rebel works nearer Fort Gilmer…
Added to the artillery, are the enemy’s sharpshooters and infantry, manning the long lines of his rifle trenches, laid in full sight, in long zig zags for a full mile and a half, to the right and left of Fort Harrison; and we can see the enemy swiftly concentrating…
The prospect is terrible; however, the lines of our skirmishers are pressing forward, our assaulting force–the First Division–advances in close column by division; the Thirteenth, the third regiment from the front of the main column, is steadily leading our First Brigade; caps are removed from the muskets and bayonets fixed…The Thirteenth goes in, a little body of only 187 guns.
We are now a special target for every gun which the enemy can possibly bring to bear upon us. Huge shells come tearing and screaming up from his gunboats into our left flank; the redoubts to right and left plunge in their crossfire, while Fort Harrison, directly in our front, plies us with shrapnel, solid shot and shell, and as we approach nearer the rebel riflemen shower upon us their hail of lead…Some of our men fall riddled with bullets; great gaps are rent in the our ranks as the shells cut their way through us or burst in our midst; a solid shot or a shell striking directly will bore through ten or twenty men; here are some men literally cut in two, others yonder are blown to pieces—and the horrors of an assault in force, the storming of a fort, are repeated over and over again…
Our column has now marched nearly a mile in the very teeth of that fearful storm, and the worst of the battle is still ahead. A little to the right and front is a ridge of land, within striking distance of the fort on its crest; and our Brigade, with the rest of the column, now cut down by more than one third already killed or wounded, moves towards the right obliquely in behind this ridge, and for a moment is sheltered from the direct fire of the fort in front…
The pause of the assaulting column here is but for a little time–estimated at from three to five minutes–when the officers and men of the whole column in a body, almost regardless of organization, mount the ridge with a rush and a shout, make directly for the high front walls of Fort Harrison, again receiving the enemy’s full fire, dash rapidly across the intervening space, and all as one, officers and men, plunge together into the deep moat, spread instantly to right and left to secure working space uncrowded on the walls, thrust bayonets into the walls of sand and gravel, and all clamber upon the parapet of the fort–some mounting the high works upon their comrades’ shoulders, and then getting firm foothold, draw their comrades up after them–and in a minute more the staffs of our battle flags are planted in the sand of the parapet…
The men and officers of brigades and regiments mingle indiscriminately in this last dash, and so near are the contestants, that when we climb up on one side of the walls, the enemy’s men are in their places on the other side–we look straight down upon the points of their bayonets, and upon their sallow, savage faces–and a fierce hand to hand conflict ensues; but we are atop, and at the show and use of our bayonets, the enemy seeks cover within and behind the soldiers’ barracks within the fort and to the rear of it. There are from fifty to a hundred of these buildings of all sorts, and here our rifles come into play for the first time; up to this point the assaulting column has not fired a shot–the bayonet alone has won this battle. The enemy is driven out, or captured, only after a stubborn resistance. The firing is at such short range, that some of our men’s faces are actually burned and blackened by the flashes of fire from the muzzles of the enemy’s rifles. The enemy is dislodged, however, and our victory is complete by 8 a.m. All his dead and wounded falling into our hands, all the armament of the fort, and a large number of defenders and garrison as prisoners.
As soon as the contest is over, the works are immediately manned in every direction by our troops, and the guns of Fort Harrison are turned upon the enemy fleeing to right and left, and seeking cover in the distance, while our men make the air ring with cheer upon cheer.
The fighting at Fort Harrison was one element of what was known as the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm or New Market Heights. Although the assault on Fort Harrison was successful, the attacks on Fort Gilmer and the Confederate defenses north of Fort Harrison were not. The renamed Fort Burnham remained in Union hands for the rest of the war, and was strengthened and expanded.
The site of Fort Harrison has been preserved as part of Richmond National Battlefield Park. The site is on Battlefield Park Road, off Highway 5, about seven miles southeast of Richmond. The road passes several Chaffin’s Farm/New Market Heights battle sites and extends to Union Fort Brady.
Guide to the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign (The U.S. Army War College Guides to Civil War Battles) edited by Charles R. Bowery, Jr. and Ethan S. Rafuse
The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia June 1864-April 1865 by Noah Andre Trudeau
Men of Granite: New Hampshire’s Soldiers in the Civil War by Duane E. Shaffer
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume XLII, Part 1.
Thirteenth Regiment of New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry in the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865: A Diary Covering Three Years and a Day by S. Millett Thompson