Assault on Fort Harrison: Slaughter in Virginia

NOTE: the 51st North Carolina was assigned to Clingman’s Brigade, Hoke’s Division during this battle.


The Siege of Petersburg had been dragging on since June of 1864. In late September, the Union went on the offensive.  General Grant sent General Benjamin Butler north of the James River to probe the Richmond defenses.  Once across the river, Butler assaulted Fort Harrison, a strongpoint in the Confederate lines.  The Federals captured the fort easily with a surprise attack on the 29th of September.1

Fort Harrison was a critical part of the Richmond defenses.  The fort protected the rear of the Confederate works on Chaffin’s Bluff.  Rebel batteries on Chaffin’s Bluff, two miles to the west, prevented navigation by Union gunboats up the James River to Richmond.  If those works fell, Richmond would be open to attack by Union gunboats.  General Lee wanted Fort Harrison back.2

Assault on Fort Harrison

Union infantry surprised and captured the garrison at Fort Harrison on the 29th of September.  That evening, Hoke’s division was pulled out of the Petersburg trenches and sent across the James River.  Hoke’s troops were closely followed by the division of Major General Charles Field.  These two divisions were tasked with retaking Fort Harrison.  A division of cavalry was sent to assist the infantry, and Porter Alexander’s artillery, augmented with 24 additional guns, was assigned to support the planned assault.3 These forces began assembling at a farm next to Chaffin’s Bluff.

Clingman’s brigade, under the command of Colonel Hector McKethan, left the trenches and marched to Dunlop Station, just south of Swift Creek.  They boarded a train to Drewry’s Bluff around six o’clock in the evening.4 The brigade, the first of Hoke’s units to reach Chaffin’s Bluff, arrived around ten o’clock that night.  The other brigades did not arrive until early the next morning.5

The Union command was well aware of Fort Harrison’s (renamed Fort Burnham by the Yankees) strategic importance, and they intended to hold the fortification.  The “fort” was actually a southward-facing strongpoint in the Confederate defenses.  The north side of the fortification was open.  During the night, Union soldiers hastily constructed a low earthen wall across the open end of the structure.  This breastwork was enhanced by a palisade of sharpened tree limbs, angled outward to thwart attempts to rush over the new wall.

Hoke’s division, with Clingman’s brigade in the lead, arrived in front of Fort Harrison at nine o’clock in the morning.  Major General Charles Field’s division arrived shortly after Hoke.  General Robert E. Lee was on the field, personally commanding the assault.  He put Field’s division on the Confederate left and Hoke’s brigades on the right.

Field’s three brigades would approach the fort one at a time.  As each brigade moved into position, the men would lie down and wait.  When all three brigades were in position near the fort, the men would rise as a group and rush the Yankee right.  As soon as Field’s division rushed the fort, Hoke’s division would charge the left side of the fortification.

Colonel McKethan, surveying the field before the fort, protested to General Hoke.  He felt that the Union position was too strong for a frontal attack.6 Hoke agreed and discussed his concerns with General Lee.  But Lee was adamant; the fort must be taken.7 The attack was scheduled for two o’clock that afternoon.

Around noon, the Confederate artillery began bombarding the fort.  The bombardment did little damage to the Union defenses, but the artillery fire provided cover for the infantry’s advance.  Field ordered General George T. Anderson’s brigade forward.  This brigade was supposed to approach close to Fort Harrison then wait for General Field’s other two brigades to come up.  Unexpectedly, Anderson’s men charged the fort.  Field had no choice but to send his other two brigades forward in a rush to support Anderson.

The Union defenders, some with the new seven-shot Spencer repeating rifle, easily repulsed Anderson’s charge.  Field’s second brigade struck the fort after Anderson had been repulsed.  They, too, were easily turned back.  Field’s third brigade, advancing toward the fort in support of the second brigade, halted and then withdrew without attacking.8

General Hoke’s division sat idle while Field’s division wasted itself in its fruitless assault.  When two o’clock arrived, Hoke sent his division forward.  Clingman’s brigade, led by Colonel McKethan, formed the first line.  Colquitt’s brigade followed McKethan’s men.  Hoke held his other three brigades back, waiting to see how the assault progressed.

The two brigades formed their lines behind a small hill, about 400 yards from the fort.9 When Hoke gave the order to advance, Clingman’s brigade slowly ascended the hill in their front.  Upon reaching the crest of the hill, the men let loose a Rebel yell and charged.10 They rushed “in open day, on open ground”11 down a slight incline toward the fort.

After Field’s attack ended, the Union infantry on the right of the fort shifted to the left.  These troops were massed in front of the fort, three ranks deep.  As soon as McKethan’s men charged, they fired a volley.  The Yankees continued pouring a heavy fire into the onrushing mass, cutting large holes in the Confederate line.

The 31st North Carolina, on the right of McKethan’s line, broke when it was seventy yards from the fort, “not from any falling back but from literally men being cut down.”  At the point that the line broke, the men were in a slight depression between the hill they had left and the small rise where the fort sat.  They lay down to avoid the relentless Yankee fire, with only tall grass and weeds for protection.12

The center of the line ran into a briar thicket fifty yards from the fort.  The thicket was not tall, but it could not be easily crossed.  This obstacle ensured that any men who attempted to move closer to the fort would be cut down by rifle fire.  The entire middle section of McKethan’s line lay face down behind the briars.  The briars, while affording no protection from Yankee bullets, obscured the men from the enemy’s view.13

On the left, the 51st Regiment made it as far as the stockade in front of the fort.  Unable to pass through the sharpened poles, the men dropped their rifles and started pulling up the stakes.  When the fire from the Yankee defenders concentrated on the Fifty-First, the men were forced back from the palisade.  They found shelter by two old outbuildings near the works.14

Clingman’s brigade was now trapped.  Colquitt’s brigade had withdrawn when they saw McKethan’s men being slaughtered.  McKethan had no support.  His soldiers could not move backwards or to either flank without being exposed to a murderous fire from the defenders.  McKethan saw their only course of action as “laying flat on our faces” and “wait for support in the cover of night.”15

Any movement among the men drew a volley from the Yankees.  Fortunately, the Yankee infantry preferred to save their ammunition.  Knowing that McKethan’s men were trapped in front of the fort, they held their fire unless they saw movement in the groups of prone soldiers.  Despite the danger, some of the Rebels were able to sneak back to Hoke’s line without being seen.

