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During the American Civil War, Fort Harrison represented one of the strongholds of the Confederate defense of Richmond. The fort's guns commanded the James River and so long as they operated, Union ships were vulnerable. However, with most of the Confederate troops being sent to Petersburg, Union troops were able to overwhelm the fort towards the end of the war. Here on September 29, 1864, Union Major General Benjamin Butler's Army of the James was tasked with attacking Confederate defenses along his front in Richmond, VA. The objectives were to both distract Confederate General Robert E. Lee away from Petersburg (both Richmond and Petersburg were under siege) so that Grant could cut the Confederate Army in half at Petersburg, but to also overwhelm the defenses of Richmond. The attack on Fort Harrison was one of many scenes of combat in the larger-scale fighting known as the Battle of New Market Heights (not to be confused with the Battle of New Market in western Virginia, which took place in May of 1864). Among the units sent to take Fort Harrison was the 6th and 7th United States Colored Troops (USCT).

  • This wartime image shows Fort Harrison in the distance. Source: Library of Congress
  • Union soliders in Fort Harrison, now Burnham, not long after the forts capture
  • "The Battle at Chapin's [sic] Farm, September 29, 1864."-Sketched by William Waud of Harper's Weekly. This was done during the assault on Fort Harrison, of which is shown here
  • Don Troiani's painting, "Three Medals of Honor," depicts Sgt. Maj. Thomas Hawkins and his commander, Lt. Nathan Edgerton saving their regiments flag, while 1st Sgt. Alexander Kelly on the right saves the national flag.
  • undated photo, possibly not long before his death in 1907, of First Sgt. Alexander Kelly.
  • undated photo of Sgt. Major Thomas Hawkins
On September 29, 1863, the Union army under the command of General Benjamin Butler captured the fort. The battle, often referred to as the Battle at Chaffin's Farm, which was part of the larger-scale Battle of New Market Heights, was part of Union General Ulysses S. Grant's "Fifth Offensive" against Confederate General Robert E. Lee's defenses of both Richmond and Petersburg. Butler's army was to take part in the "distraction phase," where Lee was to be forced to take his eyes off of Petersburg and take men from there and send them to Richmond to repulse Butler. When having done so, Grant would launch his attacks in Petersburg, hopefully weakened, for capture so that crucial supply lines and escape routes could be taken Lee's army split in half. 

Butler's attack has been called, by some historians, such as John Horn, as one of his "best performances of the war." He went against tradition of attacking the Confederate left flank, which had been done repeatedly and failed. Here he feigned, or pretended, to go left and instead launched surprise attacks on the Confederate center and right. During heavy fighting along New Market Heights, Butler was able to capture Fort Harrison, which had been named after the Confederate engineer who designed it, Lieutenant William Harrison. This area was the only area captured by Union forces  

Then on September 30, Robert E. Lee organized an effort to recapture the Fort Harrison, for he saw the capture of the fort as a serious threat to the rest of Richmond's defenses. His attack lacked coordination, which was a rare thing for Lee to do, and the well prepared Union defenders defeated the Confederate soldiers and caused many casualties. The fort stayed in Union hands throughout the remainder of the war. It was renamed after its capture to Fort Burnham, after Brigadier General Hiram Burmham of the Union XVIII (18th) Corps, who was killed in the assault to take the fort.

Of greater significance, 21 Union soldiers were awarded with the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Battle of New Market Heights. Two were awarded to African American soldiers of the 6th UCST for their heroism during the assault on Fort Harrison. The two, Sgt. Major Thomas Hawkins and First Sgt. Alexander Kelly, had rescued their regiments and national colors (flag) which had fallen during the fighting. After rescuing the flags, they rallied their men to continue the assault on the fort. In total, during the entire Battle of New Market Heights, 14 African American men received the Medal of Honor.  

Although Lee did remove men from Petersburg to Richmond, Grant could not obtain his other objective of splitting Lee's army. After a few more battles after September 30th, both armies established trenches and the Confederate Army in these two cities would be under siege by Grant until early April of 1865. Just days afterwards, Lee surrendered at Appomattox. 

In 1930, members of the Richmond Parks Corporation, built a log cabin on the land to serve as their headquarters. Today, this building is the Fort Harrison visitor center which is part of the Richmond National Battlefield Park. Claxton, Melvin, "Uncommon Valor: The Story of Race, Patriotism and Glory in the Final Battles of the Civil War", 2005. Bonekemper, Edward H., III, A Victor, Not a Butcher: Ulysses S. Grant's Overlooked Military Genius, Regnery, 2004. Davis, William C., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg, Time-Life Books, 1986. Horn, John, The Petersburg Campaign: June 1864 – April 1865, Combined Publishing 1999. Sommers, Richard J., Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg, Doubleday, 1981. Trudeau, Noah Andre, The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864 – April 1865, Louisiana State University Press, 1991.