SIR: I have the honor to report that on the 28th day of September, 1864, in obedience to orders, I selected from my corps--then on duty between the James and Appomattox Rivers--about 4,000 men, from Generals Stannard's and Heckman's divisions, for a movement on the north side of the James against Richmond, in co-operation with another column under Major-General Birney, composed of his corps and Paine's division of mine; in all, that column was about 10,000 strong, and was designed to reach Richmond via Deep Bottom and the New Market road, while I was to engage the works nearer the river, and prevent the interruption of General Birney's column by re-enforcements which the enemy might send across from the south side of the James River, where they had a heavy force.The movement was to be a surprise, therefore I issued no written orders and my verbal orders were not communicated to the troops until after dark, when all communication should have ceased with our own picket-line. This precaution was deemed necessary to prevent the spies which abounded in our regiments from deserting and giving information of our movement to the enemy. My move began about 9 o'clock on the night of the 28th of September, when the men were drawn out of the trenches and marched to the river opposite Aiken's, where, between 9 and 12 p.m., a bridge was thrown over the James. By 12 p.m. my troops were at the bridge, and before daylight were across the river and formed. At the dawn of day I attacked the enemy's skirmish line with my skirmishers, and though the rebels were re-enforced we drove them right along toward Richmond, up the hills, and for three miles through the woods, until about 7.30 a.m., when we reached the open ground in front of Fort Harrison, the strongest rebel work on that front, which immediately opened upon us with several heavy guns. Here I reconnoitered and rapidly made dispositions to attack this work. Stannard's division, Burnham's brigade leading, was directed to push forward in column by division over the open in front of the fort, on the left of the Varina road, covered with the same regiment which had so far and so well driven the enemy's skirmishers. Heckman was directed, as soon as it could be brought up, to move with his division through and along the edge of the timber, which skirted the Varina road on the right, keeping his men under cover, until he came opposite to the fort (Harrison), and then attack it on the front toward the wood (that is, the east front) as rapidly as possible. This would have enveloped the principal work on the south and east, and had General Heckman obeyed my orders many valuable lives would have been saved, and his division, reaching the work after Stannard's had taken it, would have been available to have attacked the only other work which intervened between us and Richmond in the rear; but he went too far into the woods, got his brigades scattered, and when found was not available in the right place. Stannard's division was ordered to advance across the open at quick time directly to the attack, and at double-quick when they had reached the hill. This they did beautifully, wavering a little just at the foot of the hill, which the fort crowned, when the fire of musketry and artillery was very severe. But I dispatched all my staff (just then around me) to urge the men forward, and followed them. The hill was ascended with heavy loss to us. Officers and men jumped into the ditch, followed it along round so as to cut off and capture the rebels in the extreme bastion, and helped each other up the parapet at that point. As soon as we entered this bastion or salient, I caused the guns to be turned upon the nearest adjacent parts of the enemy's works, and drove them out; and reconnoitering I saw through the smoke and fire what I supposed for some minutes was General Heckman's column entering the work next beyond Fort Harrison, Fort Gilmer; but it soon proved to be a large re-enforcement of the enemy. The men who had got into the fort were scattered behind its parapets and in its ditches fighting the rebels, who had not left the adjacent parts. I tried to gather a party and form them with a view to swing round inside the rebel parapets behind them and drive the rebels out from the inside, but there were but few men to collect; all was confusion and excitement. The brigade which led in had lost mortally and badly wounded two commanders in succession. Nearly all the persons in the work were company officers, and with such as I could collect I pushed toward the river, inside the work still occupied by the rebels, with a view to reconnoiter and, if possible, get possession of the pontoon bridge by which any re-enforcements would have to cross to the fort. While doing so I was hit in the upper part of the leg, inside. Stanching the wound with an improvised tourniquet, I continued in command until a surgeon coming up remonstrated, and I sent for General Heckman, turned the command over to him, told him to gather all the division (Stannard's), and occupy the work with it. He reported his own division (which had not as yet engaged the enemy), to the right of and about half a mile up the road, just about to attack the work in fron of it. I told him my orders were to occupy such works as we took, and with any spare forces we had to push on, attacking the works toward Richmond in succession. I learned that he afterward attempted to take the next work, Fort Gilmer, by an attack in front, but failed, with heavy loss. After this was reported to me it was perhaps 10 or 11 o'clock, and I began to feel anxious that something should be done. The guns of General Birney's column could then for the first time barely be heard some miles to our right. The enemy still retained both banks of the river, and his gun-boats were firing into us from below. Their forces were expected across every minute, threatening my communications with our pontoon bridge, over which I had sent for ammunition and artillery. General Butler, in written orders he issued the night before, had limited my ammunition, and the First Division had exhausted it all. He had in the same orders specially prohibited a single wagon (and reserve ammuniton is always carried in wagons) from crossing the pontoon bridge without orders from him. As soon as we got into the fort I sent two staff officers to report these things, and ask for ammunition and artillery. General Grant I heard was at Deep Bottom. I had dispatched two officers in succession to tell him of our capture, and ask him to send ammunition, a commander, and other troops, but hearing nothing from him or General Butler, who, I presumed, was at Deep Bottom, I was placed in an ambulance and left the field to communicate with them. This I tried to do by telegraph on reaching it, but failed to find them, and afterward learned that General Grant had arrived at Fort Harrison just after I left it.
This report would have been made earlier, but General Butler never called on me for a report, and it was only recently I learned that no report had been made by any officer commanding the corps of the successful operations of the Eighteenth Army Corps that day.
Generals Stannard, Burnham; Colonels Theodore Read, Donohoe, Raulston, Cullen , Roberts, Fairchild, Jourdan, Ward; Lieutenant-Colonel Comstock, of General Grant's staff; Major Wheeler, assistant adjutant-general; Capts. H.G. Brown, Dan. Wells, and Lieut. Thomas G. Welles, of my staff; Captains Kent, Bessey, and Lieutenant Ladd, of General Stannard's staff; Capt. Cecil Clay and Lieutenant Johnson, of Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania, and a large number of others, whose names I could not get, on account of being sent North immediately after the battle, were conspicuous for their gallantry.
We captured 22 guns, about 300 prisoners.
Our loss was particularly severe in officers. The leading brigade, Burnham's, lost its general (Burnham), and the two next successive commanders, wounded. Nearly all the officers I have named as conspicuous for their gallantry and a large number of others were either killed or wounded.
Great gallantry was shown by officers and men.
I respectfully recommend Capt. Dan. Wells, Eighth U.S. Infantry, for promotion to major by brevet for gallant conduct, 29th of September, 1864. He was accidentally overlooked.
General John A. Rawlins,
Last updated: February 26, 2015