At dusk, Colonel McKethan and some of his staff were able to escape.  McKethan tried to convince General Hoke to send support to rescue his stranded men.  However, General Lee and the division commanders decided that a rescue would be too costly, and they left the brigade on the field to be captured.16

As night fell, Confederate litter bearers began retrieving the dead and wounded.  When they approached too closely to the fort, the Union infantry fired on them.  They were only able to cover half the field.  Many of the wounded were left to be captured by the Yankees.  Shortly after the litter bearers started their work, Union skirmishers advanced into the field and captured the men who had not already surrendered.17

A few days after the battle, Colonel McKethan, in a letter to General Clingman, stated that the brigade went into action with sixty-three officers and 848 men.  After the battle, the brigade was reduced to eighteen officers and 366 soldiers.18

Heavy Losses

Because the 51st North Carolina left so many men on the field, an accurate count of casualties was difficult.  Nine men were assumed captured, but no POW records exist for them.  They were likely killed and were buried near Fort Harrison by the Yankees.  The service records in North Carolina Troops indicate that the 51st North Carolina lost fourteen men killed (including the nine missing men assumed killed), fifty wounded, and forty-four captured.  Lieutenant Colonel Caleb Hobson was among those killed.

When the 51st North Carolina boarded the train at Ivor Station on May 7, 1864, the regiment had 980 officers and men on its rolls.  On October 1, 1864, the regiment had 567 soldiers on its rolls.  According to Lieutenant Augustus McKethan, the 51st North Carolina only had 145 officers and men present for duty the day after the attack on Fort Harrison.19

The regiment left Ivor Station in May with thirty-three officers and eighty-three NCOs.  Every company had a captain in command.  During the next five months of fighting, an additional fourteen officers and nine NCOs were appointed to replace casualties.  By October 1, 1864, the regiment had lost thirty-two officers and sixty-nine NCOs.  Only two companies, A and C, still had captains.*  Six officers were killed, thirteen wounded, and thirteen captured.  The noncommissioned officers suffered sixteen killed, twenty-two wounded (some more than once), and thirty-one captured.

Company E lost its captain, Willis Pope, when he was killed at Drewry’s Bluff.  Six weeks later, Pope’s replacement, Andrew Jackson Ashley, was shot in the head at Petersburg.  He died two months later.  James Pitman, who was promoted to first lieutenant when Ashley was promoted to captain, became the sole officer on duty with the company.

Private William Bullock was elected as third lieutenant of Company E on August 15.  He was captured four days later at Globe Tavern.  Lieutenant Pitman was captured a month later at Fort Harrison.  The company’s last two NCOs, Corporals Joseph Bullock and William Prevatt, were both wounded at Fort Harrison, leaving their company with no officers or NCOs present for duty.

On October 1, 1864, Company A was being led by a captain and one sergeant.  Company D had no officers, but five NCOs were still present.  A corporal was commanding Company I.  Companies E and H had no officers or NCOs present.  Third Lieutenant Hiram Houston transferred from Company C and assumed temporary command of E Company.  Company H was left leaderless for a few weeks until First Lieutenant James Meares, who was wounded slightly at Fort Harrison, returned to duty.  Only three companies (C, D and K) could muster more than thirty men.  Company F had a mere eighteen officers and men present the day after the failed assault at Fort Harrison.

* Captain James Lippitt of Company G came through the fighting unscathed but assumed regimental command when Lieutenant Colonel Hobson was killed.

1North Carolina Troops, 12:  271.

2Douglas Southall Freeman, Lee’s Lieutenants 3 vols. (New York:  C. Scribner’s sons, 1944) 3:  590-591.

3Freeman, 3:  590-591.

4William H. S. Burgwyn, Diary September 29, 1864 to March 11, 1865, 4.

5Daniel W. Barefoot, General Robert F. Hoke:  Lee’s Modest Warrior (Winston-Salem:  John F. Blair, 1996) 219-221; Hagood, 222.

6Histories, 3:  213.

7Histories, 4:  496.

8Brett Schulte, “Battle of Fort Harrison and Fort Gilmer.”  Retrieved from “The Siege of Petersburg Online,”

9Burgwyn, 2.  Within days of the battle, both Burgwyn and Col. McKethan stated the distance to the fort as 400-450 yards.  Thirty years after the war, some of the participants (including Burgwyn) wrote that the distance was 200-250 yards.

10Burgwyn, 5.

11Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War 1861-’65, 5 vols. (Goldsboro: Nash Bros., 1901) 1:  408.

12Burgwyn, 6.

13Colonel Hector McKethan, letter to General Thomas L. Clingman, 3 Oct. 1864, 2.

14Histories, 3:  213-214.

15McKethan, 3.

16McKethan, 3.

17Burgwyn, 7;  McKethan, 3.

18McKethan, 1.

19Histories, 3:  214.

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